Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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Wednesday 04.29.20

Looking to Next Year and Beyond...Moving from Testing to Talking

By Matt Young

What if I told you to stop testing your students?  Would you be okay with that?  What if I told you that you could test your students, but in a way that they had to answer the questions and could not cheat? Does that sound better? So far, if you have read any of these posts I have written, I have asked you not to teach for the first couple of weeks, allow personal choice in projects, provide clear rubrics, and reverse engineer your thinking.  Now I am asking you not to test them?  I bet you’re thinking, “Who is this guy and what is he doing?”.

I do not know about you, but only 10% of our students will move on to Intermediate and Advanced levels of art. So that means 90% of our students will not have any more art after they take two beginning classes with us. Is it important for us to give them a traditional test, have them memorize terms, and answer true and false questions?  Or, is it more important for them to be able to talk about their art, remember the experience, explain the process, and articulate why they made the choices they did? I would argue the latter.  My job is two fold: To prepare “non” art students to appreciate art and the process and to prepare my 10% to be able to critique and talk fluently about their and others’ works.

My call for this post is for you to think about preparing your students to be lifelong learners of art that promote an artistic culture in their community.  What is the difference in these two questions?

1. List 4 design elements.

2. Describe where you used 4 design elements in your work.

Both of them show the need to know art elements, but the first asks a student to memorize the elements, the second asks the student to apply this knowledge to their work. The second question cannot be answered without a personal understanding of their work. This is a much more powerful connection.

How about these two?

1. What is slip?  What does a scoring tool look like (insert image choice here)

2. Describe on your project where you had to slip and score.  Why was this process important to the overall construction of your piece. 

Again, one question asks for memorization the other for understanding.

The other great thing about switching to this personal level of thinking with beginning students is it allows for you to build on these questions when you hit the intermediate level questions. The goal is for students to be able to speak about their own work and ask meaningful questions as we send them off into the world. Here is how we structure this at our school:

Beginning level - Students will be given questions that direct them to personalized answers using “art language”.

Intermediate Level - Students will choose their own questions (from a question bank) that pertain to the work they are doing and will answer these questions using “ art language”.

Adv/AP Level - Students will participate in classroom critiques where they generate their own questions and answers using “art language”.

My challenge to you this week is to take a look at your testing.  Do you need to test?  If you do, consider at least adding a section to the test where your students are asked to answer questions that pertain specifically to their work.  If I have not said this clearly enough in my posts, our job is to produce self sustained artists and creative thinkers that value personal choice.  We need to make sure that everything we assess in our classrooms pertain to that.  And keep this in mind as we utilize/nurture these concepts/process/skills.


Tuesday 04.21.20

Looking to Next Year and Beyond...Reverse Engineering, the Journey

By Matt Young

I think most of us go into a project with the thought of what the end product is supposed to look like.  “I would like the students to create a bowl with an illustration of their favorite poem on it.” Sound familiar?  But is our role as art educators to have students produce works that are a copy of what we have in mind or is our job to teach skills and design thinking that allow for students to create works with meaning and personal choice?

Sorry if I sound like a broken record, but this is why we have National Standards. If you look at the highest level of those standards it will say something along the lines of generating plans, solving problems, choosing get the idea. We want the students to have a voice and to make their own choice.

So, I propose what I consider a radical change of thought; reverse engineer your projects.  Think about the techniques, tools, materials, and terms you would like your students to understand as they move forward.  Then begin to build your projects around these goals. 

Let's revisit the bowl assignment from above. I used to do this assignment as part of my beginning ceramics unit. Afterward, I would have many of them left in class or found in the trash.  Not every kid wants a poem bowl.  So, I looked at what I wanted them to learn: pinch, slab, and coil techniques.  Learn ceramic terms. Some art history involving ceramic artists. I first teach all the techniques, terms, and history to the students.  Then we talk about how we can use this knowledge to design ceramic projects that have meaning to them.  Then they build...(drum roll) what they have designed with their new knowledge!

Now, instead of poem bowls, I have basketball mugs, dragon teapots, and hello kitty vases (Probably not MY first choice, right?). The amount of work for me is just a little bit more regarding time and materials.  But now the majority of my projects go home.  Students are more focused on their work as it has more meaning to them. Most importantly, it is moving my students forward to my end goal of having them be self sustained artists fueled by personal motivation.  They are starting to develop confidence in their ability to make choices, which I fear we are losing in our youth. (How many times have you heard, “Just tell me what to make to get an A”.) My students know it is not about making a particular thing, but about completing a journey.

My challenge to you this week is to take a look at your projects. Start with one or two and begin to reverse engineer them. Don’t just settle for the students to ‘Create a street with buildings.’ using perspective. Teach the students perspective and design within the context of historical works.  Then have the students design a project that has meaning to them.  Not only will this start your students on the path of design thinking, but your hallways will look way cooler with the diversity of projects on the walls :)





Wednesday 04.15.20

Looking to Next Year and Beyond...Rubrics are more than GREAT JOB!

By Matt Young

I remember most of the art projects that I did in school because it was my ‘thing’. I was always getting complimented on how I was ‘talented’ and I had a ‘gift’.  And what I remember about most of my work was that I did a ‘GREAT JOB’. My purpose of this opening is to not brag about how I was a good artist, but to make a point that despite all of my ‘talent’, the thing that I remember about my work is that I did a great job. I do not remember what the learning objective of the assignment was, what skills or techniques I had mastered or not, or remember the creative processes that led me to the outcome that later became my ‘Great Job’.

Students need to know what they are supposed to be learning and why they are doing it. We have national visual arts standards and most states have standards as well.  If we as art educators want our work to be as valued as the core subjects, we have to teach and assess the same way as those subjects. We have to move away from vague or subjective rubrics and focus on specific standards so that students (and administration) can easily see what is required for the mastery of those skills.

Now, rubrics can become very long and complicated. You can nitpick at every little detail and make them mind-numbingly long. Not only will students lose interest, but you will be grading these forever!  My suggestion is to keep it short and sweet. No less than 3 and no more than 6 categories; with clear objectives and masteries in each category.  For example one of our categories is GOAL: What is the final outcome of the project?

  • Students followed their plan and had requirements x,y,and z = 100% completion.
  • Students had changes to their plan and had requirements x and y = 75%
  • Students did not follow their plan and requirement x = 50%


This is a clear outcome that everyone can follow.  Students can easily see and fix what they have missed to correct their work.  They are reminded of what the GOAL was for the project.  This also fits in with the National Standard ‘Develop criteria to guide making a work of art or design to meet an identified goal.’ 

I know I have mentioned this in other blog posts, but I work with some really great teachers.  We have all identified the categories that we want to focus on as a department: Goal, Craft, Design(Creativity), Persistence/Effort. The rubric is flexible since the teacher may assign points or percentages to each category with clear objectives for each.  This provides students with clear reasons as to what they have mastered (or not) and why their grade is what it is.

Students can also see where they may struggle and try to do more in other categories. For example I had a student who had palsy, his craft grade would not have been good due to the shaking in his hands.  But what he could do was design and persist.  So where I could be honest with him that his craft level was low, he scored off the charts on the other two categories that pushed him ahead to mastery in the class.

So, looking forward to next year, reflect on how many ‘GREAT JOBS!’ have you given?  Are your kids clear on what they are learning? Do their objectives fit state or national standards? And, are you agonizing over what grades your students have earned?  Set up clear rubrics and make everyone’s lives easier...including yours.

Download a sample rubric here.

Rubric jpeg


Thursday 04. 9.20

Looking to Next Year and Beyond...Planning, Planning, Personal Choice

By Matt Young

So you spent your first week or two building a positive climate in your class, correct?  Now your students will be chomping at the bit to start work on their first project so do not let them down with some cookie cutter project.  What do I mean by that?  Any project where you are going to get a 100 of the same thing.  I am not talking about teaching multiple projects so kids can have total choice. (That is up to the TAB teachers to blog about) I am talking about teaching the techniques you want your students to learn while allowing them to choose their own outcomes using those techniques. 

Here is an example:  The first sculpture project I teach is a Graffiti sculpture. I talk to the students about Graffiti as an art form, elements and principles of design, clay techniques and terms, and of course the minimum requirements for the project. Sound familiar?  From there, the students get to choose their word, their style of lettering, their finishes (glaze, paint, etc), how it is displayed, etc. The kids are engaged and feel as if they have total choice in their project.  But, I still have met my goal of teaching them techniques, elements, history and, of course, a project. So, everyone wins! Remember to start with your fundamental goals of skills, vocabulary, etc., but to always allow students as much personal choice as possible.

Of course, there needs to be planning.  We spend at least a week or two planning out assignments with our students.  This may be homeworks spread out over those weeks while they are working in class on other projects.  Sometimes we meet with them one on one or in group settings to discuss their ideas.  But you have to give them some sort of feedback.  FEEDBACK is the key! Show them that their planning process is working or not working.  Help them along in their journey and show them how it is supposed to be done.

As your students move from a beginning class to intermediate, advanced, AP, and so on you need to build upon these choice and planning skills as you prepare them to become self sufficient artists that use big ideas to create personal works of art...independently!  Here is a breakdown of how we build our kids up to total autonomy by the time they hit AP.  This includes 2D, 3D, Computer Graphics, and Photography :

  1. Foundations Classes - Have at least 2 planning checks with the kids per project.  For example one homework where students gather many images of a ceramic project they like and why they like them.  Then another homework where they design their own ceramic piece in the style of one of their gathered images and how they have put their own spin on it.
  2. Intermediate Level Classes - Teach multiple techniques with multiple outcomes and multiple media over a series of a week or two. Over that time students are bringing in their own subject matter to draw. Spend a couple days sketching views of their own still life.Then you talk with them about how to light it and what media they are going to draw it in.
  3. Advanced Level Classes - The discussion of the Big Idea or Enduring Understandings the move toward autonomy.  Students begin planning out their own projects and begin to focus on art that has meaning to them while exploring media options. They present their plans to the class and accept peer feedback before finalizing their projects with the teacher.


Now I am lucky enough to teach with a department that has embraced this process.  I think the hardest thing to overcome is getting everyone to get on board so that students in all of the art classes have the same expectations.  We all get a smile when a student moves from one level to another and gets another teacher and that teacher has the same high expectations of planning and personal choice in project creation.  The kids know that we are unified in having high expectations for their work.

The best part we have seen in all of really want to take their work home because they are invested in it.

Example 1  Example 2

Example 3


Thursday 04. 2.20

Looking to Next Year and Beyond….Building Climate

By Matt Young

Here is my suggestion for the first couple of weeks next school year, don’t start any projects for a week if not two.  Yes, I said do not do any projects for at least a week!  Now, half of you just stopped reading this and the other half are going to continue reading to find out how crazy we are to not do any projects for the first couple of weeks of school.  For those of you have stuck with me I am going to speak to the importance of building CLIMATE in your classroom. To be clear, I am not talking about going over the rules or reading your sylabus out loud, I am talking about creating an experience for students, setting expectations, exploring creativity, and showing students you are a human being and not just a “teacher”.

So, how does this work?  Day one, do an activity that captures their interest.  We do an activity called clocks. Each teacher in our department does this a little differently but the idea is the same.  Print off a blank clock on one side of a piece of paper. We ask the students to write down their name, large, on the back of the  clock paper, as creatively as they can in 15 minutes. We have a brief chat on what they consider creative and then get right to drawing.  This goes for 3D classes to photography; beginner to AP. 

This will let you, the teacher, know their level of skill and interest in following directions.  Yes, this is a test, but they do not know that.  We then ask them to write down some answers to simple questions in the four corners around their name: What is your favorite food or strangest food you’ve ever eaten, favorite type of art, your best skill, something you struggle with, a place you would like to visit, your favorite movie/book, etc.? The idea is to have four questions that are safe, but will help to spark some connections with other students.

Have the students walk around the room quietly and look at everyone’s name and answers, NO TALKING!  If they see someone they would like to talk with, they exchange names on the clock on the back until all the hours have been filled with “appointments”.  (For example, they would each sign their names on 3 o’clock.) I then call out a number randomly and two students that have made an appointment for that time sit together and talk.  I provide 3 things for them to talk about, one person talks and the other listens, no judgements. This exercise lasts for a couple days and many students say this is one of their favorite parts of the class, just sitting down and having a one on one conversation.

This is also the time to introduce yourself to the students. Since I’m giving them topics to talk about in their clock meetings, I tell the entire class MY answers to those questions so they can get to know me. Build in questions that will allow you to introduce yourself to your students. My favorite is, ‘What is the best thing about school?’ I tell them the best thing about school for me is the students, and then talk a bit about why I became a teacher. And with that, you now have a class who knows you care about THEM!

Now you are on day three….still no syllabus discussion yet.  Here is where you need to provide a challenge to them that allows for them to work in teams, create a little art, and work toward a prize (food, extra credit, etc).  One of the challenges I do in beginning 3D is to divide them into teams of 2-4 students.  Each team gets an equal bundle of spaghetti, marshmallows, and drawing paper. They are tasked with creating the most “artistic” sculpture that also has height, but height alone is not the winner, artistry has to be in play. They get a day to plan (drawing paper) and 2-3 days to build.  We also have a class discussion about the art elements and principles of design.  Depending on the class we also do win, lose, or draw, photo scavenger hunts, and build what's in the bag. This is also a test to see who are leaders and who are followers.  These challenges prove very useful in that most of the time when they are complete, teams choose to stay together and seating charts are not needed for the rest of the semester.

Day you can go over your syllabus and class rules. What you will find is that in a matter of days your students now feel more relaxed with both you and each other. They are not as nervous, they’ve made some friends, they know you care, and you’ve established that your class is fun and safe. They will be more productive, take more chances, and you’ll have less disruptions...or you can just skip this and do roll call. :)




Your kids will be hooked already and looking forward to their next challenge.




Wednesday 04. 1.20

Looking to Next Year and Beyond...a Fresh Start

By Matt Young

As we all sit here hunkered down in the makeshift offices in our basements and living rooms it allows for us to not only focus on the task at hand, but it might allow for some reflection on how we teach?  Are we best serving our students?  What are their needs versus how we are teaching? Is it time for us to look at next year when we can start fresh and new? I would like to start off my monthly blog with a thought, “How can I make my curriculum better for my students?”.

I went through this with my department about 5 years ago. Now, luckily I teach with my best friend and another one of my really good friends so there were no fisticuffs. However, we found that the lessons we had been doing for years and the way we were teaching were no longer having the same success with our students as they had in the past. So, we dedicated ourselves to spending the summer looking at the bigger picture and how we could better serve our students. But, students still need to learn technical skills and they used to like our old lessons, right? What had changed to make things start going wrong?

Now, we had lost Elementary art in our district a few years ago, and we were just starting to see the effects on the students as they were coming into the high school with less skill and confidence in their artistic abilities. We also saw that they wanted to be told what to do and struggled with the thought of coming up with their own ideas.  As we brainstormed, we came to the consensus that we needed to determine our fundamental goals as visual art teachers. Namely, to make all students thinkers and problem solvers (a key skill for any student), and to help build skills and portfolios (and scholarships!) for those creatives going into college. So, we looked to outside sources to provide us with a fresh insight on what we were doing.

We sat down with a few art college experts and asked them their thoughts on how to get students to achieve these goals. They said to focus on these 4 things in no particular order:

  1. Technical Skill
  2. Creative thinking
  3. Responding/reflecting
  4. Ability to work with others


Over the next few weeks I would like to take everyone through the process of what we did to change the way we look at our curriculum.  It involves slowing down and looking at the student first and the project second. Here is a quick breakdown of what we do in all of our classes:

  1. Climate Building
  2. Creativity Challenges
  3. Clearly defined/concrete skill goals
  4. Student Choice
  5. Reflection



Thanks for spending a few minutes with me today...see you in a few :)

- MY