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  • Writer's pictureJason Blair

2014 Context

Ten years ago I began my teaching career. Fresh out of college, I was excited to begin my career as an art educator at the elementary level. Having attended The Ohio State University I felt well prepared to develop meaningful curriculum, bridge the theory to practice gap and become a great teacher empowering students with the gift of creativity. Oh how wrong I was. My first few years were filled with me trying to learn how to manage a classroom while presenting archaic lessons to my students that in reality empowered them with the gift of mass production of lessons I thought were “cool,” but made little connection with my students on any level. I used all of the help books, online resources and lessons I remember from when I was a student. At the time, I felt it was the right thing to do and that my students were becoming budding young artists. Looking back now, I realize that those lessons, my classroom management and my approach to teaching and learning were not in step with the learners in my classroom. The art room I was so excited to be in, was devoid of creativity, critical thinking and meaningful connections. The one thing I feel I did well back then and continue to do today, is to reflect on my practice, my students and my curriculum to refine my craft over the years. It is the act of reflecting that has lead me to where I am today. I am now at a point that I feel the curriculum I have developed over the years, has evolved into a meaningful curriculum connected to students while facilitating the creative process.

Being a very introverted person, I am much more of a watcher and observer than a speaker. I spent the first half of my career watching other art teachers in my district and observing details. I have an insatiable love of learning and one of my passions is art education. I spent many years reading current research and theory on art education and putting the article or journal down only to scratch my head and wonder, “how do I do that?” Inevitably, I would go back into the classroom and continue to practice art the way it was done when I was a kid because it was easier, well-tested and considered the norm amongst art educators. Along the way, I became more and more frustrated with the art process my students were engaged in when they came to my room once a week. I decided I would take small steps to transform my art room. As I became more confident, I began to take more risks and try new things with my students. I began to share the work of my students with our principal. I started to talk about the process with him instead of focusing on the finished product.

When I graduated from college, I was ready to start implementing some of the abstract theory I was exposed to throughout my collegiate career. I was enrolled in an art education program that was transitioning away from Discipline Based Arts Education (DBAE) towards a more postmodern Big Idea centered approach, where art lessons centered around big ideas that were directly connected to students lives. They were broad enough that they represented life-centered issues transferable across all academic disciplines. The idea of this was great. It meant units and lessons revolved around issues that students could relate to, thus engaging the students more in the curriculum design process and empowering the students with ownership of their learning. This shift in philosophy represented an approach that was more student centered. In several university classes, my cohorts and I engaged in writing unit plans aligned to this new approach. We were able to practice the lessons in our student teaching placements, as well as amongst each other in the university setting to get feedback and refine the lessons in a supportive environment. This was a growing process that I felt helped me learn to apply the theory and turn it into relevant practice.

However, as evidenced by my first several years in the classroom I did not carry this knowledge over into the art room. I realize now, having plenty of time to research a lesson and spend hours crafting 30 page unit plans per university requirement and presenting the lessons to young adults in a controlled setting, is enormously different from planning and preparing for 5 units and teaching students age 6 to 11 in a completely unpredictable setting such as an elementary art room. Looking back now, I understand that one of the biggest reasons I feel there is such a wide theory to practice gap is due to a number of factors that make it difficult to practice postmodern art education ( I will explain these in future posts).

Once I was hired, I realized quickly that with the exception of the fellow art educators in the district, most in the district outside of the fine arts discipline had limited knowledge of art education. Additionally, most held antiquated views of art education and expected cookie cutter refrigerator art to be produced at an insanely fast clip. Naively, I assumed there would be someone in the district that was the head of the fine arts department and would be a leader, articulating the role of arts education within the district. Once hired, I realized there was no such position (there is one now and she is amazing!) and curriculum specialists put all of their efforts towards math, science, reading and writing.

Parents also had an impact on my early development as an art educator. It became clear quickly that the parents in the community expected neat, cute ready to hang artwork. I am sure this mentality was based on their prior experiences with art education and typical of most adults. The average person usually has a fifth grade education in art at best. For most people, art stops at this point.

Early on having a strong desire to practice some of the intense theory, I think it was quickly extinguished once I saw so many obstacles in my way. Then it became a habit and that habit quickly became a rut I was thoroughly embedded in. I found myself practicing art education the same way it was practiced when I was in school– twenty some years prior. I thought I was on the right track…

When I began my career I struggled to connect my lessons to my course of study. I wanted to create new and innovative lessons, but I didn’t know where to begin. For many of my lessons I used what I saw in magazines, books and online. They were neatly packaged and ready to go. The students created Picasso styled self-portraits, Fall Leaf projects, Jim Dine Hearts, Eric Carle collages, and many other fairly typical art projects you see still today. I was obsessed with fine artists and making sure my students were learning about their lives and art. I made sure each lesson connected to a fine artist (probably western canon) and many of the lessons simply mimicked the style of the artist. I made sure that every lesson used the elements and principles of art. Many times I would create lessons that simply focused solely on the elements and principles. I might have had the students create artwork about lines, texture, shape, etc.. The end results were usually aesthetically pleasing. I felt good that my students learned about artists and could recite facts about their lives. I loved that their art was a mini-representation of popular fine art. I was proud how well versed they were in the elements and principles of art. The parents were happy with ready to hang work and my administrator was happy because everyone else was happy. Everything was beginning to hum along smoothly.

After a few years, I began to question the curriculum I practiced. Was it best for students? Did this curriculum prepare students for school and beyond? Did the students feel they had a voice and choice in their art making? Were the students exercising critical thinking skills? Were the lessons student-centered? Was the content relevant to my students lives? Did the lessons allow for divergent thinking? How were students collaborating? What were the students communicating about themselves through their art work? I had many more questions that began to steamroll and sound alarms in my head that something was not right. It became clear that something needed to change.

One of the turning points in my career was simply paying attention to what my kids were saying. One day I walked by our display of Students of the Week. I noticed one of the students response to the question, “What do you want to do when you get older?” He wrote, “steal cars.” Intrigued, I asked the student the next time I saw him in a very non-judgmental way to explain his answer. He simply told me he played a video game called Grand Theft Auto and thought it would be cool to steal cars. This to me was a clear signal that I needed to rethink my curriculum. This event made me think about how, not just art, but all of education should be focused on teaching kids not what to think, but instead focusing on teaching kids how to think. I realized that students have access to information at the press or swipe of a button, so teaching them in the traditional sense of “here is everything you need to know to be successful” won’t work anymore. This boys response made me realize that education needs to focus on getting students to think critically about the information they are accessing. In the art room, I needed to focus on getting students to understand the act of looking is an active process. I needed to focus on getting kids to learn how to communicate visually. I needed to focus on facilitating opportunities for students to engage in meaningful interactions with both visual images and the more inclusive arena of visual culture.

My students needed opportunities to practice visual communication. They needed opportunities to collaborate. Most importantly, they needed to learn to think critically by engaging in a rigorous curriculum. It was also important for my students to struggle and fail in order to learn and grow. I started to understand the importance of art education in the twenty-first century. At a time when the visual image is becoming tantamount to the written word, getting students to regurgitate facts about artists and engaging them in lessons that were written with little regard to the creative process seemed inconsequential.

Taking all of this into account, I began the transition process. I began to shift my focus and practice as an art educator. To begin this shift, I read as much current research as I could to help me convince myself that this shift was worthy and in the process help me articulate a vision for students, my administrator and the community as well. I read art education publications, I read publications outside of art, I read business articles, psychology articles, child development articles and many other articles outside of art education. Artists are big picture thinkers, so reading across many different fields was helpful for me to be able to change my vocabulary when advocating the work I wanted my students to engage in. Reading about the parallels between the business world and the psychology world and taking a step back to see the connections to the art education world, really empowered me to see the more holistic benefits of the arts and creativity. I took an active role in my learning and professional growth. I began to practice what I was going to be asking my students to do. If I wanted them to take ownership in their learning, I must do so as well. I couldn’t sit back and wait to be told what to do, I had to take it upon myself to research, engage in trial and error, fail and start all over again with regards to curriculum development. As I researched, I began to realize that good educational practice looked the same in all disciplines regardless of content. This research not only convinced me that a shift was essential, it also helped me articulate the reasons I needed to shift the art education program at my school to my students, administrator and community. Reading across academic disciplines helped me alter my language to use terms and concepts from general education that my administrator was familiar with and help him understand that the skills I would be teaching in art, would help students in all academic areas and prepare them for success in the world outside of school as well.

Throughout this transition process I was fortunate to have an amazing administrator that trusted me to create a curriculum that was in the best interest of our students. He supported my growth and development and supported me every step of the way. It was his support that helped me continue to pursue a more contemporary approach to art education. When my first administrator left and our current administrator was hired, I immediately wondered what type of support the art program at my school would receive. I thought briefly about what I would say when he inquired about the art program. And then I realized, that from all of my reading, practical examples, artist statements and student feedback, I should go to him and share the learning of my students. The passion for my students learning through the arts forced me outside of my comfort zone and take a more active role in the advocacy process. So, one of his first days on the job I asked to meet with him and discuss the art program at our school. I began by telling him why the art program is the way it is. Framing the discussion with the “why” helped justify the logistics of the program and establish the purpose for every carefully thought out step to the curriculum. Since that first meeting, my current administrator has been extremely supportive and a huge advocate for the arts. He recognizes the value, purpose and role art education plays in the 21st century. He understands the artwork represents a process and thinking style typical of higher order thinking.

The curriculum I have developed over the years is a hybridization of many theoretical and practical concepts. As a reflective learner// lifelong learner, I love learning about new theories, pedagogy, and curriculum frameworks. Soon, I found myself getting overwhelmed with the constant desire to change my approach to align to the brilliant theorist, practitioner or whomever that I felt in sync with in the moment. I found out quickly I was wanting to change everyday! I realized a few years back that is was OK to focus on one small area at a time. I didn’t have to reinvent my pedagogical approach with every passing article. Taking comfort in this, I chose to focus on certain areas at time. How do I get my students to engage in meaningful art education? This question has guided me for some time now. It has lead me in many directions and to many brilliant minds. As a result, I have found myself creating a philosophy that pulls, what I think, are the best, most resonate parts of various theories to create a hybridization that works for my students and is constantly evolving. I know now that adopting a singular way of teaching and learning is unrealistic. Students learning needs vary by school, grade level and class, so to adopt a one-size fits all approach would be doing my students a disservice.

I hope to share some examples of work from my students. Stay tuned!

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