TAB Colorado 2019

I was thrilled to be invited to be one of the keynote speakers for TAB Colorado conference in 2019. Below is my slide show for the presentation and below that is the transcript of the presentation.

Kids are changing. The world is changing. As educators, it is imperative that we continually reflect and evaluate our practice to change for them as needed. My TAB practice is a moving target.. a never-ending story… a living breathing animal that needs to be constantly fed with new ideas. TAB is a pedagogy, a foundation. It is how you think about your studio and your students. It is the TAB colored glasses thru which you examine your classroom and lesson design. Today I am going to share with you how I found my TAB colored glasses and how I use them to view my students, my studio and my curriculum. 

I started teaching by taking the first job available which was part-time middle school drama. I was actually a theater nerd in high school. But I hated my middle school experiences and never planned to teach at that level. High school… I quickly discovered that in fact, I was the rare breed of teachers that was meant to work with this weird bunch. It took me four years of drama and English, with occasional opportunities to teach a period of art, before I finally got hired for full-time art. As with many of us, I had to wait until someone retired to get a job. 

I moved to what everyone warned was a “ghetto” school. Oh thanks, this school is just down the block from where I live… I had no idea that I lived in the ghetto! 

Well, it was a tough school, and it is even tougher now. We are a downtown urban school with over 70% free-reduced low-income population.  Additionally. we are a high immigrant population, with many different home languages, along with that we have a large high EL, SPED and behavior program to support these populations. All those kids that are self-contained a big part of their day, always come out for art. 

Oh, and did I mention our district lacked a strong elementary arts program; no schools had an arts specialists and many of our immigrant students came from lives where art supplies were not available at home.  So unless they had a “crafty’ homeroom teacher or a rich PTA to have a docent program, our kids did not get any formal art experiences before coming to my school. 

I remember one of the first assignments that spent me looking for something different. It was a glue-line watercolor portrait on 12 x 18 paper. All of a sudden I had 100’s of papers that needed drying and nowhere to put them. My “ghetto” school was lacking many things, including drying racks. I started to worry if these paintings were so hard to store, how was I going to store dozens of larger paper Mache sculptures, something I had planned for later. 

I found the Incredible Art Department a few years before and Judy Decker had become an email mentor. She guided me to the TAB yahoo group where I started reading and posting. There I discovered a studio style, student-focused pedagogy that appeared to address my problems. I found a warm and welcoming group with truly innovative ideas. The way I remember it being described is that your room was set up in media-related centers so that kids are working at their own pace and only a few kids were using the same materials at the same time. 

This seemed like it would help solve a lot of my space and supply issues as well as addressing the needed differentiation. Starting small, I set up a few centers, primarily for early finishers.. When done with my teacher-directed projects, students could create artworks of their choice with a variety of drawing tools or use programs on my two computers. This worked well. But the following year I was slated to have mixed grade classes—part of each group would already have done my projects—and making some students repeat them could have disastrous results! I did not want to redesign entirely new projects: what to do?  In addition to the built-in disparity of ages, kids don’t necessarily take art in every grade. So I had 8th graders that had never taken art in their life, mixed with 7th and 8th graders that had a year or more of art. I still couldn’t wrap my head around how I was going to differentiate for that. 

While, I really loved the idea of full studio choice described on my online group, but it seemed too unstructured for my middle school kids. I had nightmare visions of wandering gangs of boys that wasted supplies and caused trouble without purpose or art making. But I already had this problem with my current set-up so I guessed it couldn’t get worse. 

I decided to modify the model and give the kids a theme to guide them while allowing choice of media, size and color to interpret the theme.  

My first modified choice challenge was the “Chair Project.” I was inspired by a number of schools and arts organizations that had held auctions with this theme. One group had even painted chairs in the style of famous artists. As much as I liked this idea, I didn’t have money to buy a bunch of chairs, let alone room to store them in-progress. I felt that offering multiple choices of media, including 2-D and 3-D an digital, would allow me to meet the needs of my students as well as dealing with issues of limited space and budget.  

I opened my chair project with a power point of chair images. I included every 2-D, 3-D and multi-media artwork that I could find that included a chair as part of the image or materials. Some of my personal favorites were deconstructed chair sculptures and photographs of groups of chairs creatively organized. After the presentation, students developed a plan by first selecting a media that interested them. They drew sketches and did research, if needed, on how to create what they wanted. Many of them gathered supplies from home, even purchasing supplies or enlisting relatives with wood working tools to assist outside of school. A few worked in small groups while others worked independently. 

The room was a beautiful picture of controlled chaos. Everyone found a niche and explored the idea of the chair in the ways they wanted. I was able to sit down upon occasion and create my own chair art at the clay table. The project was a hit and several finished products were well received in our district art show. 

I continued on this Choice path, each year designing new themes, many of which included lessons that connected to art history, like surrealism and pop art, or touched on cultural crafts like masks and vessels. I picked topics that my middle school students could open up to, like self-portraits and everyday heroes. 

I started to intersperse these more choice themes units with some of my more teacher directed units. For many years I went back and forth, occasionally using free choice day as a reward incentive. When I noticed a particular group struggling with certain skills, or struggling with the freedom of movement a choice room entails, I would do more structured teacher-directed work. When the class was higher functioning and could handle more freedom I would go further on the free-choice spectrum. My classes have varied over the years from trimester to semester and sometimes a full year.  Still, to this day, I wait to see the group in front of me before I decide how teacher vs student directed I will be. My goal is to always meet them where they are and build on that. 

So I went along with this method, expanding into all grades, getting my centers more organized and established and figuring out more themes. I continued to chat on the Yahoo board and I started sharing my work at conferences. I also attended any TAB or choice related sessions I could find. Which allowed me to hear from and meet many of the TAB founders and trailblazers, Kathy, Diane, Dale, Clyde, Nan and many more. I looked at other sessions through the lens of TAB, thinking on how I could adapt them to a more open choice classroom. I remember going to a clay shoe session in 2010. I loved her students’ products and knew some of my kids would love the clay shoe, so I used that as a theme but, opened it to all media. 

Now one big question I know many of you have, “does this method get rid of all the behavior problems in the art room and hook every troubled kid?” Especially in the tricky age of middle school or in difficult urban populations?? The answer is no. I still have kids that do nothing and don’t care. There are many kids that I can’t figure out what makes them tick, or even if I do… I can lead them to that glorious water, often know more commonly as the sculpture center, but I still can’t make them drink the kool-aid. Choice and teaching for artistic behavior don’t fix everything. Nevertheless, I do feel like I have a better opportunity to get to know most of my students on a deeper level. 

Teaching for artistic behavior doesn’t fix everything and it isn’t as easy as putting out supplies and letting the “go for it” Kids need to explore new materials and learn skills. The TAB teacher is constantly teaching skills… don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The skills just don’t necessarily follow a rigid schedule and not every kid needs to demonstrate mastery of all of them. 

Most kids need a lot of scaffolding. Unless they have been in a choice classroom since kindergarten, they lose the ability to come up with their own ideas. While most children are naturally imaginative, that passion is slowly killed thru the constant follow direction world we put them into. So many kids, especially my middle school population, need to be retaught how to think on their own. So be prepared for this. And find ways to breaks down the creative process to help them get ideas, while allowing room for play and exploration. 

Back a few years ago, I realized I still hadn’t managed to set up a working printmaking center. I knew there were some kids that wanted to learning about printmaking and the year was almost over. So I dug out all my materials and set up each of my big tables as a station. Thus the first “around the room” game as born. This one was much more involved than some of my later ones. Kids were making a product at each table, which we then combined into a little book. The table set-up was very messy and supply intensive, so all my classes participated. Not all kids liked every station but everyone found some time of printmaking they liked. They whole thing took a ton of planning and set-up ahead of time to create as smooth of a process as possible. But I will admit I have not attempted to repeat that particular around the room since. Mostly because I never seem to have enough time in the semester. But since then I have developed a version for almost all my canters. I still need to create one for fiber tho! After I had made a few and shared them online another TAB member, Stephanie U, made a version for the Artistic Habits, that I adapted and have included in my regular rotation.