Teaching Middle School Art Series – Part 2 – What Do My Students Need?

This post is the second in a series exploring the evolution of my teaching practice since I began teaching in 2018. The first post can be found here.

As many teachers experienced during distance learning imposed by COVID-19, teaching over the computer left a lot to be desired for our student’s learning. I spent a great deal of my student’s work time reflecting upon what shifts needed to happen in order to really meet student’s needs. Self-reflection is a key aspect of any teaching practice, so towards the end of our 2020-21 school year I began to ask myself these questions: “What do I want my classroom to look and feel like for me and for my students? How do I want it to function? What are my primary goals as a teacher to middle school artists?”

As I stated in my previous post, Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) is the ultimate student-centered pedagogy. If we were to truly consider the art classroom as an art studio, what would need to be true? Well, in a well run community art studio, the artists are self-motivated. They are also held accountable for their work and their progress just by being around and in community with other artists. The same should be true for a well run art classroom studio. Instead of the traditional classroom model where one teacher is tasked with holding 30+ students accountable, TAB thrives on the teacher-as-mentor model. The teacher is no longer the gatekeeper of all knowledge, but is guiding 30+ independent artists. I realized I had fallen short of TAB in my first year by taking too much on my own shoulders. Instead, I needed to give my students MORE agency. I needed to involve them in the classroom culture from the start, in order to create the environment I wanted. I just needed to figure out HOW.

While teaching over Zoom felt soul-sucking at times, I recognize that if it had not been for TAB, it would have been even worse! I missed the community aspect of being in the studio together with my students. I struggled to motivate them to show their work and therefore assess their learning. But the experience was invaluable in teaching me how to let go of my own role in their art making process. With classroom management essentially a non-issue, I was able to fully embrace my role as a mentor teacher. I kept offering my experiences and guidance in any way I could, through lessons and curated videos. I provided short demonstrations daily and worked to identify the kinds of resources that worked best for them.

When it was announced that we would be returning to campus on a hybrid schedule, I was worried. Even though we were only returning with about 2 months to go, I feared that I would get caught in old habits of overworking and lose my way again. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a classroom management standpoint – how would I be able to enforce social distancing and masks?

In the end, the return to campus went well, and was reinvigorating for me! I saw so many of my students that were currently failing my class (just from lack of sharing their work with me in our weekly check-ins) raise their grades just by being in the same room as me. I could grade on observation rather than by assignments completed. This got me thinking about the purpose of grading in art class. Why did I need to grade students? Who was the grade for? Was there a more authentic assessment method?

In the end, I have Amazon to thank for recommending a book titled Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) to me. At first, I was skeptical of the concept of going gradeless. For one, being contractually obligated to update my grades every 2 weeks would obviously make this a challenge to implement! Secondly, how could I possibly motivate students without grades? It seemed like the threat of a C or lower in ART of all classes was often the only thing that motivated students to submit work. In the end, I registered for a curriculum development course and chose to read this book and overhaul my curriculum based on my findings within as the final project.

In my last post of this series, I will discuss some of my takeaways from Ungrading and where my classroom is heading this next year!

To be Continued…






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