Making Choices in the Art Room
Lately, in the art rooms here at JTL, we’ve been getting quite the variety of projects. Currently, I have a fairy house made of bark, pine cones, and dandelions in one corner and an egg carton growing Rzeżucha (a plant native to Poland) on the window sill. Two kids are drawing, three are painting, a few have oil or chalk pastels out. There are signs on every medium available telling kids whether it’s water or oil based (so they know if they can mix and match the mediums or not).
That’s what happens when you kids aren’t told exactly what choice to make. You see a lot of interesting things start to happen. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Choose your own adventure
My pARTner in Art, Mrs. Shemanksy, and I have thrown a lot of new ideas at our kids this year, and choice has been a theme in many of them. We’re moving away from the comfortable land of pre-planned assignments with specific outcomes and we’re adventuring down the path of ‘Who knows what we’re going to get’. It has been rewarding and at times frightening.
Teachers like to know what’s going to happen next. We have to- we’re responsible for keeping our kids on task, engaged, and learning from one bell to the next. You can’t go into this without a plan or you will find that chaos creeps up on you rather quickly. So giving kids choice in an art room is as scary to us as it is to any other teacher out there. We’re not immune to the anxiety that comes with choice. But we tolerate the anxiety and we’re willing to see where we get when kids aren’t told exactly what to do.
‘…..we tolerate the anxiety and we’re willing to see where we get when kids aren’t told exactly what to do.’
Giving choice isn’t as easy as it sounds
Some kids thrive when given choice, but many flounder- not sure what to do or how to do it. Typically when we design a project, we look to impose enough constraints that our students will have to think about how to work creatively within those constraints. When you remove constraints, you can actually diminish the amount of creativity a student has to have in finding the solution.
For example, given a bin of Legos, you can tell two students to ‘build anything’. One might be a Lego nut, and go to town, building a spaceship with turbo boosters and an indoor pool. The other (and many kids fall into this category) will just start putting Legos together without a plan and eventually get bored.
Give the same two kids a challenge– Build a bridge that spans the sink and can support the weight of your shoe- and they are both excited to figure out how to solve that challenge. Here, having constraints (in the form of a challenge) is fueling the mind and sparking creativity.
How we find balance in choice vs. direction
Our hope and our goal is to challenge students to stretch their creative muscles while also giving them the freedom to work outside the box. To that end, we have tried (with success rates ranging from ‘Fantastic!’ to ‘Oh boy’) a few different things this year.
- Sketchbook assignments that give kids an overarching THEME (such as ‘Nature’), but allow them to choose any way possible to make, draw, paint, sculpt, build, or otherwise create a project that illustrates the theme.
- 6th graders had a STEAM experience, using paints with things like baking soda/vinegar, salt, oil, water, etc. They then pick a technique to use with their Zentangle art.
- 7th graders had a chance to use any mediums available in the room (oil/chalk pastels, watercolor, ink, crayon, tempera) and see how they affected each other on paper. Then they pick a technique to use in their animal portraits.
The journey continues
We aren’t on a straight and narrow path, and we don’t know exactly where each new choice will take us. As with so much of what we do, it’s a journey. We have failures. We see some of our students struggle more than we had hoped. We also see students flourish, and we are surprised by their solutions. More than anything else, we hope that our students are gaining skills they will use beyond….the art room.