As I admitted last week, my bonafides as an art teacher are unusual, and perhaps unimpressive, but I keep showing up to work anyway. We opened the Spring Final Art show last Friday, and as a new teacher, it was encouraging to see not only the improvements my students made since the fall, but also how the overall quality of my students' work has been elevated since the Spring show a year ago. Now that the paintings have been framed and hung, I finally have time to reflect on how we got here.
Every year I write a syllabus, and every year I have to ignore it. I learned early on not to assume anything about my students. The lessons I learned in my public middle school art elective are not the standard lessons every student who comes to my class has had. I get students from private schools, international schools, home schools, un-schools, and public schools. Their adolescent art educations are as varied as the words available for the color "orange".
I can't trust that students already know how to use linear perspective or a vanishing point. I can't rely on them to know what a complementary color is. I can't assume that they know that the eyes are located in the middle of the face, not up by the hairline. Nor can I assume that they are uncultured idiots. More often than not, I get students who have natural talent, a great color sense, and exceptional motor skills. But to expect many of them to be able to articulate how they can do what they do is the same as expecting them to be able to explain how their lungs fill with air and then empty again without them noticing.
In light of this, I have developed an assignment that I use as diagnostics to help me evaluate a student's skill and what they are interested in. I call it "Bootcamp" and the student is expected to create as much work as they can in a small period of time. Their grade is based on quantity, not quality, and they are encouraged to spend no longer than 15 minutes on each drawing. Through this, I can get a sense for whether a student has been exposed to the basics (perspective, contrast, composition, color, etc.) and if they are naturally creative. From this, I look at the whole class and I build the curriculum for the rest of the semester.
It wasn't until I started this Masters program that I stopped to think about whether there were any learning theories or institutional wisdom that could direct how I develop classes. Lesson plans... What are those? Doesn't every teacher decide 5 minutes before class what they want to teach and how they want to teach it? They don't make it up as they go along? Oh...
I vaguely remembered something about "The Socratic Method" from high school, a practice that tended to be more trouble than it was worth for me when I discovered that my college friends didn't like being called on to defend themselves constantly, and that being devil's advocate wasn't considered "cute." As a teacher, I found myself imitating my favorite instructors, a habit that was either a success or a disaster with equal frequency.
After being exposed to a few theorists and theories, I began to understand how my successes happened to align with proven educational wisdom. Most specifically, I discovered how intuitively or idiotically, my classes seemed to naturally follow Robert Gagne's "9 Events of Instruction", which provides a template for how to effectively structure classroom activities:
1.Gain Attention- Simple. I'm pretty short, so I may need to stand on top of something, but this is pretty straightforward.
2. Provide Objectives- Ok, Whippersnappers, today we are going to learn how to make an object 3D and like it's going back in space using perspective!
3. Access Prior Knowledge- What happens to an object as it moves farther away? It get's smaller? Correct! 10 points to Griffindor!
4. Present Content- Check it. I made a video and everything. Swag.
5. Provide Learning Guidelines- I'll be honest, this is where I tend to lose focus. I'm getting better at articulating my point to my students, but sometimes I don't know what it is until the end.
6. Elicit Performance- Alright monkeys, time to dance.
7. Provide Feedback- We usually critique every project as a class, but between crits, I wander around the class with my cup of coffee in hand and give 1-1 instruction.
8. Assess Performance- I hate this part. The question is not, "How do you grade art?" but rather "Why did you give me that grade, Ms. Green?"
9. Enhance Retention and Transfer- Fail often, fail fast. Make more work to get better and get it right the next time.
The longer I do this, the less likely I will feel like a student and the more I will feel like a teacher. I'm not convinced that's a good thing, but it's hard to be discouraged when you stand in the gallery and take in all the work my students have created this year. I may not know what I'm doing, but I seem to be damn good at it.