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.
An introduction. Yeah, that would be good...
I am an art teacher at an American boarding school, and I got here by way of an environmental science degree and a few years working as an admissions counselor and financial aid officer. I've had five years working on both the administrative and the classroom sides of private education, and now I am 4 credits and a thesis project away from a Masters Degree in Education, Leadership, and Emerging Technology. I work at a small school, and we have a remarkable amount of control over our curriculum and access to motivated and talented students. We are also subjected to families who pay a lot of money and expect an individuated education for each of their children. My experiences this far have led me to search for solutions to the following problems:
1. Is it possible to be everything to everyone? What responsibility do I have to making sure tuition-paying students and families learn the skills and subjects they want to learn?
2. How can we expand and specialize the curriculum if we can't hire more teachers with specialized skill-sets or build more classrooms?
3. How can I teach my students to take risks and teach themselves the skills they want to learn so that they are not limited by my own abilities and talents?
With these questions in mind, I have reflected on my own art education, which has been cobbled together through a combination of formal classes, casual experimentation with materials twisted together or cut apart by restless hands, YouTube tutorials, blog posts, and hours of practice. Add a little praise from from a social network of dilettantes, who shower me with encouragement in the form of Facebook likes and Instagram posts, and you get an artist who finds time to cultivate her talent whenever and in whatever way possible. I am not classically trained, but I am not afraid to teach myself or seek out internet wisdom for how to create something cool. As a result, I am a teacher with a patchwork of experience and knowledge. More often than not, my response to a student's question is, "I don't know. Let's Google it."
My Master's thesis seeks to discover strategies to target this habit into something more intentional. I want my students to never allow themselves to be limited by who is around them and what their teachers can tell them. I want them to push through challenges on their own, and seek solutions to their failures by consulting their peers or seeking guidance from an online community. The ultimate goal is to teach my students to become their own instructional designers, and to create the curriculums they want for themselves. I believe that these skills will help them to become innovators and create the industries of the future. Whether it results in them becoming better artists remains to be seen.
Yesterday, I received my third identical water bottle from my alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, because I gave to the annual fund. Every month, I receive a snail-mailed letter printed on high quality paper thanking me for my monthly donation. Wash U has sent me notes, hats, nick-knacks, and illustrations of campus, and assorted swag since I graduated in 2010, just to express their gratitude for my continued support of the school.
But here’s the problem: I give a monthly gift of $5 for an annual total of $60 to support Wash U, and every piece of mail I receive hacks away at the impact of what I am currently capable of giving. I have called Wash U to ask if I can opt out of the thank you notes, but their automated system makes that impossible to do. If anything, this irks me even more because it’s not even a personal letter typed by a work-study student. What were probably handled by work study students were water bottles 1, 2, and 3, each neatly packed in a box, slapped with a gratitude-sticker, and shipped from St. Louis to Colorado Springs. I majored in Environmental Studies! You gave my donation a carbon footprint!!
Now I have never been involved directly in fundraising. I am not trained in the various strategies and psychologies of giving, and I don’t have numbers in front of me that prove that this kind of gratitude vomit encourages continued and increased gifts. If this were less of a rant, I would probably have taken the time to look for those numbers, but if someone like me who received substantial scholarships to attend Wash U can be turned off by this, what might a non-scholarship student feel? Maybe they would feel the opposite. Maybe they would feel entitled to the unnecessary water bottles, but I doubt it.
Ok, I will admit that part of why I set up the automatic monthly $5 gift was to stop the phone calls requesting donations even if I had already given that year. I was pretty good at dodging them because I recognized the Wash U number (314-935-etc.) but the awkward buzzing from my pocket while I was at work or driving began to grate on me after a while. But though I may sound ungrateful and as though I were bullied into giving, I want you to note that I am happy to give, and that it is important to get into the habit of giving back.
I always get frustrated by my classmates who bitch and moan when their schools ask them for money because they are currently under-employed or their parents paid full tuition for them to go to college. They often credit their families for planning ahead and setting up college funds when they were born, or pat themselves of the back for not blowing their inheritance from their grandparents on bouncy castles and mountain dew and instead put the money towards their very expensive private educations. They were privileged to graduate debt free, and as a result, feel no obligation to the schools that educated and indulged them during a time in their life where they were, frankly, sophists, sophomoric, and occasionally sociopathic.
But this misses the point. If fact it misses several. At most private institutions, tuition only covers a certain percentage of the operating cost through the year. At the school where I currently work as an art teacher, tuition only covers the costs of running the school through a date in February. After that, the endowment and the annual fund kick in, which is made up almost exclusively of donations from alumni, students and parents. Different schools have different sources of income beyond tuition, the endowment, and the annual fund, but those are the big ones. What is important to take from all this is that even “full tuition” paying families receive financial assistance. Yes, even Mr. College Fund was a scholarship kid.
The cost of higher education continues to rise at a 10 year average of 5 percent, but schools with healthy endowments and high rates of participation in the annual fund can afford to increase tuition more slowly and at a pace more consistent with inflation.
But maybe this doesn’t make a difference to Mr. College Fund. He still paid a boatload of money to go to school, and now that he is on his own working and trying to pay rent and his car insurance, while attempting to maintain a shadow of his college lifestyle. He might not feel any sort of debt, nor may he be aware of the benefits he continues to receive as an alumnus of a prestigious institution whose elite reputation signals his own competence for successfully earning admission and subsequent degree.
He may not be aware that annual fund dollars helped fund the education of his lab partner who got him through organic chemistry, or that his favorite professor’s sabbatical to India was subsidized by an anonymous gift. He may be completely clueless that annual fund dollars bought the white wall paint that covered the rude cartoons he and his roommates Sharpied onto the walls the first and last time they bought a bottle of Franjelico. That one time his friend passed out in the bushes outside his dorm, it was annual fund dollars that employed the gardener who rehabilitated the tulips.
I give because I am grateful for the experience I received and to the faceless donors who made it happen. I make a habit of giving so that I may give more when I have more. But right now, my meager donation is being eaten alive by gratuitous gratitude.
You might suggest that I should just increase my gift or give a lump sum that would merit only one thank you note, but I fear that would result in another arms race of solicitations: additional letters, pleas, and oh dear god the phone calls! The thought of all that makes it hard to feel generous.
So here are my requests: Please stop sending me things I could find online if I wanted to see them. I’m tired of the booklets reporting gifts with handy graphics depicting where the money goes. Perhaps this is a symptom of my demographic, but it’s better to make content easy to find or stumble upon, rather than delivered right to my face, where I will ignore it and just watch another Epic Rap Battle of History Video. Don’t send me an email. I won’t read it. Save yourself the postage on return envelopes and save me the recycling.
Instead, tag me, give me a shout out on social media, and contribute to the tiny dopamine addiction that is fed every time that red balloon pops up on facebook, or that orange heart on Instagram. Reach out to me and celebrate my successes with me. Show me that you still care about me as a person and not just my dollars. If this sounds daunting, ask one of your work study students and they can help you out.
But please, for the love of God, stop sending me water bottles.
Sincerely, Addison Green '10
I originally wrote this back in 2010. This year we are back in Colorado and enjoying/bearing each other's company. Merry Christmas, everyone!
The Green Family is trying something new this year. Instead of hosting Christmas at home in Maryland, driving out west to Colorado to spend it with my mother’s family, or heading northeast to see my father’s family, we have decided to rent a house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The house is one of those stilted buildings, right on the water. It rises three stories high and looks out over the dunes like a fat little sandpiper on thin legs darting forward and back with the surf. This house, christened the Island Bliss by the family whose portrait hangs in the room with the pool table, sleeps fourteen and has six bathrooms. Yet our family of five plus three dogs hangs out in the same two rooms, leaving the rest of the house unoccupied most of the time.
Our decision to come here confuses me on several levels. First off, I think of the beach as existing only in the summer. The idea of sand and surf during winter makes my head turn even as I sit by the open sliding door and listen to the waves slam against the shore. I have been to the Outer Banks twice before, and both times were in the heat of summer. Both times I swam in the Atlantic, both times I sunburned my shoulders so badly that the skin peeled away in thin sheets a week later, both times I sat and ate crab on the beach in spite of the sand the wind blew into the open tin of crab meat. But today, when I walked along the beach with my sister, I wore chucks and a Northface pullover, my feet never given the chance to feel the sand or the salt water. The weather forecast calls for snow tonight or tomorrow, and while I am eager to see the sand covered by a blanket of snow, my brain isn’t sure it will be able to handle the paradox.
The second reason that being here confuses me is that it will be the first Christmas away from home where we haven’t gone to see family. Growing up in Denver, and even the seven years we lived in Kansas City, assured us that we would spend the Holiday with my grandparents in Colorado Springs. The Colorado Grandparents go all out for Christmas. There really is no way of overstating it. Every year, starting the day after Thanksgiving, they put up seven Christmas trees, the tallest of which is a live, seventeen foot-tall tree bedecked with thousands of electric lights and strands of aluminum tinsel. The tinsel likes to hitch rides on my ass, clinging statically to my leg as if it would rather be anywhere else but hanging on the tree, catching the light, and twinkling festively. Beyond the trees, at last count they have collected 37 different nativity scenes from around the world, including a long-necked painted Peruvian set, a Northwest Indian trio of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus carved in obsidian, and a Czech set that comes with over 130 pieces and a chart delineating exactly where each character is supposed to be staged. Add a few wreaths, Santas, two Dickensian Villages, to the luminaries lining the driveway, and the final effect would have Norman Rockwell eating his proverbial heart out.
But in North Carolina, we have no tree. The stockings have been hung from the latches on the windows, and the presents have been piled underneath the bookshelf by the fire. My mother did think to bring a few strings of Christmas lights which we wound around the deck railings the night we got here and we have slung some sleigh bells from the handle of the sliding glass door. And as I sit here writing this in someone else’s vacation home, listening to my parents bitch to each other about wrapping presents for a holiday we have elected to celebrate a day late, I find the trappings of Christmas don’t matter. Because no matter how much they bicker, and how much they piss me off, being with my family is all I ever wanted. And while we may be grateful to have the extra space to periodically retreat to our neutral corners, tomorrow we will again spend the day in the same two rooms laughing at each other and snapping at each other, because that is part of being with each other.
There may come a time when being together may not be possible, and our family tank will be left at less than 100%. Jobs, school, and significant others may draw us elsewhere. But for now (and for better or worse) we are together. And that is where we belong.
The fall show went up on Monday and enjoyed three glorious days before it was cannibalized by students who selfishly wanted to give their work as gifts for Christmas. I'd be mad if it weren't for the fact that I did the same thing for 8 years.
In all seriousness, it was a great show. One of the best we have ever done! I am so proud of my students and the work they accomplished this semester. Go Danes!
The following presentation and video profiles Cheye Pagel, photographer and art educator at Fountain Valley School of Colorado.
Gummy peach rings are almost the exact texture and consistency of someone else’s tongue, and though I am reminded of this every time I bite into one, I cannot imagine getting through a road trip without them. Gas stations all across America sell the orange and yellow rubber loops, and they are satisfyingly flexible, tangy, and sugar-sandpapery. Yet, the sensation loses some of of its pleasure upon mastication. In spite of this, I continue to buy them whenever I drive across the country. They are tongue-like and they are delicious. Both of these things are true.
The human mind’s ability to hold and believe two opposing thoughts at the same time is called cognitive dissonance. It allows us to be hypocritical without being hypocrites. We can believe, for example that:
Now one might guess that the students who received the higher payment would be more enthusiastic about lying to their peers. Strangely, what really happened was that the students who were paid $1 actually convinced themselves that the task had been entertaining. On one hand, their experience proved that the task was boring, but on the other, they were told by experts to say that the experiment was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. The $1 payment wasn’t justification enough to lie, so the students changed their own perceptions and behaviors to accommodate the two truths. Thus the theory of cognitive dissonance was developed.
The reverse can also be true. Competing cognitions can make us feel guilty for taking pleasure in something we have been told we should not. Guilt is painful, so we begin a series of mental acrobatics to justify our behavior. Cognitive dissonance asserts that we are wired to accept contradictions. Yet we are also conditioned to feel guilty.
We worry that we don’t measure up. We worry that we think about sex too much, or that we don’t do enough for others. We worry that we eat too much fat and sugar, when in fact nature, hormones and millennia of evolution have designed us to behave this way. We bully ourselves even though we long to give in to our own internal schematics.
We can stand on the edge of a cliff and have to resist jumping off. We look at the oncoming train and think about stepping in front of it. We see the coals a the base of a bonfire and wonder what it would feel like to fall in.
But the urge to drive off a bridge is not an indicator of suicidal tendencies, but rather a will to survive- an awareness of a threat and an understanding of the risks and consequences that complacency or ambivalence to such a threat can pose. We can think about dying without wanting to die.
Cognitive dissonance allows you to understand that the mouse that nibbles the sweet potato on the counter could make you sick and even kill you-- that you need the poison behind the stove to keep him away and to make it safe for you and your dog to live in your own home. Intellectually, you are aware that finding the dessicated corpse weeks later is no different from finding the live one dying, nestled in your laundry, laboring to breathe. Cognitive dissonance allows you to pick up the green dress that the mouse has chosen as his bier and cradle him as he makes no efforts to flee and just hides his head from the oncoming oblivion. His rubber band tail drapes listlessly over the folds and slips into the pocket of your dress.
Cognitive dissonance allows guilt to overwhelm you and you curse the mouse for ignoring the organic peanut butter you left for him in the live trap that would have deported him from your kitchen, but allowed him to keep his life, a consideration you won’t give to the spider in your shower or the miller moth that beats its body against your laptop screen. You cry warm tears as you notice the green feces clinging to his stomach, the evidence of your cowardice and treachery. You notice his tiny hands with the extra long pinky fingers that clench and unclench as if grasping for an end to the pain in his gut, a magic sunflower seed that could ease the acid hunger that gnaws the walls of his abdomen.
You take him outside and lay him carefully in the garden as if he would prefer death plein air rather than death in a dirty laundry pile. The air is warm and dry, and it signals the start of summer when you yourself will move outside and camp in the mouse’s fields. You weep for him, though you will leave the poison in its place should the next mouse attempt to nibble the sweet potatoes.