Monday, January 12, 2015

Who's the Master Builder? (It's Okay to Have a TAB Classroom)

Just in case you were living under a rock last month and never got a chance to see this video, make some time to watch it ASAP!

It really resonated with me and I think art teachers everywhere did a collective fist pump.

The speaker addressed some of the issues that were nagging at me as I felt a pedagogical shift toward student choice. I was working hard to merge the DBAE training I had with open-ended projects that allowed "room" for students to make choices. I alway thought it was working, until I started having students write artist statements. I provided prompts like "why did you make this", or "where did you get your idea" and was floored at the number of students who said "because my teacher told me to." That showed me that even when I thought I was giving students choices, they still saw the assignments as having a predetermined outcome, or at least as being MY idea. In short, I realized that I was doing the heavy lifting and more of the thinking.

Here is part of my post from almost 3 years ago. I will address my own concerns in a different color.

I’m attracted by the idea of TAB- students being real artists instead of making what they think I want them to make (no cookie cutters!), but I do have a few reservations. My reservations are more practical than theoretical, such as
  • If students are responsible for what materials they use, how do you order adequate supplies with a limited budget? 
    • I order about the same supplies I used to order. I've found that we use less of some supplies and others are more popular, but can be limited. The teacher controls which materials are available and rationing can happen when needed. I've had to insist that students finish projects they start, partly to make sure we don't waste supplies, and partly to ensure that something gets finished as I only see my 4th-6th grade students twice a month and the younger students up to 4 times a month. Other than lots of reminders about using erasers instead of recycling paper with "mistakes" and asking students not to be greedy with special collage papers, I haven't done anything different. My budget has actually dropped a bit each year and I've been just fine.
  • How do you ensure students experiment with different media and encourage them to try new things if they are content to use the same materials each class period? (I know I have some students who want to do nothing but paint, or use clay for the whole year.)
    • My intermediate students who have art twice a month are supposed to try a different medium or technique after each project, before repeating. With only 18 classes a year (if we don't have snow days or other events that cause us to miss class and find we are unable to reschedule), I feel like that's what we need to do. I'm not as strict with the younger students on that note because most have art twice as often, though I do make sure that at some point in the school year they try at least drawing, painting, collage, weaving, printmaking, clay. I'm testing something different with Kindergarten this year to ensure that they get a good foundation covering the "basics". In the first lesson of the year, we covered tracing a circle, drawing lines, cutting, and gluing. Next, each student drew a self portrait. Then there was time for a choice drawing before heading into a "paint papers and make a collage like Eric Carle" project. After that, students could make a drawing or a collage. I'm trying to alternate a specific skill with a choice project until we've covered all the bases. 
  • Students are obviously responsible for their learning and designing their assignments, but how do you make sure they are pushing themselves and not coasting when they are allowed to work at their own pace? (Sadly, when I have 6th graders who chose to make a snake for their project because they think it will be easy but "can't" roll a coil and want me to do it for them, this is a concern.)
    • The teacher in a TAB/Choice room is still the teacher and guide. I have gotten to know many students better by talking to them about their interests and observing their choices and work habits. I can tell when a student is trying to coast and I can do something about it. I don't start off with deadlines since some projects will be more detailed and use more techniques, obviously requiring more time. However, if I notice a student is not pushing to finish or spending too much time on a project, I can encourage them to wrap it up, help them develop a plan, and even impose a deadline if I need to. I can also have students make up wasted class time during recess, which usually prevents the problem in the future.
Since there still seems to be a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about TAB/Choice floating around out there (like in this recent article posted on the Art of Education) I felt compelled to revisit my initial reservations and share about a few things I've figured out since switching. TAB is not for every teacher. You have to be willing to give up some control, you have to trust your students, you have to be able to multi-task, you must be flexible, you must be confident enough to embrace authentic "kid" art, and you must have a school culture that allows experimentation and accepts play as a form of research (some guy named Einstein talked about that...)

In my Choice-based art room, 
  • My students are held to very high expectations.
  • My students get more individualized instruction, small group instruction, and one-on-one conferencing with the teacher. The students can also become experts and share with their peers.
  • I do not rely on online sources any more than I always have. I make use of technology when appropriate and we have a fairly low-tech art room with an emphasis on hands-on experiences.
  • With guidance, my elementary kids actually make pretty good decisions, thank you very much.
  • I am very pleased with the quality of my students work. We have critiques when they think they are finished during which time we talk about what could be improved and come up with a plan to do it. Besides, I would rather see artwork that is meaningful to the students than artwork that is designed with an adult aesthetic.
ANNND, just in case you don't know me well, let me assure you that the point of this is not to judge how others teach, but to share MY experiences teaching with choice in MY schools and stand up for this new-to-me pedagogy that just feels right. Every community and every teacher is different and you have to do what feels right to you. Having said that, if you are intrigued by TAB or just want to try out giving your students some more choices, don't be afraid! 

Here is a post about dipping my toes into teaching with choice-

Here are some posts about using "Choose Your Own Adventure" to give students a menu of choices based on a theme: 

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