Relationship Building

A Chance to Rethink Art Education for the Better (Ep. 231)

In an article published last week, AOEU writer Janet Taylor argued that this fall’s return to school is a chance for us to rethink art education for the better. Today, she’s on the podcast to talk to Tim about her ideas. Listen as they discuss the logistics of pandemic teaching, the importance of teacher autonomy, and how we can think bigger when we return to work this fall. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University. And I’m your host Tim Bogatz.

We had an amazing article published on the AOEU website last week by Janet Taylor. And the article is called Rethinking Art Education for the Better. And it is in short, a brilliant article. Janet talks about how this fall is a chance for us as art educators to rethink and reconceptualize what we do in the classroom just everything from top to bottom. And she has a line in there that I think speaks to everything she’s trying to say. It just says, “It’s time to rethink the what, the how, and the why of our teaching.” And there’s so many forms that that can take and that’s what I really want to dive into with Janet today.

And I don’t want to take too long here at the beginning because I’m going to ask her to share a lot. She has so many good ideas, not only big picture, the whole rethinking, reconceptualizing thing, but also just about the day-to day-logistics of what’s going to be happening in our classrooms. And she’s really put a lot of thought into what she wants her classroom to look like this fall. And I think there’s a lot there that we can take from that that I think will be really worthwhile.

But before we move on to the interview, I want to tell you about everything that The Art of Education University is putting together, everything that we’re offering right now. Whether you’re teaching fully in-person, you’re in some type of a hybrid model, or you’re doing all remote instruction, we have resources that you need to be successful this fall. If you’re a PRO or a FLEX member, obviously just libraries full of resources that work for any of those situations and new packs and new lessons and new resources are coming out every month that are just really responsive to what’s happening right now. A couple of new packs and pro this month include Understanding the Logistics of Teaching Online and Managing Working From Home During an Extended School Closure. So just a lot there that is really worthwhile and speaks to the situations that we are facing this fall.

And if you don’t have PRO or don’t have FLEX, don’t worry, there are still thousands of resources on the AOEU website waiting for you for free. The best thing you can do is check out the Return to Learn page on the site where we’ve organized resources for everyone no matter your teaching situation. Make sure you check that out.

All right. We are ready to begin this interview. Janet Taylor is with me now. Janet, how are you?

Janet: I’m doing okay. Hanging in there.

Tim: Good, good. I’m glad to hear that. I guess before we dive into all of the big topics that we’re going to talk about today, can we begin by just setting the scene? What does back to school look like for you? What does it look like for your family right now?

Janet: Yes, that’s a complicated question because there’s so many facets going in there. But okay. So for me, the district that I teach in, we started in a hybrid models, what was announced to us. And then there are a lot of growing concerns that teachers were having obviously with increasing numbers of COVID cases in our county and in our state. Illinois did a great job of squashing that originally closing the state down and getting everybody set. But as summer happened and we started to open things back up again, we’re seeing those numbers go up. So we’re a little concerned as we’re watching that happen.

And so just this last week, actually last Friday, our district decided, “Wait a second, we need to reconsider this.” And they decided we’re going to start remote. So for me, relief.

But basically it’s going to be reevaluated every six weeks with a four phase plan. So the first six weeks is fully e-learning and then we move into phase two if everything goes well, which is e-learning with some in school group or lab work, if needed. And then if everything’s going well that way, then we’ll move into a six week plan of hybrid and then start to evaluate into a fully in-person model.

So the district I live in though is a little different. We have adopted a plan for hybrid in the high school and middle, and then the elementary students are fully in-person. And I should add that both districts actually have a fully remote option. So for students who can’t go in, that was always the plan.

So for me, because I’m dealing with both districts and ever-changing plans and watching things happen, it’s been pretty interesting. My own children are immunodeficient. So we immediately opted for that remote option for their school. And then I was kind of like, “Well, what do I do for my own career then because I’m supposed to go into hybrid, and I can’t bring that back to my own kids and my own family.” So I could either push to teach this online academy through my district and hope that it worked out or in my case, I would have to resign my position fully. So it’s been to say the least like a tumultuous summer, right?

Tim: Yeah.

Janet: Yeah. So I know nothing is ideal, but I’m really grateful that the district that I teach in, as I mentioned, has moved to remote or at least start remote. And we actually just pushed out the start date for the students too, which honestly it gave everybody a sense of, “Okay, we can take some time. We can figure this out a little bit.” It’s amazing. The weight that has been kind of lifted off of me, just knowing that piece alone. And thinking about preparing our students, not only for the start of remote, but also any sort of transitions as we slowly move depending on what’s going on.

So in my case, to sum that up, I’m going to be teaching from home. I’ve set up my, like literally this weekend, I set up a whole school in my basement because last year it was like my kids were bouncing all over the place and I was trying to teach in my basement and then sometimes outside and wherever I could fit. So this time I’m like, “Okay, we need to set up a whole, establish a space for everybody to have success.” So hopefully, we’ll see. That might last like two days and then be a hot mess, but we’ll see.

Tim: Yeah. But honestly, nothing’s going to be perfect. But I think you raised an important point there because all the districts that I’ve seen who are slowing down and taking time, whether that be back in March or whether it be right now, I think they’re so much more successful because of it. So hopefully that will be the same case with you.

But the real reason I wanted to have you on though was to talk about your article that just published. It was called Rethinking Art Education for the Better. So can you, I guess, talk about the impetus for writing that article first of all, and then just explain it a little bit for people who haven’t read it?

Yeah. Okay. So I laugh about this because I would say I have a lot of big picture, probably too ambitious utopian ideas about art education and education as a system, as a whole. So what happened was I was actually getting really upset about all the conversations that were happening back and forth with community and admin and teachers and a lot of conflict, a lot of different opinions and feelings about this, a lot of different perspectives. And there’s a lot of facets to everything. And something that I kept thinking is like, “Why do we have to be stuck in that structure that exists? And why aren’t we thinking about the potential that could be?”

So for example, we’re so familiar with the box and the system that’s set up to fit inside that box. And I kept wondering, “Why are we not just rethinking how this whole system is set? Because this is an opportunity for that.”

So I’m not going to go into all the details of course and my thoughts on education and the utopia that I say can be. But if we have to work within a system and just a few short weeks because we don’t have a whole lot of… That’s the other piece. The first part of your question originally was what’s going on? And every day it feels like things are changing. So instead of trying to fit inside that box, why are we not thinking about how it can actually work for us?

So the article in general basically talks about why remote learning didn’t really work in the spring. I mean, it did, but it didn’t. But also how we can set up remote and hybrid or whatever to succeed this time around. So also how things are and should be thought about differently in general as we start the school year as opposed to managing with what we had. My goal was to take a fresh look at how, what, and why we teach in this new context.

Tim: Yeah. That’s good. So I want to talk about that difference though between last year and this year, and how that’s played into your thinking here with all of this stuff that you’re talking about. So how would you describe the end of the last school year? And what is your mindset because of that? What is your mindset going into this fall?

Janet: Right. So my frustrations, of course, like I said, lie in this, “Well, remote learning was such a failure. How is it going to be different this year? What are my students going to do?” And I am like, “Wait a second. Last year was pretty successful given what we had.” It was literally triaged mode, like survival. So there’s a few things about this spring that you have to kind of remember.

So we had to turn teaching literally on its head. And in my case at my district, we did it over a weekend. Everybody had like spring breaks intermingled in there and whatnot. But in my district, we literally learned about this on Friday, the kids went home on Friday and by Tuesday we were teaching completely remotely. So very little notice. Yeah. Ever-changing guidance. Our state, our district had different guidance constantly. Can we give grades? What kind of grades? What does attendance look like? All those factors. And then that doesn’t even account for equity and access that was happening too across the board between technology or materials.

So, honestly it’s like, who was actually prepared for a pandemic? It’s like that question when you’re like, “Who’s ready for the zombie apocalypse?” It’s like that moment. And I certainly was not one of those people.

So that’s like a big thing we need to remember about the spring. So most teachers it’s over the summer now we’ve had this chance to like, “Okay, let’s close the chapter on spring. Let’s figure out what the heck we’re doing in the fall.” And in the meantime, we’re trying to balance our own self care in the summer and listening to news and listening to what’s happening with our districts.

So I don’t know about you, Tim, but it was a constant balance for me between sobbing and then panic. And then I was like really angry and anticipating all of these unknowns. And it was every single day was a different range of emotions, right?

Tim: Yeah. Different emotions every day. You never knew what was coming.

Janet: Never knew. Yeah. It’s like, “Oh, god. Why am I crying now?” Exactly. Right.

So all summer I basically spent this time inundated with like social media waiting for something to happen. Waiting for my state and district to make some sort of decisions so that I could plan because I think we talk about this all time. Our teachers and teachers in general are big planners. That’s what we do, right?

Tim: Yup.

Janet: So I’ll be honest, I’ve been like really paralyzed to do anything, to make any sort of movement until literally yesterday. And you know what, I think a lot of people feel that way and I think it’s okay. I mean, it doesn’t feel okay. But at some point you have to be like, “It’s okay to say I can’t make decisions yet.”

So now that my district is kind of made those decisions and I’ve made some personal decisions, I can kind of move forward. So with that being said, this is kind of my excite… I’m actually reinvigorated and excited because I’m thinking about the potential.

So in the spring, we tried to kind of take what was in our classroom and we tried to repurpose it for online situation and that’s just not going to work. And we need to say like, “That’s just not great done.” It’s just not the same now. And instead of constantly getting frustrated on how to make it work, it’s time to really rethink it altogether. And when you stop trying to make things fit, it’s like this aha moment that you have. And no joke, I just felt like I’m no longer stuck in this construct. I can just relax and I can see this amazing potential of what we can do with our education.

So this includes opportunities to really reflect on what did work in the spring because there were things that worked right and think about why those things worked. And then think about what is actually different as we start as opposed to last year. And then how can we take that information and set up our students for success? Like I said, I’m trying to set up my own children in my basement for success. It’s like obviously them trying to do their own Zoom calls while I’m trying to Zoom with my kids or my students is not going to work again. So we need to rethink this.

So for me at this moment, which like I keep saying, tomorrow might totally change. But I’m really excited to think about establishing new ways to create community, a new way about thinking about teaching art really. And what are my values and getting down to those core values and really those essential standards and saying, “This is what art education is really about.”

So lastly, the other thing I wanted to make sure that I mentioned was that I’m really also very grateful for autonomy as an art teacher. This is really an opportunity to provide our students with as many authentic experiences that they really won’t get anywhere else. And I’m excited to share how creativity will help those students address concerns that they’re feeling to spread their voice to actually say, “This is your voice and this impacts other people. This is your art. And what you’re saying is important.” And being able to connect that in their lives no matter where they go in life. So I’m excited.

Tim: No, that’s a good thing. And I think that last thing you said is key just in amplifying your students’ voices. I think we are going to see some good things happening once kids start creating again.

But I want to drill down into this idea of rethinking what you’re doing and I guess just asking you about the logistics and details because a lot of people, they hear, “Oh, let’s, let’s rethink what we’re doing.” But then they never figure out exactly what that looks like. So can you talk about that? What are you wanting to teach this fall? What are some of the roadblocks or some of the struggles that you see coming? Or do you have specific strategies that you can share with people that you think are going to help?

Janet: Yeah. So I can talk directly from my own experiences at this point, my own examples because I’m so in the depths of that right now, obviously. But I will say that in general, when I say, “Yes, we need to rethink art education and what that means in this new context,” a lot of times teachers will say, “Oh yes. Well, let’s do…” I’m trying to think of a good example, but, “Let’s do X, Y, and Z.” And I’m like, “That’s not actually still reinventing education as it needs to be to serve our students where they’re at in this situation. That’s just, again like a creative way of repackaging what’s happening in the classrooms.”

So in the article, I give some more concrete examples of how to rethink your teaching from a philosophical point of view. Rethinking your expectations is one. That’s important to do. Ways to connect art to real life ideas. I think that’s going to be really important right now as kids are not physically with you or not with you every day. Integrating social emotional strategies are… I keep saying this is the most important, and then I keep adding another one on. But social emotional strategies is going to be so, so essential this year for everyone involved. For us too as teachers to kind of go through that process with our kids. Kind of looking at the standards and really thinking about maybe even what those standards mean in this new context. So not just saying connect, what does that mean and how do I apply that to my art education, but what does this mean in this new context of where our students are? And then of course, materials. Materials is going to be a big one. What does that mean? And how do we do that?

So for me, I’ll give you a picture or a glimpse into my brain for a moment, which is a scary place. But for me, so I teach jewelry metals. Four levels of that. I teach sculpture one and two, and I teach all three portfolios of the AP art and design course. And because I teach AP, I’m thinking of course, of all sorts of media, not just jewelry metal sculpture, I’m thinking photography and painting and all that and how those things will work.

So in the spring of 2020, I moved my curriculum, you may remember from our coronavirus webinar, into that focus of teaching for creativity and design thinking opportunities and also providing those social emotional connections. And I think a lot of that was because I didn’t want my students sitting on a computer all the time because I knew they were going to do that with their other classes. And also it was, what is the point? How are we… I guess, going back to that survival mode. We just need to get through this.

So this fall, it’s not going to be that much different in that idea. And the idea set that we need to keep our connections and our students are going to be sitting on computers all day and that we need to focus on their mental health and how we’re thinking about that.

So in my traditional classroom, I might set up a structure and scaffolding at the beginning of the year and slowly release more choice. I guess I should say I’m a choice teacher if people don’t know that. So I’m a choice teacher, choice art teacher. And a lot of the misconception a lot of times is I give my students a lot of choice. They revert back to old behaviors of sloppy work or the quality goes down or it’s a free for all or kids don’t know how to come up with ideas. And in a choice setting, you really have to scaffold. You really have to scaffold a lot of that to prepare them to make those choices.

So in my traditional classroom, I do that from day one. So starting fall of 2020, if this was normal life, I would set up a lot of structure into how to use the classroom and how to manage materials and how to do a certain technique, low stakes practice and then get into the choice and the choice scaffolds from there. So I don’t foresee that being any different in a remote or hybrid situation for me because that’s my value system, right?

Tim: Yeah.

Janet: So for jewelry metals and sculpture kids, I’m definitely going to start out with exploration. I think I’m going to make up some supply boxes and bags. I literally just started thinking about this yesterday what’s going to go in those and how am I going to get them to the kids. But I would start them out, for example, making their own sketchbook, maybe exploring different media composition techniques. In the meantime, that allows me space to kind of get to know my students a little bit more in other venues. So they might be able to have this low stakes opportunity to practice, and we start to form those connections that way.

So between that and maybe a exploration of materials. So maybe like a low budget jewelry or recycled sculpture assignment or 50 things that kind of stuff. My intention is that that is going to buy me time to figure out what’s going to happen next. So sadly-

Tim: That’s a good strategy to use.

Janet: Right. I mean, I’m definitely going to be thinking about it along the way, of course. But my hopes are the first thing I can do is focus on getting my kids busy with their hands, not in front of the computer all the time, getting to know each other in authentic ways. And then I can worry about where we’re going to go and how we’re going to scaffold technique let’s say. I mean, obviously in metalsmith, in metals class, we’re not doing metalsmithing in remote. So that’s going to be a little challenge. It’s definitely a concern of mine.

I literally built that program in our school from scratch and now we’ve doubled sections, and I was so excited. And so honestly the reason why it’s a great class is because it’s just a really cool class. So you get to saw metals and you get to use a torch, and then you get to like wear your artwork around. I mean, who wouldn’t sign up for that?

Tim: Yeah, exactly.

Janet: But I’m concerned because I pushed that class by saying, this is so cool. You get to use a torch and it’s not a beading class. So the idea of not having my students in class using those tools, being super loud, moving around like bees in a hive at all times, it’s honestly a little sad to me. And in a hybrid situation, I can guarantee you that my students will at least get some exposure to that. But at home they’re not. It’s just not safe for multiple reasons. So that’s why I’m like I just need to buy a little time to really figure this out.

Tim: Figure out what it’s going to look like. Yeah.

Janet: Yeah, yeah. I think another challenge is when working with multiple media like AP. I’m hoping that I can have multiple supply drop off and pick up dates throughout our remote times so that students can… If they need a specific material that they want to work on, they can. I can teach them a little executive functioning and planning ahead and maybe proposing some of that to me. So that maybe once a week or every two weeks, I can get them a new set of supplies. That is a good way… I know this isn’t like rethinking art education, but that’s a good concrete example of how to not plan for the whole semester right now, right?

Tim: Right. Right.

Janet: And I also think if you can do those kinds of things, that’s a great way to also see them in-person once in a while, connect to remind them why we’re in this together. We are together in this, you and me. I might be able to see some of their artwork, celebrate some of what they’ve been working on.

So lastly, I’ll have to say this. I wrap all of my teaching explicitly around teaching the creative process. So I gave you all these concrete little examples of logistics, but when it comes to actually rethinking art education, what does that look like?

So you can read obviously more about how I do this in some other articles I’ve written about this topic. But especially while students are not in front of me, I have got to get them in a routine of making their thinking visible so that I can support them through their process as they progress. So again, it’s not going to be for me… We might be synchronous, we might be asynchronous learning, but the best way that I can rethink education is to take those core values and figure out how to deliver that to them or how to rework that importance. And what does that look like for them in this situation?

So when students are documenting, annotating, talking about their process, they really learn so much more about themselves and make those connections about why they’re making intentional choices. So to me, that’s going to be really important to continue that structure as our creative routine since they won’t be with me. So that goes back to our original discussion was how to rethink this. It’s like, how am I going to ensure that my students are continually making creative connections and are authentically engaged in the process and not just fulfilling a checklist? Does that make sense?

Tim: Yep. Yep. For sure. And I don’t know. I think that’s the challenge that we’re going to be facing no matter whether you’re face-to-face or teaching online. It’s something that needs to be solved, but I actually… Well, first of all, let me say just thank you for all of those amazing ideas. But secondly, I wanted to go back to something you just mentioned earlier, which was the importance of social-emotional learning, the importance of student voice, putting that all together this fall in obviously what is not an ideal situation. So I guess I would ask you this, how are you planning on helping students explore their emotions, social-emotional learning? How can they explore their creativity, their voice? How are you going to give them the opportunities to express themselves?

Janet: Right. Of course. So, I mean, I’ve spoken about choice lot. I’ve mentioned that. This summer I did this webinar for NAEA specifically on choice and the questions that kept popping up was like, “Okay, this is awesome. But how is this going to help us in the fall?” And my response constantly was, you know what, I don’t really know yet. But what I do know strongly, what I strongly believe in, it’s going to be essential for choice to be helping empowering voice this year, especially. Hands down. I just cannot reinstate that enough.

In a typical year, as I mentioned, I scaffold choice with lots of supports and structures, both technically and conceptually, to prepare them for that self-expression. So personally in general, I would not advise just starting out like, “Okay, you have a huge range of choice. Go for it. Figure out what you want.” That’s too hard and overwhelming for students in general, right?

Tim: Yeah, yeah.

Janet: But this year, especially I would not start your class by talking about… Okay, my opinion. I would not start your class on day one talking about COVID and how it’s impacted their household or how they feel about the Black Lives Matter movement. Most likely you don’t even know a lot of these kids in your class. They don’t know each other. They’re not physically in the space together even to navigate body language and all that. So it’s going to be first important to create that safe environment that is built on trust in order to progress into student voice.

I do think though as soon as you start, it’s important to start taking that temperature on how comfortable students are by maybe doing something, again, like a low stakes, personal prompts, sketchbook prompt or something like that. Maybe giving them a choice of a topic that they want to address that’s more private, that’s only shared between the two of you. And if they want to share out, they can share out for example.

But here’s the key. When providing choice, I find it also incredibly important not to only expose students to various artists who are addressing specific topics that you might be providing them, but also give them a choice of the direction that they want to pursue. So, for example, if you were to be given three prompts to choose from, probably don’t start with three heavy topics, right?

Tim: Right, right.

Janet: Instead try to give kind of an easy, medium, hard, I guess. More like emotionally safe versus emotionally charged kind of a scale if you say. So this is maybe not the best example. I just kind of came up with this. But one prompt of the three could be draw one unique natural object from observation. It’s pretty low stakes. Right?

Tim: Right, right.

Janet: Okay. I can go out my backyard, pick out a stick and draw it. Right?

Tim: Yup.

Janet: The second could be draw one object that seems to have a clear emotion and then maybe write a little story about it. So now you’re connecting with the object, connecting with your own emotions. It might for some students that might be difficult.

And then the last one could be for those students who are really wanting to express themselves, maybe it’s draw an object that reflects how you’re handling one challenging topic right now. So again, you’re not saying, “Talk about the Black Live Lives Matter movement.” You’re saying, “What is important to you right now? And try to express an object that relates to that.”

So again, maybe not the best example, but maybe you can see how you’re addressing, for example, observational drawing prompts, but in three different emotional options for students to work through. And then that hopes are as you work through that, you’re starting to engage in critiquing, maybe more discussion. And again, that low stakes artworks, like mini artworks or something like that, with ideas that go with them. And then given that opportunity to explore what is personal to the student, you’re encouraging them to understand themselves a little bit better. You’re empowering them to make more meaningful artworks that have possible very powerful implications.

In my opinion, since I’ve made that switch to choice and that journey, there’s truly nothing more exciting to me than seeing a student find their passion for a particular topic on their own, but also to see the impact their voice has on others. I mean, seriously, if ever there was a more critical time for choice and student voice, this is it.

Tim: Yes. That is very true. That’s very well said. So, Janet, I honestly can’t thank you enough for all of these amazing ideas. Before we head out, do you have any final words of advice? Anything you want to share with everybody as we move into this uncertain fall here?

Janet: Yes. I would definitely say to really be self-aware, be gentle with yourself and with others. There’s certainly enough turmoil swirling around everyone with everyone’s unique situation. And now it’s truly a time to connect with everyone and with others, not to criticize yourself, and the best I can say is just try to breathe because we’re not alone. We’re all in this together.

Tim: Yeah. That’s very true. We have a whole community of art teachers here to help and support. And like this whole interview is going to be a huge help and a huge support for so many people.

And so Janet, thank you so much or your time, for your ideas, for sharing everything with us. It was great to talk to you today.

Janet: Thanks, Tim.

Tim: Thank you so much to Janet for coming on, for sharing all of her ideas. If you have not read her Rethinking Art Education for the Better article, please go do that. We will link to it in the show notes. It is on the AOEU website. And while you’re on the AOE website, go visit that Return to Learn page that I mentioned in the beginning of the show. Whether you’re in-person, whether you have some sort of a hybrid model, whether you’re doing remote learning, we have put together all the resources that we have to help you find success. It’s all free. It’s all available to you. Make sure you go check that out on the AOEU website. You should be able to find everything you need to help you find success this fall.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening. Best of luck to everyone who is headed back to school this week. Stay safe, stay healthy, do what you need to do to take care of yourself. And we will talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.