The How and Why of Accelerating Our Talented Art Students (Ep. 062)

Andrew and Tim get together to share strategies to help your most talented students find the challenges they need, which encourages and empowers them to continue to create. They discuss how to adapt your teaching and your curriculum for your most talented students (7:45), how art can self-differentiate (11:30), and how much you need to support your students when you ask them to take new risks (17:00). Full episode transcript below.

Resources and Links





Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show’s produced by the Art of Education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. We’re going to talk today about those incredibly talented and those gifted students that come through your classroom, the kids that you just stop and say, “Wow!” when you see their work or the kids who just naturally seem to be great at everything that you put in front of them. We’re going to ask those questions: How do we best help those kids? How do we ensure that the work we give them and the opportunities available to them are actually meaningful and not just busywork or extra work? What is best for those gifted and those talented kids?

I want to talk to Andrew about some of the big picture ideas: How you identify your gifted and your talented students? What your mindset should be when you’re working with and trying to help those students? What type of mindset you want to develop in your most talented students? We’ll also talk about what kind of opportunities you should offer, the best ways to provide those opportunities. Plus, it’s Andrew so who knows where else the conversation might go.

I also want to direct you to some more specific ideas that you can implement in your classroom. Rather than talk about those extensively, I want to direct you to a little bit of reading. I’ve written a couple of articles on the Art of Ed website that talk about what you can do with your most talented students. There’s one that asks what happens when you have a student that’s more talented than you? There’s another that I believe is called, “I have the next Picasso in my art room, now what?” Those articles share a lot of ideas, like accelerating, where you’re allowing students to move through your curriculum more quickly so they can get to those things that they’re really interested in and really motivated to do. There’s ideas like compacting: how you can condense and modify your instructions so kids can do more challenging, more interesting things. There are ideas for grouping and for individual instruction.

A lot of these ideas are tenets of gifted education, but they work incredibly well for art instruction as well. We’ll link to those in the show notes. I’ll talk about them just a little bit more before we leave. Like I said, I want to talk to Andrew about some of the big picture things, so I’m going to go ahead and bring him on right now. Welcoming to the show, Mr. Andrew McCormick. Andrew, how are you?

Andrew: I’m doing good, man. Thanks for having me on.

Tim: I’m glad to talk to you. We’re going to talk about our most talented, maybe our gifted students, if you will, and how we accelerate them. I guess I’ll just start with this, how do you recognize when you have a supremely talented student in your classroom?

Andrew: Well, I mean it’s pretty obvious, and it’s pretty instant. You throw out a project to your class of, let’s say, 20 to 30 kids and just it’s like on day one, you’re just like, “Holy crap. This kid is amazing.” Then if you have the luxury of being a middle school teacher where you get to see your kids for a number of years in a row or a high school teacher, you get to know them and get to work with them. I think it’s pretty obvious. Correct if I’m wrong, I’m no master of grammar or the English language, but the word ‘recognize’ could mean two things. How do we identify and spot them? Then we could also take ‘recognize’ to mean how do we work with them or how do we acknowledge them, how do we award them, reward them? I think we’ll get into that probably later on, but I do think it’s interesting to think about.

Tim: Yeah, that is a good double meaning with that. Yeah, we will dive into that. If I can get a little more specific, if we’re talking about the really talented kids, obviously they have a skill set that probably their peers don’t possess. How do you tell the difference? What if the kid in your room is just an above average kid who works really hard? How do you tell the difference between hardworking, good kid with a little bit of art talent and someone who is truly gifted?

Andrew: I think it might be hard if you’re a new teacher. The longer you teach and the more years you have in it, you start to see things where you’re just like, “I’ve never seen anyone do that with clay before,” or “I’ve never seen anyone interpret or work so freely or so loosely with their lines or their ink or their wash.” Sometimes it’s weird, but I think about speed and the way that … We did a couple episodes … how frustrating kids can be when they work really fast or really slow. I actually think sometimes speed is a part of it. You see a kid who, in 45 minutes, let’s a say a typical class period, just bust out this really well rendered acrylic painting. You’re just like, “Dang. How did you do that?”

Then the really freaky thing … You might see your, quote, unquote, good student who could do that in a week’s time and they’re really focused and diligent, and this kid is just talking and shooting the breeze. They’re kind of working on it. Then you ask those kids, “Hey, have you ever done acrylic painting before?” “No, not really.” It’s like, “What the crap? You are just a natural at this.” I do believe that some people are just naturally gifted at certain things. You can tell those kids who gravitate more towards three-dimensional material or are natural at that. If you give them a piece of clay and you’re just like, “Have you ever sculpted a human head before?” They’re like, “No, this is the first time I’ve ever done it,” and it’s better than you could do. You just see these things the longer you teach that are just really abnormal and outside your normal set of expectations.

Tim: I think raises an interesting point, too, because you talk about just giving kids clay or just the first time kids are touching the material, whether it’d be paint, clay, whatever, and you just realize that they’re thinking, maybe not on a different level, but at least differently than everyone else is. Where when I’m teaching sculpture, when I’m teaching ceramics, it’s really difficult to get kids to think in three dimensions. They have to transfer their thinking from everything being flat to actually being in the round, and that’s really difficult. Every once in while I get those kids where it’s just instantaneous. It’s natural for them even if they’ve never done that before, which is a pretty cool thing. Or like you said, if they’re really putting down paint in an amazing way even though they’ve never done that before, you know there’s that natural talent or that inherent talent. That’s always interesting to me.

If I can shift that into a question for you, I guess, when you see that with a kid, whatever material it may be, how do you adapt your teaching, or how do you start to adapt your curriculum to those incredibly talented students?

Andrew: That’s a really good question. It’s something that I’ve debated back and forth. I actually want to circle back, and then I’ll come back to this question. It does happen every once in a while where you get duped by a student and you think that they’re maybe … oh my gosh, this kid’s a prodigy. Then you realize, oh no, they’ve just been drawing dragons for their entire life. If I tell them that they can’t draw dragons, they’re not … You know what I mean? Is it …

Tim: Yeah. They’re not interested, and all of a sudden they’re not good anymore?

Andrew: I actually think that’s one of the jobs as an art teacher is when you work with a kid who is outside of your expectation to push them outside of their comfort zone. Some of it may be like, “Listen. You’re crazy good at drawing in an anime style or calligraphy or these original characters or whatever, but let’s try to do observational drawing.” If they struggle at that, then you’re like, “Okay, you’re still an amazing student and you’re an amazing kid and you have some great skills,” but maybe that’s more a product of just tons and tons of hard work and commitment and time spent on this thing that you love. That is definitely to be applauded.

Now I think you know that you have a really exceptional and talented student when you push them out of their comfort zone and they do something for the first time, and they still knock it out of the park. Let’s talk about that kid. I have two different ways that I think about this. I don’t know. I kind of fluctuate between both of them. I think it probably depends on the kid. I also think it depends on your district.

One of the things is I actually think art self-differentiates. I think we’ve said this before, I think, on a podcast back a while ago that artwork and weightlifting in a weird way are similar. That a kid who is, quote, unquote, weaker will lift a smaller amount of weight and be exhausted at the end of the workout. A kid that is, quote, unquote, stronger lifting heavier weights, also exhausted. So they’re both exhausted. They’ve both spent all their energy. It’s just the stronger kid has stronger artwork or lifted more weights in this analogy. Then I also think … but hold on a second. If we accelerate students in math and science, like, “Oh my god, this kid’s a phenom; get up him up to pre-calculus already by the time they’re in eighth grade,” Why don’t we do that in art? There’s something to me that thinks we should be doing that in art because I think that that shows that we’re a legitimate skill set, knowledge-based sort of thing.

Here’s where I think it depends on the kid. Are they ready for that emotionally, behaviorally, all of that stuff? Then also I think I have an interesting perspective as a middle school teacher. I know that I’m going to be sending my kids on. Are you convinced that the next level teacher can challenge them better than you can in your own classroom? Sometimes I think the answer is, “Yes.” It’s like, “By all means, you need to go somewhere else so you can really focus and push yourself on something that I cannot provide.” Sometimes it’s actually I can self-differentiate or differentiate in my classroom better than even the teachers at the next level, so you’re actually better served staying with me and I’ll modify my curriculum. I’ll make my projects more challenging. I’ll maybe have you do a set so that you’re exploring a theme throughout an ongoing thing. I don’t know. That’s the longest answer, which is basically it depends on the kid, and it depends on your situation.

Tim: You brought up a couple good points that I want to touch on. I think one is just art does such a good job of self-differentiation. If you do have a kid that is truly exceptional, do you really need to move them on? For me, I fall toward the latter half of your argument where, in your own classroom, you know this kid, and there’s so much more out there that you can provide for them, you can show them, you can get for them. Where if it is the math comparison, you don’t have time to individually teach pre-calc to a kid sitting in that classroom even if you know it. Because art lends itself to that, you really can open up so many doors for kids where they may not need to move on to something else or to move on to a different space because I think you can do that yourself as a teacher. Circling way back around, you talked for a long time so …

Andrew: I did. I ran with it.

Tim: … you may not even remember when you first made this point. I want to ask you about pushing kids and asking them to take risks or to try new things. In my experience, if kids are really, really gifted, either academically or artistically, there’s a really high chance that they haven’t faced a lot of challenges, or they haven’t taken a lot of risks just because everything has always come so easy to them. How do you push kids to take those risks but make sure that you don’t push them too far?

Andrew: I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten close to feeling like I’ve pushed a kid too far because for the most part the last five, six years of … Well, even going back further than that. I mostly work with eighth and ninth graders. I do think you could run the risk of if you’re too much of a tyrant, like, “I’m pushing you, and this is for your own good!” He’s like, “I’m out of here. Man, screw art. I’m not taking art next year in high school.” I don’t know.

I think, again, it gets to each individual kid and what are they receptive to and giving them weird curve balls. Like I want you to use this unusual material. I want you to paint or draw with a super gigantic paintbrush so you know what it feels like to not always have control. Or I want you to take your ugliest painting, and I want you to flip it upside down and make it something completely new. I think, like you said, some of our kids who are high achieving, talented and gifted, they haven’t had to deal with adversity and setback, and they may not know how to do that. Some of these kids are really Type A personality, so giving them these curve balls that you know that they are going to struggle with is really good for them.

Now, man, this is so in the weeds right now, and I’m going to sound like the nerdiest art teacher in the world. The last week I’ve given my students five days of very little direct-guided instruction other than I want you to experiment with India ink and bamboo brushes. I showed them hatching, I showed them crosshatches, and I showed them washes. I said, “I don’t want you to work on your final for a really long time. I just want you to play with this stuff.” I think that sort of approach even, just for one whole week you cannot do anything that you have a preconceived notion or idea of what it’s going to be. I just want you to play. That could really mind-bend a high achieving student.

The reason I said this sounds really nerdy is that’s directly tied to one of the new national core art standards. I think it’s at the eighth grade level in creating … Can your students create artwork without a preconceived notion? It’s been fantastic to watch. Some of my students, like, “Oh, look at what this turned into in one class period.” I’m like, “That’s awesome. You didn’t know 35 minutes ago that you were going to make that thing.” That approach could be really good also for some of our high achieving, talented kids.

Tim: I like that. I think it’s a really good point and just allowing them to explore and make those connections on their own is vitally important. Because that’s what creativity is is just making new connections, and giving them the time and the space to do that is, I think, really effective. I want to go back to the first part of your answer talking about throwing kids curve balls and making them think in new ways. I think that just needs to come with the caveat that you’re going to support kids the entire way throughout that process. You can’t just set up them up to fail. Like, “Hey, try this out. Good luck.” You need to be there to encourage them, to help them, to scaffold learning, to really build them up to that. I don’t think that you can just throw that at them and just leave them be. Am I right on that, or do you disagree with me?

Andrew: I take them out into the woods, and I let them get lost a little bit. I actually told them that. On day one or day two, I heard one or two students go, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing right now.” I said, “I think that’s fantastic,” because I think … I did bring them back in the fold by the end of the class period or by the end of the week and we kind of, “Hey, look at how you’ve grown. Look at how this has gotten better.” Man, I told my students, I said, “Listen, I think way too often we, as teachers, force feed you guys all the answers, all the directions, all the recipes. We don’t have enough opportunities in our educational life where you guys get lost and have to figure your own way out.”

Now, right, I’m in the classroom. I’m here to answer your questions if you’re like, “How can I make it look like this?” But I want you to figure that out. There’s a great quote that I don’t remember because I’m not that type of guy who remembers quotes. I believe it’s by Buckminster Fuller. He talks about the importance for humanity to every once in a while get lost and come up with your own solutions and your own way out of the problem. That’s been like a mantra of mine or a driving force for a few years now.

Tim: I like that. Have you ever had it backfire on you? Do you ever have kids that, quote, unquote, get lost and then just shut themselves down? Have you lost a kid because of that?

Andrew: No, I haven’t because, like I said, I’m not just listening to my music off to the side, and like, “Don’t bother me right now. You’re getting lost. I want you to get lost right now.” I’m there. I try to be very present and receptive to when I can feel the frustration start to become overwhelming, and it becomes, “I want to give up now.” I have to intervene well before that happens. Man, I have a number of students that are very Type A personality. Now, some of them are gifted. Some of them I would say are not. They’re good students but average in their abilities. Man, Type A students every once in a while need to get, to coin a phrase of the day, shook a little bit and shake up how they do things and approach things different. I think it’s really good for them.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. If we can wrap this up, tell me if I’m correct in thinking this, your advice for teachers would be that they need to relax and change things up, and they also need to convince their students to relax and change things up as well?

Andrew: That’s one approach. Let’s circle all the way back. This is not even a 360.

Tim: I was trying to end the show, Andrew. Come on.

Andrew: This is like a 720. If we’re talking about acceleration, if you know your district and you know your students well and if you know that their needs will be better met elsewhere, I say go for it. I’m all for it. But I think you have to clearly define and lay out here’s our expectation of what a student needs to be achieving at a high level, a mastery level, and then they can move on. One of the things, and I’ve had this happen in the past, it drives me crazy, that often happens with our accelerated students, and I know I’ve been guilty of this time to time and I gave you a sneak peak of this early on when I started talking is, “Hey, you’re really talented. Do more.”

Doing more is actually just a punishment for kids who are gifted. Like, “Hey, you’re so good at this I’m going to punish you by making you do more stuff.” Now, if that’s the way your approach feels to the kids, then you’ve really stepped in it. Now, they may be the type of student, hopefully, that’s like, “Hey, I’m done with this project. I want to do my own thing.” Those kids are awesome, and they’re golden. I do think if you want to accelerate them on and move them on to the next level, you just have to have that clearly defined.

Tim: Yeah, I think so. I think you hit on a good point where, no matter what approach you take, you need make sure that you’re keeping kids motivated and that you’re keeping kids interested in what’s going on.

Andrew: Very true.

Tim: Cool, all right. Well, I think that will be a good point for us to wrap up the show then. Thanks for joining me. Yeah, it’s been good talking to you.

Andrew: Yeah, my pleasure man. This is a good chemistry. I ramble and you sum up in a much more eloquent way …

Tim: Yeah…

Andrew: … so we’ve got this figured out.

Tim: We should try that more often. That was an interesting conversation because I think you were able to hear a couple different opinions. Andrew is more on the side of differentiation is going to take care of itself in the art room. I definitely think that, as teachers, we need to be a lot more intentional about what we’re doing and where we are going. Whatever you fall, I hope that we were able to share some insight into what has worked for us before in our classrooms. As I mentioned in the beginning, I wanted to take a big picture look at the topic. If you want to dive into the specifics a little bit more, check out the articles I mentioned in the introduction. They’re on the AOE website, and we’ll link them in the show notes as well. I also direct you to a couple additional articles with some really good suggestions and ideas.

Before I wrap things up, though, I want to tell you about an awesome AOE course which is called, “Reaching All Artists Through Differentiation.” If this discussion today has interested you, this course is going to interest you as well. It’s not just about accelerating or working with your most talented students. It’s about differentiating for all of your students no matter what level they are. Summer is the perfect time to dive into a grad course, or even if you just need PD hours, this is a great opportunity. If you hurry, there’s a new section opening up in May, so you have about the rest of this week to get to it. We also have new courses that are starting in June, July, and August. You can check out the www.theartofed.com/courses to find out more.

Now, like I said, I hope that our discussion today has given you some insight into our mindset and some of the best ways that you can help your talented students. Again, if you go back to what I said in the beginning and in the conversation, we need to move beyond that busywork or that extra work that we’re giving the kids. There are specific strategies to help your students. More than that, you need to be able to provide them with opportunities that are interesting and motivating, because a talented kid who is engaged with their work, and I mean really, truly engaged, might just end up doing some things that are better than you ever could have imagined.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Remember that you can sign up for our email list at artedradio.com. Also, I want to remind you that you can always email Andrew and me at radioguys@theartofed.com. Our inbox has been flooded after the past few shows with questions, with critiques, and with just some simple comments. We appreciate them all. It’s really great to know the different ways people are connecting with the show and that our discussions are helpful for so many people. Thank you for listening.

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.