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What is the art challenge initiative? It’s a great way to get your kids working on their skills dealing with problem-solving, creativity, and higher-order thinking. Today’s guest, Elise Weiler-Korb, is a high school teacher that uses a plethora of challenges to help develop those skills as part of her kids’ artmaking process. She and Tim discuss the different forms challenges can take (6:00), why developing confidence is vital (10:00), and her best advice on how and where teachers should begin utilizing challenges (13:30). Full episode transcript below.
Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for our teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz. Today I want to talk to you about some ideas in the art room, some ways for you to think differently and do things differently and, more importantly, some ways for you to get your kids thinking differently.
I’m going to be talking about some creative exercises, focus on the art-making process rather than the end result and the product because I know it’s easier for us to focus on the endproduct so much. We know about all of the pressures that can cause us to focus on product. We also talk ad nauseam about finding the balance between process and product. You know teachers who are concerned with that, a lot of times pay lip service to working on the process without actually doing much with it. They talk a lot about how and why process is important, but can’t really elaborate on how they help their kids develop and refine their art-making process.
Today’s guest, though, has found a really nice balance. She teaches a lot of different subjects, and I wanted to talk to her today because I think she’s doing a lot of things in just the right way.
Elise: Hi. My name is Elise Weiler-Korbin. I’m a high school art teacher ar Berrien Springs Public Schools. I’m going into my seventh year teaching high school art. I teach Art I, II and sometimes I get lucky and I have an advanced class. But I always get to teach ceramics. I’m really excited to be here today.
Tim: Elise has a lot of experience with different media and teaching different levels. What’s cool about a lot of her ideas is that they can apply across levels and across disciplines. Her kids that are in ceramics are learning things that apply to drawing, and her kids that are in drawing are learning things that apply to painting. Her kids that are in painting are learning things that apply to sculpture which, when you put all that together, I think is vital for teachers, especially when they’re in that same type of position.
When I first started teaching high school, I was running the department solo. I wish I would have known enough back then to have been doing the types of things that Elise is doing in her classroom now. One of the ways that Elise helps develop her students’ focus on process is through what she calls the Art Challenge Initiative. It’s a really cool set of ideas that, like I said, focuses a lot on developing skills like creativity, brainstorming, new ways of thinking, and, most importantly, problem-solving. That’s where the idea of the Challenge comes in. They are a set of exercises that develops students’ problem-solving in a really unique way. That’s gonna be the focus of a lot of our conversation today.
I want to have her talk about how she develops creativity and, with her kids, how she challenges them to become better problem-solvers and how she helps develop each of their individual art-making processes with these challenges that she does. Now what I especially like is that she has a very clear vision of how these ideas fit into the bigger picture of what we’re trying to teach in the art room. I’ll let her explain a little bit more about that as we get into the discussion. I’ll let her explain a little bit more about the Art Challenge Initiative and how you may want to try out some of these ideas in your own classroom.
I’ll bring her on in just a minute but before we get to Elise, I want to talk to you about Art Ed PRO. As you probably know, Art Ed PRO is the subscription service for professional art teachers that’s offered by The Art of Ed. Just last week we released three new learning packs. One’s on watercolor painting. One is on color theory, and one is on using games in the art room. All of them are great, and all of them are really, really in depth. Each of the three learning packs has between 15 and 20 videos, and all of them also have at least 10 resources that you can print immediately and use in your classroom. PRO members get three of these new learning packs every single month, and you have 24/7 access to every learning packet in the library. Sign-up for your free, 30-day trial and check everything out at ArtEdPro.com. But before you go sign-up, you have a podcast interview to finish listening to, so let me bring on Elise and we will get our discussion going.
Elise, it is good to have you here. How are you today?
Elise: I’m doing great. How about you?
Tim: I am great. Thank you. Now I want to start with a big picture view to introduce everybody to what we’re talking about today. Can you explain what these Art Challenges are, why you use them in your classroom, and what you want students to learn from them?
Elise: Sure. I use Art Challenges in my room as a way for students to apply critical thinking skills and to develop problem-solving skills. I really want them to face the problems that they may encounter during actual art-making, but I want them to be purposeful when I do the Art Challenges. This way they can start developing those skills and when they work on a real piece of art, they already have some of those skills. They don’t get frustrated and crumble it up into a ball or just give up. It’s really about developing self-confidence though problem-solving.
Tim: Good. I like that idea. I think that’s a challenge that a lot of teachers face. How do we develop that skill in our students?
Tim: How do we get them better at that? If we can talk a little bit more specifically though, can you explain what might one of these challenges look like? Because I guess I’m interested in the form that they take? Are they full-blown projects in and of themselves? Are they just a smaller idea as part of the bigger picture or both? Can you give me an example or two of what you might do for one of your challenges?
Elise: Yes. They are big projects, but they’re also sometimes smaller activities. I usually start that way anyway just to start the idea of an Art Challenge and what it is and just work my way towards something bigger. Sometimes it has to do with just basically the needs of the class, what we’re working on. If I notice, “Man, they’re really struggling with this idea. I’ve already covered it. What’s another way to explore it?” I really like that idea of exploratory learning and this really allows for that. Some of the smaller activities may just be a one or two-day thing.
For example, one of The Art of Ed writers posted something about making your skin tone from just using the three primary colors-
Elise: … with plus white. I did something like that. It was a one to two-day thing. But then sometimes I go into bigger things. For example, a bigger project might have a very specific set of objectives like you have to have a purposeful color scheme. You have to have a focal point, which are just normal objectives. But then come the purposeful Art Challenges. One of my favorite ones is the Found Object Challenge. I introduce students to the idea of the Found Object. This is basically an Art I project. Then they have to bring something in, and then I put it into a bag and everybody randomly selects it. Then they have to incorporate it into their piece, find a way to do it that makes the piece flow so it’s just not randomly put somewhere. I don’t answer questions about, “Oh, can I break this? What can I do with this?” I want the students to figure out what to do with it.
Another one that I do that’s pretty popular and fun but also very agonizing to the students is the Random Mark Challenge. This is supposed to mimic when a student might get paint on another student’s piece or something like that. Instead of just covering it up with Gesso, they have to work back into it. I go around the room and I take a paint brush, and I make a random black mark on the student’s artwork on a big project. They have to make that become part of the piece. That’s always really exciting and amazingly enough it always seems to help the piece rather than hurt it. It’s always fun when they said, “Oh, don’t do it to this part.” Of course, you know I do it to that part because that’s what you have to do. That’s always a really fun one. Sometimes when I have a group of advanced kids in the room who have already done something similar, I let them go around and make the marks, and I just supervise and that’s really fun, too.
Those are just a couple of purposeful Art Challenges I do for a big project. It just really depends on what your students need.
Tim: All right. I like that. I feel like I need to ask about this though because I think the Mark Making Challenge there is gonna be controversial because I know a lot of people are very concerned about ever touching a kid’s artwork. You’re deliberately messing that up. Can you talk a little bit about how kids react and why you like to add that Challenge in a little bit more?
Elise: Well, before you begin anything like this, you have to tell your students that this is about your process as an artist. It’s not going to be your most amazing piece. It’s about solving the Art Challenges. They need to be brave. They need to just give it a shot and be a little bit open-minded, and just remind them that you’re doing this because you want them to grow as an artist. I don’t I’ve ever had a kid who’s completely gone crazy with this one because it ends up being really fun. Kids are laughing. Kids are moaning, “Oh,” but it’s all really a good time. Like I said, strangely enough, this always seems to work out. I use a watered down acrylic or an ink so it kind of is really flowy.
Elise: I’m really upbeat when I do it. It’s just about the way I present it. It’s always seemed to work out for me.
Tim: All right. Then, if I can just follow up on that, I guess, talking about that idea of confidence that you just mentioned. Does that confidence make kids more willing to work through the problems they encounter? Are they more confident in the art-making process and so they’re able to tackle those problems that come up during the art-making time?
Elise: Oh, definitely because I really try to make them feel like an independent artist. That’s my goal. If something happens, which obviously it is happening, I’m the last person that they should ask for help for. I want them to try to figure it out on themselves, ask their peers. I really want them to just start exploring things. Go around the room. Look in art books. Talk to some other people. Sometimes I’ll even ask a kid from another class for them, but I don’t just give them the answer. But when they figure the answer out for themselves, it’s that ah-ha moment that it’s so famous in teaching, then they start to become more confident. Then they start to enjoy the class more, especially for those who don’t typically want to take art. It’s really helpful for them and of those students who are really into art, but they maybe have one way of thinking about their art-making or stuck in one media. It pushes them out, too, when they realize, “Hey, I can do other things.” They see that they’ve grown as well. It works really well for all different types of levels of art students.
Tim: Yeah. I love that, and I love the idea of pushing kids beyond what they’re really used to.
Elise: Me, too. I tell them every year, “I will challenge you.” I put it right in my syllabus.
Tim: That’s awesome. That brings up a question for me though. Do you ever get pushback from kids, those kids who don’t want to be pushed as much, where they’re not wanting to do the challenge or being upset at having to face something new? How do you deal with kids who have that reaction?
Elise: It has happened, of course. Not as much as you might think. I think that setting it up to begin with as this is an Art Challenge. This is what we’re doing. This is why we’re doing it. Letting kids know that you’re not trying to ruin their artwork. You’re trying to make them become a better artist goes a long way. I have had a couple of students that just flat-out refused to do something. I just tell them, “Okay, but you’re the one who really is losing by doing this.” Sometimes, once they realize that their friends are doing it in class and that it’s okay, then they come around.
I’m flexible as a teacher, of course, so we always have to be flexible. I’ve made accommodations for certain students and say, “Okay. Well, then let’s try to do this Art Challenge instead.” That seems to help, just giving them a little bit of power if they need it. But I think overall I’ve been pretty successful in getting kids just to try it. I think it’s just because of the way I present it and my personality. They know that I’m doing it to help them grow as an artist.
Tim: Yeah. I think all of those things are really important. I think that the proactive approach is huge. Andrew and I talk about that all the time. I think being flexible as a teacher is important-
Elise: Yes it is.
Tim: … because where you’re asking the kids to do that, so you need to do that as well. Then giving kids some input as well-
Elise: Yeah, definitely.
Tim: … so I think those are three really good take-aways there. But, yeah, I think we probably need to wrap it up here. One last question for you. If you were to give advice to teachers about trying an Art Challenge, what would you tell them? Where can they start? Where would you suggest people begin?
Elise: Well, first of all, you really need to start building some positive relationships with your students, gaining their trust so they know that you’re doing this because you want them to grow. You’re not just doing it to rip up their artwork at anything silly. There’s a reason for it. Building relationships, of course, is so important because you’re showing them that you care. That’s the first thing.
Secondly, I would start with some smaller projects just to get them used to the idea. Start using the phrase Art Challenge in maybe a goofy way just so it sticks in their head. I have even made some Art Challenge T-shirts that I wear to school. “What’s that?” I’ve students who’ve wanted to make them as well. Not about making some and selling them. At school actually would be a good idea. Before you do a full-out project, do some small ones definitely.
Thirdly, you need to be transparent with your students. Let them know that this big project will come with Art Challenges. Remind them the intent of the piece, the reason why they’re doing it. It’s not to make them have an ugly piece. It’s to help them grow. Don’t tell them what the challenges are before you do them though because they will anticipate them. They’re very clever and they can get real sneaky, and they try to find solutions before you’ve even done it. Just remember, don’t tell them. Be encouraging and let them find solutions for themselves.
I guess, lastly, be brave with your Art Challenge projects. They’re not viewed as typical art room protocol for some districts. I had an intern and she was like, “Mm, this is interesting.” I’m like, “Yeah.” Then once we got into it, she was like, “Wow, this is really cool.” It’s atypical for some people. They’re really worth it though. Students start to identify themselves as an artist even those that cannot draw realistically. Oh my gosh. They gain confidence and have fun. Really I don’t know what more you could ask for when you’re teaching art.
Tim: Oh, that’s perfect. That’s perfect. Cool. I think that’s a great place to close things out. Elise, thank you very much for joining me today.
Elise: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Tim: All right. We’ll talk to you again soon.
Elise: Okay. Bye.
Tim: Now I hope that you found this idea of Art Challenges worthwhile. I hope they are something that you would consider bringing into our classroom. I hope that at least this advice helps you get started with them with your own students. Actually, if you have any questions about how to get started with them or you need some specific ideas or initiatives and challenges or really just want to talk-out some things, Elise has been kind enough to offer up her help. If you want to contact her, I will put her contact information in the show notes that you can find on The Art of Ed website. She is more than happy to help you answer any questions you have and share her ideas with anyone who might be interested. She’ll even be happy to discuss why she thinks it’s okay to spill ink on her students’ artwork. Seriously, though, I thought it was very kind of her to offer to help. If you are interested in diving a little deeper or learning a little bit more, I would encourage you to take advantage of her offer.
But in the bigger picture of things, like I said in the introduction, these challenges are an incredible way to help your students dive deep into the art-making process, develop the skills they need, the habits, the problem-solving skills, the resilience, the grit, all of those qualities that we see in our best art students.
To close, I just want to encourage you one last time to try out one or maybe a few of these Art Challenges with your class. As Elise said, they’re a great way to develop process, develop problem-solving skills, develop all the things that you want your students to develop in your class. Because if you’ve got students that appreciate the process, that appreciate problem-solving and are good at problem-solving, they appreciate working hard and appreciate developing skill, what more do you really need?
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. We always love to hear from you, so send us your questions, comments, and anything else you want to share to: Radioguys@TheArtofEd.com. Don’t forget to checkout Art Ed PRO and sign-up for your free trial at ArtEdPro.com.
Andrew will have a great interview next week with AOE writer Kelly Phillips talking about the good, the bad, and the ugly of moving to choice-based teaching. It is a discussion that’ll be worth hearing. We’ll see you then.