Challenges to Foster Creativity (Ep. 352)

Ahead of next week’s NOW Conference, Kristina Brown joins Tim to talk about her upcoming presentations on creative challenges and her favorite photographic processes. Listen as they discuss how students respond to different creative challenges, what kinds of skills can be developed, and how challenges can help collaboration and build a sense of community.  Full episode transcript below.

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

I have a new guest today and her name is Kristina Brown. She is a teacher in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and she is going to be a presenter at the NOW Conference at the end of next week.

Now, one of my favorite parts of doing the NOW Conference is bringing new ideas to everyone who attends and letting new teachers introduce themselves and their ideas to everyone at the conference. I’m very excited that Kristina will be a presenter and will be a part of this. She has a couple of awesome ideas to share about creativity challenges and photography and so much more.

We’ll talk more about them with her in just a minute, but first I need to give you all of the information you need to know about the NOW Conference. As I said next weekend, the NOW Conference kickoff is Friday, January 27th. The main event is Saturday, the 28th. And the last day, that Asynchronous Day of Learning is Sunday the 29th. We have a lot of great presenters, a lot of fun things planned, and just a great three days of art making, of connecting with other art teachers, being a part of the art teaching community and improving yourself as a teacher and as a professional. It is an incredible time and I really hope you can make it. But right now we have a guest to get to and she just happens to be one of those aforementioned great presenters.

All right, I am here with Kristina Brown. Kristina, welcome to the show. How are you?

Kristina: I’m doing fantastic. Thank you so much for asking. How about yourself?

Tim: I am doing well also. As I said at the beginning of the show, I’m really excited to introduce you to everybody, have you present at the NOW Conference and just share some of your awesome ideas that you have. But I guess first, can we start with just an introduction? Can you tell us a little bit about you, about your teaching? Just whatever you want to share.

Kristina: Absolutely. I am, Christina and I have been teaching for the past eight years. My most recent years have been at the high school level. I have a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in photography. And so mainly my classes that I teach are digital photography, graphic design, and advanced placement 2D design. So my classroom is pretty digital centered except for the multimedia and mixed media projects for my advanced kids, but that’s kind of how my schedule is and my background.

Tim: All right, very cool. Now I want to talk to you about creativity challenges. That’s going to be your presentation in the main event at the NOW Conference. So I guess first question about creativity challenges, what are they? And then can you talk about, I guess, just how you started doing them, why they’re important to you or important part of your classroom and maybe just give a couple examples of different challenges that you’ve done before?

Kristina: Yeah. So creativity challenges essentially are impromptu activities. Well, I plan them on my end, but to the students they are impromptu. Usually they’re timed, so there’s a short amount of time for them to complete them. And honestly, you ask that question of where they originated, and I had to actually think back where in the world did these creativity challenges begin because I’ve been doing them for so long and I realized they started before I was teaching. Me and my brother, who’s an artist, he’s a graphic designer, but when we we’re younger and we were out and about, we would do these challenges called Who can do it better? We would point at a random object or go to a random spot, and we had 20 seconds to both photograph the same thing.

Tim: Nice.

Kristina: And so it was just a little impromptu competition we would kind of go through. It was so much fun because it forced you to create something with a tiny bit of competition. I realized how much fun that was, and I brought it into my secondary photography classes when I started teaching here five years ago. And that’s how simple they were when they started was, “Okay, we’re all going to go to a random place that Ms. Brown takes us. Now we’re going to photograph the wood palette.” And it forces students to figure out how to create art with something very mundane because in the photography industry, you have to photograph things and make them look beautiful regardless of what it actually looks like in real life. And so that’s kind of where it all started, which I think is really neat to backtrack that far.

The two challenges that I can briefly talk about that I have done recently too are the abstract paper challenge, which is just giving students a blank sheet of paper and their task is to make it not look like paper. So that takes a whole class period from introduction to shooting to editing and uploading. The other one is a group challenge where students have to… They work in small groups of three to four and they’re all given a bin of the same objects. Normally I like to include a light source, some sort of light manipulator, like a CD or a light gel and maybe a handful of objects. The group is in charge of making the most unique photograph with the materials that they’re given. So right off the bat, those two come to mind because they’re usually pretty successful and students have high engagement with those.

Tim: Yeah. I really love both of those ideas. Actually your comment about engagement kind of leads me to my next question. My curiosity is just about how kids respond to the challenges. Are these things that they enjoy? Do they get excited when you’re introducing challenges?

Kristina: I think the challenges are so much fun because for the most part, I have a high-level end of engagement, especially towards the middle or end part of the year once the students have fostered a community within the classroom. So the challenges become competitive. It is so much fun to watch because you also have your students who may not normally shine with the big projects and they kind of pull pull forward like a dark horse. So it also allows a break from the monotonous two-week long project and then we’ll start planning again. So the challenges allow them a break of that and it allows them to think outside the box very quickly without all the planning and overthinking that happens with the big project sometimes.

Tim: Yeah. So how often do you introduce these? Is it just in between bigger projects? Is it just when you feel like it? Or is there a schedule?

Kristina: That’s a great question. It’s kind of all over the place. So first thing is usually it’s when I feel students are in creative rets. So if I feel the environment or the… As artists, we all get in creative ret cyclically, right?

Tim: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Kristina: So if I can tell overall we’re all running kind of on low fuel, I’ll switch it up with a creative challenge for the day, or I like to throw them in after big long projects or maybe just at the end of a grading period so we can all take a breather.

Tim: Okay. Okay, that sounds awesome. Yeah, I feel like that’s a great way to apply those. I know everybody who’s listening to this is probably thinking like, “When do I break them out? How much is too much?” And so no, I think that’s some good advice. And obviously we talk all the time about getting our kids to be more creative, help them develop their creative thinking skills. So what kind of skills are you seeing them develop when you are doing these creativity challenges? What are kids learning from them?

Kristina: With these creativity challenges, I find that first thing is problem solving. Right off the bat, you’re given a certain amount of variables and you have to solve that problem. And so that’s a big one. But the second one is collaboration especially with the challenges that involve group work. We all, I guess, traditionally don’t really group work.

Tim: Right. I am one of those people too.

Kristina: Exactly. And so luckily with these challenges, it’s not a long-term thing, so they’re not stuck with this group for very long, but I allow them to organically fall into their roles. So with group challenges specifically, it mimics the real world photography studio where you will have a lead, you’ll have an assistant, you’ll have an intern who’s really good at sweeping. You’ll have every type of role in there and they fall organically in there. And so seeing the collaboration and the problem solving socially is a big skill that I think is gained. And then lastly is the direct application of learning. From what we have learned through the year up into that challenge, they are able to apply how to light, how to set up, how to compose, all of that immediately instead of filling out like a worksheet. So I think it’s another activity that you can observe the direct application of learning that we have throughout the year.

Tim: Okay. That’s really cool. And yeah, I think any chances that you have, like you said, to get kids collaborating I think is good. Any chances to help develop those skills or transfer those skills, that’s always going to be really worthwhile, I think.

Kristina: Absolutely.

Tim: I also wanted to ask you, just thinking from like a curriculum perspective or a finished work perspective, when you do these challenges or when kids are doing these challenges, have you ever had a really good project develop, like you started it as a creativity challenge and then it turns into a project? Or have you had just kids do a great individual work? Are there ever creativity challenges that lead to things that go in their AP portfolio, things like that? So I guess I’m asking 14 things at once, right? I guess just thinking, what kind of end results are you getting and what are you seeing from your kids when they’re doing these things?

Kristina: Absolutely. So yes to all your 14 questions, but yes. So the one that I’ll elaborate on is absolutely students have continued from the challenges as it possibly sparks an idea for them. So they may follow through on a full series based off the one prompt that they experienced for the challenge. Many of the artworks that come from these end up competing in our UIL competitions and forwarding to state. They also end up in their portfolios, which is why I won’t stop doing them.

Tim: Yeah. I mean, that’s the challenge when you’re teaching AP, right, is just fighting all those little niche projects, little things that can round out the portfolio, but yeah.

Kristina: Absolutely. I love the idea of just taking those projects, those prompts, those ideas and kids getting inspiration from them and exploring those things further. That’s got to be a great feeling as a teacher, I think. My mind is just kind of racing of like how this can be done not just with photography, but also withdrawing or really quick sculptures or whatever you teach. I feel like there are just so many possibilities out there.

Absolutely. I think it’s easily adaptable to any type of art classroom, just a little tweaking. But with AP, I have students in here that aren’t photography and maybe they’re drawers or painters and we’ll do little doodle challenges here and there. So it’s easily adaptable just with a little tweaking for sure.

Tim: Yeah, that’s awesome. Like I said, so many possibilities, and I think that’s great. I also want to talk about, since we are just a couple weeks away from the NOW Conference here, you’re not only doing the creativity challenges presentation in the main event, you’re also doing an afterpass presentation that people can get to after the fact with some really cool photography techniques. Can you just, I guess, share about each of the techniques or methods, whatever you want to call them, that you’re going to be presenting and talk about how you do each of them with your students?

Kristina: Yes. So my afterpass video for the conference is essentially about alternative processes, which is actually the unit we’re in right now in my class.

Tim: Nice. Good timing.

Kristina: Yes, I feel that the alternative processes is a great segue for the students because they do get bored with digital photography after a while and they get to learn about the traditional mediums that started it all. So the first… Well, I guess I can say the three processes that I do discuss are cyanotypes, pinhole, construction and development, and acetone transfers. And so cyanotypes briefly are sun prints. With my students or within the video, I discuss the chemicals that I use for the cyanotypes as well as the different ways that I introduce it. I go from actually having the students pretreat their surfaces. That way they have full artistic autonomy with how they want their cyanotypes to look. Or you can also buy pretreated materials. It depends on what works best for you in your classroom.

Tim: Right.

Kristina: And so with my introductory students, I usually only allow them to use found objects such as leaves, anything flat that they think would transfer well on a sun print. The advanced students actually get to print negatives for their cyanotypes if that’s what they choose to do.

Tim: Oh, cool. Cool.

Kristina: The downside to cyanotypes though is depending on the weather.

Tim: Right.

Kristina: It’s raining in your area. You may not be able to go outside and print unless you have a sun box. So that’s the one downfall of cyanotypes.

So pinhole photography and construction, I go through how to build a pinhole camera all the way through how to expose your photograph and how to develop it. I actually converted my storage room into a dark room for my students for this project.

Tim: Nice.

Kristina: Which is a huge undertaking, but I think it’s totally worth it to allow the students to, I hate to say to find the romance in photography, but developing in a dark room is something that I feel is lost with digital photography because the process of creating your camera to exposing it and developing it is a long process. It’s not instantaneous.

Tim: Right.

Kristina: Well, with any of these processes, it’s not instantaneous. So it allows the students to take full responsibility and autonomy for their final tangible object, which is alternative processes.

Tim: Yeah. So sorry, I need to interrupt and talk about myself as I always do on this podcast, right?

Kristina: No, please.

Tim: But no, I think the whole dark room thing is another entire discussion. We could do multiple podcasts on that. But I was just going to say romanticizing is probably a good word for it because I think a lot of us that grew up spending a lot of time in the darkroom really miss that. But I was just remembering back to my very first introduction to photography class in high school. Very first project we did was a pinhole camera, and I had a little can of oatmeal, like oats or something like that. Yeah, I used that to make a pinhole camera. And from that day, I was just fascinated. You just see that process and then you develop it and I was like, “This is incredible.” I was hooked on photography ever since. So like I said, there is sort of that romantic feeling to it, but I love that you’re doing that with your kids because it is just a fascinating process, and I love seeing them be able to do that. So I think that’s pretty cool. Wow.

Kristina: Yes, it’s one of my favorites. Whenever I break it down, I’m so sad. Or the storage closet when I break it down and it’s a regular storage closet after that, I’m like, “Well, I’ll see you next year.”

Tim: Yeah, it’s fun for a little bit. Anyway, I’m sorry to get the conversation off the rails there, but what was the last process that you were going to share?

Kristina: And so the last process is acetone transfer. So I think this is a nice mix between photography and printmaking. But it is essentially taking a Xerox or laser jet print with that specific type of toner and using a solvent. So you can use Citra Solv or acetone depending on the toxicity you feel like working with. It essentially dissolves your print onto another surface, which is then waterproof. So students are able to appropriate images online to create their own original artworks from that, or even print out their own images and transfer them to another surface such as wood, fabric, paper. And then further, toning the paper either with coffee, painting back into the artwork or even just drawing back into the acetone transfer. So again, this is another unit that students have really enjoyed especially if they’re cross-curricular artists. So I have my photographers, but they also love to draw and they love to paint and create and collage. So seeing their eyes light up to transferring, to adding all the other mediums has been a lot of fun to watch.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool. That’s another great process, and I love that, again, your kids are able to do that. I’m super excited that you’re sharing all of these ideas in the afterpass so people can kind of check them out and see if anything’s going to work for them.

Kristina: Of course.

Tim: All right, I think that probably does it for us. So Kristina, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I loved talking to you and we will look forward to seeing you at the conference really soon.

Kristina: Thank you so much, Tim. Thank you for having me.

Tim: Thank you to Kristina for coming on today and for sharing all of those great ideas. I love the idea of the creativity challenges and everything that can come from them.

I think two important points from the conversation today. First, as Christina mentioned early in the podcast and doing challenges like what we discussed today really helps foster and build community. Once that community is established in your art room, kids are going to thrive when it comes to doing challenges and doing other similar things. Second, even though Christina teaches photography and these challenges are designed around photography, we talked about how some of the concept that she’s going for can be adapted to drawing, to painting, to clay, or sculpture or collage. Whatever you’re teaching, you can probably make it work.

And so I would just say, come to the NOW Conference. Learn more about what she’s doing and the types of challenges that she has put together, and think about how you can bring those to your own art room. Adapt them, put a little bit of creativity of your own into those creative challenges and you’ll be able to come up with something really good for your students.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. If you are not signed up for the NOW Conference yet, you can still register. Even though the conference is happening next week, you can still sign up all the way up until noon on Friday, the day of the kickoff. And now, as I said at the beginning of the show today, that kickoff is Friday, January 27th. The main event is Saturday, the 28th. And the last day, asynchronous day of learning is Sunday the 29th. And of course, you can continue that asynchronous learning throughout the next year with your access to the conference. So if you’re not signed up yet and you need to do so, you can find all of the info you need to register on the AOEU website, and I hope we will see you there.

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.