Exploring the Open Art Room (Ep. 080)

Melissa Purtee and Ian Sands, authors of The Open Art Room, join Tim to discuss their new book and choice based art education. They talk about the transition teachers make when moving toward choice-based education and how that compares with traditional pedagogy. Listen as they cover the story of writing The Open Art Room (4:15), whether you can put a framework toward choice-based teaching (10:00), and the idea of how much choice each teacher should offer (15:45). Full episode transcript below.

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

Today, I have an interview that I am pretty excited about. Melissa Purtee and Ian Sands are going to join me to talk about choice based art teaching and more importantly their new book called The Open Art Room, which was just put out by David Publications. I’ve worked with both Melissa and Ian at various times at The Art Of Ed. They’re both great people with incredible ideas. I’m really excited to talk to them and ask them a little bit more about their book.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of the book. If I can give you my honest opinion, it is spectacular. The Open Art Room goes beyond just philosophy of choice based education, it’s hands-on and it gives some concrete examples of how to offer a choice approach at the secondary level in your art room. I love the frameworks they put out, with ideas for implementing choice, some ideas for those who are just beginning and then intermediate and advanced levels if you really want to take your choice based teaching to the next level.

If you know me, I’ve never been sold on the idea of TAB or of offering full choice in my own classroom. It always seemed like a bridge too far for me, but I see the appeal for sure and I appreciate the teachers who can do it really well. I understand why so many teachers want to move toward choice. What I love about this Open Art Room book that Melissa and Ian have written, is that it gives specific ideas for all of those people who are moving toward choice but don’t know what to do, or how to do it, or where to even start, because there are lessons, there are frameworks for units, ideas for assessment and so much more.

If you’re interested at all in choice based education, this book probably needs to be part of your library. Listen to the interview, decide if it’s something you may want to order. I will share a discount code that Davis gave us for all of our Art Ed Radio listeners. In the interview I will ask Melissa and Ian how they originally got hooked up with their publisher, their inspirations, their influences and their advice for people interested in choice.

Before we get to that however, I want to talk a little bit about AOE’s Choice Based Art Education course. It is a great course for finding just the right level of choice for your own art room. In the course, you’re going to look at choice based education, including Montessori, Reggio and all kinds of other approaches to find just the right amount of autonomy for your students that you are comfortable with. It is a three credit hour course that begins on the first of every month. You can check out for more details. If you are interested in this episode and exploring all of these ideas, make sure you give it a look.

Now, with all that being said it is time for us to get into the interview, so let me bring on Ian and Melissa to talk about The Open Art Room and choice based art education. I am here with both Ian Sands and Melissa Purtee. Ian, how are you?

Ian: I’m doing well, thank you.

Tim: Good. Melissa, how are you?

Melissa: Awesome, glad to be here.

Tim: Awesome. I am really excited to have you both. Ian, I’ll start the first question with you. I really enjoyed the book but I wanted to ask how it came about. Was this originally you and Melissa’s idea to write the book? Where did the original inspiration come from? I guess as a second part of that, how did you get hooked up with Davis as the publisher, and how has it been working with them?

Ian: Yeah, sure. First, thanks for having us and for reading the book, because I wasn’t even going to read the book. You made it sound good, so you picked my interest. It was funny, Melissa and I we talked about writing and self publishing a book back when we first started at Apex. We even did an outline, but then things get busy and you’re doing all this stuff, and we put it on the back burner and never came back to it.

Then Melissa and I, we were planning to go to New Orleans. We were going to present at NAEA. This was over two years ago. I was writing for AOE at the time and Melissa was writing a blog and we both had written for School Arts, so we had some writing under our belt. I was also presenting with Rob Santagata, who just happened to get promoted as the editor of Davis.

Rob called me up and he told me he had an idea he wanted to run passed me and he ask if he we could meet. I was like, “Yeah, sure.” He was like, “Why don’t you bring Melissa too.” I was like, “Alright. So we met at this vegetarian restaurant, I wanted to eat some meat but whatever.

Melissa: It was delicious. Rob, I loved the restaurant.

Ian: He floated the idea passed us for the book. Melissa and I went back to it, sat down and we wrote a proposal. They accepted it and that was kind of it. We started going with it after that. I guess since then also, we both started writing a monthly column in SchoolX, called The Open Art Room. We got that gig out of it as well.

Tim: Yeah. That’s really cool. Melissa, anything you want to add to that? Has it been a good experience for you to put this all together?

Melissa: You know, the whole thing has been an awesome experience. It’s been a life goal of mine to write a book, also give a Ted Talk, if anyone from Ted is listening. Being approached by Rob to write the book and then writing it, and also being able to write for Art Of Ed and our column in School Art has been really amazing. I think Ian and I are both really appreciative of all the opportunities we’ve had. It still surprises me that people listen to what I say.

Tim: That’s cool. If we can dive in a little bit, I love how your teaching process is broken down in the book. With, here’s what inspires our teaching, here are where our influences come from, these are the things we think choice based teaching does better than traditional pedagogy. Melissa, can you talk about, let me see how I want to phrase this, whether you think those ideas are universal? Does every teacher go through that same process of figuring out influences, inspirations? Or do you think there’s a type of discovery, where every teacher needs to go on their own to find those inspirations and influences for themselves?

Melissa: I think people have different processes and different needs. For myself, I was teaching in a Title I school with 800 kids, elementary. 80% to 90% of them were free and reduced lunch. I was a young teacher and we had lots of young teachers in the school. There were tons of behavior issues. For me, it was either figure out something that works better for me, or quit teaching.

As part of that process I discovered TAB, or Teaching for Artistic Behavior, and went from there. That’s how it ended up working out for me, it was necessity. I don’t think every teacher has that experience but I think everyone grows during their teaching process and tries new ideas and new things. I don’t think everyone necessarily ends up at the same place. It’s a process, it’s a journey.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point. I like hearing where people come to these ideas, what gets them to that place. Ian, if I can follow up with you, can you talk a little bit about what kind of ideas influenced you when you decided to shift your teaching? You talk about your mindset a little bit in the book, but can you expand on those ah-ah moments that got you to where you are as a teacher?

Ian: Yeah. As far as ah-ah moments, I think that there were actually several of them, it wasn’t any one. I mention one in the book in particular, but I think one that’s relevant to the book actually happened to me at NAEA, I think it was New York. This was several years ago. I had already met Catherine Douglas, one time she put me in a headlock and started giving me noogies until I took, I said I’d do choice. I got to see her present about TAB and at the same conference I saw Jack Watson and I spoke with Samantha Melvin. They both Art 21 teachers, so they always talk about big ideas and that kind of concept there. I also saw Ken Vi. He was talking about using themes. I had all this jumbled in my head. You know how you get so much information when you go to one of those conferences?

Tim: Right.

Ian: I came back with all these ideas and I just balled them up. That’s what it was. It was this one big ball of thing. I came back and I was like, “I’m going to try to actually formally do this when I get back to school in some method.” We talk about that in the book, where the influences came from. That’s sort of how I did it, I balled it into one big thing. That’s my ah-ah moment.

Tim: Yeah. I like that. It seems to have worked out pretty well. But then, you guys can correct me if I’m wrong on this, but it seems to me that there’s not necessarily a blueprint for teaching choice based art, where everybody’s doing it a little bit differently. People who come into it have so many questions about how to get started, how to teach skills, how to assess, how to grade. I know that you lay out a lot of specific solutions to the issues with The Open Art Room. I guess my question is, Melissa, do you want this book to serve as a blueprint? To say, “Here’s how we do it when you can switch to choice based or to student centered or to TAB.” Or is part of an individual process, where you still have that value in trial and error and idea development and reflection on the teacher’s end, and they have to put it together themselves?

Melissa: I think it’s a framework. I definitely say it’s a framework. Choice based teaching and TAB are both very based on philosophy, the student is the artist. I’d say I really recommend our book for middle school and high school teachers. For elementary, I’d recommend the book, Engaging Learners.

It’s a framework. We give a lot of the pieces that are necessary to recreate some of the success Ian and I have had with students learning in our program. The big one is the artistic thinking process. That’s a common theme that runs through the whole book. It’s a method for teaching creativity, for scaffolding creative thinking from needing assistance, to students working independently through the artistic process on their own. That’s what all the lesson plans in the book are based on, and a lot of the structure.

Another really key aspect that we layout in the book is how to individual talk to students and take students who maybe are struggling or maybe need enrichment, and identify what supports they need and provide those things. We do also layout two different plans for grading.

The thing that is the most like a blueprint I would say are the lesson plan sections. The bootcamps which we used to teach skills and introduce choice in Art I or a beginning situation for any teacher, are all in there. As well as lesson plans that work for different levels of choice. I would say those are the most plug-and-play, but you have to certainly understand the framework for it to work for you.

Tim: Yeah, that makes sense. If can follow up with you real quick on that, when you have teachers asking you about starting choice or starting student centered teaching, what do most of their questions deal with? Is it about skills? Is it about grading? Where are people looking for the most advice?

Melissa: I think it depends on if the person is skeptical or if the person is already investigating those things. People who are skeptical about choice ask about teaching skills, which is an important aspect. Art teachers certainly are incentivized to have students make art that looks good, however people coming like a TAB or a choice mindset have idea that the product of the teaching isn’t the artwork, it’s the student. They often come with questions about how pacing works, or how to roll out centers, or how it looks like in high school compared to elementary or middle school, things of that nature. What good themes are is another common topic.

Tim: Actually, you just did a perfect segue because I wanted to ask Ian about theme, so thank you.

Melissa: You’re welcome.

Tim: Ian, I know like you said, you talked about doing a lot of different work with themes, and I know you’ve done a lot of artistic behavior units and using them as a way of scaffolding students decision making. I especially like some of your suggestions in the book about how to help students develop their own themes based on personal interest and personal ideas. Can you talk a little bit about why themes are so important, what role they play or what role they’ve played previously in your classroom, and maybe how students can best use themes?

Ian: Themes, it’s kind of a broad topic, because you can use really concrete themes, you can say, “Draw an animal,” that becomes a theme, or you can use really broad themes. I particularly like teaching artistic behavior units with themes, but those are the units that are based on the way artists think and work. For example, I’ll do a unit, how to solve problems, not units about working with limitations, or artist steal, which is a unit about copyright and appropriation. Those are much broader terms, and I think they’re important because they’re a high bed for teaching high order thinking.

The students are generating their ideas, they’re solving the problems, they’re making the decisions. Hopefully they’re investigating, they’re experimenting, they’re doing all these things. Sometimes as art teachers we get lost in the project, we want our students to make art, but when you think about it art education isn’t really about making art. The high order thinking doesn’t come when we give students the project, because then we’ve done all the thinking for them. High order thinking happens when we give them the problem. With these big themes, like these artistic behavior themes, we’re really giving them problems that they have to work out and solve.

Tim: Yeah. I like that. I think that’s the big takeaway. I think everybody who uses has that same mindset. I think you hit the nail on the head on explaining why that can be so effective. I have one last question for you guys, but I think it’s going to take me a long time to get to it. Bear with me here. If you both want to speak to this I think that would be helpful. Your book draws a lot of contrast between traditional teaching and what an open art room should look like. You talk a lot about modified choice and the idea of limited choices with media, curriculum, decision making, all those sorts of things. As a teacher personally, that’s exactly where I am.

I’ve always used a lot of themes, a lot of choices. I really want students to develop that unique voice that you talk about. For me, I feel like that’s best done through constraints and through a fairly significant amount of teacher direction. As you know, I’ve been a little bit skeptical of TAB or full student choice. For me I don’t think that’s going to work in my classroom. My guess is, that’s how I’m always going to feel, so I guess if I can phrase the question like this, what do you say to people like me? What do you say to people who have similar opinions to me? What’s your reaction to teachers who embrace the idea of limited choice but not really going any further towards student centered teaching? Is some choice better than none, or is your thought that everyone needs to be moving to a fully student centered or fully open art room?

Melissa: I think the future of art education is higher order thinking and teaching creativity. I think there are lots of ways to do that. I think Tim certainly you have a lot of similarities in your teaching to what we do. The idea of providing choice through choice in themes, choice in materials, choice in things like the time allotted for an exploration, is a big spectrum. I think that there’s a lot of room in there for teachers to use things that fit in their comfort zone and work the best.

With my philosophy and my personal experience, I think it’s an important goal to have our students ready to not need us. Which to me means making art that’s very student directed with maybe the limitation of, “I want you to create six pieces of art in this time frame with media and themes that are chosen by you.” That’s what I’d like my students to be able to do by the end of their time with me and STEM students in high school and class after Art I. I provide those opportunities at every level and I think that’s important, but I don’t think that that’s a requirement for being a good teacher necessarily.

Ian: I think that she said some great things there. You start of by framing it like, “Should every teacher teach like me?” I think the answer to that is, yes absolutely. That’s why I wrote the book! Why write it if you’re not going to do it? So how about this, I’m going to bounce off what Melissa said. It’s not really about the teacher in a sense, it’s about the student. Do I want every teacher to allow for full choice? That’s not really the question, the question is, do I want the students to have full choice? Shouldn’t that be our goal, that the student eventually becomes the artist? We should want them to make their own decisions and experiments, and do odd stuff, take risks and all that stuff I was saying before. Is every teacher going to do this, full choice? Or is every student? No, probably not, right? But that should be our goal. Our goal should be to make ourselves obsolete, they should become the artist.

Tim: I think you guys both make some really, really good points. I think that that gives everybody a lot to think about. Cool. I think that’s probably a good stop to end it. Melissa, thanks for joining me. Ian, thank you for joining me.

Ian: Thanks for having us.

Melissa: Thanks Tim.

Tim: Very well said. I appreciate Melissa and Ian taking the time to discuss their book, answer some questions about choice based teaching and address some concerns from the skeptics like me. Now as promised, I have a discount code for you if you’re interest in ordering The Open Art Room. When you order the book use the code OAR15, that’s O-A-R-1-5 at checkout for 15% off your copy of the book. You can find a link to the order form and a reminder for the discount code in the show notes. Check out and click on the podcast tab to find those.

We’ll also be running a giveaway for the book on The Art Of Ed Facebook page. Make sure you check that out as well. Your discount code is good through October. I will close with this idea, repeating something you just heard, because frankly I don’t think I can say it any better than what was said at the end of the interview. No matter what level of choice you implement in your classroom, or which pedagogy you use, we all have the same goal. We want our students to be able to identify themselves as artists. Good teaching should be able to do exactly that.

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 We always love to hear from you so send us your questions, comments and anything else you want to share at Thanks for Melissa and Ian for joining me. Thanks as always 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.