Curriculum Approaches

Finding Resources for Choice-Based Teaching (Ep. 210)

On today’s episode, Nic is joined by Nicole McAfoose to discuss the how and why of creating resources for choice-based teaching. Listen as they discuss how Nicole first started her journey to choice-based instruction, the resources she creates and shares, and the work she puts in to keep her YouTube channel going strong.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Nic: Recently, we wrapped up a whole series about using the national standards in our visual arts studios. It was really good to hear from so many different voices. One of the voices was Nicole McAfoose. Nicole is a Choice-Based teacher who I invited on today because of her skills of managing her classroom and the resources she has for other art educators out there. This is Everyday Art Room. And I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

Thank you so much for joining us today. I cannot wait to have this conversation. I’ve been definitely investigating your social media just to learn more about you, but let’s get started with the basics. Can you introduce yourself, please?

Nicole McAfoose:
Sure. First of all, thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here. My name is Nicole McAfoose. This is my 10th year as a professional art educator, but I did have a few years of experience before that in after school programs and theater programs. I went to Kent State for my undergrad, Kent State in Ohio, and then my graduate degree I got from the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

Nic: Oh, great. What was that in? Was that in art education?

Nicole: Yes. In art education. Yes.

Nic: That’s great, and pretty recent. That’s great.

Nicole: Yes. I think I want to say 2018, I completed my graduate degree. I think so. It’s weird.

Nic: It is weird. We kind of entered a time warp of some sort.

Nicole: Yes, yes. I’m pretty sure it was 2018. Yeah.

Nic: Before or after pandemic, or during pandemic. I don’t know where we are. Yeah, exactly.

Nicole: Yes, exactly.

Nic: All right. And what I was most interested in, in our conversation. Well, you have actually recently been on the podcast, haven’t you?

Nicole: Yes. Yeah, I have.

Nic: You were talking about our standards, national standards and how you reach them and that is kind of our connection initially. However, then I started investigating your social media and realized that you’re a Choice Teacher and I love speaking with Choice Teachers because I need to know more for myself. I’m wondering how long you have been running your classroom as a Choice-Based space.

Nicole: I’ve always been on the Choice spectrum. They are varying degrees of choice and my first, probably five years, I think I was on the spectrum. I would offer a theme of some kind and then students were able to work under that theme. Then, about five years ago, I transitioned to full choice. For the past five years I’ve been offering full choice. I’ve embraced the teaching for artistic behavior philosophy. Now my classroom is set up in centers and students have full autonomy in my classroom.

Nic: That’s amazing. Why did you choose Choice-Based for your classroom?

Nicole: My undergraduate experience at Ken state, they definitely were very big on student-centered education. They kind of planted the seed for me. Then I also had an experience during my undergrad as well. I volunteered for a children’s theater program. It was with Standing Rock Cultural Arts in Kent led by a man named Jeff Ingram. It’s amazing if you’re ever in the area or want to look it up. He had a children’s theater program and it was completely student-centered child-led. They came up with their own screenplay in the spring, and then in the summer I joined and helped create props and backdrops for this production.

Nic: Wow.

Nicole: It was just so magical seeing them come up with their own ideas and create everything that they needed to put on this production. That always stuck with me. I couldn’t unsee the magic that I witnessed during that time.

I’ve always had that in the back of my mind. Then during my graduate experience the text wasn’t required, but on a list of suggested books were a couple of books, Engaging Learners Through Artmaking by Katherine Douglas in Diane Jaquith, and then also The Learner Directed Classroom also edited by Jaquith and Hathaway. I purchased those books. I didn’t read them right away, but at some point I got to them and when I read through them, it just kind of clicked for me. It just made so much sense. All of the things that I had been struggling with prior to reading those books, it felt like the solution. The things that they were offering really felt like the solution, so I jumped in and I haven’t looked back since.

Nic: Yeah. Right. It seems like it feels very comfortable for you because-

Nicole: It does.

Nic: Yeah. I just, I’m amazed. I’m amazed with what I’m seeing so far.

I’m on the choice spectrum as well, but I’d say very, very much closer to traditional teaching than per se what you describe in your classroom. Can you give me an idea of what your class period looks like from start to finish? How long is your class period and what happens within it?

Nicole: Sure. I have first, second, and third graders and I have 50 minute periods, which is an ample amount of time. It’s a great amount of time for what I’m doing. They enter the room, they immediately find their seats, wherever their seats may be. It looks a little bit different this year, obviously with COVID restrictions, but they find their seats. I demonstrate a skill of some kind of at that point. Right now we’re opening the sculpture center. With my youngest students, we’re talking about building with paper and some paper sculpture techniques, and then with my older students, we’re going over a different attachment technique. The skills progressively get more difficult as they move up through the grades.

I demonstrate a skill and then from there they choose their center.

I’m really, really big on procedures. I’ve always been kind of obsessed with classroom management. That definitely has moved over into Choice and I do think that a Choice classroom really thrives with procedures and a really sound classroom management plan.

At this point they choose their center and I’ve made that a procedure have an art number, they move their magnet to choose. From there, they gather materials and get to work. During that time it’s usually about 15 or 20 minutes that they have of independent artmaking. During that time, there’s a lot of one on one instruction, so I’m working individually with kids, I’m working in small groups with kids too if more than one has a question or a need. There’s also a lot of peer teaching going on. It’s a little bit more difficult now with COVID restrictions, of course but that’s my favorite thing about Choice is, I’m able to transfer skills to the kids, but then they teach each other, too. Sometimes that’s more beneficial. They explain it in a way that another kid understands, you know?

Nic: Yes.

Nicole: Lots of peer teaching. We have many critiques while we’re working. There’s a lot going on during work time. There’s definitely still instruction. Following that, it’s to clean up, individual clean up, each kid is responsible for cleaning up their space. Then we end class with share time. Sometimes I have small groups of kids share. Maybe I have all of the kids who are making sculptures share at once or sometimes it’s individual. At that time, it’s really about developing our critique skills, our observation skills, working on vocab. I work in the elements and principles a lot at that time. I think that’s something that people are always like, “What about the elements and principles,” and that’s not lost in the Choice Program. I still talk about the elements and principles all the time and it’s really cool because it’s just it’s more organic. It’s also really interesting to see how the kids use them when they’re working on their own authentic art. We’re talking about elements in principles, vocab, and really honing our critique skills at that time.

Nic: I’m going to just go back into your hour again, because there were some more questions that popped into my mind. One of the videos that I saw was your whole number system. I’d love to dive into that more because I think it also shows assessment, or peer assessment, or sorry, self-assessment?

Nicole: Yes.

Nic: Let’s talk about that. You have, I don’t know how many sections do you have of students coming in?

Nicole: I usually have around 25. Plus or minus one or two.

Nic: Yep, exactly. That is important to understand this because I think when you talk about every child has a number that maybe seems overwhelming. Talk about how that goes for your 25 sections and how you use that whole system.

Nicole: Yeah. Having 25 classes, every art teacher can relate to just having a huge number of students in and out of the classroom. The art numbers for me was a way to really simplify that and streamline it, streamline everything. Each student in each class, if I have Class A come in, each student in Class A has an art number one through twenty-five and then Class B comes in. And again each student in that class has an art number one through twenty-five. That way they can choose their center using their art number. They move their magnet for that. They self-assess using their art number. We use art numbers to check out iPads. If we’re using an iPad during class, they have a clothes pin with an art number. I mean, I use art numbers for everything. It really is, like you said, just a way to simplify from class, to class, to class.

Nic: Do you use it for other things? Do you still have a lineup system and that sort of thing?

Nicole: Yes.

Nic: Do you use even and odd numbers? Do you use-

Nicole: Yeah, art numbers, their desks this year have their art numbers on it, so they can see their art number while they’re working just to make sure that they remember. I do find that they’re pretty good about that. I was concerned at first because a lot of students have classroom numbers, too. I went back and forth. I’m like, “well, do I use the classroom numbers to make it easy,” and I realized that it was going to work better for me just to have a separate number, but even my youngest students after a couple weeks have it down. Yeah. The art numbers are on their desks. I have a line, an area where we line up and the art numbers are in line. Yeah, we use them for just about everything.

Nic: They’re really universal. Yeah. I love that. The students can come in, they grab their number, they place it. You have titles of the stations that are open to them, right?

Nicole: Yeah. Whatever centers are open I have a magnet that identifies that center and I put it on the chalkboard. Whatever’s open is there, if it’s not open, it’s just off to the side somewhere where they can’t see it, so they know exactly what their options are and they place their magnet by their choice.

Nic: Some of the stations are only allowed x-amount of students.

Nicole: Yeah. It depends, some classes I put a limit on some classes are fine without a limit. It really just kind of requires flexibility on my end, when I first started, I kept a limit just while I was kind of learning and kind of figuring out how everything works. Now, I’m at this point where I know that this class needs a limit and I know that this class doesn’t. I am kind of flexible in that. But some classes I do have a limit.

Nic: I’m curious about that. What is it that creates a class to need a limit or not?

Nicole: I think it just depends on personalities and my own threshold. Some classes are a little bit louder than other classes. Sometimes that just depends on the time they come too. Like if they’re coming in right after recess and they’re all kind of wound up, I might put a limit on a certain center just because my sanity is important and I just want to make sure that everything’s running smoothly.

Nic: Absolutely, with the station. Are you finding that you just break down the amount of people so that it’s quieter, it’s calmer?

Nicole: Yeah, yeah.

Nic: Okay, I see now.

Nicole: Yeah, and then also too, it just depends on, sometimes, for example, my printmaking center. When I open printmaking, I guess that’s a good example of a center that I limit no matter what. Just because that requires a lot of teacher-intensive instruction and monitoring. That’s something that I usually limit no matter what, no matter what the class is, or no matter who the class is. That’s something that I usually have maybe five or six. Just because it’s something that I’m definitely monitoring that more than other classes, or more than other centers I should say.

Nic: Okay. I understand that you have instruction for a small amount of time. Are you most often doing that in live instruction or are you showing a video of some sort in your classroom?

Nicole: I started my first few years it was live instruction. Then last year with COVID, or with our first year teaching in person with COVID restrictions I started to record them because I needed to buy myself a little bit of time to set up centers while I was in the classroom.

I found a lot of benefits to that recorded demonstration, so I’m continuing that now. It’s really great to play that video and monitor and see our kids getting this and pay attention to the room, gauge interest. But it’s also really great because if if somebody needs additional instruction while they’re working, I now have this vault of instructional videos and I’m lucky enough to have iPads, I have six iPads in the room, I grab an iPad, give it to the student and I have them rewatch.

Nic: Yep. I love that. Yeah, so you’re using technology as yet another teacher to double, triple?

Nicole: Yes.

Nic: You have your students assisting you, you have your videos assisting you, and you are currently going around. You’ve really cloned yourself. That’s amazing.

Nicole: Yes. Yeah. I’m also kind of toying with the idea of the flipped classroom at this point too. I started to tell my, I started to post these videos at the very beginning of the week. Now I’m telling my students, “You can watch this before you come to art class. And not only can you watch what first graders are doing, what your grade, but if you are someone who’s a little bit more advanced, if you want to learn what third grade’s doing by all means, tune in and watch what third graders are doing as well.”

Nic: Wow, yes! That is that’s really eye-opening and really empowering for your students. They can come in and be like, “Yeah, I have this.” Do you have them still watch the refresher?

Nicole: I do. Yes. Everyone’s still watching it, no matter what. Yeah.

Nic: Yeah, but they can investigate further if they so choose. Have you implemented that yet?

Nicole: Yeah. I started talking to talking about it probably within the first couple weeks at school. I do have kiddos telling me that they washed it at home or that they’ve already seen it, not everybody, and that’s okay. Not everyone has to, but definitely enough kids where I’m seeing the benefit and it’s definitely something I’ll continue.

Nic: Wow. That’s great. Students are working on projects or investigations of some sort and let’s say a student wants to keep their project for next week to continue working. What does that look like in your classroom? How do you manage that?

Nicole: I have a system for 2D artwork, 3D artwork, wet work, and then clay artwork as well. For 2D artwork that’s dry each class has a folder, it’s just 12 by 18 laminated construction paper, made my own folders, and they know where their folder is. I have drawers in the front of the room. The drawers aren’t necessary though. It would be totally feasible for a teacher to have these sets of folders and just pull the right folder out at the appropriate time. Class folders for 2D work, we talk about, when we talk about those folders, why wouldn’t we put a collage in here that’s wet with glue? Where’s a better location for that? At that point we talk about the drying rack and the drying rack is color coded. Each of my classes, each of my time slots, has a color.

9:15 is the red class and 10:15’s the orange class, and I just drive home, “what color messy mat do you need for the drying rack?” That’s also just a 12 by 18 sheet of laminated construction paper. Whenever they put something on the drying rack, they also have to put their messy mat underneath. The next day when I come in and I’m pulling artwork off, I just take all the red off, and the red goes in the appropriate folder. Same for paintings. I have them set up with a messy mat just to help to minimize cleanup. Also, it helps when you’re carrying that wet artwork, sometimes it’s just helpful to have that messy mat anyway, so messy mats for the drying rack for paintings.

I’m really lucky, I have amazing storage for 3D artwork. I have a copy paper box for 3D artwork. I pull it out, they can put their artwork in. It is important to manage sculpture size at that point. We talk about what’s too big. I have a size tester for them, a little box where they can test the size. I have storage for those boxes, but last year, those boxes were stored in the classroom. It’s possible if a teacher doesn’t have that storage capability that they have the classroom teacher store that box.

Nic: Sure, okay. I see. I See what you’re saying.

Nicole: You know what I mean? Maybe a student is in charge of bringing the art box to and from class each week. Then, as far as clay artwork, I have a copy paper box lid for each class, and they are coded with a letter of the alphabet since I have 25 classes. I have an A Class, a B Class, and when a student puts their art in that box, I have a “cook me” cart and they drop their clay artwork for the kiln, they put it in their appropriate box, and then I stamp each one with a letter of the alphabet, the respective letter. My A Class gets stamped with A, and that way I know when I’m pulling them out of the kiln, A goes in A, B goes in B, C goes in C. It’s just a really quick way to identify them, but also when it’s coming out of the kiln, it’s just quick for me to sort as well.

Nic: Okay. Everything you’re saying, I’m sitting here smirking, because I’m like, “Uh-huh, that sounds beautiful. I love it.”

I’m sure this took time to fully develop, like if I’m going to do this tomorrow, I can’t expect what you just did or explained, right?

Nicole: Yeah. I feel like it did take some time. I did have a lot of similar procedures before I went full Choice. I’ve been using art numbers for a while. I used the color coded messy mats, I’ve been using that for a while as well. Some of those were already in place. I did develop the clay, because that was one of the trickier things to figure out when I started this. Okay, how do I manage all of these clay artworks? How do I make it easy for me to manage? Because that’s ultimately, honestly, that’s ultimately the goal. It has to be easy for us to manage if it’s going to be sustainable. Somewhere in place, I did develop some, but at this point I feel like I’ve really figured out a really efficient system that if anyone can copy I’m happy to just hand this over to anyone who needs it.

Nic: Well, that brings me to my next question is what resources, because that’s how I know about you is the resources you’re putting out there for the world, so what resources do you have and why are you putting them out for other teachers?

Nicole: Right now my focus is on Instagram and YouTube. The reason I started both of these accounts is because there’s a lot of text out there. There are a lot of books to read. There’s a really amazing Facebook group for teaching for artistic behavior. There’s a lot of text and that’s amazing, but I do know that for someone like me, I’m a visual learner, so knowing that I also know that teachers are diverse and they’re learning, too. We differentiate for our students but I think we need to do the same for our teachers. I’m someone who, I want someone to talk to me, I want someone to show me pictures, I want graphics. I just know that that’s how I learn best. I just figured it would be helpful if I created the content that I was craving. I started the Instagram and YouTube and that’s kind of my focus now. I do have a Teachers-by-Teachers store, but that’s not necessarily my focus. I just use that if I create something that I know is helpful for my room, I put it on there in case anyone else needs it.

Nic: Yeah. I think that’s a often what happens. You post about something or explain something and then people are like, “How can I get that?” Having that TPT is a really great solution to just say, “Oh, it’s right here.”

That’s amazing. When I was looking at your YouTube, your Instagram often makes me want to go to your YouTube, which I think is a good complement between the two. You have it organized in some playlists. Can you just describe some of the playlists and what they look like?

Nicole: Yeah. It makes most sense to me to organize them by center. That way if my students are using these resources, which I want them to, they know that they can just go to the drawing center playlist and find their videos for the drawing center. I’m also organizing them by color. The videos with the yellow thumbnails are the easier skills and the thumbnails with the pink color are the more difficult skills, just so my students can start to differentiate. Then I also have one specifically for teachers. That’s where I’m putting the more informational videos, the ins and outs of the classroom and just things that I think would really benefit teachers specifically.

Nic: Yeah. And they sure do. This conversation is just scratching the surface of what you do and share on these two platforms. That’s why I was so excited to bring you in, because I think if nothing else, teachers are going to want to go find your YouTube and your Instagram for sure. We’ll put it of course, in the podcast notes, but will you share the title of both of them?

Nicole: Sure. I’m BigIdeasArtStudio on all platforms, and I chose that because I wanted to really make sure that the focus was ideas, so yeah, BigIdeasArtStudio.

Nic: Yeah, and you’re doing a gorgeous job with it. It’s very clean and crisp and just very beautiful. It’s amazing that you’re doing this all by yourself.

Nicole: Yeah. Thank you.

Nic: Yeah. I can see the work that goes into that.

Nicole: Thank you. I love Choice and I really do just want to help anyone who is interested. ‘Cause I think as art teachers, we kind of have to rely on each other. I think that our district PDs aren’t always developed for us. We kind to go out on our own and find our own PD. That’s what’s amazing about art teachers is we help each other.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Are there any final thoughts that you have for our listeners today as we’re closing up?

Nicole: Yeah. If you’re interested in choice, I promise that it’s not chaotic, it’s not unmanageable. It’s definitely possible with a little bit of prep work and the right information.

Nic: Yeah. Wonderful. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. Yeah, it was great.

Nicole: Thank you, thank you so much. Thank you.

Nic: If nothing else, I heard the extreme enthusiasm from Nicole in this conversation. She is absolutely a fan of Choice-Based teaching, of TAB – of Teaching with Artistic Behavior. She has seen the magic happen in the brains of the students that she’s working with, of the artists that she’s developing. Who doesn’t want to learn from someone who is so passionate and so excited to share with others. Be sure to check out Nicole’s Instagram and her YouTube website, because it is going to be eye-opening for anyone; someone who’s running this already, someone who is investigating this, someone who just is curious, what does that look like? Nicole really breaks it down I love the series just for teachers, but it also gives you a good idea of what she’s offering to her students. Head on over to her YouTube, go into her playlist and just look. It’s beautiful. She’s done a wonderful job, but again, if nothing else, her enthusiasm for this way of teaching shines through.

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.