Unlocking the Secrets of AP Studio Art (Ep. 020)

AP Studio Art is tough to get a handle on. Questions abound about the best types of work to submit, portfolio scoring, and the role of teachers in helping students develop their concepts and their work. It’s time for us to unlock those secrets and start sharing our best ideas on how to teach this class. Jeanne Bjork, a longtime AP Studio Art teacher from Pewaukee, Wisconsin, joins Tim to compare notes on the structure of their AP classes. They talk about building community to start the year (05:45), their best projects and when to teach them (08:15), and what makes for a good portfolio that will score well with the College Board judges (17:30). Full episode transcript below.

Resources and Links:

The article Tim promised at the end of the episode is here–every AP Studio Art resource you could ever want.

Tim has written a few articles on teaching AP. His favorite is called Is Teaching AP Studio Art Really Worth It?

Jeanne has an incredible website for her art room that you can see right here.

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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 we’re going to give you an incredible look into the world of AP Studio Art but even if you don’t teach AP, still give it a listen. We have some ideas here that we’re going to cover that are great for your classroom no matter what level you teach. Ideas about drawing and writing and putting your work together and getting kids to think deeply about what they’re doing and what they’re creating in your class. I have an incredible guest today, who has so much to share with you.

Jeanne: Hi, my name’s Jeanne Bjork and I teach high school at Pewaukee High School in Wisconsin. Pewaukee is a suburb of Milwaukee. I’ve been teaching AP Art for about fourteen in my fifteen years here in the district.

Tim: I’m going to talk to Jeanne about her favorite strategies with her AP classes from the beginning of the year all the way to the day the portfolios are mailed off. Let’s go ahead and dive in. Teaching AP Studio Art can be a great thing for your students and a great thing for your art program. When I started to teach AP I noticed that some changes came about, not only with my students but with the way the entirety of the program was viewed in my school. The entire school started to take the art program and the art classes so much more seriously. Now, that may or may not matter to you as a teacher but it really does matter to your kids, they love being seen and being treated with respect. They love getting that acknowledgement for what they do in art class and what they can accomplish then. When that happens more kids get interested in art and more kids start to sign up for your classes. When you have this really strong AP class that your juniors and seniors are taking that gives your under classmates something to work toward, goals to set, people to look up to. It really lifts the entire program up. Not only that, it builds a great community within your classroom and that’s something I want to ask Jeanne about too. Just how she develops that community in her classroom because it is something that AP Studio Art lends itself to but it’s also something that everyone can take an idea away from. We’ll talk about that a little bit today but some of those benefits that we can take from that move beyond just the kids in the AP class, it goes throughout the program. Atmosphere is a big thing, the culture of your program is a big thing. Your AP Studio Art students set the tone for the rest of your classes. They’re who are looked up to by the rest of your students and if you do things right, it sets your entire program up for success. Let’s go ahead and talk about how we can do it right. Here’s Jeanne Bjork. Jeanne welcome, how are you today?

Jeanne: I’m doing great, one more day of school, yay.

Tim: I am glad to have you here, I’m glad that you can take some time on your second to the last day of school to talk to us. Let me start with this, how did you come into teaching AP Studio Art? Did you take over a program that was already existing? Did you start from scratch? I guess as a follow-up to that, what was the first year like of AP Studio Art for you?

Jeanne: I took over a program but we really weren’t doing a full AP program. The class was actually called Advanced Studio and students were offered the option to submit a portfolio at the end of it. It was a really lose and almost more like an independent study class. There weren’t a lot of expectations and although the opportunity to do the portfolio was presented, it didn’t actually give students the structure and guidance that they would need to be successful. My first year I had only five students and really only one of them was a serious art student. The rest were kind of hippy trippy types of students who thought art is all about, “Hey, expressing my feelings, doing whatever I want.” They really weren’t interested in a college level art course. This obviously got me frustrated because I thought that AP was supposed to be rigorous and I had these expectations of rigor.

There wasn’t really a culture for that yet. I knew that had to change, I taught the class that way for two or three more years with really small numbers and just decided it needed to adjust. I increased my expectations for students and I believed that if I did they would rise to the challenge. I began requiring all students to do the portfolio with all twenty four works of art. I changed the name to AP Studio Art and the optional thing became not submitting your portfolio to the college board. Just shifted that thinking. I also started to really focus on conceptual development and experimentation. When I did this, I saw the program take off, students were really interested because there was a high level of personal choice but there was also guidance to help them figure out what was their artistic voice.

The other thing I started to focus on which to me is huge with this class is to develop the class camaraderie. I really encourage students to become like a collegial cohort; that they needed to develop their own support system to survive AP. It’s pretty stressful especially around April and I told them, “You got to support each other, you got to talk to each other. Sure you can get my opinion but talk to your classmates and find out what do they think?” There also is a lot of humor through that support and a lot of serious discussion too. This year’s group for example was the most meme malicious group I’ve ever had. They would leave little memes all over the classroom for each other and for me. It just helped with the feel of the class.

The results of doing all of these: more students started to take the class and made a real commitment to the program, more students started to attempt to submit a portfolio to the college board. We started to see some threes which was awesome for us and eventually some fours and even some fives. I’ve learned also to be pretty honest with the kids and I’ve not been disappointed. My belief in them and the rigor and the research and the honesty I feel has really paid off.

Tim: I think that’s a lot of really good stuff right there. I like what you said about building that community because that’s something that I think really helps because it is difficult to have kids get through all twenty four works. That’s a really rigorous challenge for them. Let’s talk about that though, when you’re trying to get kids through twenty four projects in a year, what have you found best works with setting up your schedule? Do you have kids go through the breadth section first then the concentration afterwards? Also along with that, what projects do you do that you think make for a successful breadth?

Jeanne: The first thing is that it’s like a boot camp or like spring training. I start meeting with the future AP kids in December before they ever start the class. In the December, the year before I meet with them, tell them what the class is about, establish the level of expectation and commitment, “If you take this class, here’s what will happen.” In January, students register, I get my true numbers. I meet with them again in May and I give them summer homework. This is divided into four areas: they’re asked to shoot about fifty reference photos, they’re asked to keep a visual journal. They’re asked to blog every week, I give them a list of online art sites that I think are good for them to become familiar with. Then I ask them to produce at least three finished pieces and up to six if they’re up for it, for the portfolio they think they want to do.

That way in summer, they have more freedom and they’re dabbling and figuring out, “What’s going to happen here?” We come back and we critique that work the first week of school. I have a block schedule, I see students every other day for eighty five minutes for the whole year. I have a new project due every fifth class with a formal critique on that day. The first semester is devoted to breadth section and figuring out which portfolio would be best. Really by October they’ve pretty much decided, “Hey, this is the portfolio I’m going to do.” With a few exceptions. We have several goal setting activities at the very beginning of the class to really reflect and analyze what their art should be about, what their artistic voice is. I emphasize the three Cs of quality art making: concept, composition and craftsmanship.

We talk about, “How do you develop a complex concept, composition and craftsmanship?” The first assignment I give is meant to be crazy. I have a deck of cards of words that I’ve written and they choose a word … They don’t know what word they’re going to get and they have to make ten works of art interpreting that word and they have to have it done in a week. I also don’t let them use computers or photography for this assignment. It pretty much freaks them out but after they get over the initial shock, it helps them realize, “You’ve got to stretch your idea, you got to really interpret the concept. You really need to be committed and have time management skills to survive this class.” Setting the tone of work ethic early, then this is also a mini version of a concentration. We really start to search for our concentrations throughout the first semester and they grow out of their first semester explorations.

In first semester we are primarily working on the breadth section. I usually give five to six breadth assignments that are specifically things I’ve assigned. Then students choose five to six more that are free choice. In December of the first semester, I hold individual conferences with them and I look at all their breadth work and I tell them what’s working and what’s not. They do a self-evaluation while we’re in this conference. There’s a rubric to help them and they take notes. Then they spend the final weeks of the semester polishing and finishing their breadth section. They put out an exhibit with breadth works in it and that’s their exam for first semester. Then we start photographing the work for the digital portfolio. By early February, we’ve done a written packet about our concentration too and that starts to really kick in the gear in mid-February. They’re asked to do research, visual journal explorations and write a proposal.

They’re required to do detailed thumbnails, then I also ask for three to five mini snapshot, full color sketches to plan it out. Even the photography people have to do sketching. Then we spend February through April finalizing those twelve works. The last week of April is all physical art work is due and done because I don’t want during the week that the exam is … I don’t want them making more art. We then photograph it and map the five quality pieces then we’re on our way. Usually I tell them to photograph along the way but they are huge procrastinators as all artists are. Usually the photographing is this mad, crazy, crunch the last week.

Tim: I found that’s how it is for me too, I don’t think you’re alone in that. Kids are just so good at procrastinating-

Jeanne: We are too.

Tim: If we can talk a little bit more about the concentration, I know you talked about conceptual development and I love the idea of the ten works based on the word or the card. I’m getting preview for what the concentration will be like but how do you help kids come up with the focus for that concentration? How much do you guide them and how much do they do things on their own?

Jeanne: At the very beginning of the year we do … Throughout the whole class we do a lot of writing. I feel like it’s important for them to be able to express themselves verbally, in written form and through visual imagery. Writing is a huge emphasis really in all the art classes I teach. My school district has a real commitment to literacy. At the beginning of the course, we do a two to three page packet that students complete. I ask them things like, “What’s your favorite movie? Your favorite song? Your favorite music? Why? Explain. What’s the place you feel most comfortable? What’s the place you feel least comfortable? Explain. What’s your most vivid memory? Your most vivid dream? The worst nightmare you’ve ever had? What artist or art movement do you love?” Same question but, “What do you hate? Then explain why.”

I ask them, “What media do you like most? What media do you like least? What have you never tried before but would like to try as far as media? Do you want to go to college? Are you interested in a career in arts?” Then we have a whole discussion about what it means to make trite art and what do they think is trite and why. That packet helps me get to know them at the beginning. It helps us start to set goals and quite often they reveal some really personal stuff in the packets. That becomes the basis of, “This is who you are as an artist and this is where your ideas for concentration should come from.” That’s at the very beginning then as we move forward, we do another reflective packet in late January, early February; where we go back to some of those questions but we also really start to hone in on, “What are you doing as an artist? What are your interests?”

Again, we write some more … Part of the reflection we do like a brain dump where they just write everything that’s in their heads in five minutes, fill a whole page. Then I go back and circle words that stand out and jump out then start to slowly develop, “Why is this important?” We go from there. Then after that I require them to do research, I really believe in research. When I got my master’s degree in 2007, that was a huge part of my program was researching. As a visual artist I thought that was important. I’ve got DVDs, the art in the 21st century series, hundreds of books, loads of resources.

I want them researching and figuring out what they want to do but also having some references for it. If they’re struggling I refer them to … I have this gigantic list I compiled a few years back from the college board, LISTSERV email group and it’s a whole list of concentrations that students have done from schools around the country. I have them take a look at that if they’re really struggling. Yeah, that’s where we go and how we get it. By the end of February we’ve jumped in and February through April we are working hot and heavy on all of it.

Tim: Exactly. I think you and I do a lot of the same things because I very much believe in the journaling, sketch books, research and just giving kids a lot of different resources. I also have a huge list of concentrations that have been done before. Just helping them find their way through that research I think is key. Just talking visually and conceptually about the concentration part, what do you think makes for a good concentration? What do you think the best qualities are if kids are looking for a good score with their concentration?

Jeanne: I talk to them about the concentration has to be specific, you have to have a specific focus point of view. For example saying, “I want to do portraits is an earlier concentration.” If you say, “I want to do portraits of my sister who has an eating disorder and struggles with it daily with her self-image.” That’s a concentration. I talk to them about finding their point of view and being really specific with their ideas. We also talk a lot like I said at the beginning of the year we talked about what is trite? How do you push beyond those literal interpretations of a word, of an idea? I think that work for the concentration should look like it goes together and it does have those literal pushes but it’s not all the same. I know one year I had a girl in the early gears who did a series of photos of students holding up signs with different social labels written on the sign. Then she colorized the photos to reflect the mood of the label and of the person.

This just wasn’t a deep enough exploration and it was really one dimensional, it was gimmicky almost. It was also completed in one photo shoot. There’s not much rigor or development in something like that and I remind them, “Remember that first assignment where you had one word in ten ways and you did it in a week and you got really creative at the end out of desperation. Think about that, think of numbers eight, nine and ten. Remember how creative you got with interpretation. That’s where you need to go.” We also talk about … I feel this is critical, is the high level of craftsmanship. I do think craftsmanship is important, I remind them that first semester was about experimentation with media, style, technique. With the concentration you should be using media you’re comfortable with and confident creating with. You should work on time management and proficiency with that media.

Concentration is not the time to be, “Hey, I’d like to try encaustic, I’ve never done it before. Not to mention I don’t have the money for that.” Then lastly I think the concentration should really show growth and should evolve over time. The girl who did the photo shoot in a week, there was no evolution there. There’s a plan and there are thumbnails but ultimately that playful investigation and that inspired interpretation that can only take place over time I think is another part of what has to happen in the concentration. Then lastly, I encourage students to have multiple pieces going on at the same time. We have in progress critiques, at those there’s always two to three pieces that I’m asking them to show. At least two are done and one is in progress and we constantly go like that, that way there’s always something happening, they’re not getting stuck in a rut and they’re not trying to make all eight pieces in a week or something like that at the end.

Tim: I think those are some great insights, like I said you and I are on the same page with so many of these things that we do and so many other things that we’re thinking about. One last question for you before I let you get out of here, how much time do you spend worrying about the quality section? Is it something that you have your kids thinking about all year? I know you talked about it a little bit earlier but do you just choose your best five once the portfolio is complete or do you have a process that guides that decision-making?

Jeanne: At the beginning of the year I make sure that they understand that the quality section is actual works of art and they cannot be larger than eighteen by twenty four. That being said though I do encourage students to work as large or as small as they need to for the purposes of what they’re doing. We really don’t pick quality until April. It just comes out of, “Here we’re almost done and what do you think are your best pieces?” The week of the AP exam we map the quality pieces, we really don’t choose too much earlier than that final week or two in April going into May. I usually let the students choose what their quality section is but it’s definitely a discussion that we have. I ask them, “First, what are your five best pieces you feel?”

Then we agree or disagree and we hash it out and go from there. Usually, they’re able to pick their top three then they’re like, “I don’t know what to do, Mrs. Bjork help me, what should I have my last couple of pieces be?” We do have this discussion going on during all the other crazy that’s going on at that time. I tell them, “Consider these five pieces are so good that they must be seen in person. I, the judges, by the readers to get across what you’re trying to say. They should be what best represents your voice as an artist and you want them to be seen in real life. That’s what we talk about which would be those five pieces.

Tim: I think that’s some great advice. Like you said, kids usually have a pretty good idea of what their five best are but it is always a good discussion to have. Jeanne, thank you so much for joining me today, this was an awesome interview. I think it is some great insight for our listeners on what it takes to make a successful AP Studio Art program. Thank you for all of that.

Jeanne: Thank you. It’s one of my favorite classes to teach, it’s crazy but I love it.

Tim: I think that’s how we all feel about it, it is very crazy but there’s nothing more fun to teach. We’re good there.

Jeanne: All right. Thank you.

Tim: All right. Thank you. That was such an incredible interview and so full of information. I honestly think that we could have made this a two hour podcast and it’s tough to condense that down to twenty minutes. Here’s what I’m thinking, here’s what we’re going to do. I just had this epiphany while Jeanne and I were talking that she and I need to put our heads together and come up with a collection of all our resources. We’re going to extend this podcast conversation and do it by way of an article on the I’m going to talk to Jeanne, we’re going to make a couple of downloads available. I will write an article then I just need to convince my editor Amanda to make space for a new article.

Since I’m equal parts charming and persuasive, we’re totally going to make all of that happen. Make sure you visit the this week. If you don’t see the article search for AP Studio Art and between this podcast, the new resources that we’re going to put together and a couple of old articles that I’ve written, you’re going to have everything you need to make your AP Studio Art class a success. As we said earlier, it can have such a positive effect on your entire art program. Do your research, take sometime, take this awesome advice from Jeanne, grab our resources and make your program the best that it can be.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced and supported by the Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. You can find this at where most importantly you can now sign up for the Art Ed Radio email list. Andrew and I will entertain you with some sneak peeks and behind the scenes looks of what we do, commentary on the episodes and some great recommendations of stuff we love. New episodes of Art Ed Radio are released every Tuesday, we will see you then. 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.