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Andrew takes some inspiration from the “This American Life” to talk about the things that we used to believe as art teachers. More importantly, how do our beliefs change over time? How do we evolve? Andrew and Tim bring in some extra voices to guide the conversation as they talk about moving away from the importance of product (8:00), why it takes time to find who you are as a teacher (12:00), and the importance of authenticity (16:15). Full episode transcript below.
Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the art of education, and I’m your host, Andrew McCormick. There’s this radio program out there, and it runs on NPR from time to time, even though this organization that puts it on is an independent nonprofit group, and it’s called This I Believe. I absolutely love this program, and I love the audio. People from all walks of life come on and talk about big ideas, transformative realizations, you know cornerstone experiences and beliefs that have shaped who they are. It’s fashioned off of the 1950’s series of the same name, which was hosted by the acclaimed radio personality Edward R. Murrow.
Now, I know that this is going to show how deeply my nerdy podcast roots run, but the podcast, This American Life, aired an alternative episode to This I Believe, called This I Used to Believe. In all transparency here, this is episode 378, you should totally go check it out, it’s hilarious. At the time of this recording of this podcast, This American Life has actually aired 616 episodes, and I have listened to all of them, so in full disclosure, I’m a big fan. Anyway, the This I Used to Believe podcast really got me thinking about all the things that I used to believe and no longer hold onto in education.
I think that this question is actually far more interesting, I mean anyone can have a belief, but talk to me about your evolution of beliefs and how you’ve changed over time? Now, that’s really interesting. At the NAEA conference in New York City, I was actually able to sit down and ask some other great art teachers out there this very question, “What was it that you used to believe that you no longer hold onto so dearly? Have you changed, have you grown?” This podcast, where I kind of ask people if there were some things that they used to believe wouldn’t be complete without bringing on my partner in crime, Tim Bogatz, so we’re going to hear from him in just a second.
Here was my light bulb moment: cell phones. I used to love them in the classroom. In fact, I used to specifically write in my syllabi that I wanted my students to bring them to class, and it was very shocking for them to see this, and I made a point to point it out. I was tired of having kids always ask me to look something up for them, so that they could draw it. My attitude was always this: just bring your own darned phone. I mean, you have, in your locker right now, the universe of knowledge, and it’s just sitting there, so go get it and bring it in. I thought it was our responsibility as teachers to teach our students how to use and navigate technology responsibly. I thought that we couldn’t do this if we took a sort of ostrich’s head in the sand sort of mentality to technology, like pretending like it wasn’t there and it didn’t exist.
I had about a four-year run of pure magic when it came to cell phone use. Kids used their cell phones responsibly, they were rarely a distraction. They shared their work on Twitter, on Instagram, with hashtags that I gladly shared with the whole world. Students were actually outsourcing opinions about their artwork to other people, they were looking up things online and doing research. This magic window of four years actually coincided for me in two different divides. One, for one year, we had no technology whatsoever, so it made a lot of sense, you know BYOD, bring your own device, and then three years of one-to-one Chromebooks. You would think, “Well, why do we need the phones anymore?”, but I just kind of was in the habit of teaching them to use their cell phones responsibly. I just kept letting my students bring it, and it really wasn’t a problem, but then something changed.
Maybe it was a new school, I mean maybe that’s it, but I actually think it’s this: SnapChat. To me, it is the first social media platform that I actively despised, and I’ve loved them all before this, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Vine, Periscope, Instagram, Pinterest, but SnapChat is horrible. To me, it is pure distraction. The fear of missing out is driving our students to have almost no attention span whatsoever. I really believe that our dumb lizard brains that we have are not equipped for this sort of constant stimulation of fear and anxiety and what’s happening, and what’s my status with my friends. I now, more than ever before, have adopted an attitude of a digital diet, if not one of pure outright digital abstinence. I just, I can’t put up with it anymore.
I used to believe that technology was super important, that we had to teach students how to navigate it. Now, I don’t know if that’s possible. All right, so let me get off my high horse here, and I’m going to go ahead and bring on Tim just a little bit early, as he has some really big and exciting news to share. Tim, how are you doing, my man?
Tim: I am doing really well, and I should say, I am excited. Can I just jump in and tell you all the exciting stuff that I have to tell you?
Andrew: Yeah man, go for it.
Tim: All right, so as most of our listeners probably saw, we announced that we have Sir Ken Robinson as our keynote speaker at Art Ed Now this summer, which I’m absolutely thrilled about and it’s going to be amazing, but part two of that excitement is that he is going to be a guest on the podcast. He was generous enough to let me sit down with him for an interview, and in just a couple weeks here, we are going to be publishing that. It was amazing.
Andrew: That’s awesome. I’ve got to ask you a couple of things, so number one, how did it go? Number two, were you nervous? Because like, he is kind of like everyone’s kind of awesome mentor in all things creativity, so were you a little bit nervous?
Tim: I thought I was going to be, but I was not, it seemed to run pretty smooth, because I got to chat with him a little bit before the interview, and he was just the nicest, most down to Earth, like self-deprecating sense of humor, fantastic guy. Then the interview started, and he is literally the smartest person I’ve ever talked to, I mean it was you know whatever story he wants to, whatever direction he wants to go with what we’re talking about, I just followed him, and it was pretty fantastic. He gave me almost an hour of his time, which was amazing.
It’s a really long podcast, you know it’s going to last way longer than what we usually do, but it is an amazing interview. Like I said, I’m really excited for everybody to hear that.
Andrew: Well, that’s awesome, but you’ve just got to tell me, I’m like the second-most-smartest person that you’ve ever talked to, right?
Tim: Well, you just couldn’t say “smartest person” correctly, so I feel like that drops you down a little bit.
Andrew: Dang it, well that is very cool, and I know everyone is going to be really excited to hear that in a couple weeks. Let’s actually pivot and let’s kind of get into this podcast.
Tim: Yeah, I’m ready to go.
Andrew: Okay, well cool. I kind of started a little bit without you. I was talking about things that we used to believe in education, and I kind of started off the podcast as I am wont to do, with a little bit of a rant against technology. I’ve kind of grown out of a love of technology, and that got me wondering, have you actually had some realizations over the years that you’ve been teaching, that there are some things that you’ve evolved out of, and no longer believe?
Tim: For sure, and I’m sure there are some more subtle ones that I’ve kind of processed through the years, but I think the biggest thing for me is when I first started teaching, like when I first started my career, I thought that my job as a high school art teacher was to get all of my kids going to art school or majoring in art at whatever university I chose. Then it was also our job to win every art competition available, and you know that was fun for a couple years, but then I started to realize that not every kid is super passionate about that. Then I started realizing that, “Hey, there’s a lot to be learned about the art-making process and our sketchbook work, and our brainstorming and creativity and idea development, and there’s so much more out there than just producing cool work that looks good at art shows, or producing artists that are ready to hit the closest art institute and win scholarship money, like there’s so much more out there.”
As we always say, “Your art room needs to be more than a production factory,” like there’s so much more that you can do. I’m glad that it didn’t take me as long to realize that, I mean just a couple of years, but I’m glad that I moved on from that.
Andrew: Yeah, that’s good. You know, I was actually able at NYC this last March, I actually was able to kind of sit down and chat with a couple people at the conference kind of about this same idea, because I’ve been interested in it a little bit. I actually got a chance to talk to Shannon Bell and Matt Christiansen, both awesome AOE people.
Tim: Both who have been on the podcast recently.
Andrew: That’s true, so we were kind of able to touch base with them again, which was really nice. I asked them the same question, like what did you used to believe? I actually think, in some ways, their responses sort of echo some of your sentiment about your expectations and production and competition and winning everything and getting your kids to college. I actually want to hear a little bit from them right now.
Shannon: I think when I first started, I was so focused on product. In my first year of teaching, like here I am, 21 years old, I’m working with an alternative school, and I was the teacher who would sit down and be like, “Eh, this doesn’t really look good. Let me help you and change it for you.” You know, 10 years later in teaching, it’s like I would never sit next to a kid and work on their paper. That’s something that I kind of look back and cringe, “Oh my God, I was that teacher.” Now, it’s really valuing that process and kind of leading kids towards self-reflection and accepting their own mistakes as part of their process.
Matt: When I first started teaching, I kind of believed that students, my goal was to try and get students ready for college. I still believe that I want to do that, but I don’t think that should be the only path for students, like that’s not a realistic solution. I think some students actually don’t benefit from racking up an enormous debt and then dropping out. I think for me, I just want to try and inspire them now to find something new in themselves, and realize they can use the arts and be creative to problem solve in life in general.
Andrew: I would say that all three of you guys are really getting at what we thought formally as art teachers were our responsibilities and duties to our students and our profession. In a way, similar to this, I actually used to be like a really big elements and principles type of guy, and I know people out there listening might be kind of surprised by that, but I really did think early on that it was kind of like my job to give my students a “solid background” in all these formal ideas, that that would be vital to their success in art. To be honest, it makes me cringe a little bit to think about how I ran things in those first couple years of teaching.
Tim: Okay, I hope you don’t mind me interrupting, but don’t you think that everybody kind of looks back and cringes about their first couple years? Like, do you know anybody who’s a master teacher their first year or their second year? I think it takes some time to really find who you are, and yeah, I mean that surprises me to hear you talking about how you used to love elements and principles, because that’s not who you are now, but I think it does take some time to develop into the teacher that you want to be.
Andrew: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think if you’re a person who’s been teaching, you know like we’ve been teaching 12, 15 years or so, and you feel like, “Oh boy, this is the tried and true, been doing it this way since day one,” you’re not probably being very reflective. To be fair to myself, I mean I was new, I didn’t really know what I was doing, I inherited a classroom that used a textbook, so I’m like, “Oh, I guess that’s what art teachers do, they use a textbook.” That lasted about two years before I was like, “What the heck am I doing? This doesn’t seem good for anybody. It’s not good for me, it’s not good for my students.”
Actually, we have a little clip here from Matt Grundler, our good friend down in Texas, who has some ideas that are along the same lines about how his thoughts on good art instruction has evolved over time, that I think fits in well with this idea.
What’s one thing that you used to believe that you no longer believe?
Matt Grundler: That you have to get certain amounts of time, like each project has to only be two class periods long, or it has to be a make-and-take, it’s something, you know this year especially, I’ve had projects that have lasted four to five, to sometimes even six class periods. I know it seems like a lot, but when you see the kids involved, and you see them really enjoying what they’re doing, it’s kind of hard to really say, “Oh, that’s it, we’re done, we’re moving on.”
Tim: Yeah, I think those are some really good thoughts, and I hope again, you don’t mind me jumping in where you’re trying to host the show, but I want to ask you like, you know we just talked and we’ve talked at length before about kind of your evolution into more of the choice-based approach, and bringing in all of these elements of steam. Can you talk about, like you said, just sort of that reflective process, and what you did to evolve as a teacher, I guess?
Andrew: Oh man, that’s a really good question, I don’t know if I’ve talked about this much, or maybe ever on this podcast. I taught for four years, and then I was actually asked to teach like as an instructor, some art education classes. I actually left public school teaching for like three years while I did that, and I realized that as I was teaching people how to teach, I was adopting this like, “Do as I say and not as I did formerly,” kind of approach, and I was like, “Oh man, as I’m now trying to teach people what good instruction looks like, I don’t know that I really did a good job.” I kind of knew early on that I wanted to get back into public school teaching, it wasn’t a great fit for me.
When I got my former job in Cedar Falls, I was like, “Man, I’m going to just blow the doors off the hinges of this thing.” I adopted a more choice-based approach, I was like, “I want to give some more authentic approaches to art-making for students,” I wanted them to have more meaning in it, and I was getting more into like technology and engineering and stuff. I actually think in a weird way, it actually took me leaving and then reflecting and realizing like all the things that I wish I could have done better, but also having a break from that, to then come back and then like do it justice, like do it how I was now finally happy with it.
Tim: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. I’m going to hope, and I’m going to ask here, do you have any good interviews that kind of talk about that same thing? Do you have more clips that we can jump into?
Andrew: Yeah, so I really made a point to go find some other people who were choice-based teachers, because I think a lot of choice-based people and tab people definitely have good evolution stories. I was able to track down Kelly Phillips and Melissa Purtee, again, both awesome, great AOE folks, and they could kind of share some of their ideas about tab and choice, and how they have evolved as well.
Kelly Phillips: I’m a natural people-pleaser, and I had to let that go, because my philosophy does not please everyone. I still struggle with it a little bit, but I think like knowing that grading is not as important as getting kids to be creative and excited and have fun, and being able to say that to my principle without sugarcoating it and being like, “Oh yeah, grading, I do all this stuff,” I think being honest about where you’re coming from, it allows you to be more confident in your philosophy. Then you can advocate for yourself better, and if you’re pretending that grading is important to you, it’s not authentic, it’s not going to make you a better teacher.
But if you’re going into a meeting and saying like, “Okay, I know I need to do this for what the school system needs, but like I’m going to do it my own way, and that’s just my philosophy, and that’s where I’m coming from,” I think I’ve gotten a lot more respect from that. I’m also kind of proud of myself for saying like, “I know it seems important to you guys, but for me, I’m an art teacher, I’m not a grader.”
Andrew: Well, it sounds like you’ve gotten tougher.
Kelly Phillips: Oh yeah, totally. I’ve grown a little bit of a thicker skin around it, and I’ve had parents or administrators say things to me that I’m like, “Oh wow,” I take them to heart, and I’m like, “Wait a second. My classroom is amazing, I get a lot of really good feedback.” I have to remain confident in that, because if somebody walks up to you and says something negative about your classroom, and you take it to heart and try to change for that one person, you’re losing this whole other audience that already loves what you’re doing.
Melissa Purtee: When I was a first-year teacher, I planned what my kids were going to make and showed them how to make it. Now, I am sort of about partnering learning with students, my goal isn’t to make projects, but it’s to make artists.
Andrew: I really really enjoy Kelly’s little bit there, as she’s kind of talking about grading, and it got me thinking about my own long, love/hate relationship with grading. I think maybe it’s a byproduct of discipline-based art education, but I thought early on that I had to be tough and disciplined and give students weekly behavior grades, and that’s just awful, for me anyway. It didn’t work, and I’ve since realized it wasn’t fair, it was a crap-ton of work, and I was really doing assessment all wrong. I still actually think I’ve got a long ways to go, but I definitely can empathize with Kelly about grading on that one.
Tim: For sure, I think a lot of people do.
Andrew: All right, so Tim, I’m going to kind of wrap this up, and I’m going to ask you kind of a weird curve ball question. We’ve both been teaching for roughly 12 years, so let’s spin this forward another 12 years, and I want you to think about, if you have a set of beliefs, ideas that you have right now that you think, “You know what? I bet 12 years from now, I’m not going to hold onto this so closely.” Like, do you have some ideas right now that you’re only loosely still holding onto, that you think could easily go away?
Tim: That’s a good question. I have a lot of ideas, and I hold pretty strongly to my opinion, as you hear every week right here, but at the same time, I reflect a lot, I’m open to change and I’m always looking for new ideas. I know that these beliefs are not going to hold. What will change? I don’t know, but if I can just, I don’t know, make a couple predictions about where things are going, I think in 10 years, 12 years, a vast majority of art teachers are going to be somewhere on the choice spectrum. I think there’s a huge movement to more authentic choice, more student voice in artwork.
I can’t find anybody who thinks that’s a bad idea. I think as more people come around to that, I feel like there’s going to be a shift, not necessarily toward full choice or to tab, but you know like I said, just more opportunities for choice and voice in student artwork. Then on the teaching side of things, you know my hope is that professional development is going to be so much more personalized, and there’ll be opportunities out there for teachers to learn about what they need or what they want to learn about, you know even getting really specific within art like, “Oh hey, I need to learn more about sculpture, I need to learn more about firing the kiln.” Teachers are going to have those opportunities to dive into things like that, without having to sit through that professional development that we all hate.
I don’t know if that’s a prediction necessarily, but it’s definitely a hope that I think can help out a lot of teachers. I don’t know, I’m not sure if I answered your question, but looking forward, that’s what I’m seeing and that’s what I’m hoping to see, I guess.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s definitely a hard one to predict, and I’m glad that you didn’t ask me, because I think I would be apt to say something really stupid that I would look at in even just a couple years, not 12 years, and be like, “What the crap was I thinking? That’s like the dumbest thing ever.” I am not going to answer questions that I was not asked, sir.
Tim: All right.
Andrew: There we go.
Tim: So we can move on.
Andrew: Well hey man, thanks for coming on, I really appreciate it.
Tim: Yeah, thanks, it was good to talk to you.
Andrew: Well thank you as always to Tim for coming on, and helping me think about how our ideas and beliefs towards teaching have evolved over time. You know, I think change is inevitable, it’s okay. In fact, it’s a good thing. It shows that we’re not stuck in a rut and we’re not just banging out the same stuff year after year by rote, and like Tim and I were saying, it’s like we’re not doing the same things we did early on.
Just to follow that logic though, be open to change, and you can even cut yourself a little bit of slack if you look back on your teaching and you look at those truly cringe-y moments of teaching. You know, at least we’re not still making those same mistakes, right?
Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by the art of education, with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Now that summer break is upon us, have you started thinking about your summertime professional development? I know for me that this is the summer where I get my MA+15 done, and I move up that lane change ladder. It’s going to be a busy summer, but it seems pretty manageable, because I’m taking one AOE class every month to wrap it all up. It’s going to be tough work, but totally doable and so worth it, you know not just financially, but also to refresh and recharge for next year. Head on over to theartofed.com, and check out all their great classes.
As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio are released every Tuesday, and additional content can be found under the podcast tab on theartofed.com. All right, thanks for listening.