One day this spring I looked around at children creating in the studio and noticed something peculiar: There was only little joy in the room.
Sure, they were productive and busy, and I think everyone feels a sense of satisfaction when they complete something in the end. What noticed was a lack of joy in the process of creating. How sad– especially at a school with the motto, “Nothing Without Joy.”
I put myself in their shoes, and imagined what it likely felt like for them to interact with the studio. If I were a child entering my classroom, I would walk into the studio, learn about what we were doing, and then be expected to do whatever it was right then. Sure, my teacher would explain how it was connected to the project work they were doing in their homeroom classroom, but I wouldn’t have time to come up with ideas or think of how I could do it best; I would simply have to get started right away. In this way, I wouldn’t feel as much ownership as I would if I were creating something I had been thinking about making for days or weeks.
I was concerned that children didn’t have time to think of ideas, to tinker, to fail. I worried that because we were working on similar kinds of projects at the same time, they were prone to comparing themselves to others. I observed that their styles looked very similar to one another, as though they were recycling the same few ideas. Most importantly of all, I noticed it wasn’t as joyful as I know art to be.
I started doing some research, talked with Ms. McLean and other art teachers, and found a teaching method called “Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB),” which is sometimes called “Choice-Based Studio” instruction. In this approach, children are introduced to the work of other artists, materials, and techniques at the beginning of the studio time. They are expected to listen and ask questions, but the are not expected to implement what they have learned right away. Instead, they get to choose from materials that have been introduced over time, and work on a project of their choosing.
I asked the classroom teachers to experiment with this new approach with me for the last few weeks of the year. I showed the students a video of what a choice-based studio looks like, and we contrasted it to how we were currently using the studio. They made observations like, “The teacher introduces something, but then the students get to choose how they want to spend their time” and “The children get to use a lot of different kinds of materials because they understand how to clean them up.”
To begin this style of teaching, the studio needed a makeover. To the passerby it might seem no different, as all the furniture is mostly in the same places. What took several days of work was rearranging the room so that materials of the same media were grouped together, within children’s reach, labeled, and organized in a way that children would independently be able to manage.
Over the past 8 weeks, I have slowly introduced children to options at some of the centers-drawing, painting, printmaking, paper arts, and installation. After I demo something at the beginning of class, the children choose which center they would like to work in, perhaps starting something inspired by the lesson, or working on something they want to finish from a previous class.
The feedback from students has been incredible. They have stopped me in the hallway to tell me how much they like the change or told their teacher that they were going to the bathroom when they were really coming to talk to me. While writing this post I asked the students around me what they like about they change to choice and they said:
“It’s more interesting. It’s more free, like in the wild, not in a cage.”– Matteo
“Well, I think I really like it this way. You can create what you really want to; you don’t have to create a single thing.”– Zuri
“I like how you have to be responsible, but you can work freely.” –Lucia
One of my favorite interactions happened spontaneously, as the student was walking out the door.
Katie S.: I really like coming to art class, because with art, I can exceed expectations.
Me: What do you mean by, “exceed expectations?”
Katie S.: I mean that when I make art, I can just be me. People expect me to make “kid art,” but I can make something really sophisticated, something that surprises adults. I don’t have to be anything other than myself, because being me is enough.
Me: Yes, whatever you create is more than enough.
Katie S.: And I can’t fail, because there is really no such thing as bad art. Who gets to judge what is bad and what is good? What matters is how well I think I have expressed myself.
In all, the transition to a choice-based studio this last quarter of school has been incredible. More choice is coming next year!