The Change to Choice

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!















Three Cheers for the CHCF!

With many, many thanks to the Capitol Hill Community Foundation, the atelier has new tables and chairs!  Formerly, the space had eight different kinds of a chairs and wobbly tables that were hard to draw on, all of mismatched sizes and dimensions. Not only was this visually chaotic, it was difficult to organize the space in ways that were conducive to all kinds of learning. And draw a straight line on the wobbly tables? Forget-about-it!

CHCF blog

The Capitol Hill Community Foundation granted us $1700 to buy four matching tables and chairs, and they have had a huge impact on the space.  Now collaborative work happens naturally, and all children have the space they need to do their best work.  Because the tables are all the same size, the studio is now modular– the tables are rearranged depending on the kind of lesson at hand and the needs of that lesson.  And as a wonderful bonus, the tables can be arranged to make a stage for performances.

CHCF Blog2

Many thanks again to the Capitol Hill Community Foundation for their support of our growing program!

Where Teaching Begins


It was hard to tell it was winter.  With stretches of 70 degree days throughout December and January, the shapes of the winter trees reminded me that even without the cold or snow, my world was in winter.

I shared with the children my love for trees in all seasons, especially in winter. Without leaves to hide behind, they are quiet and still, their forms vulnerable against winter skies.  I wanted to paint these shapes with the children, to create little forests together.

Forest Trees

The children said that they love them, too:

“It’s like they are naked without all their leaves.”

“Sometimes I see things in the branches that I wouldn’t normally see, like birds or nests.”

“They look more like sculptures.”

We studied the shapes of three trees that live outside our school. In partners, the children took turns sharing what they noticed about the ways their branches were alike and different.


Then came the practice. Painting lines that look like trees is no easy feat. For some children, trying something and failing at it the first time is really difficult.  And no wonder– as adults, we so often applaud children for their immediate successes (“Good job! How talented you are!”) rather than their continued perseverance and reflection (“You are trying so hard! And look– you’re getting better!”).

To help the children release the need for creating something perfect or worthy of taking home, I explained that we would be painting for the sake of painting. I told them that we would put whatever came of the creation—“good” or “bad”— in the recycling bin at the end of our first session. We were practicing non-attachment to the end result. Often artists create as a form of practice, without attachment to whether they like what they have created or not.


Non-attachment was a new idea for many children, but one that they soon grasped. For many, it allowed them to be more spontaneous in their creation, letting go of thoughts like “I can’t do this” or “This is too hard” with greater ease.  After all, it didn’t matter anyway.  Whatever they made wasn’t going to last forever; it wasn’t going to hang on a wall or fridge.  They made five, ten, twenty (!) practice trees before painting their final tree in India ink during the second session, progressively getting better.

Still, for some children, an initial failed attempt at a tree was enough for them to want to stop.  This is where teaching begins.

The more I have taught, the more I realize that my teaching compass always points in the same direction.  No matter the content– whether it is sounding out new words, or painting a tree, or solving a math problem– what I want children to learn is how to face their failures in a way that serves them.  If only a learner can be gentle to their self and keep trying in the face of challenges, they will find the words, the painted trees, and the answers to the math problems will come with time.  Helping children believe that they will get better with practice and time is, for me, what it’s all about.

Painting Background

The real teaching began.  For children who were struggling to persevere, I took turns painting tree branches with them. For those who were worried their work wasn’t good enough, we marked up their papers practicing making straight lines, squiggly lines– anything but trees. For those who were worried about perfection, I crumbled up, made tears and scratches on paper, and asked them to paint on the already imperfect surfaces. Some took breaks, and we talked about what their thoughts were saying.

Before long, all the children were creating their paintings.  When we compared their pictures side-by-side, they could see progress.  Progress, not perfection, was the goal all along.

Tree Progress









Thinking Through Representation

Our fourth graders’ stop motion animation and their artist statements will be projected outside the main office during the week of the solstice.  Please take a look!


Our 4th graders have become especially close knit this year.  They spent the first few weeks of school talking with Ms. Meehan and Mr. Loftis about their hopes and dreams, what it takes for a classroom to be a space for everyone to be successful, and establishing shared expectations for the group.  Although the children are assigned to separate homerooms, they are united as one, whole group.

Mr. Loftis shared with Ms. Meehan and me a recording he had from his class discussing why the process of coming together was important.  What the children had to share was powerful.

At the beginning of the year we had some new students and when we worked together I think we got to know each other more.  Then since we got to know each other more, things ran more smoothly because everybody has friends and they’re not getting into fights with other people.” –Sylvie


The act of reflecting on process slows us down, and notice what we are already learning.

“I might have forgotten other people’s things– their drawings, their writing– and looking at them again was actually very educational, learning more about people when they were in their past and what they might be in their future.”



I asked the students in the studio, “How can you show the process of how you came together as a 4th grade whole without using any words?” Since it was a process, their work needed movement, and I thought stop motion animation would be an appropriate form for their work. Their challenge was to work as a small group using one material of their choice to show the process of how the two second grade classes came together as a cohesive grade.

The groups planned and rehearsed their pieces, thinking through how they would represent their ideas using limited materials.  Some groups used paper to draw plans, while others acted it out.  They had to grapple with the challenges associated with different materials.

When recording, the children faced new challenges.  Who would be the “director” and who would move the materials?  How could they make subtle enough movements to create nearly 100 pictures for their animation?  How could they resolve issues of camera focus and hand movements?


Groups were drawn to bottle caps (I laughed hearing, “We need more Flying Dog caps!” across the room), glass beads, tiles, and plastic caps.  Whatever material they used, the challenge was to think of how to represent the process without actually creating pictures or scenes. What resulted were abstract movements that could actually be used to represent many other ideas. The final piece is below!




Two Spaces, One Project


This year, we are trying something new at SWS in the elementary grades.  Instead of students regularly coming to the art studio in 45-min blocks once a week, the work that the children do in the studio is often directly connected to the work happening in their regular classroom.

For example, the second graders in Ms. Scofield’s homeroom have been studying monarch butterflies.  During the first weeks of school, Ms. Scofield brought in milkweed with live caterpillars, which quickly became a centerpiece in the classroom.  The children have watched each day as caterpillars walked around, formed chrysalis, and evolved into butterflies.  And the children have asked questions like:

“How do caterpillars get their stripes?”


“I wonder how they know where to go when they migrate?”

“Why do the eggs have bumps and lines all over them? I wonder if they egg hatches in spring or summer?”

“Are the green specks on the chrysalis breathing holes?”


These same students (as first graders) shared the same hallway as the second graders last year. They watched the paintings, drawings, books, and presentations the older students made as part of a project on honeybees.  Now, as the older kids on the floor, they are interested in hosting their own “Butterfly Day” to show what they have learned.

During project time, children are scattered in clusters.  Some work on a large mural in the hallway.  Two others read a book together on the rug.  A group of four chatted as they color in the yellow and black stripes of a monarch caterpillar.

At the same time, in the studio, the children worked on watercolor resist paintings of different stages of the life cycle. 

Their paintings began with a pen tracing of their chosen picture using a projector.  Using a projected image to make an initial sketch is a technique used by many artists.  For children who lack confidence in their drawing, it is a way to practice making controlled lines and to use judgment in whether they have included enough detail to represent their subject.

After making the initial outlines, students used watercolors to add color to their images, using an original picture as a guide.  After the watercolor dried, they went over the image with a sharpie to add areas of black and to accentuate lines. Now these paintings will be used as a teaching tool during their Butterfly Day.


From here, children will continue their research in the classroom– soon moving on to a unique species who they will research on the computer.  In the studio, they will create drafts of drawings of their chosen butterfly, eventually working up to a scientific drawing in colored pencil.


What do children worry about?

It wasn’t until my late twenties that I realized all I had been missing. For years I avoided experiences I feared I wouldn’t be “good enough” at and that my identity as someone who was “good at everything” would crumble if I tried something and failed.


I would like to say that there was a time when I didn’t worry. I wish I could say that I lived my childhood with all the liberty to express myself freely and didn’t worry about what others thought, but it isn’t true. If I ever did feel that way, I lost that feeling pretty early on. Continue reading “What do children worry about?”