CBMS Choice-Based Art Studio

CBMS Choice-Based Art Studio
CBMS Choice-Based Art Studio

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Shared Ownership

Professor George Szekely (University of Kentucky) observes that it is often the teacher who decorates learning spaces – the teacher designs the bulletin boards, decorates the door, pins up the posters, hangs the mobiles. In doing so, the teacher “owns” the space. Szekely urges teachers to share the learning spaces in school – to look for ways to allow students to “do the decorating.”

I delight in observing ways in which students take ownership of their art studio. Here are some recent examples:

"Best Class Ever" farewell sign for the art studio door from a departing 6th grade class
"Z"  (grade 5) up on the counter to hang his "Bird Flock" for display
...and an old favorite:
"Art is Amazing" banner sign by "L" -  made at grandma's and carried into school in parts when she was a 5th grader (now an 8th grader)
Probably one reason kids love choice-based art programs so much is because they get to take back a little of the control adults so casually assume throughout the school each day. Walk through the halls of your local school and see what you observe. No doubt there will be lots of student work on display, but whose choice is it to display this work?

Typical Choice-Based Art Display - Mounted artwork with "artist's statements" attached. 
 In our Choice-Based Art program, students decide whether or not their finished work will be displayed – just as do practicing artists. Often students also determine where and how their work is displayed, and for how long.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Important Thing

It's a concept we return to again and again - “what is the important thing about art?”
Quarter 2 has just begun, and one group of 5th graders (from the “Quest” team) pondered the question. 
I wrote some of their responses on the whiteboard:

 Is it just me, or does this new crop of artists appear to be unusually sophisticated in their thinking?

Thursday, November 7, 2013


A new temporary center is available in the CBMS Art Studio for the next few weeks. 
8th graders at work in Lantern Center

6th grade lantern artists at work

Students may choose to work in the "Lantern Making Center" to create original lantern designs for Waterbury's annual River of Light Parade. The parade takes place on December 7th and this year culminates in a community bonfire. We discovered a video from Australia today showing artists using the same willow, paper & glue technique that Waterbury lantern-makers are familiar with. The austrailian lantern-artists place real lighted candles in their lanterns.
An 8th grade innovation
The parade's theme this year is "Creatures of the Sea" - students have started to design fish, squid, sea turtles and even a seahorse! This activity is perfect for our Choice-Based Art studio, because students are familiar with the event and have experience making a variety of lanterns in the past as school projects or through area art workshops. Students can use this knowledge as a spring-board to innovative new designs, shapes and structures that will carry light on parade night.
Grade 6 students adding paper "skin"

Fish design by 6th grade lantern specialist
 6th Graders interpret the "Creatures of the Sea" theme for the River of Lights parade
A nice shark is taking shape!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Reflection & Critique

Meet "Dale & Dalia" - two astronauts exploring far off places, clay sculpture collaboration, by "A" & "A," grade 6
Every two weeks, students pause in the “making” to reflect about and share their work. Sometimes the reflection is about a finished artwork, other times it is an examination of individuals’ creative process. Students refer to 8 “Studio Thinking Habits” as a lens to examine their work.
Here are some of the recent responses from a grade 6 class near the end of their 10 week quarter:
  • DEVELOP CRAFT: “I learned how to hand sew better and I learned a different kind of stitch.”
  • DEVELOP CRAFT/ENGAGE & PERSIST/ENVISION: ( this student chose 3 Studio Thinking Habits): “I am practicing my drawing skills by drawing a comic book/ I decided to make a comic book and I didn't give up on it/I’m using imagination by making up a comic book.”
  • ENVISION: “I used the sewing machine to make a costume for my sister’s 18” dolls.”
  • DEVELOP CRAFT: “I was developing craft because I was learning how to use clay in a better way because my piece is functional.”
  • OBSERVE: “I was going off what my friend did and I decided I really liked it.”
  • ENGAGE & PERSIST: “I chose this because I am determined to finish this blanket for my baby cousin.”
  • REFLECT:  “I have chosen reflect because I have learned to describe my artwork and talk about it in my own words.”

This is the second year that this group has employed Studio Thinking Habits to think and speak about their work. The habits were identified and described by a group of researcher and art educators from Harvard Project Zero who sought to define the benefits for students of participating in art programs.

These “Habits of Mind” are useful to examine learning in other disciplines as well. I have heard of music teachers, a science teacher and a math teacher who employ these ideas in their practice with students. Habits of Mind describe the thinking and skills that contribute to the ability to become life-long-learner and creative producers.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

New Article Published Today!

Visit Arts & Activities Magazine online to read my new article: Boost Creativity & Innovation (See Page 12) http://pubdev.ipaperus.com/ArtsandActivities/AANovember2013/

And while you are there, get a free online subscription so you won't miss the bimonthly "Choice-Based Art" column!
"Nothing up my sleeve" Grade 8

Vermont Teachers Fall Conference

The drizzly day outside only made it that much cozier inside the red school house on the Vermont Technical College campus. Dr.Marilyn Stewart, textbook author and Art Education professor at Kutztown University spoke about the connections between high quality art curriculum and the new "Common Core" initiative.

Dr. Stewart characterized the Common Core as "Liberation of the intellect." That may be overstating somewhat, but the idea is that the Common Core is concept and connections-based and centered on "enduring understandings." These, according to Stewart, are understandings that will pass "The  20-Year Test:" - what today's students will understand after 20 year's time. For art, these may include:
-Art is for all of us, not just a few
-Throughout history, humans have made things to express their values and beliefs
- Art produces joy
-Art is important to humankind

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

I'm so glad

"I'm so glad I can use clay whenever I want to, so I can 
get all my ideas out." - "E," Grade 5

Sometimes teachers who facilitate learner-directed art studio programs, like ours at CBMS, lament a net-loss in 2-D work. As soon as the "Sculpture Center" and the "Clay Center" open, students seem to move away from drawing, painting, collage and other 2-D media. While this can make filling school bulletin boards a little challenging, it is a net-gain for 3-D thinkers, who are often undeserved throughout their school day.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Printmaking 101

I think it's a lesson best learned the hard way - when you make a print of something, the image is reversed.
"B," grade 5, discovers writing will appear as a "mirror image" in a Styrofoam relief print - and quickly corrects the error

I used to insist: "NO words or numbers - make an animal - they always come out great!" But I have come to realize that avoiding the inevidible does not provide an optimal learning experience, so now I stay quiet and let the learning happen.

Once students learn this lesson, I assure them that everyone makes that mistake at first. I delight in telling the story of the principal at a school for the gifted and creative, who spent about 20 minutes carving "PEACE" into a printing-block, only to discover the same lesson that "B" did, in the above holiday card attempt (the principal's name started with a "B" too!)

NECAP: Standardized Testing 2013

Testing days test us all - not just the students. 
When students tumbled into art today they were off-schedule, arriving at unusual times after a jumbled morning of testing, recess and academics. Everything felt a little askew.

8th graders always start with a 5-minute "warm-up" in their sketchbooks, and today was no different. Starting class with a silent drawing helps transition students from out there" to "in here." Today the assigned sketch references their morning of testing:
The "5-minute sketch" helps transition students into the art studio
Soon Conestoga wagons, oxen and alien space-spiders appeared, some confidently, some tentatively, drawn in pencil in the sketchbooks, and we were ready to start another day in the studio.

Pinch Coil Slab

Typical kiln load
 "Did you fire the clay yet?" Students are always very anxious to get their clay back. Hand-builders create sculptures and functional-ware using one or more of three methods: Pinch, Coil or Slab. Ask a CBMS art student to describe what each method involves. Wheel- throwers typically make functional-ware (cups, bowls, vases), and strive for height and thin, even walls. 

Thrown bowl by "Z," grade 8 and thrown cup by "C," grade 6
Unloading the kiln is this art teachers favorite task - it is then that I get to revel in the creations my clever students have made, and enjoy the feel of the warm clay as it first comes out of the kiln.

Animation 2013

This year's bunch of stop-action animators is busy learning about the ins and outs of iMovie, as they translate hundreds of still photographs into short animated films. Adding sound effects, titles and their own narration comes next - all skills to be discovered and perfected.
grade 6 team adding titles to their animation

Soapstone Carving

One thing about 8th graders is that they've seen it all. Introducing soapstone this fall is an effort to provide a new challenge to these experienced old-timers and re-ignite their creative energy.
 Soapstone is very soft, ranging from 1.5-2.5 on the Mohs hardness scale. It is so soft, it can be scratched with a fingernail! Students use rasps for must of the shaping, but saws appear to be the most popular tool, perhaps because of the novelty of sawing through rock?

Once shaped, smoothed, sanded and waxed, soapstone can obtain a high polish. It's delicate however - don't drop it!

"Wolf" by "Z," grade 8

Friday, September 27, 2013

School on Saturday? Vermont TAB Gathering Takes Over CBMS Art Studio

It's a bright, sunny Saturday morning in September - What are all those teachers doing in the CBMS art studio?

20 area teachers gathered to explore the concept of Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB, or "Choice-Based Art Education") in the first Vermont TAB gathering of the 2013-14 school year

In a series of short presentations, art teachers shared their experiences, highlight successes and illustrated how learner-directed practice is implemented in their various settings with students (and teachers) at different levels.
We were very excited to be joined by 12 Univeristy of Vermont Art Education students and their professors. The idea is catching on!
Teacher-designed and implemented professional development of this kind offers targeted learning for innovative teachers who embody the concpet of "life-long learning."

Thanks to all who made this experience worthy of the beautiful fall day.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Sketchbooks for 8th Graders

In 8th grade, the first five minutes of class are dedicated to drawing practice. It's a good thing too, because when surveyed, the overwhelming majority of students here say they want to improve in their ability to draw. Drawing well takes practice, so we set aside a few minutes at the start of class to transition into "Art-Think" and practice looking, because part of drawing well is learning how to see.

Collaged sketchbook cover 
Some students chose to laminate the cover 
To get ready for drawing practice, each student made a small sketchbook. 

This year a beautiful 110 year old book press has been added to the studio. This was used to encourage students' sketchbooks to lie flat after they were bound. 

We used a simple three-hole Japanese binding this year, because last year the staples we used kept falling out or stabbing us! The skills introduced through this simple bookmaking exercise will be expanded later this term when a book-making center is created. 

A Community of Artists

One of the strengths of our studio-learning art program is that students take ownership of their work. This means ideas can be generated outside of the school day and carried into the art studio in the form of: 

  • A sketchbook worked on over the summer
  • Several special stickers saved to customize an in-school sketchbook cover
  • A brown paper lunch bag filled with new sharpies, pencils and ballpoint pens to use in the drawing center
  • A water bottle that needs a face-lift
  • Plans for improving ideas started last year
    It's fun to see the drying rack starting to fill up again!
Drawing Center Grand Opening for Grade 5 - pastel resulting!
Today is the third day of school, and all but one of my classes are experienced in using the studio at CBMS. Once portfolios are designed and stowed, most students are eager to start right in, work in their favorite "Center" and get re-acquainted with their preferred materials and tools. Some students are already preparing art for display while others are warming up and discovering new possibilities. 

"How Do You Make Brown?"

This year, only primary colors, plus black and white, are available to start the year in the Painting Center. Students appear to be quite knowledgeable and happy to mix green, violet and orange. Brown is another matter however. Brown is very mysterious, and stumps students time and again.
"T" grade 6 designs her portfolio cover

It turns out, there are many formulas for making brown. "Mix all the colors together" one student suggests. "Use purple and yellow" coaches another." "Add black?" someone guesses.

Some students give up, some beg form premixed brown (they probably see it in the storage closet, mocking them). Most stick with it and struggle through puddles of army green and muddy purple until the magic happens and brown appears. There are as many shades of brown are there are ways to mix it. It feels like quite an accomplishment when a young artist can call up brown on command!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


The studio is ready! All we need now are the artists!
Our new classroom loom, purchased with a generous gift from Waterbury's Across Roads Center for the Arts (ARCA)

Until now, the Fabrics & Fibers Center was squeezed in between the Collage Center and the Sculpture Center - no place to call home. With a little reorganization, we have carved out a new home for fiber artists to sew and weave.  
A redesigned and reconfigured "Fabrics & Fibers" Center

The whole nine yards - sewing station, standing loom, Fabrics & Fibers Center
Sewing and weaving have increased in popularity at CBMS recently, the new center arrangement should better serve artists choosing fiber media for their work. 
NEEDED:Donations of spools of thread to keep us stitching

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

“I don't know why people kill...”

Weapons, weaponry, violent action drawings – these are subjects and themes that frequently appear in middle school art – usually boy art. My colleague Clyde Gaw writes extensively about this in “The Secret Art of Boys” (in The Learner Directed Classroom, 2012, Jaquith &Hathaway Eds.)
By "J" - Grade 6
When students choose to make art about guns or violence there is an opportunity to talk through these themes and gain insight into why some young artists find these ideas compelling.

Often a student will say: “I made this because guns are cool.” or simply “I like guns.” Fascination with weapons is not unusual. Social commentary about guns, at this age, is. So I was very interested in a recent mixed media piece (pictured above) titled “Y the Violence?” The artist's statement created for the display of this piece reads: “I don't know why people kill (that's the "IDK"). "LOL" is that I think killers might think it's funny.”
Artist's Statement
This interested me – the artist used materials in an interesting and deliberate way, created meaning, communicated an idea, and put their work “out there” for others to see and respond.

I have a reproduction of sculpture by Marvin Bartel pinned to the wall in the Sculpture Center – a piece I greatly admire. It was made in 1968 and depicts a rifle with a long site, hanging broken from a coarse noose – a lynched rifle. I asked my student if he ever noticed that photo, (he did not). Together we looked at it, commented on the artist's possible intentions, speculated about the year it was made (1968) and what might have been going on during that time. I told the student that 1968 was the year Martin Luther King was assassinated and Robert Kennedy – Was Bartel "assassinating" the rifle? Killing violence? Calling for an end to the shootings?

I know that in some schools, depicting weapons is disallowed. And while it is sometimes unsettling to see young students drawing and building weapons, their interest in these provides an entry point to speak about complex topics that hold relevance to this generation - conversations which might otherwise be silenced.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The artwork of three students will represent CBMS at the STUDENT ART SHOW 
Helen Day Art Center in Stowe Vermont.
The opening reception is May 3, 3:00-7:00 PM.
The show runs through May 26th 
and includes the work of 11 area schools.
Congratulations to Amber, Reily and Amaya!
 Sun/Moon, Encaustic by Reily and Amaya
Thunder Lightening Rainbow  Tempera Painting by Amber (one of a series of 5 paintings)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Hurray for Clay!

The Clay Center opened today for Grade 5. Hurray! The "ware shelf" is filling up with bowls and plaques and animals and all manner of objects created by eager hands grateful for the wonders clay holds.
"When will it be dry?" "Can we paint it?" "Will it be ready for Mothers Day?" The clay center is a rich area for learning in the art studio - lots of science and physics plus all those aesthetic choices to make. The esoteric vocabulary is fun to learn and use, there are interesting tools to test, and nothing beats the fun of having shaping something from nothing.
Welcome back clay center - I've missed you these last two weeks!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Poster Contests in the Learner-Directed Classroom

Common Yellow Throat by "J," Grade 7
Art teaches are frequently solicited to have students participate in Poster Contests. I get requests for everything from "Responsible Finance" to "Fire Safety." Organizations are eager to have community involvement in their cause, to raise visibility of their good work, and to educate children on a wide range of issues, all through poster design contests. Rather than picking and choosing which, if any,  contests to spend our valuable art time pursing, I offer the option to students and let them choose whether or not they wish to design & contribute artwork for these causes. 

 7th Grader "J" did a beautiful job this week for the North Branch Nature Center's Bird Drawing Contest.  She combined a colored-pencil drawing with glossy magazine colors & textures for a unique interpretation of a Common Yellow Throat in its natural habitat. Now we cross our fingers and wait for the awards announcement on June 1st to see if her mixed media entry is a winner! It's a winner in my book already!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Innovation in the Art Studio

Encaustic painting has been a choice in the studio for some time now. The process involves melting wax and pigment (in our case, crayons) and painting with a special encaustic brush (we have tried little paint brushes, Q-tips and have settled on pipe cleaners). Students paint on railroad board donated from a puzzle company. Some paintings are on a single board, others spill over onto two or three or more boards, fitting together, coincidentally, like a puzzle. 

Two artists working together recently made a series of 5 paintings that fit together. They then mounted them the paintings onto a board, and continued their painting on the back board, which created a multilevel effect. 

"Sun & Moon"
                                          Click to play!
Today a 6th grader made a creative break through and started painting “UP.” Her process reminded me of how a 3-D printer works – building up thin layers to create a three dimensional object a little at a time. 
Painting or sculpture?
When students can return time and again to a process or medium or an idea, they gain greater and greater facility with materials and techniques and enjoy the opportunity to fine-tune ideas. Over time there is a deeper understanding of what the medium can do and how to make it one's own. That is when innovation can occur.