The following is a guest post written by Kathy Douglas. She is a retired art teacher from East Bridgewater, MA public schools, Massachusetts College of Art and Stonehill College. You can also follow Kathy on Twitter.
Budget cuts are everywhere these days and schools have to tighten their belts. Many art teachers report that this has had a big impact on their teaching conditions, with shrinking supply budgets and expanding class sizes. In some schools teachers now have classes that are doubled up, but with shortened class time. Under these difficult conditions it is a challenge to offer a quality art program and we are expected to do more with less.
All art teachers offer their students a time structure, space to work, materials, and inspirational instruction. As a young teacher in the early 1970s I was motivated to do this, but had class sizes up to 33, some half hour classes, a small art room and a smaller supply budget.
Through trial and error I discovered that not everyone had to do the same thing at the same time. I began the year with whole group demos of entry level “dry” media (drawing, collage, simple cardboard construction) one each class period, adding something new each week but keeping the previous options open. I was pleased to note that children sorted themselves out among the choices and worked much harder when they had a choice.
When it was time to introduce paint, I found to my delight that I could limit painters to 8 at a time, while the other students continued independent work. Set up and clean up (which I taught the students to do instead of me!) was a breeze. I was also able to offer a large variety of paintbrushes and high quality paper, as I needed only a few of each type. This benefit extended throughout the year, as I could make a dozen weaving looms useful in several classes for instance.
As the years passed and I became more experienced, we were able to add elaborate and/or expensive materials and techniques to our course of study. For example, because I could work with a few interested students at a time, I could introduce the complicated silk screen process to eight students, who subsequently became printmaking coaches for other students. With only eight screens and a very small sink, I never would have attempted this technique with an entire large class! We could afford small amounts of lovely 24″ by 36″ 90-lb paper and better quality brushes for students who were committed painters. In a typical grade three class you might see a group of six students using the silk screens, four or five children working on plaster gauze masks, several at the drawing table (one or two using pen and India ink in spill proof containers) and always, several children at the construction center building with found objects such as cardboard, plastic caps, small boxes, etc.
Why Choice-Based art curriculum’s work:
1. Students had more time to work as they set up and put away materials as needed.
2. I did not have to have enough of any one material for everyone.
3. Students helped stock the studio with their material finds and the search for these materials extended their interest in the art class.
4. I was able to work closely with small groups of interested students trying new techniques or materials.
5. Because students in large groups could spread out or work standing up, the space in my small room was used more efficiently.
6. The opportunity to move around in the room, or to find a quiet corner, helped the students cope with the large numbers.
Over time I realized that my adjustments for large groups had actually improved art learning for my students, as they took on more responsibility and became engaged in work that was important to them. I taught this way for nearly 35 years and every day the children and I learned from each other. Small class sizes and huge budgets are wonderful, but we don’t have to wait for that bounty to make it work for our students.
For more information on choice-based art education:
Teachers College Press has published Engaging Learners Through Artmaking: Choice-Based Art Education in the Classroom, co-written with Diane Jaquith.
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