By Samantha Davis
8th Grade Language Arts, Floyd Dryden Middle School
As I began my year in Artful Teaching, I was so excited to learn new ways of integrating arts into my eighth grade language arts classroom. During a fall unit about the parts of speech, I set a goal of working art into grammar instruction, both through the products students create to show their learning and through my own teaching methods. Though I eventually added in some of the strategies I was learning about in the Artful Teaching workshops, including tableau, I primarily focused on integrating comics into the parts of speech unit. Our learning objective was for every student to show their understanding of the parts of speech through a series of mini-comics.
Because I wanted to begin our learning with a form that integrated art into instruction, I created short comic books introducing students to each of the eight parts of speech. As students moved through the unit, they learned to expect that each new concept would both begin and end with a comic: they’d learn about the part of speech through a comic, and they’d eventually produce a comic showing their understanding of the part of speech.
We’d start by reading a comic about the part of speech aloud in class. Voices were strongly encouraged, and the actors in class often rose to the occasion, much to their classmates’ amusement. These comics not only introduced the content-area concept, it also forced me to take the same risk I'd be asking students to take: creating and sharing original artwork. This helped create a safe environment for creating and making mistakes.
After we read the introductory comic, we’d discuss the part of speech, practice identifying it in different sentences, analyze why it matters in writing, and respond to writing prompts focused on that particular part of speech. Finally, students would show their knowledge of the part of speech through their own comics. The prompts for these comics were designed to encourage creativity, provide structure, and focus on the objective.
For example, one comic was called, “The Adjectives I Met Today.” For this comic, students would pick a noun and invent a variety of adjectives for that noun to “meet.” Students used the artwork to (literally) draw connections between nouns and adjectives, thus representing the abstract concept of nouns modifying adjectives in a concrete, visual way.
For the students’ preposition comic strips, the prompt involved picking a noun or pronoun and an action verb. Then, every successive frame had to be a prepositional phrase. Again, students were using art to demonstrate their understanding of an abstract concept.
While the prompt and the prepared templates gave even more reluctant students the confidence that they could be successful, students were encouraged to extend and adapt the prompt as well. In every class, some students would take the initial prompt in new directions, without losing their ability to demonstrate their understanding of the content goals. In these situations, students would approach me with a proposal for another approach—“What if I…”—and we’d discuss how that approach would still work to show understanding of the content goals, or we’d modify it so it would still show the understanding while honoring the student’s unique approach.
Some students were reluctant about their drawing skills. But stick figures were okay: after all, the star of “Adventures in the Parts of Speech” is a stick figure. In some ways, this approach to these projects helped establish a classroom culture where the expectation is not to avoid mistakes, but to try even when we’re unsure.
Finally, one of my favorite moments of this unit--and in every unit in which students produced a piece of visual art--is the moment when the student work is displayed in the back of the classroom (our classroom gallery). Without fail, the day after their work is posted, students gather to observe the creations—always searching for their own, but also seeing how others responded to the same prompt in completely different ways. Often, they’re also assessing learning and asking new questions about the concepts. In the days and weeks after I post their work, I will often find students, on their own or with their classmates, browsing the gallery. So in this final stage, students are learning from each other.
So, why was it important for students to construct and demonstrate their understanding through the arts?
First of all, I found students far more ready to engage with a pretty dry concept—the parts of speech isn’t exactly the stuff of fireworks—when it was introduced in the fun, humorous, and accessible medium of comics. Furthermore, when students began creating their own comics, it allowed for on-the-spot formative assessment along with natural extensions. It was easy to see which students had a mastery of the concept and which still needed more one-on-one instruction. Plus, with students so engaged in the project, it often gave me to provide that extra instruction as soon as I identified the need for it.
Even more importantly, I’ve found that the use of art to show understanding builds community in the classroom. It forges connections: students who feel more confident in their artwork can encourage and support those who feel more apprehensive about their drawing skills, while students who felt more confident about their understanding of the content concept (in this situation, the parts of speech) can question and guide those who might still be confused. Comics--whether students are reading them or creating them--invite humor and conversation. In the classroom, as students worked on their comics, there was a constant buzz of conversation as they checked their understanding and ideas with each other. While everyone created their own comic, they worked together to create, sharing and exchanging supplies—“Can I use that crayon?” “No, I’m not done with it quite yet” “Oh, here, I have one you can use”—in ways that felt natural and needed no prompting from the teacher. Similarly, students began to use the artful thinking disposition of see-think-wonder before it’d been formally introduced, as they shared their work with each other, making observations and asking questions. The work was both individual and collaborative.
When I think about this question, “Why was it important for students to construct and demonstrate their understanding through the arts?”, I think about these scenes: students gathering in front of the gallery to see, think, and wonder about each other’s work; students sharing art supplies and ideas; students laughing and celebrating each individual’s unique approach to a project. In short, when students construct their learning through the arts, it encourages both individual creativity and a supportive classroom community. Though I’m in my twentieth year of teaching, my participation in Artful Teaching has consistently provided me with new challenges, ideas, and inspiration over the course of the year; I’m already looking forward to building on all I’ve learned this year with next year’s students.
by Carly Lehnhart
Glacier Valley Elementary, 2nd grade
Artful Thinking has become such a natural part of my teaching. I have found that it sneaks its way into everything. I continue to be amazed at the engagement and effort that my students put in during and after a Thinking Routine. It brings the focus back to the process and emphasizes curiosity and critical thinking skills, which are two things that I strive to facilitate. One way in which Artful Thinking has made a huge impact for me and my students is in science. I have always used science notebooks as a way of recording our observations and findings, but this year, they have been a lot more successful. I am realizing that Artful Thinking is what I have to thank for that. My students are structuring their observations and notes in ways that are mirroring and combining a lot of the routines that we have tried. Without leading them in a formal routine, I find that they are using the language that has been modeled when they make notes in their science notebooks. Woohoo!
I have been loving using Artful Thinking as an introduction to a unit to spark interest and identify our background knowledge, as well as at the end of units as assessments. This specific lesson was kind of in the middle.
My students had just been to DIPAC to learn about mollusks. They had been introduced to what a clam was, gotten to see one, and had an overview of the parts. A couple of days later, a parent showed up in the morning with a bucket full of clams and asked if I wanted to use them. I obviously threw out the old plans and quickly came up with an idea of how to use them in my classroom. Artful Thinking immediately came to mind. I started out with a See/ Think /Wonder with this picture. This is a routine that we do A LOT.
I started the lesson doing a Looking 10 x 2 Thinking Routine. They immediately forgot about the picture, because a live clam on your table is way more interesting.
1st look: Quick and simple. They had about 3 minutes to write down words, phrases, or sentences about the clam in front of them. Some second graders struggled with this, so it turned out to be more like 5x2 for some. Here is an example of one students 1st look:
by Mareta Weed
Auke Bay Elementary, 3rd Grade
There is professional development, and then there are the classes you sit through and can’t wait to try the concepts out with your students. That is how I felt when I attended Richard Jenkins' Super Powered Stories Workshop on a sunny Saturday in March.
Like a lot of classes my group of third graders love to draw, but getting them to write can be a struggle. That morning, while creating my own super hero, I could definitely see how engaged my students would be and I could just imagine the backstories that they would write to go with their created heroes.
The problem was, we had just finished a narrative unit and we needed to do some informational writing. Wasn’t I always reminding students that expository text could be fiction? An idea was born. Students could practice their sentence writing by creating a paragraph about their hero, and then create a diagram labeling the different parts of their hero. The end result would be a poster. I was ready for Monday; well, sort of.
As I had been absent the previous Friday, my students had attended their own class, a kids version of Richard Jenkins' lesson, without me. Would students still have their work from Friday? Probably not. How much would they remember from their class? If we repeated the lesson would they be bored? “But Mrs, Weed, we’ve done this before”. I decided to have students start from scratch, with the expectation if they liked one of the characters they created before, they could create a final draft of that character.
Monday started off without a hitch with students telling me what they had remembered from the following Friday. We got started with a warm up, and I waited for the whine, “but we did this Friday!”
It never happened and believe me, I was prepared for it.
I didn’t even hear it when we started to talk about creating the rough drafts of our heroes, going through the steps that students had gone through with Richard three days prior. Students were engaged the whole time. Yes, I got the occasional reminder about how to do the next step, but my class was really into about the entire process. I did model and go over concepts a little faster then I would have done with a class that had never seen it before. Overall, the class kept up; when they were done with their heroes, they worked on their villains.
by Nancy Lehnhart
JSD Elementary Art Specialist
I’m not sure why it is, but kids seem to put a lot of stock in drawing as the quintessential qualification for being an artist. When you ask them if they know any artists, they will almost always tell you about someone they know who can draw. I was really curious about this early in my art teaching work, and also noticed that at a pretty young age, most kids decide they can’t draw (and therefore are not an artist.) And it was actually true; the development of their drawings seemed to stay at about a 2nd or 3rd grade level. Indeed, most adults will tell you they “can’t draw a straight line” and if pressed to draw something, you might confuse their drawings with a kid. I guess we just can’t keep very complex symbols in our heads, most of us, so if we’re trying to reproduce these simple symbols we have memorized, it stays pretty elementary.
Somewhere in my early years of teaching I learned about the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy. I was mostly fascinated by the drawing these kids were doing, and how drawing was incorporated into learning as a tool for observation and investigation. I started experimenting with the young children I was working with, both at Juneau Co-op Preschool and in my own kids classrooms in elementary schools. I used a lot of the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain language, brought down to a young child’s level. And I was impressed! Young children really did seem to take to it naturally. Their drawings were amazingly realistic, even while they were still delightfully quirky as a child’s drawing.
Because of this, I’ve become pretty zealous about teaching and encouraging kids at all grade levels (and adults!) to practice drawing from observation. Which basically means, find something to use as a model, (a feather, a worm, a car, a very still friend, a photo,etc.,) observe it closely, resist drawing a pre-conceived “symbol” for it, and slowly, draw the shapes and lines you see. You’ll be impressed with yourself. Anyone can learn to draw this way. And it’s not that drawing makes an artist, but why not make sure kids know they can learn to do it if they want to!
Over the years of developing art kits for the Juneau School District, I’ve made sure there is a “drawing from observation” art kit for each grade level and I’m kind of preachy about it. I was worried that if teachers did too much of the “This is how you draw a dog,” step by step stuff, kids would learn to see drawing as steps you had to memorize, and if you couldn’t remember a step, well, you just couldn’t draw a penguin or bear or whatever. I wanted them instead to know you simply just needed to find a picture of a penguin (or a real one) to look at and you could draw it very convincingly from observation—and this is actually what most artists do—most artists don’t draw things out of their heads!
A collection of JSD teachers' arts integration classroom experiences