Choice-Based Art Education

Student vs Teacher Themes: Using Research in the Classroom

Concluding the 2017-18 school year, I noticed a trend forming in my 8th grade classes: soulless, uninspired artwork. A systematic change was needed along with a shift in my teaching practice. I believe that by 8th grade students should be using visual metaphors to form conceptual ideas while forming opinions regarding their experiences. Thus, I began to conduct research in order to find the root of the problem.

For more context, for the past four years all students have used student-inspired themes developed from lists they created about themselves. After settling on one direction, students created a driving question, which incorporates social studies or science, to inspire three works of art using any desired medium. Thus, graduating 8th graders would had completed this routine at least three times. My instincts suggested this process became tiresome.

RED ALERT! RED ALERT! The alarm of the Intuition SS reverberated loud and clear. I had to deploy earthshaking Question Torpedos. Why were 8th graders disengaged? How can I reinvigorate 8th graders? How can I challenge 8th graders to see their art differently?

The first destination for the Intuition SS was the hostile Republic of Seesaw ( I looked at the artwork of the graduating 8th graders and compared it to the artwork they created in 7th grade. I was looking for common themes to better understand the concepts students were addressing as they matured. See the list below:

Fire Question Torpedo One! Why were 8th graders disengaged? Perhaps, most students asked safe and unchallenging questions.

A hit! Many times students used the same theme from the previous year. Overall, there were only a handful of students who created conceptually deep artwork. Understandably, teenagers are going to reflect upon the events and situations from their everyday experience (sports, pop culture, relationships) which are perfectly natural and acceptable. I am curious how art teachers transition art students from the superficial to the comprehensive especially in a choice-based art curriculum.

Next destination, the Curriculum Islands. I needed to ask myself critical questions regarding my approach to teaching 8th graders. However, keeping the core of my choice-based curriculum intact was incredibly important.

Fire Question Torpedo Two! What information will need to taught in order for students to create more conceptual artwork?

Direct hit! By examining and analyzing visual metaphors, student will have a better understanding of symbols in art and how to use them. Metaphors are also an important language arts standard. I needed help in order to ensure the content was challenging but not disabilliating.   

Fire Question Torpedo Three! What type of themes or content will students address?

Collaborating with the 8th grade language arts teacher, we generated a list of themes that she was using in her class throughout the year. We ended up developing a list of higher level words that were open-ended and flexible enough for a variety of interpretations.

Since I was challenging student to look at art differently, I need to be more flexible in the way students brainstormed ideas for their artwork. I found a great online program called Conceptboard ( where students can develop a visual brainstorming web using images. I required students to find synonyms, anytomiuns, examples of contemporary and historical artwork, and few mental notes. Conceptboard helped students develop and organize their thoughts so that sketching became easier.

Fast forward to the end products, I compared student artwork from the previous year to their current project. My hope was that I would see artwork more conceptual, mature, and metaphorical. Understandably, some students were going to struggle understanding concepts regarding visual metaphors.

Student A was a strong drawer in 7th graders, and continued to display this strength in 8th grade. He mainly focused on drawing nature scenes using pencil. I found that he benefited from a challenge. In the drawing on the right, Student A described the rain as chaotic moments in life. The fire represented inner strength and confidence. Employing it’s tough exterior, the umbrella shelters the fire from the chaos. I thought there was an immense amount of growth from by utilized visual metaphors that made his artwork relatable and thought provoking.         

Student C was comfortable examining his passion for soccer as a 7th and 8th grader. I attempted to negotiate and brainstorm with Student C’s soccer driven artwork that was inspired by the word “Power”. He was reluctant to commit to an idea. In my opinion, I think Student C regressed. However, I think this was eye opening because it indicated that some students were not understanding visual metaphors and more scaffolding was needed. In the second and third trimesters, I included more learning strategies, more often in order the solidify the information which helped considerably.   

Student E used her obsession with the Oregon coast to inform her artwork in 7th and 8th grade. She explained that her perfect day was a warm summer day lying ocean side in Oregon. Although her concepts were the same I enjoyed the maturity and perspective Student E demonstrated in the piece on the right. There are many compromises students and teachers can make so that both parties are happy with the results.

Student  F, who already displayed an understanding for abstract thought, developed a complex, in-depth idea regarding the word “Betrayal”. She took almost the entire course to complete her project, however it was worth the wait. She created a ceramic worrisome face that was wired to a stained wood panel. The facial expression stares off into space conveying a sense of paranoia and anxiety. I think an advance student like Student F would be drawn to broad themes because of the ability to think outside the box.

Proceeding forward, I am going to continue to use higher level words as inspiration as themes in 8th grade. I’ve witnessed an increase in conceptual artwork throughout this year and it continues to get better. I will continue to perfect the scaffolded information, visual examples, and CFU’s used throughout the artistic process.

In 6th grade, I will continue to use student driven themes inspired by student interests. However, in 7th grade, I am beginning to transfer to teacher driven themes by providing a list of popular themes artist use. There are 40 words and students pick at least three throughout the trimester. Afterwards, students create a driving question regarding their chosen word. My hope is that students will be more efficient at thinking conceptual and metaphorically by 8th grade.

I think we must remember that there is no right or wrong way to teach a choice-based style curriculum. I think of my curriculum as living and breathing work of art that I am constantly tweaking to make better. Creating a dynamic choice-based curriculum takes time, research, and experimenting. But, if you are ready to take a leap start by asking yourself: What are my core values in the art room? How do I work through the artistic process? Are my students challenged and engaged?  

Tagged , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *