Choice-Based Private Studio Art Class
E. Bridgewater, MA
Cheryl McCabe began teaching art in a studio classroom in her home a few years ago. Her own path to becoming an artist involved a struggle to set and then reach her artistic goals. From this experience, she knew she wanted to create an art program that connected students with the same sense of personal context in their own creative journey.
McCabe's education in traditional high school and college art courses had been frustrating. She came away from them with negative attitudes about herself as an artist and, as a result, left school and stopped making art. A few years later McCabe returned to art making, but this time she created a self-directed learning program. She came to believe that certain attitudes and behaviors were essential to allowing access to an ongoing creative experience.
Positive attitudes and fair evaluations were the basis of her approach. "I began all evaluations from a positive perspective, seeking anything that I found pleasing. Being positive first kept me from being overwhelmed by negative results. When evaluating my work, I believed that good problem solving would develop if I asked myself practical questions so that practical answers containing solutions were possible. I worked to understand my artwork from as many directions as possible, building my ability to meet my artistic needs more readily with each new piece."
Working alone required McCabe to learn how to solve her own problems effectively. Experimentation made it possible to try new mediums and techniques with the goal of discovering creative directions and choices of materials that excited and inspired further work. This gave a freedom to her pursuits that traditional approaches had not. "I learned by doing. Each piece of art answered questions and raised others. I was excited by my choice of materials, encouraged by my realistic goals and positive attitudes, and reassured by my belief that I could learn."
With her new understanding of how artists grow and stay connected to art making, McCabe felt that her students needed to gain this same strong belief in themselves and their potential for creating art on their own terms. She encouraged students to learn an evaluation process that helped them to better understand themselves, their art, and their goals. Sample questions were: "If the work is pleasing, why?" "If the work is flawed, what is the reason and what might be tried to correct the flaw?" The questions were very specific, and the answers served the needs of the art and the artist.
McCabe explains the results: "Ownership becomes theirs, not mine. The students' decisions are more important than the teacher's because I believe they become artists through authentic decision making. This would not happen if I controlled the evaluations of their work, their ideas about themselves, and their choices about their art making directions: what materials excite, what subject matter inspires, what style of expression is necessary, or how affective are the results."
McCabe created a choice-based learning environment in which students could choose materials from the array provided in the studio classroom and follow their own goals. However, the weakness in her classroom's arrangement became evident through an experience with a third-grade student. "Heather came to my class through a recommendation from her school art teacher. As a student in a choice-based public school classroom, Heather was able to positively channel her behavior and learning difficulties. Her teacher felt that a choice-based after-school art program would give Heather further positive growth and an increased sense of herself as a person who could be successful."
In each of the art classes Heather attended, McCabe gave a lesson for the day and then students could choose to explore its techniques or other options in the room. For Heather, this caused wildly varied results. If she was excited by the lesson, she could become connected to creativity and be relatively well behaved. If she did not care for the lesson, her ability to choose from the limited available materials or choose a direction to pursue was poor. She then became a behavior problem, interfering with her own work and that of the other students in the classroom. It very soon became evident that choice was the pivotal problem.
"Heather was a painter by choice. Her work was lush, expressive, and often abstract," describes McCabe. While the classroom arrangement provided easy access to most materials, the paints were stored in a hard-to-access area for logistical reasons. And, offering painting required McCabe to bring in water containers from another room. "Because it disrupted the class while I obtained materials and water, I felt I could not offer a free choice of painting," says McCabe. "I also worried that difficulties would be compounded if other students followed Heather and at the last-minute decided to paint, requiring me to carry greater quantities of materials and water to the classroom." Because painting required advanced preparation, she had only been offering this medium as a choice on a planned basis, but this limited Heather's ability to choose what she wanted to learn.
McCabe states, "I had allowed awkward logistical problems to impact the creative needs of a student in my care. This was a very powerful realization for me. I truly believed that freedom to choose was necessary for artists to own their process. I knew this yet still qualified this understanding because my classroom was not arranged to accommodate the needs of true choice. What followed as a result of this experience made me a better facilitator and turned my classroom into a more receptive environment for the unique needs of each student."
Compelled to meet Heather's needs, McCabe investigated the necessary changes and discovered that they were actually fairly simple to make. She set up floor-to-ceiling shelving in the classroom, making all the materials easily accessible. Students could pull out watercolors, acrylic, and tempera paints when they needed them. She kept many buckets of water in the room at all times, so that students could follow their impulses to paint, and she didn't have to disrupt class with last-minute preparations. "The water issue was so simple to solve that I am embarrassed I didn't do this sooner," says McCabe.
As a result of these changes, Heather became less disruptive and more engaged in all the lessons. The teacher-student connection greatly improved. Once restructured, the small classroom formed a new, more functional environment for everyone. The original classroom had been a good working environment that offered some choice, and this would have been good enough for many teachers. However, McCabe believes that "if there is a reasonable solution that increases available materials and opens up access to each artist's choices, it is the responsibility of a teacher to be receptive to change."
"Learning from our students can be the best way to discover our strengths and weaknesses," reflects McCabe. "Allowing ego to interfere might have made me blame the child's behavior problems and believe that she did not have important information to teach me about art education. Her message was clear: For Heather to be creatively engaged and function as an artist, her choices needed to be met with respect and support. Her special needs, as a child with attention and behavior disorders, did not give me permission to excuse myself for the problems my classroom was creating for her. When her needs as an artist were met, her disorders had less of an impact on her ability to express herself as an artist. This is powerful information that applies, with a greater or lesser degree, to all of us in our pursuit of artistic expression."
McCabe learned from this child artist that changes were needed. Out of respect, she paid attention to what the student had to teach her. The classroom improved, and the artist-artwork connection was greatly enhanced. McCabe states, "This experience will continue to affect my teaching! It solidified the importance of ensuring that I make available a well-structured range of materials for choice, as a means of more effectively meeting the needs of all the artists in my care."