Cabot Elementary School, Pauline Joseph's K-5 Art Class
While on a short medical leave, Pauline Joseph recalled receiving get-well cards from students and realizing that the cards they created were their real artwork. She explains, "The projects that I had had them making were extensions of my work as the teacher and creator of the lesson, not their own voices. I began thinking, 'How can the student be the informer of the work, and the teacher supporter of the student'" Joseph believes, "When teachers write traditional lessons and teach close-ended projects, the students, trapped in the role of apprentice, don't get a chance to be artists."
Pursuing an interest in the views of Open Education, Joseph found a position in a Newton, Massachusetts elementary school. The principal, Roland Barth, had authored Open Education in the American School. Barth knew how to structure an open classroom. Joseph acknowledges his influence, "He helped me figure out ways of using the room as an Open Education-based art center. I called the art room a Visual Resource Studio."
Once she had planned her Visual Resource Studio, she and an enthusiastic student teacher transformed the art room one weekend. They rearranged furniture and created centers for neatly organized and labeled supplies. Each center included illustrative materials, references, and visual reproductions. A list of art vocabulary words adorned the doors of a cabinet.
Students arrived on Monday and found the Visual Resource Studio set up with seven centers: drawing, painting, simple printmaking, clay, construction and design, fiber arts, and digital art. Joseph introduced her students to the centers. "With each class that first week, I began by exploring the drawing center and the materials found there. The next week I introduced the painting center, and students could choose to draw or paint. Within several weeks, the entire room was filled with student choice driving the use of the centers." (Joseph has continued to introduce the centers one at a time to her kindergarten students each September.)
Students listened to the new information Joseph presented before they started working. She used a variety of methods including direct teaching, filmstrips, and slides. The amount of instruction time varied from 5 minutes up to 20 minutes when showing a filmstrip to older students. Joseph taught the basic things that artists do - the connections they make, the materials they use, and how they explore ideas and techniques. Whenever a student did anything visually reminiscent of another culture or artist, Joseph capitalized on it. She quickly pulled out reproduction books to help students make direct connections to their work. As she showed the related work, other students would often stop and listen, even wandering over from other areas.
Joseph ensured that students leaving the fifth-grade had experienced a broad range of art experiences and knew the contents specified in Newton's curriculum guidelines. The same standards and content areas (including aesthetics, techniques, skills, vocabulary, art history, knowledge of other artists and cultures, etc.) that any traditional lesson covered were embedded in each center. The differences were in how the students were allowed to explore those standards and how the standards were implemented.
The results were dramatic. Students were engaged when working on projects that they had chosen. Students worked at their own pace, format, and scope (some preferred individual pieces, others worked in series). Some students tried one thing once then worked on another five or six times until they became a mini-expert in that area. Joseph helped students find their artistic voice and asked them to think critically about what they were doing with it. She explains, "It's not good enough to find their vision, it's important to reflect upon it, understand what other artists have done in that arena, then think about where you want to go with it."
A vast collection of books, suitable for different ages, were another important resource. The classroom housed storybooks about artists, books about art concepts (such as shape, line, movement, or rhythm), and books that highlighted artistic expression in other cultures. "At the end of kindergarten art classes, I read to students. If they wanted to see, they could come to the reading area; others could continue to work quietly. I even talked about the quality of the illustrations in books."
Each year one or two "traditional lessons" showed other ways artists experience new knowledge and techniques. She compared the process to "an artist going to a museum, copying someone else's painting, learning from it, and taking that information to their studio to inform their own activities." She presented the traditional lessons as another resource, "not the only way or the best way to make art, but another resource to inform each student's own art making."
Even within her traditional art lessons, Joseph's students always had real choices to make. In second grade when students were developmentally ready, she presented a "must do" narrative drawing lesson. "A narrative drawing, like a good piece of writing, must be fully investigated. Just as students describe their house in detail in a writing workshop, it should be drawn with the same attention to detail. They wouldn't write, "My house is a brown square with a red triangle and a little black rectangle on top out of which comes smoke." I revisit the ways of giving a picture depth, talk about attention to detail, and ask them to truly explore their narrative drawing. Students draw the subject of their choice and must decide on a setting (urban, indoors, jungle, or space). They choose if it is true, remembered, or purely imaginative."
When students expressed interest, Joseph created "ephemeral centers," each of which was up only a few weeks each year. These weren't permanent centers since they were either messy (papier mache, sand casting, plaster casting, etc.), required direct supervision (linoleum block printing), or used expensive or limited materials. While other students worked independently in the permanent centers, Joseph focused on the ephemeral activities. Space also drove the creation of ephemeral centers. Lacking room for permanent puppet making and bookmaking centers, these activities began first in ephemeral centers, then later when the ephemeral centers closed, students could choose to continue their exploration. The materials were still available in other centers, just not organized into one.
Over time, students in a choice-based environment experienced concepts and materials many times, thereby reinforcing student understanding and building skills. For example, within the thread of printmaking, students practiced various levels of monoprinting techniques in kindergarten, first, and second grades by working in choice-based centers. In third grade, a traditional lesson guided all students to print a foam block relief using brayers and ink. In fourth grade, students could print foam block relief variations through independent work in centers. In fifth grade, students could choose to pursue linoleum block printmaking in an ephemeral center.
For Pauline Joseph, it was most important that students "experience the true work of the artist: get an idea, choose the material, and make it; or explore materials they find interesting. A third grade student told me, 'I really am a non-objective and abstract artist, and I like working symmetrically.' I never had students speak with that insight about their own style in my other ways of teaching. Students would talk about things they learned, but never this insight about personal style. The longer I taught this way, it made more sense than I could ever have imagined."