Katherine Douglas and John Crowe
speak to Mary Anne Mather of The Education Alliance at Brown
August 15, 2002
Mary Anne Mather: We're here with Katherine Douglas and John Crowe, who will be speaking to us about choice-based art education, and I was wondering if we could start out by having you explain, "What is choice-based art education, and how is it different from what we might think of as traditional art education?"
Katherine Douglas: There are many connections between this type of teaching and traditional art education. We use a lot of the same media and we use many ways of exploring the media with children. We're very interested in the processes of working artists. Sometimes artists are exploring materials which give them ideas, and so those things have to be in the control of the artist, so in our teaching we make certain that those things are in control of our students, even our very young students.
John Crowe: I would say that we do away with the lesson plan and that there's no real script. Students essentially write their own script and improvise, although we provide the structure. I think about the centers in your classroom, [Kathy], essentially each one being a lesson plan, but an open one, so they have the materials built in and some of the concepts are presented there in text form even sometimes, and [in] visual form. That's a very big difference from the teacher being on stage and controlling the timing, the movement, the subject matter, really controlling everything about the experience. So [in a traditional classroom] the art teacher essentially is the artist and the students just carry on. They're really just soldiers in an art room and not really independent explorers.
Mary Anne Mather: Talk a little bit more about the centers because people may not realize that the choice-based art classroom might be set up a little differently.
Katherine Douglas: The center is a three-dimensional lesson plan because the components are embedded in the centers. There are materials in the center and also information on how to set up those materials. That sort of information is right there, put in a way that the students can access the materials without any adult's help.
John Crowe: To follow up on your question, I've seen Kathy in action, and when you ask how is a choice-based art classroom different from a more "traditional" one--I would say "conventional"--the script really opens up when we talk about collaborative learning. Students become experts; they might really tune in to a certain demonstration, and become, as Kathy calls it, experts in that area. There's all this naturalistic collaborative learning happening and it's quite inspiring to witness. So groups will gather, two, three at a time; folks will consult with a person that would normally be on the fringes, but that person can be an expert in something else. I don't know if it's quite clear, Kathy, in what you've explained. The conventional teacher would have a lesson plan, a format anyway; it seems as if your format is this very direct teaching that can happen in five minutes, and then, if I understand this right, students then have a choice of either dealing with the material you've presented, or going their own way in that very carefully orchestrated space, where they have access to all of that. So then they have the body of the lesson essentially where they are working as artists in these centers, and maybe you could talk about the wrap-up because I think some pretty interesting things happen there very quickly that last maybe five minutes or so.
Katherine Douglas: Certainly I would add that everything that is available in the centers has been demonstrated to the whole group at some point. In other words, everything there has had an introduction of some sort, no matter how brief, with students of this age. At the end of class, we have a little bit of a warning. Usually clean-up takes about three minutes because, first of all, each student has set up his or her own materials and knows exactly where they get put away. Everybody puts away their own materials and then we look around the room to see whatís happened. When children are working independently, a lot of things happen in the room that nobody might see except that child. And some of the best things to happen in that room do emerge from student exploration. After the clean up, everyone gets their finished or almost-finished work and we have several ways of sharing the work. One way is with the younger children, I ask them to sit with a friend and ask their friend, "What did you to today?" Some teachers call this "pair-share." And [as] I walk around the room and with a six year old, I'm amazed to hear how much good art talk there is. Second graders will often go to the front of the room and show their work, and because our time is limited, I will ask, usually first of all, "Who did the new project?" The children who choose the idea that I've presented in five minutes usually work together, and I will be able to take them deeper into the information around the idea or this material, showing them some art resources, showing them what other artists have done, more examples. They've been able to work on it very hard. Everyone else in the room has gone and done something else. But yet I want those people to see--"I threw something out; let's see what these people did with it." They will come to the front of the room, hold up their work and ask for comments or questions, and people will raise their hand and ask, "How did you manage to throw that together?" or "What material is inside of that?" or "How did you get that color?" Then I will usually ask this group of five or six children, "Would you be willing to coach newcomers over the next three weeks?" They usually say "yes." So then the next week I can go on to showing something new, and students, now that they've seen the finished student project, say, "Oh, I'd like to try that. That would be better." They don't have to come to me for help, they can go to the student expert, or they can go to the center which now contains that material, contains the reference materials that are used with a small group, contains menus and instructions. Everything is there for them to look at. In third grade, work tends to go on for several weeks, so a lot of times it takes several weeks before a student is ready to show a finished product. And by the way, this is an organic thing. Some third grade students will still make three pieces in a week, and I've had a third grader who worked one whole semester on one painting, and this is entirely up to the student. So in third grade I can ask, "Who has something they'd like to share?" Usually one or two students will come up, frequently with work that was done independently in the center that I might not have even seen yet. Once again they call for comments or questions from the other students, and the other students are usually pretty good at "How did you do that?" When I find that there's not a lot of conversation going on, I will ask, "Who had a terrible time doing something today?" Usually the hands will go up because we've created an environment by focusing on this by saying, "Oh, absolutely, if you run into trouble, that's a good thing because it means you're challenging yourself; it means you're behaving like an artist. It might mean you're trying something no one else has ever tried before. So that's a good thing if you had trouble." Students will then very readily discuss, "This kept falling apart and I was really frustrated." My next question is, "Did you find the strategy to solve that problem?" If they did, they share it. If they didn't, thatís still all right; we call for suggestions.
John Crowe: Another big difference between conventional art rooms and the "choice" art room is that opportunity for students to specialize, and you hinted at that by what you described--that artists obviously do this all the time, and once they find a fruitful path they really have the opportunity in your room to pursue that path, where in a conventional art program, somebody might have a painting lesson that might go over three of four weeks or something like that and then dropped, never to be revisited again. [But] I've seen in your classroom these two very clear examples, like the girl who specializes in mermaids and has this incredibly large series of drawings about them that are quite impressive, and she probably worked months on these. Then you have that wonderful young boy who started with a god's eye and ended up engineering all of these incredible popsicle stick creations, and they're remarkable. And you really don't see that in a conventional [art] room. We don't want people to get the wrong impression that the choice has to happen in a center-based room; maybe one way to start in both younger ones and certainly older ones, is to present some type of menu at the very least, so instead of giving a single assignment: "Draw this still life," [you might say,] "Okay, you know the tradition of still life includes many different approaches, from the most naturalistic traditions to quite avant-garde ones, including Andy Warhol and all of his soup cans, so that you might want to approach it these four ways. You choose." One message we want to send out [is that there] are many entry points to this approach, and choice can be done in many ways, and in many ways it's just beginning, although you've done it for twenty--how many years?
Katherine Douglas: There's something that I thought of early on in my teaching was that if I came into a classroom and I knew ahead of time what I would see at the end of the class, in any detail at all, then I was in trouble. I've often differentiated between projects, project making, and art making, and so much of what happens in school [is] a great project. You know, it might teach you about the Egyptians or it might help you mix your colors better, but it's a project because all of the parameters are set by the teacher. The teacher has a very clear idea in her head [of] what she's going to see at the end of the class. In fact, in some of the more confining art education, [the] teacher insists on seeing a particular thing at the end of class and [the] rubric is "Make it as much like mine as you possibly can." There's certainly a continuum, there's all different gradations of that. But what I like to have is no idea what Iím going to see.
Mary Anne Mather: Actually, that brings up an interesting point. How do you assess work?
Katherine Douglas: For me, the assessment is the dialogue that goes on between me and the students constantly as we're working: questions that I ask, questions that the students ask me. Because I'm not standing up making sure everybody's looks like mine, I have a lot of time to wander around and talk to the students. The students are never in the way of teaching, punished for learning, punished for taking risks and failing as long as [they're] moving along and improving. So how I'm assessing it is, if a student is moving along, in whatever path a student has set, if the student is unable to set a path, of course I'm there to assist and suggest, just as any good teacher is. What I'm looking for is persistence, thinking that might go in different directions, students who help create community in the art room. The assessment that I do is, a, to help the students move further. It's visual; I take notes and talk to the children. The assessment I also do is around the class as a whole. What's working well with this group, what's a problem? Were I required to grade the students, I think that I know the students, and their strengths, and weaknesses, better perhaps than a teacher who has students doing artwork that is very similar.
John Crowe: When I first started experimenting with this whole choice approach I had to assign a grade, essentially, "A, B, C," although it was called "outstanding, satisfactory, and needs improvement." So what does that mean to a first grader? I, eventually, and people can read about this on The Knowledge Loom, I just distilled it to the symbols of the drawing of hands, the drawing of the brain and a heart and I'm telling them if you come into the room and you have these centers, and you're talking about what happened last night on TV, or at recess, and you have your head turned the other way, and you're just kind of fooling around with clay, well, you're using your hands but you're not really doing what an artist is doing. If I can see that you're trying to figure things out, you're at the clay center, you're pitching walls and they collapse, and I can see that you're engaged that way, and it seems that you're problem solving, you're thinking about it, then you're using your brain, so that's satisfactory; the hands just need improvement. But what makes an artist, even if they are a laborer in a factory, is the quality and the attentiveness that one gives to it. So if I feel that you're totally engaged, you don't even know what's happening around you, youíre really involved with that clay piece, and you do that week-to-week, you're working as an artist. We all have times we need to talk to one another and just fool around with our hands. But we do need to, in the end, care about the work, we need that connection and that's what makes something art.
Mary Anne Mather: I just want to clarify because I know you're in a public school, and people might be thinking that this is a private school with very small class sizesÖ
Katherine Douglas: Over the time that I've been using these teaching ideas my class load has ranged from 650 to 950 per week, running as many as 30 classes a week, and my top class size was 33 students; it's considerably less than that now. So it's a normal, a very average, class load for an elementary art teacher. I am in one building and I do have a classroom, which some people don't have, although I have taught on a cart. I read a lot of things where people say if I just had a nice small group of kids and I saw them for more than 40 minutes a week--40-50 minutes a week is average--and if I had more money, had better materials, then I could really do authentic art teaching. My attitude has always been that that's probably not going to happen in my lifetime, so I've always been looking for ways to teach better, given the fact that I'm going to have a lot of students, I might have a very small room or no room, and I'm never going to have all the materials I want.
John Crowe: It occurs to me that I think we have to think more about how artists always make do, that whole "bricoleur" [thing], being an expert, making good use of the limited resources we have, and we really do that. You have that attitude, and I think we need to look at that as a profession, so that the limitations we have--and they are severe--and I think there's something in this choice-based art ed, teaching artistic behavior, that might hold some answers for people.
Mary Anne Mather: I know you mentioned George Szekely, and I know he's a well-known and well-respected art education professor at the University of Kentucky, and he says art education has yet to be invented. How does a quote like that--that kind of statement--connect with your work?
John Crowe: I think it hasn't been invented for the new millennium. I don't think it's been invented for the post-Newtonian world. We live in an open system and the so-called "postmodern era," and intuitively I think Kathy's approach and the approach that some of us have experimented with, is more connected to our lives today, and we don't live in a linear, sequential society; we're always picking and choosing, and it just opens everything up for multiple possibilities.