Teacher to teacher

Applying strategies from Choice-Based Art Ed

Do your students want a say in how things work in your classroom? Don’t dismiss the notion without considering the potential benefits it might offer. Giving students choices in the classroom can actually open more opportunities for student engagement, motivation and differentiated instruction.

Many students crave choice because they often feel they are being told what to do in their home and school life. The principal idea behind Choice-Based Art Education is that students have a choice in the projects they create in the classroom, allowing them to develop their ideas. As learning becomes more personalized to suit students’ needs, multiple modes of teaching, assessment and learning take place. Studies show that student motivation and engagement levels increase as well.

I joined the faculty at Bard HS Early College Queens, an innovative institution that combines high school and early college in one, when it was first being started. This allowed me to create and implement the art curriculum for the high school and college program.

Like anything in development, our schedules were modified, changing the length of a period, the number of projects and how in-depth to go in each project. For example, first-year students made six developmental sketches for a project. The second year we still explored the artistic process and elaborated on our ideas, but in fewer sketches. Four years later, I still modify lessons to account for students’ feedback and research findings in art and add student examples that have more variations and techniques onto instructional PowerPoints.

Art students from my school have been selected to exhibit their work in esteemed venues, and they have participated in various prestigious art and scholarship competitions. What motivates these students? Many factors play a role, but the power of finding self-motivation by being given choices and creating something they want to make is key.

At a presentation I attended at the National Art Educators Association Conference this year, teachers stated that behavior problems in the classroom are minimized by the self-motivation provided through Choice-Based Art Education. Students learn independently and from their classmates and the variety of projects they are making with assorted materials and media. Risk taking is encouraged.

Even if you work in a school where the administration or test taking dictates the curriculum, choices can be offered in the classroom. In many core subject areas, students are often assigned problems, told to read certain chapters of a book and then answer questions. There are other ways that can be more student-oriented and ultimately increase performance. Can they choose which problems to answer, which books to write about? If these options seem too broad for you, then give them a selection of topics, readings or questions from which to choose.

The teacher’s role in the classroom shifts from a traditional model. In Choice-Based Art Education, teachers can give demonstrations, show examples of works by professional artists and engage the entire class in thought-provoking discussions and written reflections. At times, they may also cluster students with similar needs and demonstrate something for a group. However, it is critical that all students get individual attention to discuss their project ideas throughout the creative process.

I make it a point to sit down with each student and give feedback, listen to their ideas, offer a critique and see how they can expand on their project. For example, if it’s a design project, we start with preliminary sketches and then consider the possible ways to make it, explore options for the materials they want to use and the techniques that would be most effective. Then I continue to consult and assist students with their individual needs. Along the way, the class will have group critiques where students share their progress and ideas, giving and receiving feedback from their classmates.

While it may require more energy in the beginning from the teacher, once the students figure out how they are going to realize their idea, they get so engaged that they don’t want to leave the class!

Interested in finding out more? Teaching for Artistic Behavior’s website has valuable information. Go to http://teachingforartisticbehavior.org. Feel free to visit my website, jennifermerdjan.com, to view student samples. Regardless of your student population, choice is something that can motivate and increase student engagement.

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