Art is the only way to run away without leaving home. ~Twyla Tharp

Monday, October 5, 2015


Hmmmm.  According to the Art of Apex High School site, this very Friday is National Bring a Scone to Art Class Day.

Why is this the first I have heard of this holiday?

Gluten Free scones would also be nice.
Just sayin...

Monday, September 7, 2015

To Test or Not to Test

I’m a middle school art teacher.  In my classes, we draw, we paint, we create and we push ourselves to think outside of the (schoolhouse) box.  We see how art connects nearly every other thing that we do in life.  We do math, we learn about science and history and we write.  We are process driven, often with a beautiful product at the end.  And now, just recently, ‘they’ want us to TEST.  Standardized tests.  Tests that are supposed to gather data about student (and teacher) performance and intelligence.  The problem with testing the arts is that NOTHING that we do is standardized.  It isn’t so easy to measure creativity, performance or subjective responses to art.  How do you test 300+ students ability to create?  It would be like comparing the creativity and ability of Caravaggio to Andy Warhol.  Both are very talented, both are creative and they are very, very different.  Like all my students.

Let me be clear.  In my small county district in North Carolina, we are not testing the arts.  Yet.  Last year, we asked for, and received a waiver that said that we did not yet have to test the arts.  But it looms before us each year.  We know it is coming, eventually.  Maybe this year, maybe next semester, maybe next year.  It’s happened in other parts of the state.  Our beloved band teacher’s mom teaches art in a small county on the coast.  They ‘tested’ last year.  Her experience scares the heck out of me.  

The problem is that we have no idea what to expect.  What do THEY want?  Several summers ago, I went to a meeting about the possible, potentially happening, we are sure it’s coming just don’t know when, testing that we keep hearing about.  We were told that THEY realize that we are different (ya think?) and that we don’t fit into a mold and that our standardized testing that we would be evaluated on would be, well, non-standardized.  As far as I could tell then, and unless THEY have changed their minds arts testing would look something like this:  A small sample of students would be chosen.  Samples of their work would be sent in (digitally, I think) from different points in the span of time that they are taught. The later samples should show growth.  The samples should reflect certain standards in the NC essential standards.  Students  are randomly chosen and from what I understand, the teacher gets to pick the standards that are evaluated.  Here’s the problem, in my classroom.  I very rarely do the same project twice in a year with 2 different groups of students, semesterly, much less the same project with the same group of kids.  How can 2 different projects be compared objectively?  Even if I had my students do 2 different self portraits, the technique would be different and we would use a different medium. How can they be compared?  How would this show growth?  Should I do the same project at the end of the semester as I do at the beginning?  That’s a whole week to 10 days of sacrificing my students time learning something new or different.

Don’t even get me started on who is going to ‘grade’ the projects and decide if my small sample group has shown growth.  Don’t. Even.

I started this year with potential testing in mind.  Over the summer, I did my best to stay off Pinterest but I did come across a project that was posted on Artsonia.  It was a mixed media drawing.  I was intrigued and thought that I could do something similar with my students at the beginning of the semester and that it, if I did it right, could potentially show growth using the materials throughout the semester.

So,  I set up a still life in the middle of my classroom on a cart.  The kids were curious and of course, wanted to touch.  I let them look.  I let them talk about what it was and what it might mean.  And then it started.  “OMG!  MIzzSmiff!  I CAN’T DRAW THAT!  I’M NOT AN ARTIST!”  After I calmed them down and clawed one or two of them off of the ceiling, I gave them some VERY BASIC instructions.  Draw a baseline.  Draw your biggest object first.  Fill it in with the smaller objects.  Use your space.  On a side note:  Why is it that middle schoolers will draw something so miniscule on a 12 x 18” piece of drawing paper and think it’s okay.  Seriously?  I let them move around the room to decide which angle they like the still life from the best.  Draw what you see, I told them.  Do your best.  I just want to see what you can do.  

The very intriguing cart in the middle of the room.

On day 2, I let them know that this was a sort of test.  Was that fair?  I don’t know, but I didn’t want them to freak out anymore than they already had.  I told them that I wanted to see how they used different media and that hopefully, by the end of the semester, they would feel more comfortable using them all.  To make things easier on myself, I am only going to have my students divide their papers into 4 parts compared to the original post’s 9.  Students will have to finish their still life drawings using pencil, colored pencil, watercolor paint and markers.  

Sketching first.

Contemplating the still life.

We aren’t quite there yet.  It’s Labor Day and my students are off celebrating the last big weekend of the summer.   Tomorrow is day 3 of the project.  I’m just getting some of them started with pencil.  Some are still in the sketching stage.  Some are ready to move on to the next medium.  Like I said, we are all different.  My classes don’t fit into a mold.  My students and their work aren’t standard.  What they learn in my class can’t be filled in on a bubble sheet but is authentic learning that hopefully, will stick with them long after they have graduated from public school.  

Ali still sketching.  Jamal has moved on to drawing his final copy.

They say they can't do it, but I know better.  

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Yay, me!

A couple of months ago, while I was still sleeping late and basking in the sunshine during the long, lazy days of summer, I entered Our State Magazine's Creative Classrooms contest, sponsored by Linville Caverns.  I submitted an idea that had been rolling around in my head for years that I had unsuccessfully applied for grants and to Donor's Choose and other similar 'fund me' sources.  I got my entry in just under the wire, thisclose to the end of the contest and a mere 3 weeks later, I received an email that I had won!

$500.00 (approx) of cameras for my Bulldogs, courtesy of Our State Magazine
I have never been so excited in my life.  This was definitely a "You're going to Disneyworld!"  level of excitement.  I've never been to Disneyworld either so you can see what I mean about how happy I was.  This really was a surprise because never in a million years did it ever occur to me that I would win.

I love Our State magazine.  For those of you that don't live in the Old North State, Our State is a magazine that features all that is wonderful about North Carolina.  It is full of rich photography, historical essays and endless ideas for road trips for those of us that are lucky enough to live within driving distance.  From barbecue to cobbler, from big cities to the smallest of towns (that would be Charlotte in Mecklenburg County, population 731,434 and Cerro Gordo in Columbus County, population 206.  Salute!) from Cherokee to Rodanthe, Our State covers it all.  Reading some of the essays makes me feel like I am sitting with my PawPaw under the string bean tree again, listening to him tell his stories.  I look forward to receiving it every month and the time that I spend browsing the pages while I sit with a hot cup of tea in my sun room.

I have always had a great love of photography that was nurtured when I was in college.  I learned my way around the dark room and took great joy in the magic that happened when developing film and printing my own photographs.  With the otherworldly red light and the torturously slow emergence of the images on the paper, I loved everything about it.  I didn't even mind the chemical smells.  I rarely go anywhere without my camera and am currently struggling with my now too small camera bag, that I love (it's red leather. What's not to love?) after buying a new lens this summer.  

I have always wanted to introduce photography to my students but art budgets these days are rarely large enough to cover the basics much less expand into a whole new medium.  With the advent of the digital age and the availability of fairly inexpensive cameras without the extra cost of film, photo-paper and all the other needed darkroom stuff I began to think that it might be a possibility.  Still, I had no cameras, not that there was a lack of 'photography' in my classroom, for what it is worth.  How many times have I turned my back for a split second only to find 4 of my girls are instantly cheesing for a selfie?  In their own words:  I. Can't. Even.   

One of my college photography professors carried around a little Olympus point and shoot camera in his shirt pocket at all times.  He used it for pictures that he called 'happy snaps'.  Still in the pre-digital age, I wonder now if he sent his happy snaps to the film lab at Walgreens or if he developed it himself?  That being said, I learned from him that there is a time and place for the pictures that we take every day, memory captures, now primarily using our smartphones (who would have thought 30+ years ago?  It boggles the mind) and the pictures that we consider 'ART'.  It seems that we record every minute of our lives and then end up posting it on social media (said the art teacher writing a blog post) and that our memories are driven by images on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook.  Every moment from "This is me this morning, no makeup!" to "Bacon, eggs and grits for breaky!" to "Finally, toes in the sand!" and endless furrbaby pictures (I'm guilty) are captured for all to see.

I remember this day!  Ocean Isle Beach for a whole week with friends.  Ahhh.  Toes in the sand!

This day.  We had a big storm and the power was out all over town, in some places for over a week.  I drove into Charlotte and took myself out for breakfast.  Looks good right about now!

Ahh.  My sweet furbaby, Maia.  She's a love.
See what I mean?  Pictures!  They are everywhere.  We have become a society that communicates visually.  You get a text that asks, "Whatchoo doin?" and you send back a selfie of yourself at the gym (well, not me.  I'm on the couch).  Someone asks, "What's for dinner?" and you snap a pic of the lasagna in the oven.   

But is it art?  I really want my students to learn the basics of photography.  Things like composition and exposure and manipulating the image before you upload it.  I want them to look through the lens differently to see things that they see every single day of their lives in a new way.  I want them to learn about the pioneers of photography and become familiar with the work of Ansel Adams and Alfred Steiglitz. Dorothea Lange and Man Ray.
Martin Parr and Walker Evans.  Leibovitz and Mapplethorpe.  Well, maybe not so much Mapplethorpe.  This is middle school after all.  And I'm not ready for THAT discussion.  With my babies or their parents.  You get the idea though.  I want them to understand that there is a craft and a skill behind the lens.  I want them to think beyond the selfie.

My idea is this:  I am going to start with my 8th graders who are one of my most favorite groups of students that I have taught in my career.  They are fun and smart and thoughtful and trustworthy.  We'll dive in with a little bit of photographic art history, learning about all the artists I mentioned above and then some.  We'll look at tons of photographs-photojournalism, art photography, portraits and landscapes.  After we learn how to use our cameras, we are going to receive a series of photographic challenges that we will complete both at school (this is where the trustworthy part comes in) and at home.  Then the fun begins.  Have I told you that I work with some of the most amazing teachers that I have ever come across?  Well, I do.  We do our best to support each other's crazy ideas and try to make them work.  For the good of our students.  So, I mentioned to one 8th grade ELA teacher, the extraordinary Penny M., that we would be taking pictures and I wanted our kids to write about the photographs that they took.  She immediately took my idea and went with it, declaring that "We shall do narrative writing with those pictures in class and it shall be amazing!", more or less, tee hee,  but you get my point.  So, collaboration at it's best.

Visual literacy.  Pictures are our first language.  We communicate with images every day of our lives. The pictures that we take have special meaning for us and drive our memories.  Of people, of places in time and in space.  What better subjects to write about than the things that stir our emotions and recall relationships.  We are going to learn to look at our world differently and then we are going to tell stories about our world. And we all know that writers make better readers.  So, it's a win-win.

And now, if you'll pardon me, it's Saturday morning and this month's Our State and a cup of tea are waiting for me in my sun room.

Monday, August 3, 2015

2:00 a.m. ramblings on grading, assessment and the upcoming school year.

It’s the middle of the night here in the middle of North Carolina and I can’t sleep.  My mind is on school.  (NO!)  It’s August (Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?) and there are but a couple of precious weeks left in the summer of 2015.  With all of the Back To School commercials on the teevee and the Back To School sections that popped up weeks ago in my favorite stores that I am now avoiding, it is getting more difficult to ignore the fact that the 2015-2016 school year will soon be upon us.  I am not giving up on summer yet and I have one more adventure planned but my brain is thinking how to set up my classroom, what to do the first day, the first week, what am I going to do different than I have in years past, what can I keep the same? And I can't sleep. Sigh.

One thing that I struggle with each year is grading.  How do I communicate how I assign grades?  I have rubrics and posters that illustrate expectations and standards that are written on the board.  I show students exemplars that are teacher or student made. Still, it seems that the point is missed by many. Some might argue that it is impossible to grade an art project because it is subjective.  Most of those ‘some’ might be my students who might argue that I ‘gave’ them an inferior grade when they clearly completed the task at hand and that I am just making up grades based on my mood, or if I like them or how close to the end of the grading period it is. What my students (and their parents, ahem) should know that in many ways, grading is the hardest part of my job, which is why I have spent most of my career trying to figure out a way to communicate how I assign grades.

After a lot of thought and research culled from many different sources, I think that I have come up with a philosophy that fits in my classroom and the way that we work in the Bulldog Art Room.  

What my students need to know:
  • Fair isn’t always equal.  Most of my classes have students in them with special needs.  We all need to work up to our levels of ability but what we all need to understand is we all have different levels of ability. My students (and their parents) might not understand that Susie sees an occupational therapist 2x a weeks to work with her on her fine motor skills and I take that into account when I am grading her work.  I am a visual arts specialist and I have been trained to do this.  It’s not just a magical assignment of arbitrary grades.  Coincidentally, when Johnny breaks his right wrist on the football field during the homecoming game, which is of course the hand that he writes (and paints, and draws) with and I take that into account when I am grading his work, too.
  • We give grades to give you constructive feedback.  Like any other class, you should look where you have succeeded and where you may have fallen short and try to do better the next time.
  • Just because you turn something in doesn’t mean that you get a 100%.  That’s all I have to say on that.
  • I can tell when you rushed through something because you were being lazy or just tired of doing something.  I’m kind of smart that way.
  • Yes, grading art is kind of subjective.  That is why I have my students put their names on the back of their work. My first impression of your work when I am sitting with it with a pile of other similar works is usually spot on.  But grading art is also kind of qualitative.  I am looking at the QUALITY of your work as well.  I look for how you used the materials you were given.  I look at the neatness of your work.  I look at how far you pushed yourself creatively.  Then I look at your name.   I try to be as objective as I possibly can.  
    • If you are interested in more information about Qualitative Assessment, click here.

These are some of the things that I am going to be looking for from my art students this year:
  • Comes to class prepared, daily.
  • Works collaboratively.
  • Learns how to manage time well.
  • Follows school rules and having integrity.
  • Shows creative, innovative thinking.
  • Handles conflict appropriately.
  • Has a good attitude.
  • Has high standards for themselves and their work.
  • Is committed to responsibilities outside of class.
  • Is an effective communicator.
  • Is flexible.
  • Is a leader.
  • Sees that a less than successful experience as an opportunity for growth.
This is from the NC Visual Arts Essential Standards:

From the beginning of time, the compulsion to create a visual vocabulary has been as innate in every society as the desire to acquire a system of spoken symbols. Visual art from past civilizations is frequently one of the few remaining clues with the power to illuminate which values were held most dear. Today, every aspect of our designed environment will serve to explain who we are to those of the future. The pattern of human growth in society is to develop a multi-sensory means of communicating symbols and values. A child discovers objects, those objects take on meaning, and this meaning is denoted and communicated through the various means of expression available to that child. The visual arts program is designed to develop visual literacy by promoting fluency in the various modes of visual communication. Students learn the visual arts by using a wide range of subject matter, media, and means to express their ideas, emotions, and knowledge. They evaluate the merits of their efforts and this assessment forms the basis for further growth that extends to all disciplines in school and to life. Visual arts education is a multifaceted creative process which includes the development of perceptual awareness and the ability to use materials expressively. Through participation in visual arts, students have the opportunity to recognize and celebrate the creativity and diversity inherent in all of us.

I’d love to hear from you and how you tackle grading and assessment in your classrooms. Until then, I'd better turn out my light and try to get back to sleep. It's going to be hard enough to get back to a normal sleeping schedule as it is. Good night, all!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

School Supplies

I went to Hobby Lobby today and it seems that the pumpkins and pilgrims had been out for some time and the little worker elves were busy setting up Christmas decorations.  I suppose then that it is not preemptive of me to go ahead and post my back to school supply list.

You can find all the AMS class supply lists here at Teacher Lists. Just type in our zip code and choose Albemarle Middle School.

But, because I am visual here's what you need as an AMS Bulldog Visual Art Student for the 15-16 school year.

Visual Arts Supply List

1  1-2" 3-ring binder for sketches, notes and brainstorming.  Wait.  What?  Notes? IN ART?  WTH, MizzSmiff?
Colored Pencils.  Optional but STRONGLY encouraged.

Markers.  Also optional, but STRONGLY encouraged.

Sharpies or something similar.

Pencils.  EVERY DAY.  Bring a pencil to my class.  These are my favorite #2 pencils but honestly, please just bring a pencil to my class.  Please.

An eraser.  These erasers are my very favorite and once you use one, it will be your favorite, too.  We all make mistakes.  We all need a do over.  These erasers are the best and I use them all the time.  Yes, I make mistakes.  All. The. Time.

You also might want to get a pencil box or pouch to keep your supplies in. Label everything.  

In the meantime, don't think about school and enjoy your summer.  Go outside and play, even though it is hot out there.  It will be August 25th before we know it. I'll see you then!

Saturday, June 20, 2015


Summer is upon us here in the middle of North Carolina and when I say summer, I'm not kidding.  The last week has seen record breaking temperatures often over 100 degrees and it has been muggy.

I also ended up having a sinus infection and a nasty case of bronchitis so my summer hasn't been off to a great start.  I have taken this week to sit quietly and fold laundry and get all my photography gear in place and ready.  I'm planning on doing a lot of wandering this summer and need to have my camera by my side.  I also purchased a couple of new batteries because the original battery isn't holding it's charge as long as it did when it was new.  Along with the packs, I purchased a battery grip as well. I've never used one before, even when I had my old Canon slr, but I like the fact that if I need to, I can use double A batteries in it.  I have been told however, that rechargeable double A's are better and don't drain as fast.

All this camera and photography talk has me really wishing that I could teach a photography class.  The problem is cameras.  Most of my students have smart phones and I am wondering if there is a way that I can use what the students already have available to them in a visual literacy project.  It might have to be a partially in - partially out of class assignment where they are tasked with taking different kinds of pictures, which we can then manipulate in class and then write about.  I've always been a proponent of visual literacy and interpreting signs and symbols.  I also think that images that we create ourselves are easier for us to write about.  It's still early in the summer so I have some time to think about this.

I wonder if my students are getting bored yet?  I hope not, but here is my annual summer drawing challenge if any of them are interested.  I can't take credit for most of the challenges as I gleaned them from more than one site, made some up and changed some to be regionally appropriate.  

If you are bored, get creative! 
I promise to take lots of pictures and I'll try to post them often.

In the meantime, enjoy your summer!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Kellise and the Giant Pencil

It's almost the end of the school year and at this point, I usually start getting teary eyed thinking about my 8th graders leaving me and heading to high school.  The difference in them from when they walked into my classroom as 6th grade children to now, when they are ready to walk out into the very different world of high school as young adults is phenomenal.  I feel so lucky to have been a part of their lives for the last three years.  This year is going to be particularly rough as I stand on the Bulldog saying good bye to so many kids that I have grown to love.

One of those students in particular is Kellise.  The funny thing is, that I haven't taught her at all except for this last semester of her middle school career.  She is one of those kids that has just gotten under my skin.  I have an art history calendar that was given to me as a Christmas gift and she never fails to ask me what the art of the day is.  Every day we connect, even for just a few minutes, which isn't always easy in a room full of kids demanding attention, not to mention the other-you-don't-belong-to-me-right-now-but-you-know-I'll-do-anything-for-you-kids pouring into my room on an almost daily basis needing string, or construction paper, or a pencil or can I please use your hole puncher or can I have some lotion and a band aid?

So, today's blog is not so much about what art we are doing in my class right now (for the record, we are finishing kaleidocycles and about to start a quick Robert Indiana lettering project) but a little exchange that Kellise and I had the other day.

I need to preface this post by explaining that I have a lot of STUFF in my classroom.  I have a shelf behind my desk that is full of art books and art projects of students past and photographs and artist puppets and colored pencils made out of branches and treasures that I have been gifted by students or that I have picked up here and there over the years.  And things that I just don't want in my house (and holy cow what am I going to do with all this junk when I retire?) My students are drawn to this stuff like mosquitoes are drawn to a porch light at night.  They are always messing with my stuff.  I really need to relax because it's kind of there for them. And it makes my room fun.  One of my most fascinating treasures is a giant pencil.  I got it at a now defunct (in my part of the world, at least) store called Space Savers about 15 years ago.  It's a real, working pencil with a real, working eraser, except it is about a foot and a half long. My kids love to write their names and draw little pictures with it.  I tell them that I don't use it much because, duh, I don't have a pencil sharpener that big.

The other day, I was helping Kellise glue her kaleidocycle together when she picked up my giant pencil off the shelf.  (Seriously can someone please invent a glue stick that will actually stick heavy, folded paper together without too much force or pressure or complaining or frustration.  That doesn't cost a fortune?  Please?) Kellise asked me the usual questions about the pencil that I have heard about a thousand times: Where did you get it?  Does it really write?  Can I use it?  But then, she said...

Wouldn't it be neat if you could write your life, like you have been living it, and if you made a mistake, you could take the eraser and erase your mistake and rewrite it?  You could just decide that you don't want to do something or say something and erase it and rewrite it so that it is better.  

That would be awesome, Kellise.  Indeed it would. You really have no idea how awesome that would be.

And then she said...but you would have to charge the pencil.

At first I thought she meant that the pencil would charge a price for rewriting your life.  That you would have to pay the pencil back for every mistake that it fixed, for every unpleasant moment that it rewrote.  But she meant that it would have to be some kind of electronic pencil in order to work.  But I told her my idea...that you would have to pay the pencil, some way, for every moment that it took back and changed.

She liked my idea.

So we decided that for every moment that the Giant Pencil rewrote, you would have to sacrifice a moment at the end of your life.  (but you would still have to plug the pencil in, because, electronics you know)

And then I showed Kellise the Giant Green crayon that sits on the file cabinet behind my desk.  Kellise smiled and said that you could draw a lot of pictures to change your life with that one.

After her class leaves, I have a short planning time and as I sat there trying to get my end of the year act together, I thought that I might just need to incorporate more writing + art in my classroom next year. (What?  Thinking about next year already? Noooooo!)

But, that moment that Kellise and I just had would not be one that I would erase and rewrite.  For sure.   How lucky am I to be inspired by my kids as much as I hope that I inspire them? 

The Giant Pencil itself!

And a giant green crayon.

Did I mention the giant (non-working, for show only) scissors.

Aaaaaaaaand the giant calculator.  I think I may need a giant supplies intervention.

The Shelf of Intrigue.