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

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!