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

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.  

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