Art Jail: Teaching Visual Studies in a Secondary School setting, Part One


“Freedom” (Artist Unknown), photo: Oscar Arias

Across the 10 or so years in which I’ve taught art, most of my experience has been with people who sign on to learn because they want to.  Many tell me they’ve always held a passion for it but never set aside the time to develop their interest until joining my class; others have some pretty good chops already and just seek to hone what they know.  Still others never gave art a second thought, but randomly decided to to try something new out of a natural sense of playfulness or curiosity.

For the first time last Fall, at Al-Risala Academy, I taught AVI2O, the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Visual Arts course for Grade 10 – and thereafter gained a rather forceful introduction to a category of student that despises this stuff!  Secondary schoolers are required to take at least one general arts course to graduate, but because of Al-Risala’s intimate scale, I single-handedly represent the Arts Department.  So everyone’s stuck with me, learning to draw.

I offered AVI2O again in the second term of 2016-7, and presently claim stewardship over another fresh-faced lot.  The experience has inspired me to develop a few loose strategies that address the reality of students for whom art learning is mandatory.

That of art jail, essentially.

To be sure, not everybody hates it.  Lots of high schoolers eat up the subject with a spoon.  Even the most dedicated class of keeners, though, is still haunted by that famous spectre, Evaluation (incidentally the ‘Part One’ of this article).  On the plus side, grades can provide a sense of progress and encourage healthy competition between individuals.  Many, however, over-identify with and link their self-esteem to their “category” (A+, B, C-…).  It’s already very easy to tell who the “good” artists in any class are because skill, or a lack of it, is typically quite transparent within the visual medium.  For the kid who can’t draw, then, marks most often succeed only in adding insult to injury.  I know this because of how many in my adult classes have confessed that they used to like drawing before bad grades in school convinced them to stop.

I’m a big believer that learning is its own reward, and, were it an option, I’d abolish marks altogether.  Since the one-off nature of the arts requirement effectively makes the course a “taster” of sorts anyway, why not just let kids take it purely to be exposed to new ideas, and revert back to a grading scheme for higher levels of art for those dedicated to pursuing them?  The simple answer (aside from my lacking authority to do so) is that high school kids rarely seem to find motivation outside of grades.  So the trick for me in designing the course was to find a grading framework to give all a chance to succeed, regardless of ability.

The first thing I tell my students is that I do not grade talent.  Developed students have an outsize advantage in most art classes; however, the reasons kids enter with ability vary widely.  Unlike core subjects, there is no hard standard for where students should be in their art skills by a certain grade level.  There is no expectation that anyone NEEDS to make progress in the area at all, really, and as it’s a private school I teach at, each year we have an influx of students from all over the place.  Some luckily have managed to secure an excellent background education in the arts; others, not so much.

My course therefore initially limits artistic freedom by focusing on highly specific drawing tasks.  As an early exercise, I ask students to create a picture by assembling bits of abstract information on a grid.  No one has the chance to show off, the entire class works towards making the same end image, and the ability to reproduce it accurately is rooted in careful observation, not innate style.  In carefully controlling what I mark for, I ensure I’m measuring in-class learning rather than pre-existing ability.

We gently build on these primitive exercises, but even the more seasoned of the bunch often profit from a return to perceptual basics before launching off.  Many draw well because they can manipulate designs on a page, but pay only passing glances when drawing objects from observation and thus fail to capture considerable nuance.  90% of the work of drawing is not in drawing, but in learning to really look.  To this extent, Art teaches as much or more about a form of mental discipline akin to meditation as it does how to make pretty pictures.  I tell kids that, because there’s a subset of them that begrudge “aesthetics” in general (especially the guys).  Reframed, it seems to make the business more palatable.  Pretty pictures often follow.

Above all, my rubrics have come to emphasize Neatness and Completeness.  If a picture is basically finished and doesn’t look like your dog Sparky got at it (in short, if you appear to be trying), there’s a big chunk of marks in it for you.  Along with those struggling, this helps accomplished students in ways you wouldn’t think: Many skilled students are ambitious, but although capable of wondrous feats, they often bite off more than they can chew in allotted time.  I’ve had handfuls of papers submitted with beautifully elaborate curlicues or something taking up only the top left corner of the page, with the rest left blank.  Emphasizing Completeness gets talented types to design with time more seriously in mind – a consideration they have in common with any professional artist working to meet a deadline.

Following all guidelines is another big area for potential scoring.  This actually ends up hurting some of the more creative kids who do their own thing but forget to include a given technique we learned.  I try not to punish them too much for exercising creativity (I myself cared little for guidelines in school, and, well… still…) but since my grading scheme is highly mechanical, you get a mark if something’s there that’s supposed to be, and not if it isn’t.  Creativity operates at its best within restrictions, so a work that fulfills all conditions and still manages to transcend them is actually maximally creative!  Anyone can shirk rules when they don’t like them.  Not everyone can find a way to comply in a sneaky way that still offers something unique.  By insisting upon this standard I remind not only the student mavericks, but myself, too, of the value of structure.

Finally, deadlines: Long ones, I’ve discovered, aren’t much good with a class of mostly neophytes.  I knew this before I started planning the course’s first iteration, but based on experience have come to see I still made complex projects available too soon.  It’s mid-October – a full month and half into the course – and my class have been working on a multi-level comic project.  Productivity in sessions has remained on the low side overall, tending more towards talking than work.   It takes time to expand on ideas creatively, but one has to have the motivation to do so first.  Hard to come by in art jail!  And harder yet to co-create.

After a few weeks laying all this stuff as groundwork, I have tended to see a slight rise in confidence as certain students discover that they really can make progress with this art thing after all.  Of course, lots still fall asleep in my class (at the benign end), and/or act out their boredom in other ways, so innovating new methods to help connect youth with Art is my ongoing challenge.  The above insights are I’m sure old hat for veteran high school art teachers, but it’s all new thinking to me!  This article, then, may be most helpful for other artists teaching for the first time under similar circumstances.

The next installment of the ‘Art Jail’ series will focus on ways to reframe thinking of Art itself for students who have trouble seeing its relevance in a wider context.  It’s a more interesting read than this technical foray into marking.  I also hope to share what I’ve been up to with with my Grade 7s and 8s: transforming our classes into a fantasy role-playing game with tradable cards as a delivery vehicle.  Both topics to be published based on my own pokey motivation as a full-time teacher and new dad!












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