Wednesday, March 12, 2014

In the Art Room: Teaching Good Craftsmanship

Patterned painted plates by one 2nd grade class after 2//30 minute sessions. These will serve as our looms for an upcoming circle weaving lesson.
SooOOooo, I've not really shared with ya'll an art lesson recently. Kinda cuz we're in the middle of, like, a billion (one 4th grader girl actually said to me, "Mrs. Stephens! We CANNOT start ANOTHER project until we finish at least one!" as the rest of the kids proceeded to list all the projects we've started and yet to finish. "But kids! There's just so much we need to cover!" which got me a bunch of arm-crossing and head-shaking). I've also not posted any art happenings in light of my last "In the Art Room" post. After writing about my (very wishy-washy) thoughts on choice-based teaching, I've been questioning many of the teaching practices in my art room. One of them being craftsmanship.

Can you teach good craftsmanship in the art room?

(Me about a month ago):  Like, duh, is this a rhetorical question? 

(Me all I-just-don't-know-anymore-ish): I dunno, am I somehow gonna kill some kids' creativity and be responsible for his therapy bill in about 15 years?! 
After seeing how the amazing art teacher behind Shine Bright Zamorano lists his student goals and expectations on the board, I totally did the same. I absolutely love that dude's blog, ya'll should go check out the incredible work of his students. Oh, and if you happen to see any spelling errors, not my fault. My white board lacks autocorrect. 

As an art teacher, we've all been there. You see a student working on a beautiful masterpiece that'd make Picasso all goosebump-y. So you turn your back for a second (to tend to the kid that's decided that magenta paint is just the right shade for nail polish -- oh, but wait, RED would be so much better, lemme just lick this other color off -- STOP! WHAT. ARE. YOU. DOING?!) only to find that when you return to said Picasso, she's decided, in a last moment of kid genius, to dash off a smeary smiley face right smack dab in the middle.

What do you do?

You gave directions! You chatted all what constitutes a pattern: lines and shapes that repeat! You gave out what you've dubbed The World's Smallest Paintbrushes so the kids could successfully create detailed-ish patterns! You always allow plenty of time to finish in following classes so that if said Smiley-Face-Painter wanted, she could created a whole pattern of smileys the following class! Yes I'm screaming because that Smiley Face is smirky and arrogant and saying to me:

Hey! Picasso wanted to paint a Smiley Face not some stinkin' pattern! Get over it, she's the artist!

Oh, boy. 

Touche, Smiley Face. Touche.
HooOOOooowever. The expectations where clearly stated (patterns, people) and the level of craftsmanship was demonstrated and set (paint slowly, carefully and thoughtfully). Now I know my friends in the 7/8 year old set are different kids with different tastes, levels of patience and ability. And I keep that in mind while they are creating. But my job is also to push them. To show them how to go beyond what they even imagined they could do...isn't it? Or is expecting them to go above and beyond taking them too far away from "well, I know it doesn't have patterns but {brace yourselves, you know you've heard this before} I wanted it to look that way."
Okay. But...

But what?

It wasn't what I expected? It wasn't what I wanted it to look like? 

Should it really be?
I really don't know.
 This internal art teacher debate (I seem to be having a lot of these lately) brought me back to my thoughts on choice-based teaching. I am certain choice-based teachers expect certain levels of craftsmanship even when their students are choosing the materials and subject matter, right? But how often is work that is beneath a students' ability allowed under the statement "that's how I wanted it". 
What I have found, when I hear that statement (which to my art teacher ears sounds like a cop-out) is that my students need a little more of a nudge. I have them walk around the room and check out the awesome work of their friends. I have them tell me what it is they are working toward because I've often found the cop-out was due to a failed attempt. At which point I usually do a little one-on-one demo on my own project to help, hopefully, motivate. Then I try to make myself scarce to see what my little artist friend can make happen on their own.

And, usually, the one who is most surprised by what they create is the artist themselves.
Like the artist behind this plate. After working more patterns into his piece (after some gentle nudging), this little dude was so proud, I saw him quietly take his buddies over to the drying rack to show off his work. When we were standing in line to leave the room, he kept turning around and looking at his plate like he couldn't really believe what he'd painted.

And that's super important to me.

Would he have been as proud without that extra nudge, without an expectation of good craftsmanship? 
My gut feeling is telling me no. But I did have a bean burrito for dinner so I'm not totes trustin' my gut feeling right now.

What are your thoughts on this issue? 

We should teach good craftsmanship, I think we can all agree on that. But to what degree? 

Where do we pause, hold our tongues and allow the artist to exclaim, "that's how I wanted it," even if it doesn't meet expectations? 

I'd love to hear your thoughts. 


  1. But, it's sooooooo hard!!!!!! No matter WHAT the age group! I asked the same question to some other elementary art teachers the other day. I feel bad setting those guidelines, and with them bringing their treasured projects to me all proud and "finished" and with a big smiley face on it..... *sigh* "Why YES! You HAVE to paint this gigantic 18x24 sheet of paper with a #1 paint brush!!!!!!!" Because, if we give you a big brush, you slop through it! And even with the tiny brushes, we still don't paint in one direction, side by side to give the nice smooth finish! :D Just kidding! I wouldn't give a #1 brush for something that size! Maybe a #2 brush to be nice!!! I think that there is a point of emotional and physical maturity, that when reached, they themselves are "ready" for good craftsmanship. There are some, who "got it" at PreK level! Neatest penmanship, best coloring, take forever with the paint brush until YOU want to cry!!!! Those are the ones you watch. The others, I think you can remind until you are blue in the face, but they won't totally "get it" until they are ready on their own. And sometimes, they turn out better than you had hoped, become abstract artist, and create techniques you wish you could do all on your own ("how did they DO that!?!") Smiley faces and all.... :)

    1. I mean, let's be honest, you and the kids know when they are trying their best and just doing the bare minimum. At which point, I usually call them out on it. However, there are those kids who have incredible ideas...but the skill set hasn't caught up yet. At which point, I'll usually help them reach their vision (with drawing books or suggestions). It's a tough balance...and I don't think there is any right or wrong answer. It's just down to you and what you know about the kids and their ability....don't you think?

  2. I'm not sure if this exactly relates - but I'll give it a try - I always told my students that part of their grade in art was based on following instructions. The kid could create a bee-yoo-tee-ful work of art, but if it has nothing to do with the assignment, then the grade cannot be great. I mean, it's SCHOOL. Part of school is following instructions. If in social studies you are supposed to write a paper about the Westward Movement, and you hand in a well-written piece about dinosaurs, do you pass social studies? NO. So if your parameters for the assignment are for patterns and not happy faces, there should be something on a scoring rubric that addresses that. And if craftsmanship is one of the parameters on your rubric (and it always was for me) then the kids need to learn what that means and what your expectations are. And they can draw the happy face during free-draw or white board time, right?

    This honestly had become a challenge for me, teaching now in an afternoon enrichment program. I realize I have to let go of a lot of my parameters, because the kids are there just because they want to do art, not for grades. Does this make sense?

    1. Yes, as usual, Phyl, we share the same brain (why do you have the bigger side of it though?!). I don't have to give grades (please don't tell anyone, I LOVELOVELOVE it!!) so I can't use that method. Although, my kids are pretty motivated...mostly because I tell them, "if you don't try your best then the mean and rotten art teacher will make you try, try again". That usually does the trick ;)

    2. There was a time when my grades were simply M (meets expectations). Then my 6th graders become middle schoolers instead of elementary (same building, just different philosophy by administration) and I using with rubrics. But that was just 6th grade. Since I retired (I got out in the nick of time) things have changed dramatically here in NY, with teacher evaluations based on student growth/progress and testing in every subject and data, data, and more data. They would have had to fire me for insubordination, because, really... How can anyone objectively score a kid based on something he's done in one art class a week? Maybe they get one art project completed in an entire marking period! And then there's those weeks where you don't even see the kid. I'm seriously opposed to grading in elementary art. A behavior mark is fine with me but even that gets dicey; I mean what do you do about the kid who is great one week and awful the next?

  3. Anonymous3/13/2014

    This is really interesting. I teach writing and literature (really, writing THROUGH literature), and I try to strike a balance. I've been following this discussion, and I'm so sorry to see that the choice-based folks have upset you so much. I REALLY admire the work you do, and I think you're really on point in setting goals, parameters, and tasks. That's what good teaching is - exposing your students to a whole range of skills and choices. They can choose to reject/modify/accept those ideas later as they grow into themselves as artists, but we would be remiss as teachers, I think, if we didn't show them as many possibilities as we can. There's a lot to be said for facing a challenge to your skill level, and there's something to be said for offering guidance and experimentation with all these different tasks and challenges. Otherwise, we might never past just painting smiley faces - which is cool if we've had the chance to experiment with all these other things, but limiting if we were never pushed past that smiley face.

    1. YES!! I love that you used the word "challenge" because without that, would my little artists grow? Or would they simply do what comes easy? And what kind of life lesson is that?! I agree with everything you wrote -- so perfect. No wonder you teach writing ;) I need some lessons, friend!!

  4. Oh the happy face. And the sun in the corner. And the rainbow. And the lollipop tree. :D
    I do think craftsmanship matters, and I acknowledge that it comes more easily to some than others! I tell my students that there is a difference between trying and learning something new and drawing/painting "just for fun". In class (I'm doing after school classes), we are there to learn AND to have fun. So sometimes we might have to figure out a way to turn a happy face into a pattern. Or keep working on something even when they say they are done. But it's not a hard-fast rule-I have to learn to read the student to know how far I can take that! But just as you described the boy showing his art to his friends, I love the giant smile when I hold up a student's artwork for them to look at, asking them, "What do you think of your artwork?" That is most likely to happen when they have worked through things that they didn't know they could do. (And it's telling that many of the "free draw" pictures done if they have some extra time, wind up in the recycle bin.)

    1. Yep, working through things is a good way to put it. Pushing past what's easy...doing something a little more difficult and finding success! That's what it's all about. I appreciate your comments and agree with ya totally!

  5. I teach high school and I do expect good craftsmanship and it is still a struggle at that level. I tell them of course your grade is based on what it looks like its ART. I get lots of arguments about self expression but like one I had with one of my super off task constantly students this week. Student " My middle school teacher told me that art is about having fun and expressing yourself:" Me great you have had fun for the last 2 weeks now I want you to express yourself on this piece of paper for the next week".

    1. YES! Bless ya for teaching the big kids, I know I couldn't do that! They are much better at arguing their case. It sounds like you know how to handle those kids :) If good craftsmanship wasn't expected and taught to me, I don't know that I'd be in the art field. That structure and education gave me the tools that later made me comfortable to express myself. Go, high school teacher!

  6. I was reading your post tonight and it was so fitting to my day. We have been working on Ron Burns inspired lions and lambs (for March). We reviewed expectations at the start of class, I wandered and and guided, I discussed and reminded and yet a few were just not as great as they could have been. Their drawings were beautiful until they "puked" colors all over them. It has been my experience to discuss/question ways to improve their work twice and then let them have ownership but they know that if it comes down to taking time and choosing to finish their work, they will loose points.

  7. The smiley face in the middle of the plate......I know I have felt the same way with my student's work when the outcome I envisioned should be free of typical child symbols like the smiley face. Then I rethink what I know of imagery that seems to be important to young children. It is so hard to make any judgement on what the motivation was, but in spite of the instructions, when seen from the eye of the child it could have been very sincere. Maybe the circle shape itself was its inspiration. It's very understandable that children see a smiley face in a circle shape! That center circle was just begging for a smiley face! Maybe they were so happy about the work they did, the bright colors they chose and the patterns they created that the smiley face in the middle is like the exclamation point at the end of the sentence. I often look to see that other objectives were met successfully and then allow that expressive element from the child to be their personal hand print on the finished project. I remind is the process, not the product.

  8. Hey Cassie, do you know where I could find directions for the weaving portion of the painted plate project? Would love to check it out.
    Thank you!

  9. I love how you think! I have the same feelings deep inside when looking around at my students painting. How I set the scene is that I tell my students that what they create in the art room is COMPLETELY different than what they create in their classrooms. They may use stick people, or smiley faces, or lollipop trees to illustrate a story for language arts and it will look amazing I tell them. BUT, when they walk into the art room, they are an ARTIST creating a WORK of ART. When I emphasize that, it leads us into the craftsmanship discussion and how it looks differently depending what is expected of you. A WORK of ART is something that will make you think about it ALL DAY that you can't even hold it inside you have to share! A quick drawing, or something with not much thought is something you will forget by lunch time.
    So to remind my students of this type of thinking I inspire them with these questions EVERY time they begin a work of art: Does it make you proud? Is it SO exciting that you will be thinking about it all day? They laugh, but we all know it gets them thinking!

  10. Dena Alvarez1/27/2015

    Hey Cassie! How do you measure the evenly spaced 19 notches on the template?

  11. Here is what I've done with my 3-5 graders in regards to quality work and craftsmanship. Our school philosophy places importance on the concept of quality work and we discuss what that means in the Art Room. For any given project, I like to have 3 examples of student work (anonymous, from previous years), each is a level up in quality/craftsmanship from the previous. If that is not possible, I will use the successful work of art done by a student in the classroom up on the board and ask the "I'm done!" student if their work is to the 'same level of finish' as the one on the board. Almost to a student, they will get it on their own. We talk about what makes the work quality: Attention to detail, careful work, thinking before doing, etc. I like that it gets them thinking about their thinking.

    Another tactic I've used is a poster defining quality work in the art room. 1. Followed the directions (for this particular project). 2. Careful, thoughtful choices. 3. Is this the best piece you have ever done. Something along those lines. It's always hanging for them to see and easy to refer to for me when that previous tactic doesn't work. (insert smiley face here).

    I love your blog, Cassie, and will be using many of your ideas in my practice this year. Thank you so very much for sharing your talkents.

  12. Hi Cassie, Thanks for your generosity and sharing on your blog! I love it and do you style!! Shine Bright Zamarano is one of my favorites as well. I like the white board presentation you adapted, I totally am going to do this as well. Thanks!

  13. I too enjoy your blog and simple basics for Kindergarten, the hardest class I teach. I wanted to add an idea for craftsmanship that has helped in my room. A visual rubric showing what is expected and what is almost there and what needs work or start over. Just tell the kids to take their work to the chart and they assess themselves. It gives the kids control. I can disagree but I usually let them decide if the work is done.

  14. I just found your blog, I am so glad I did! This post about craftsmanship, pushing, and expecting the students to try harder was exactly what I needed to read. I love how you go back and forth, cuz that's how I feel! I think this post gives me permission to be confident in expecting more. I did the whole back-and-forth thing of trying to be easy on them, but then cracking down and getting them to overcome the same old type of work they were putting out. It is awesome to read all the comments and people agreeing with you about pushing the students to do better and more than they thought they could. I will start CONSISTENTLY holding them to a higher standard! Thank you for all the inspiration!!!

  15. I have been working on this as a theme - but here is where I struggle - KID FRIENDLY LANGUAGE to help them understand what CRAFTSMANSHIP means. Ideas?


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