Art Education: Teaching For Artistic Behavior

I often envy school districts that offer art classes. Due to the state’s education budget constraint, my son’s elementary school has been without an art teacher ever since he started kindergarten four ears ago. It’s falls on parent volunteers or class teachers to step up and teach art. That being the case, art lessons can be piecemeal and disjointed from one lesson to the next. Some years, a lucky class can get a parent volunteer with teaching experience. In other years, they get…me. Sure, I have a college degree in fine art, but little to no teaching experience. Being an artist and teaching kids are two different set of skills. What to do? I turned to my long-time friend and college classmate Alison Bergman, who has been teaching art in public schools for fifteen years—eleven of them in middle schools. She now teaches grades K-12.

Alison applies Teaching For Artistic Behavior (TAB or choice-based) method of teaching in her classroom. It’s a method based on having students choose the projects they want to pursue. She discovered TAB after having issues with some middle school students who weren’t engaged by predetermined lessons. Besides, “Having 10 cool lessons in the back pocket that I recycle year after year after year would be so boring. That would kill me!”

Teaching For Artistic Behavior: What is it?

Teaching For Artistic Behavior is a choice-based art program that lets students explore their own ideas and interests. There are stations set up in the classroom by medium: drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, ceramics, etc.

Given a wide range of medium to explore, do some students have trouble getting started?

Yes, some students freeze up, but with time, they become comfortable navigating themselves. I try to do a five-minute mini lesson once a week to show a new technique or media. The deal is the kids have to listen, but they don’t necessarily have to do it.

Before they get to work, I ask them to use art vocabulary to tell me what they are going to work on. My youngest students rain their hands and say, “I want to go to the drawing center and use a drawing book. I want to work in the collage center and make things for my doll. I want to use the clay center and make…” In high school, I ask them to use our online classroom and I set units up that prompt deeper level of thinking. Depending upon the age, I have different techniques for helping students through these prompts.

I rarely have problems with students grades K-4 (getting started on a project). Couple of kids in grades 5-8 have some trouble, and more in high school. The first year I taught at my current school, some students were difficult. These same students three years later rebelled when we did specific lessons that I required. I still do structured lessons occasionally, especially in the beginning of the year when I want to cover specific techniques or if we are doing public work like fence or tape murals. Kids often walk into my room with their own ideas and they’ve been looking forward to their time to act on them, have agency over what they are going to do in art.

Helping slow starters

Ultimately, I want to connect with kids—learn about their interests and help them grow their interests. If a kid is distracted, it’s usually a social thing. I explain that, “You have so many minutes to figure out what you would like to do. Do you need my help or would you like to do this on your own?” Mostly, they will respond that they don’t need my help, and about half of those kids will get to work right away. If they don’t get to work, I’ll have a very simple project on standby that I hand to them. I only do this if they are shut down and won’t try to get their own ideas started. Miraculously, once I do that, they have an idea.

If they do need my help, I’ll ask them questions about things or maybe say, “I’ve observed that you enjoyed working on ‘project x.’ Would you like to go further with that media or would you like to try something new?” Some kids really know what they don’t like and we work from there. I use technology. I have many Pinterest boards broken down by media. I have resources all over my room. Books, art images, signs, project examples on display. Kids look around the room and say, “I want to try something like that.” Kids will work collaboratively, especially when they are unsure of their own work. Often, one kid gets a great idea and shares it, then a small posse gathers around and gets to work. It can be really energizing and exciting.

Skill gap

For students who are working alone, once they have an inkling of an idea, we are off and running. I show them as quickly as possible what they will need to get going.  If most of the class is independent, sometimes I’ll sit side by side with a student and model work methods and habits.  This past week, one of my squirmiest middle schoolers and I conquered two-point perspective while the others were happily at work. He bought into this technical process, and was (I think) relieved to go further with the idea of how to draw a house with more detail.

Another feisty first grader wanted to build Thor’s helmet.  I knew the skill level he needed was just out of reach, so I sat down with him and guided him with questions. What do you think if we did this?  Does this fit?  Then he sort of directed me and we worked together.  This was great, but the next day, he wanted me to build Thor’s hammer. I asked him to try on his own first and I would come by. This was too much for him.  He still needed scaffolding.

It’s a fine line between demanding autonomy and encouraging autonomy. Sometimes, their ideas are bigger then they can handle. If a learner is in a good place, this sets them up for some really interesting learning.  If a learner is insecure, this can be to overwhelming.  So, at times, if i notice a learner who isn’t ready for failure yet, I stick with them as much as I can until they are ready to move on—or I send the student to another expert student for advice. It’s funny, but usually, there is enough time and space for all of them. If there isn’t, I’ll have them write their name on a list and I work the room until I can get to them…though that was more of a problem I ran into when everyone was doing the exact same lesson.

A few weeks ago, I introduced pop-up card techniques with my younger students.  They all wanted to do it, but I had to work the room because it was a bit more complicated than I had thought.  What happens in these moments, though, is that students begin to help each other.  They seek each other’s help and give it freely.  It’s kind of awesome, when you circle back to a kid and they say I don’t need your help anymore because another student helped them.

How does grading work?

I have my students self-assess. To be honest, assessment is a drag. Informal assessment is happening all of the time. We look at their work and I model reflection, ask them what they think of it. I want my students to be as articulate as they can about their process. A good grade from me is the wrong message.  What they need most is to be able to know if they are happy with the work or not. If not, what would they do differently next time?

At the high school level, I have my students do more traditional critiques.  It’s a time-suck though, and for some classes, we just don’t have enough time. But I explain that reflecting on work is equally as important as making the work.  (The making is always more fun though).

How do you encourage kids who don’t think they’re good artists?

I explain that there are a lot of different ways to make art. Too many people think that being good at drawing and being an artist are synonymous. There are plenty of great artists who do not draw that well.

If a student wants to draw better, they let me know and I set them up with assignments and challenges. But to get better at anything, it takes time. Students who are good drawers mostly are drawing a lot…outside of class and inside class. You can tell a student draws all of the time when they put a pencil to paper.  But–and this is big…I don’t worship the kids who are good at drawing. I encourage them as much as I encourage every other kid.  I try my best to not have kids checking over their shoulders to see who is the “good” artist and who is not.

When I taught middle school exclusively, many students had a very low sense of self because they did not draw well and all of their lessons from elementary art confirmed their bias about not being a good artist.  It was a problem and the only way out of it for me was to offer choice and a chance to fail spectacularly without punishment. Kids would splatter paint and think they were getting away with something, but once that passed, they got onto real work, usually.  (Middle school is tough.)

Any standout projects that come to mind? 

I have so many stand out projects–in a truly personalized way. More than projects, I’m most proud of stand-out engagement. When a student walks into art for weeks and tells you they hate art, but they can’t help but be interested in the things going on around them and becomes contagious, I feel most proud of that.

Their work may not win any contests, but when it goes home, they give it to their families and loved ones, and I cheer for them inside of my heart.  I cheer when those same students take my class by choice the next year, then start telling me what they want to learn, do it and excel.

My personal aesthetics have shifted a lot. What I deem as “good” art is really different than a traditional art class.   believe the more work a student does, the more ability they will have but good work does not come quickly and we have to have patience and allow them to grow at the pace that feels right for them.  If they are truly engaged, the work will be powerful.

Thank you for your insight, Alison!


Teaching For Artistic Behavior
Nan E. Hathaway – Art Teacher As Magician
The Art of Education – Online resource for art teachers

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