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Choice-Based Art / November 2018 | Arts & Activities
Oct 2018

Choice-Based Art / November 2018

Choice-Based Art / November 2018

Choice-Based Art classrooms are working studios where students learn through authentic art making. Control shifts from teacher to learner as students explore ideas and interests in art media of their choice. This concept supports multiple modes of learning to meet the diverse needs of our students. Learn more at teachingforartisticbehavior.org

by Cynthia Gaub

When I started teaching art at my low-income, high-immigrant, urban-population school, I was presented with classes that were filled with a mixture of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students. Among those diverse emotional and physical age differences there was also the learning diversity from gifted to high learning needs. Then, sprinkle in some behavior-issue kids along with some who were severely physically challenged.

I was confounded with how to approach my curriculum and deal with the necessary differentiations that would be required for my diverse population. On top of all this, our district lacked a strong elementary arts program. Most schools had no arts specialists and many of our immigrant students were coming from lives where art supplies were not accessible at home.

As I scoured the Internet for lesson plan ideas, I found some online groups where I posted my woes. I was immediately directed to check out the TAB Choice group. There I discovered a studio-style student-focused pedagogy that seemed like it would address all my problems. I found a warm and welcoming group with truly innovative ideas.

I decided to dip my toes into the TAB waters and began setting up a few centers. I primarily used the centers for early finishers. After kids finished my teacher-directed projects, they could create artworks of their choice with a variety of drawing tools or use programs on my two computers.

This worked well, but it dawned on me that the following year some from my mixed-grade classes would return, so some would have already done my projects and for others these would be completely new.

I knew making a middle school student repeat a project would have disastrous results. But I also didn’t want to redesign entirely new projects every year, or even possibly every trimester when students might come back within the same school year. What to do?

I really loved the full studio choice I was seeing described on my online group, but it still seemed too unstructured for my middle school kids. I had nightmare visions of wandering gangs of boys wasting supplies and causing trouble without purpose or art making. But I already had this problem with my current set-up, so I guessed it couldn’t get worse.

So, I decided to modify the model and give my students a theme to guide them and allow them a choice of media, size and color to interpret the theme.

My first modified choice challenge was the “Chair Project.” I was inspired by a number of schools and arts organizations that held auctions with this theme. I felt that offering multiple choices of media, including 2D and 3D, would allow me to meet the needs of my students, as well as deal with issues of limited space and budget.

I opened my chair project with a PowerPoint of chair images in a variety of art media. After the presentation, students developed a plan by first selecting a media that interested them. They drew sketches and did research.

Many of the students gathered supplies from home, even purchasing some or enlisting relatives with woodworking tools to assist outside of school. A few decided—or were encouraged—to work in small groups, while others worked independently.

The room was a beautiful picture of controlled chaos. Everyone found a niche and explored the idea of the chair in the ways they wanted. The project was a hit and several finished products made it into our district art show.

From this success, I was encouraged to continue on this Choice path, each year designing new themes. Many of my art themes included lessons that connected to art history, like Surrealism and Pop art, or touched on cultural crafts like masks and vessels. I tried to pick topics that my middle school students could open up to, like self-portraits and everyday heroes.

My practice continues to grow and flux as I experiment with ways to both offer choices and provide necessary guidance and boundaries, while also addressing grade-level learning requirements.

I can’t claim to have obliterated discipline problems or failing students in my classroom. But the more I practice, the more I discover the depth with which I get to know my students’ personalities and abilities as I allow them more and more choices and opportunities to explore their artistic passions. 

Cynthia Gaub teaches middle school art an hour north of Seattle, in Everett, Washington. She has been using modified TAB-Choice methods for over 10 years and writes on her blog: www.artechtivity.com to share her “Around the Room” and themed units with fellow teachers. To see more projects in Cynthia’s classroom, check out: www.thevirtualclassroom.org/ 


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