Monday, July 06, 2009

Additional Rigor for the Teacher

Today I started my AP Studio Art training. I'm excited about teaching AP Studio art this year, because the class will provide my more dedicated and advanced art students with some additional rigor, as well as a few worthy goals: college credit for a high school art class, and development of an outstanding portfolio they can use to apply to some great art schools.

There was another teacher at our school who taught AP Studio Art before I came along and agreed to do this, but she quit doing it because she said the students weren't able to meet the requirements. My silent, internal response to this was, "I think they CAN meet the requirements. They just need guidance and motivation to get there. I think I could help them do that." I filed that thought away and went about my business.

This year my supervisor asked me if I would consider doing the training and I said that I'd been thinking of doing it anyway, so of course I would do it. They registered me for the course, and here I am. I've been looking forward to this for about four months.

So I get into this training, and we're going over the portfolio requirements and the review process, and suddenly I'm feeling like I've set myself and the students up to fail. Our school only offers AP classes as semester-long courses, rather than year-long courses, and my first AP class will be offered in the spring semester. The semester doesn't end until mid-June, but the portfolio submission deadline is early May, which means my students will only have 14 weeks to produce a minimum of 24 pieces of artwork, and so far even my best students have produced, at most, about 10 projects in an entire semester.

Not only do they have to submit a minimum of 24 pieces, but they have to submit 5 actual artworks (packaged and mailed into College Board) that "demonstrate mastery of design in concept composition, and execution," 12 slides of works that demonstrate a "body of work investigating a strong underlying visual idea in 2-D design," and 12 slides of works "that demonstrate a variety of concepts and approaches in 2-D design." So, the 24 pieces have to be really, really good, and satisfy a very specific range of criteria.

In class today we looked at slides of sets of student work from previous portfolio reviews which received the highest scores, next-to-the-highest scores, mid-range scores, and lowest acceptable scores. I found myself thinking that I had never seen any work even approaching these standards in my school or my school district. How in the world will I get work that satisfies even the lowest acceptable score out of my students in the quantities required with only 14 weeks to do it?

Then I found myself thinking that all of the work in the highest and next-to-the-highest score categories were better than some of the work I did in college. In fact, I won "Best in Show" at the senior student exhibit just before I graduated from college, and while that work was pretty darned good I didn't think it was better than the work I saw today in the two high scoring categories. In fact, the work I saw today was as good as, if not better than, a lot of the college work I've seen anywhere; and even in my senior year we didn't have to meet as many requirements in our senior thesis project as my AP Studio Art students will have to meet in this portfolio review.

I was approaching the level of panic. For me, the cure for this is to get busy, so I started planning and preparing my unit and lessons right there in the classroom today.

Frequently, when I am planning a really neat lesson that I think the kids will enjoy but may find daunting in the beginning because it's something new to them, I will create a sample piece to show them. You'd think that this would intimidate them, but it actually inspires and challenges them to do better work. One teacher I talked to a few years ago when I was thinking of trying the sample approach said, "Don't do it. They'll never be able to do work as good as yours, so they'll quit before they get started." I was bummed. I had thought it was such a great idea. Then I shared my idea with one of my mentors who has 30 years of high school teaching experience and he said, "That's a great idea! Go for it!" So I started creating samples.

My mentor was right. The kids' response to each sample for each project was, "Whoa! That's really cool! You did that?" Suddenly I was more than just a teacher to them. Suddenly I was an artist. Whoa! Cool! The mentor was right--it did inspire the kids. Sometimes they did seem a little daunted and claimed that they could never do that, and that the only reason I could is I'm an artist and I have talent. This just gave me an opportunity to dispel the myth of inborn talent. I explained to them that the only difference between me and them was that I had decades of practice and I actually tried to do the project. They could do the same quality work if they would just get started, and do their best. For some reason they believed me and my kids made great art work.

But not great enough to submit to the College Board portfolio review process, I realized as I was reflecting on it and looking at these slides of awesome high school art work. It occurred to me as I was thinking this that I sounded just like the kids. It also occurred to me that I sounded a bit like the Cowardly Lion: "Whatta they got that I ain't got?" Seriously--how are my students any different than these students who did the awesome work that I'm looking at now?

Well, actually, I could write a book on the ways that my students are likely to be different than the students who earned these high scores (socio-economic status, for a starter). But if you strip everything away but the student and the teacher, why can't my students do just as well? I found myself wondering how I could create a sample work to show them. Then realized that it wouldn't work because it's primarily the idea and the execution of the idea that they are being scored on, and there's no real way to create a sample of an idea. And some of my students' only problem is that they waste a lot of time and work really slow (because they can--I realized today that I've never required them to work any faster than they were before I came to the school). Their major objection would be, "It's too much, Ms. Aspensen! Too many pieces! Not enough time! We can't do it!"

And then it struck--the BIG idea: What if my sample project was an entire portfolio that meets all of the requirements of the College Board portfolio review? How cool would it be to lead them through the explanation and demonstration of what is required of them, allow them to make their objections, and then whip out my freshly created portfolio of new work that I did over the summer just to prove that it could be done? HA! Very cool, indeed.

I quickly looked at the calendar to see how many weeks are left before school starts. Crimony! Only 8, and that's if I get started right now! 24 pieces in 8 weeks! That's 3 pieces a week! Yikes! Better get started right away!

So, I decided then and there that that's what I'll do. My most ambitious sample yet. When they complain that they don't have enough time, I'll remind them that they have nearly TWICE as much time as I had to produce the same number of works. Objection obliterated.

I'll post my first 3 pieces here on the blog by this Sunday (July 12) so you can see how I'm doing. I'll also post my artist's statement (something the kids have to submit with the portfolio to College Board). Even though I feel a little overwhelmed at the thought, it's been a LONG time since I set this kind of goal or deadline for myself concerning art production, so I'm pretty excited. Bonus: by the time school starts I'll have 24 new pieces of artwork to put in my eBay store. Nice. I LOVE being an Art teacher! :-)

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