How Do You Know When to Stop?

Mobiles in the Making

I found myself in a bit of a predicament this week.  The task was seemingly simple: Grade 1 students were to dictate their artist statements to myself and my teaching assistant (Alice).  They had completed “movement mobiles” in response to two dance videos.  The purpose was to express their emotional response using lines, shapes and colors inspired by the dances.  I created a spreadsheet with 2 questions meant to get students to explain the meaning behind their mobiles.  As time and skill restraints exist in G1 art, we chose to have students dictate and read back their explanations as a practice in “writing” their own artist statements.

The questions were as follows:

  1. How did you feel when watching the dance(s)?
  2. How does your mobile express your feelings about the dance(s)?

After asking the first few students the two questions above, Alice and I were getting vastly different responses.  We had both interviewed students using the same spreadsheet.  Her students had one word answers.  Mine had multiple sentences.

Ah, the importance of follow-up questions and how I failed to predict that a G1 student would think one word could encapsulate all the thinking that went into creating their art piece. I quickly realized that being able to explain beyond one word (show where on the mobile an emotion was expressed, how the colors connect to an emotion, or tell what the shapes remind them of) did not seem necessary to a young learner who has no experience writing artist statements.   In their own mind, students knew about the inspiration and meaning behind their art…so if a one word answer might trigger the entire creative process in their mind, why wouldn’t it for everyone else?

So, while seemingly simple, herein lies my learning from this “writing” experience.  Explicit knowledge of audience is important when writing, no matter how old you are or what your language ability.  The G1 kids should have known WHO we were writing these statements for (anyone in the library/art gallery who might view them…adults, kids, teachers) from the beginning.

Asking a lot of questions to help students explain their process and “write” it for others to understand is of equal importance.  Even asking the same question in different ways helped students to answer in more depth.  (This can later be translated to students as self-talk and questioning for writing artist statements independently.)    I should have asked my teaching assistant to watch me model questioning a student about their art so that she also understood the expectation of this exercise.  I wasn’t expecting to have to ask so many follow up questions until students gave one word answers and I naturally asked more questions (not on the spreadsheet) to get more information from them.  It is not innate for all students to know when to stop or how to explain the meaning of their art piece.

Knowing when to stop is important.

Visual Literacy: Understanding the World Through Imagery

While extensive and explicit use of text types and writing in the art room is limited, visual culture pervades much of what is taught.  I find that, as a PYP art teacher, I may not be focused on formal literacy as much as the classroom teacher is, however, there is a “visual literacy” that is taught and overlaps with much of what “academic literacies” cover in a traditional classroom.

Empowering students with the tools to decipher the images and “learning to see” in their daily lives can allow them to express and communicate in much of the same ways that writing can…and it transcends language barriers.  In a time where Instagram, Facebook, and SnapChat are a common form of communication for our youth (and adults), embedding visual literacy into our schools is a necessity for students to interpret and make sense of the world around them.  Increasingly, the modes of formal and informal information gathering for our students is visual.  Here are a few resources that I’ve used to promote a visual literacy in the art room and are quite applicable to classrooms of all subjects, ages, and language levels.

  1. Using photos to build vocabulary, take on new perspectives, or tell stories.  This article shows practical ways to do all of the above using photography in the classroom.
  2. Analyzing and interpreting visual images using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) is something we can all do on some level in our classrooms.  This is especially pertinent to using VTS with Common Core.
  3. Art criticism activities can be translated through the lens of any subject matter that has images to describe, analyze, interpret or evaluate.
  4. Using visual literacy techniques to navigate advertisements and propaganda.
  5. Another blog post that explains the value in teaching visual literacy.

TA Language Development as a Tool for Student Success


As I was reading articles about speaking and writing development and trying to visualize where and how this happens in the art room, most of the examples that popped into my head first were of my Teaching Assistant (TA).  I began to think about how her language development has changed over the past 3.5 years we’ve worked together and how it affects the children’s art experience and language acquisition.

Some examples that entered my thoughts:

  • Since my TA does a lot of one-on-one work with students, she needs to be aware of what we’re learning and doing each lesson.  Before a lesson, she’ll ask questions about what we’re doing.  Often, art specific vocabulary comes into the conversation (symmetry, body of work, armature, etc) as well as PYP terminology (function, perspective, inquiry, creative cycle, etc) that she is curious about or needs more clarifying/context in order to help students.  Too often, I assume that she knows some of the key vocabulary I’m using and if I don’t take the time to ask her questions and check for understanding, the vocabulary and concepts I’m teaching can easily become more confusing for students later on.
  • Often, my TA and I communicate tasks in the form of a written log that can be referred to throughout the week.  I noticed firsthand how much of a gap there can be between writing and speaking in this instance.  Often, I cannot think of the words to write and explain a task in a clear and simple way, or I realize that the description words I am using may be confusing without visual cues.  I find myself drawing pictures of certain tasks or just writing “see me when you get to this one” so that communication is more clear or so I can physically show examples.  It’s helped me to rethink the way I speak, write, and present information for non-native English speaking students on a daily basis.
  • Typically, it is me who leads demonstrations with art materials and techniques in the art room.  However, this year, I have asked my TA on several occasions to lead small and large group demonstrations for students.  Each time this occurs, I find her more engaged, asking more questions, and exuding more confidence in the art room.  I can see how the same sense of responsibility leads to student language and art progress.  I need to make these types of formal talks and giving presentations a bigger focus for moving students and my TA along the mode continuum of spoken to written language.
  • Attitude is everything.  My teaching assistant is a motivated and curious person which aides tremendously with our communication.  She asks questions when something is not clear, wants to know more about new words/concepts in our curriculum, and is not afraid to tell me when something doesn’t make sense and could be changed for better meaning (which is a tremendous help because if she can’t understand something, the students surely won’t either).  I like to think that I encourage that same attitude in my students to support their language development.  When she models these traits in front of students, it can only lead to their growth as learners.

Reflecting on this relationship helps me to reflect on similar relationships with my students.  My TA’s proficiency in understanding the meaning in all art lessons directly effects students.  Also, what I learn from her language acquisition helps me to better understand and differentiate for my students.  This knowledge leads me to want to explore the question,”What else can I be doing to assist my TA in language acquisition that will have a direct impact on students’ use of language in the art room?”

Fortune Teller Talk

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I attended the Asia Region Workshop for Art Educators (ARWAE) earlier this year and came away with several new ideas to apply to my own teaching practices.  One of the most valuable workshops I attended was “How to Make Investigation and Reflection Fun” led by Jenny Tiefel.  Jenny’s creative outlook on getting students to explore and share their learning in non-traditional ways makes learning fun (imagine that!) for both students and the teacher.   screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-3-04-03-pmscreen-shot-2016-12-04-at-3-04-48-pm  Since then, I have tried out a few of Jenny’s “Bored No More” strategies for obtaining knowledge and they have been a hit for changing things up, getting students engaged, and making learning memorable.  A few weeks ago, to start the Grade 2 unit on Public/Urban Art, students created a modified fortune teller to help them start talking about the form and functions of public art around the world.  They began by working individually to write short sentences (in Mother Tongue or English) about the artworks on their fortune tellers.  After, the students folded their fortune tellers and played a game that allowed them to share their sentences verbally and ask about other students’ perspectives on an artwork (“What do you notice about this artwork? How does this artwork make you feel?  What does this remind you of?”).  The activity was a success because:

  1. Students had different artworks on their fortune tellers, so there was a lot of excitement to compare and talk about the varied images of public art.
  2. Students had the opportunity to write their thoughts individually before having to share it verbally with others.
  3. Each student had multiple opportunities to practice reading and ask questions to other students about public artworks.
  4. Students were seen showing their fortune tellers to others at recess and continued to read their sentences/ask questions about the artworks to others. (Hopefully this also happened when they took the fortune tellers home.)screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-3-05-03-pm


This strategy could be adapted in SO many other ways to engage students  of all ages in knowledge gathering, questioning and talking skills throughout the learning process.

The Best PD You Can Get For Free

The answer is coming, I promise, but first you have to read through how I came to find the answer.  Here it goes…

  1. I am currently in the middle of a Grade 5 photography unit focused on the question, “What makes a successful photo?”  Students have been adding answers to this question as they learn skills and explore how personal perspective plays a role in photography.
  2. I am also in the middle of making the rounds to grade level classrooms during my free periods to observe and learn from their strategies and methods how to better my own teaching practices.  Last week, I visited some Grade 5 classrooms to see what they were up to.  (In addition to this, I have also subscribed to all classroom teacher’s class blogs to keep updated on what they’re doing in the classroom.)

It should have occurred to me earlier that these two things would coincide with one another, however it came to me an “a-ha” moment incited by G5 students…before I get to that, here’s a little background on what specifically we are doing in the G5 art classes:

“Talk” has been a key tool throughout this unit as students take part in verbal critiques of one another’s photos each week.  These critiques have taken form of whole group sharing, guided questions, and partner talk.  I have found photo critiques are an awesome tool for talking about art for students of all languages and abilities as it allows students to give feedback to one another, improve use of vocabulary, and practice talking about the same thing to different people.  I have framed the critiques as informal and a time where all opinions are accepted as a new perspective to consider.

G5 students in a "fishbowl" critique talk
G5 students in a “fishbowl” critique talk

After 3 weeks of these photo critiques, they were getting kind of boring and students were losing interest.  I was trying to think of a way to spice up the critique activities, continue to engage ALL learners, and make them excited about talking or sharing their opinions.  As I walked around and listened to students last week, I heard them defending their answers…saying things like “I object!” energetically.  Typically, this would just phase me as kids being kids.  But, then it hit me, that “a-ha” moment…Grade 5 classes had just been introduced to debate strategies in their homerooms.  I remembered seeing the signs around the classes during my observation and seeing blog posts by the G5 teachers this week about the students’ debate skills and topics.  How did I not think of this sooner?  I should be holding critique debates each week to allow G5 artists to express their perspectives, defend them with reasons, practice debating skills, and consider multiple perspectives in their talk.  It seems simple, but without visiting their classrooms and subscribing to blogs, I never would have made the connection to the language students were using in my class.

So now I have an exciting focus for our next critiques that students already have prior knowledge for.  I plan to connect with the G5 team in the coming days, find ways to support debate skills in the art room, and use this to help strengthen their talk about “what makes a successful photo?” in art critiques.  It all fits together.

All of this is great, right?  But I got to thinking that if I weren’t in the classroom observing G5 or if I didn’t subscribe to all of the grade level teachers’ blogs, or if I weren’t listening close enough to hear students using their debating vocabulary, none of these connections would have been made.  I’d probably still be trying to think of strategies for extending talk and critique skills.  Yet again, I am reminded of the IMPORTANCE of collaboration, communication and curiosity across subjects and grade levels in our school.  Connectivism.  If I don’t know what a grade level is doing in their classroom, there’s no way to authentically integrate and support one another.  I know there’s never enough time (I’m the first to admit to putting off observations, skipping a blog post, or holing up too much in my “art bubble” throughout the day), and collaborative planning is few and far between, but if we make the time, however small…a casual drop in, one blog post, a conversation over lunch…things happen.  Time is valuable to us all, but if we can break it down into these simple things, I guarantee you will find a connection or resource that is valuable to you and your teaching right here at ISPP…and maybe you’ll help someone else along the way without even knowing it 🙂

Single Stories and Flipping the Script

I listened to “The danger of a single story” and my brain was taken in a million different directions.  Past experiences, recent situations, self-reflection.

I began reflecting on the past week at ISPP and some opportunities I had to sit and watch an adult outside of the education community interact with our students.  I listened as she tried to describe a character from a book and made comparisons to Santa, as they were both “jolly”.  As she questioned our students as to why Santa was jolly and what jolly would look like, the kids stared back with little response.  Many of the children she was speaking to had never celebrated Christmas.  She was trying to get them engaged and excited by bringing a very Christian, Western character into the lives of a mixed culture, mixed faith student body.  She was relying on a single story of what “jolly” meant and represented.  The low energy response to her questions about a fictional character that, while known by the students, was not the only or most interesting character in their cultural experiences was amusing to me at first, but a bit concerning as well.  This adult seemed well travelled, open-minded, and creative.  Yet, she had no register of her audience and how culturally diverse their own stories were at the age of 9.  I thought, “Do I do this?  When might I have posed a similar question or conversation in the art room that just wasn’t culturally appropriate for my audience?  When do I make assumptions based on a single story?”

I thought about my experience the first time a Chilean friend called himself “American” to me and I nearly corrected him before realizing…he was right.  I always had this perception that “American” meant the U.S.A. and the rest of North and South America must’ve been called something else.  It’s still a moment of awareness that I remember clearly as a time when my world view was opened from a simple conversation.  It started with recognizing that label and then expanded to a load of other misperceptions I had.

But back to this most recent experience:


Later, she questioned another set of students about the meaning of a character if it was pink.  When a student replied maybe it meant the character was “silly”, her immediate response was “Nooooo, come on guys…pink!  What does pink mean? (no response)…Girly.  If a character is pink, they’re girly!  It’s a girl color.”

It completely ripped into the foundation that I’d set for many classes in art about exploring their own “personal color meanings” recently.  This was a very cultural definition of a color being imposed on students whose school tells them to consider many perspectives of a topic before coming to an understanding of it.  It was a single story of what pink should be in the mind of a creator.


But then again, it is important to understand, on a societal level, the stereotypical meanings of colors.  If you travel to various ends of this Earth, it helps to know that the red signs on the road, no matter the shape or text inside, likely mean “stop”.  That in many cartoons, white is innocent/good and black is evil.  So where is the balance of understanding these meanings but not necessarily accepting them as the only truth?  At what point do we “flip the script”?

Could this person have said to our students, “Yeah, some people might interpret pink as silly, others might say it’s girly…but color ALONE cannot be the only factor which you interpret the traits of a character.  You need to look at the actions and behaviours, the context, setting, and time period.  There are A LOT of factors that go into building a character, just like there are A LOT of factors that go into building YOU.  Just because you have long hair or baggy clothes, or glasses should actually mean very little about who you are to someone on the outside looking in.  So choose any color you want, but develop your character beyond their looks to show who they really are.”  Isn’t this the type of culturally-responsive answer that we as humans should be instilling in our youth all over the world?

Haha, maybe that’s a little too in-depth of an answer, but isn’t that the message we’re getting at?  As a PYP school, relying on single stories is the opposite of what we teach…which is also much of why, I suppose, we have very little use for text books.

So…How should I have reacted?  Should I have interrupted and given my two cents?  Should I bring it up with those students next time I see them or has the moment passed?  Should I just focus on ways these messages can be conveyed in my art lessons and be sure to reinforce culturally sensitive open-mindedness via art?  What are creative strategies I can use with my students to make sure they are not relying on single stories in their art pieces?

By no means do I think this person was aware of the disconnect between themselves and our students/PYP philosophies.  She was well-intentioned and knowledgeable in many facets of what she did professionally.  If anything, this experience helped me to reflect on the possible disconnect between our intentions as educators and the intentions of parents or society as a whole.  This could very well have been a series of conversations held between a student and their mom/dad at home.


This week, I worked with the Grade 4 team to introduce sketchnoting to our students as a way to visually record their thoughts and connections during field trips and visits from guest artists in the coming weeks.  As we prepared a basic outline of the first lesson, I was excited to see how students might use their linguistic backgrounds and visual thinking strategies to show understandings of a topic.

As we moved through a series of activities, I noticed…

  • The majority of students used English in their sketchnotes, even though we encouraged them to write in any language or way that made the most sense to them.  I wondered why.  Were they challenging themselves by writing in English or was this their true comfort level with the language?  Were they embarassed to be the only one to use their MT?  Are they just used to using English when writing “academically” at school?  Is it a “good” or “bad” thing that they all wrote in English?
  • Some students had a difficult time processing and choosing the most important information to include in their notes, so they ended up writing or drawing a lot rather than choosing key words along with simple pictures.  This is obviously something to work on: pulling out key words and concepts that can stand alone to represent and remind students of the overall message of a speaker or presenter.  This would be an easier approach to encourage use of MT as well.  What if the students worked in groups after a presentation to come up with a “word bank” of important concepts, then translated into their MT, then used only those words with pictures to sketchnote?  This seemed like a better solution and a way to encourage MT in the art room in a more structured, supportive way.
  • The most challenging part after choosing what information to sketchnote was deciding on a way to organize the flow of information.  This made me think about the different ways we all organize our thoughts in our minds and how that might change depending on the language we’re thinking in.  I found some simple flow charts for sketchnoting that I gave the 2nd and 3rd classes we taught.  This simple visual of ways to format your thoughts was useful to students who think in a variety of ways.
    • sketchnote-formats

After speaking with Anita Mathur about sketchnoting, I found that she is also teaching her Grade 2 classes to sketchnote as a way to show their understandings in class.  I’m seeing sketchnoting as a more and more valuable tool for students to express their thinking visually in a very fluid, flexible format, using multiple languages, icons, and connections.  The more I use it, the more students will find ways to break down language into visual representations of their understandings.

Apart from teaching my students, I’m finding sketchnoting to be a valuable tool as a TEACHER.  I attended a weekend workshop about Creative Arts Therapy this weekend and used the technique to document some of my learning:

ragamuffin-sketchnotes-1 ragamuffin-sketchnotes-2

I find that sketchnoting, like art, works in cycles.  You listen, think, record, go back, add more, and so on.  It’s a great tool that I’m happy many parts of the elementary school are using as a way for students to develop their thinking creatively and in whatever way makes the most sense to THEM.

Spotlight on Family Interactions

The PYP art and music programs hold monthly “Spotlight on the Arts” events each month.  This is a time for families to come to school and learn about what their child is doing in music and art class.  The evening is always: student centered with student guided activities, connected to the current unit of inquiry, allows for families to participate in and give feedback to their child about their learning and growth.


Our first Spotlight on the Arts this school year was focused on Grade 3 families.  Their task was to interview each other (using prepared questions), draw family members based on their interview answers, and then share/reflect on commonalities and differences using an Exit Ticket.  As I observed families interacting in this portrait game together, I saw parents asking students to translate the written instructions and interviews on the table, as well as families speaking multiple languages within one conversation to understand the activity.  I recognized that many parents were at a BICS level of communication in English, but I hadn’t realized it because this I had typically only communicated with them in a more casual, social, and verbal setting.  When it came to more technical steps in writing, specific art terms to describe procedures, and routines that were not familiar to them, parents needed assistance from their child to better understand the activities.  It was wonderful to see how confident students were in explaining the activities (in multiple languages) and to allow them to be the teachers for an evening.

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I realized that while I had practiced the activity and procedures with my Grade 3 students to ensure confidence for the evening, many of the parents exhibited signs of nervousness and lack of confidence communicating verbally and visually at first.  However, with the encouragement of their children leading them, everyone completed the activities, using a range of multi-lingual strategies and seemed to have fun as well!  These interactions are always a point of learning for me, but perhaps I should be paying them more attention in future Spotlight evenings.  How am I using these events as a way to better understand students’ language profiles and backgrounds?  How can I fine tune my observations on these evenings to consider language learning in the art room?  These family interactions are moments of children communicating socially and academically, as a student and as a teacher.  There are so many levels of learning going on and I hope to use this as a new way of gleaning information about students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds throughout the year.

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Drawing, Memory and Learning

I just read this article in the Huffington Post about remembering by drawing and instantly thought about how this applies to #SPELTAC.  I think at a young age, students are often encouraged to draw their thoughts and use illustrations to assist in language acquisition, but often that gets forgotten as they grow and our academic, linguistic demands change.  Or sometimes we get discouraged by our artistic abilities and shy away from drawing because of our lack of confidence.  However, as emphasized in the article,

The method works whether or not you are particularly gifted in the drawing department. Even if your drawings are barely legible to the outside world, to the inner workings of your memory, you’re basically Albrecht Dürer.

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So I am doing a little self experiment.  I take Khmer classes and often find that vocabulary lingers in my brain momentarily and then leaves as I make room for more.  Maybe I should also be drawing to learn and remember words in a new language.  How can I (and students) create drawn vocabulary visuals around my room to do the same?  Excited to build a more visual vocabulary in the art room as the year progresses.

Nurturing a Creative and Confident Mind

I teach art, so naturally, students are innovative and creative in my classroom, right?  Not necessarily.  I find that, just as with language, the students at ISPP, are quite diverse in their creative confidence.  Part of my job is to make sure that, at the very least, every student finds a way to connect or relate to art in a way that they see its value in their lives.  I don’t expect the next Picasso to emerge from my classroom, but I do expect each and every student to leave feeling competent and proud in their ability to be creative and express themselves.  Bottom line: art is communication, so how am I nurturing creative minds and language?

Here are a few strategies that have helped me in developing a common “creative language”, confidence and a sense of belonging in the art room.  I think they apply to students in any classroom at any age.

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  • Giving students the chance to reflect on positive and negative experiences.  Last year, I began using simple +/- charts and mind maps with students at the end of class.  I asked them to reflect on what went well and what didn’t that day.  What they liked and what they would change.  We revisited those lists the following class by thinking, “How can we turn the -‘s into +’s today?” I found this a great way to develop a growth mindset and put responsibility on students to find solutions for turning negative experiences to positive ones.

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  • Kath Murdoch’s reflection cards.  During ISPP’s Professional Development last school year, Kath Murdoch gifted us with a wealth of resources and strategies.  One that I am finding especially helpful for art class are her reflection sentence starters.  (Thanks to Bridget Brian and Leigh Pritchard for recording the actual sentences Kath used at PD and sharing with me.)  When there are 5 minutes at the end of a lesson, I scatter the sentence cards in the middle of our circle and students pair/share their reflections.  I find that even the least verbal students will choose simple sentence cards (“I feel…”) and just make a face if they don’t have the words.  I also find that most of the students end up choosing more than one sentence to share with a partner and also want to share with the entire class.  I tried this with Grade 2 classes recently after a nature walk/draw and was impressed by what I learned about the day’s lesson from their short, verbal reflections!
  • Growth mindset quotes.  I have recently been more in tune to students in art class commenting, “I’m no good at drawing/art/insert art skill here.”  And it gets under my skin!  So I am currently in the process of rolling out a “quote board” of Fixed and Growth Mindset quotes from the art room.  I’m hoping that as we “catch” one another making fixed mindset comments, we can record them and work together to transform them into growth mindset comments.  Making it an explicit part of our class should help make students more aware of when others are in a fixed mindset and have direct quotes to help them work towards a growth mindset.

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  • Checking In With Yourself.  Another Kath Murdoch brainchild from our PD.  I’ve created several posters around the art room asking students to “check in” with themselves and others while in the art room.  Simply having the opportunity to say where your mind is can help us to understand why others might be acting, thinking or creating in a certain way during class.  Many students have begun using the posters independently to self-reflect on their state of mind before, after or during class.  I’ve found that this also gives students a chance to share what is going on outside of the art room and reflect on how it might affect their thoughts and actions during the 45 minutes a week I see them.

What do you do to boost student confidence and mindfulness in your classroom?