Creating Art That Is Spot On!

My class of older students has spent a couple of weeks creating functional art works that are decorated entirely in spots. We looked at Australian Aboriginal artwork as well as the art of Leah Dorian as inspiration. All of these artists use dots to create complex images. Using these ideas as springboards, we moved into creating our own artworks.

Our supplies were fairly simple to get together. I was on one of my frequent visits to the Salvation Army, and I picked up a wooden salad bowl set for $4.00. The wood was nice and dark and the bowls were in really great condition. I then purchased a box of cotton swabs and brought in the usual array of acrylics, paper plates (as palettes) and water jugs.

The students were asked to create functional art pieces out of the re-purposed bowls and this was all the instruction they seemed to need. I didn’t tell them to paint an undercoat on the bowls but a few of them decided to do this on their own. Others just left the wood as-is and started painting dots immediately. Many started with simple patterns on their first bowls and then, on their second, moved in different directions. Sometimes, the materials are the catalyst for creativity, and this seemed to be the case.

Here are some of their works, completed, or in progress:

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Art blog A25, 2014 - 2 Art blog A25, 2014 - 4 Art blog A25, 2014 5 Art blog A25, 2014 6 Art blog A25, 2014 7 Art blog A25, 2014 Art blog A25, 2014-3

Education rant: Some things I have been thinking about…

Be warned: The soapbox is out today! Read at your own risk!

If you want to embrace a First Nations way of learning math, have the math emerge from experiences (games, real-life problems, baking…) Too often, the experiences and real-life problems come after the algorithm. Switch it around.

Talk about language with students. Talk about words. Talk about phrases. Talk about expressions and idioms. Wonder and puzzle over the craziness and incredible nature of
of language. This will help students read and write.

Pre-assess. Please. And then honour the knowledge students already possess. Stop making students repeat learning. All this does is test their compliance and, quite frankly, it is a wonder there isn’t more misbehaviour if students have to repeat learning. It is annoying to adults and it is annoying to kids.

Be explicit and be flexible. It is a balance and we switch the two around too often. We are wishy washy and over-flexible when students are craving clarity and we are inflexible when students could benefit from creative choice. Help students get to their destination by being explicit on the non-negotiable steps for success and then step back and let students make choices when they are ready to do so. The only way to know when to do each is by listening and watching carefully. Students give lots of clues if we are willing to notice.

Talk to your students about their lives outside of school. Find out who has supports and who doesn’t. Ask how much homework students have and respect their personal lives. Don’t ask more of them outside of school than their circumstances can accommodate. Set them up for success; never failure.

Treat families like equals. Be cautious of the language you use. Is there a tone that communicates superiority? Do you dictate how families will spend their valuable time? Do you invite conversations? Remember, parents want to know their children will be okay. They want to know that you care. They will more likely walk alongside you if it feels like the invitation exists.

Students are smart. They know a lot. Take time to honour their knowledge. Assume their intelligence and it will show itself.

Please talk about learning as if it is fun. Talk about it like it is accessible. Don’t scare students into learning. Don’t talk about “big tests” and “huge assignments.” This makes learning sound scary. Some students experience tremendous anxiety when we talk about things in this way. They lose their confidence. Learning is fun. School is interesting. If it isn’t, then try a different approach. Fear and learning do not go hand-in-hand.

Don’t say students can’t read. This statement is an over-simplification and is unhelpful on top of it. Students can read. They can read signs. They can read people and situations. They can read body language. They usually possess a myriad of reading skills that need to be acknowledged. Call it what it is: they are experiencing challenge in reading the school texts we want them to read in the way we want them to read them. We have to dig much deeper into their strategies or “habits of mind,” in order to help students improve their reading. Also, please don’t say: Students learn to read in grades K-3 and then they read to learn. This isn’t true and it sets students and teachers up for disappointment. Humans become better readers their whole lives and reading instruction needs to continue throughout school.

Learning strategies (not instructional strategies…also important but different) are the destination. Content is the vehicle. How students get to the content, interact with it, digest it and respond or engage with it is the important thing. I am not saying content isn’t important because you can’t get to the destination without it. But the transferable strategies are what students will apply over and over. When students experience difficulty, it is because they did not apply effective strategies. When we offer feedback to students about how to grow, it should be connected to the strategies they need to apply to get there. Examples of strategies are: make predictions, activating prior knowledge, determining the main idea, organizing ideas…I blogged about these earlier.

Math is complex and abstract. It is also challenging to teach if we are depending on our knowledge based on how we were taught. Math represents idea and information and concepts that require deep understanding. If you feel like math is just algorithms, take a class or have a conversation with someone who deeply understands math. I suspect that many people feel like I felt a few years ago-I needed to learn more about math because I don’t think I ever really understood it, even though I did well in school.

Languages are important. So are art, and music and drama and dance. While we’re at it, so are physical education, science, social and health. It drives me crazy when we talk about only two subjects. In fact, subjects are silly in that they compartmentalize learning that is, in fact, holistic. Learning is wondrously connected. It is amazingly complex and multi-faceted. And humans are just as complex and what makes us wonderful is our individuality and our diversity. All learning makes us who we are and all subjects are vital to our humanity. I am not human if my life isn’t filled with the arts, languages, movement and wellness…and math and communication, of course!

Please give learning an authentic purpose whenever you can. Revising, creativity and effort are so much more likely when people are working for a meaningful purpose. When students want to do well and work hard, you know you have found the sweet spot.

Assessment isn’t a bad word. However, assessment should be part of the learning cycle. If assessment just means “report card,” then reconsider. Assessment is something we are always doing, from pre-assessment to formative assessment, through feedback and relearning, to observation and demonstrations of learning. Assessment is essential to learning and has nothing to do with ranking and sorting students. Assessment should be based on clear outcome criteria. It is from our constant assessment that we make decisions about our instruction and how to invite even more learning. Assessment should be optimistic and hold the promise of success. We have to believe that all students can and will learn.

Which leads to…all students can and will learn. If you find yourself saying, “She just isn’t ever going to learn much,” or, “He will never be able to…,” ask yourself how you know this to be true. What evidence do you have? Where can the student grow? How will you be part of that growth? Acceptance of failure leads to failure. And talking about inevitable failure diminishes our work and our role. Even worse, it diminishes the student.

Don’t forget to celebrate what’s great!

These days, Twitter and the media are filled with all kinds of political rhetoric, controvery and general commentary about education in Saskatchewan. This post is not about any of that. Instead, I wish to encourage myself and others to remember that amid all cries of a system gone bad, there are a number of people working each and every day, fuelled by their passion for students, who are supporting amazing growth and excitement for learning by children in this province. Let me share my journey around my school division in the last couple of weeks:

Oct 20131

A principal in one of our schools shared with me her approach to combining assessment and learning, thereby ensuring students achieve the desired outcomes in arts education. Firstly, yay art!! Secondly, the mindful consideration this educator gives to her practice is inspiring.

October 20133 October 20132

A fellow coordinator and I were invited on this field trip one windy October morning. The students were observing the local Canadian Foodgrains Bank Project Field being harvested. They were learning about the interdependence of countries and the impact of Canadian resources on both local and global economies. Local farmers spoke with the students about the project and the canola itself. This real-life example allowed students to make powerful connections and apply their learning to real-life contexts.

October 20134

All over our school division, I see examples of this – students asking their own questions. It could be argued that a question is even more important than an answer. Certainly, honouring student questions is essential for making learning meaningful.

October 20135

I spent an hour with these grade two students as they learned a new concept relating to patterns. It was exciting to share in their experience as each and every student made the learning transfer, using manipulatives. The dedication of the teacher to find just the right combination of guidance and exploration was wonderful to see.

October 20136

Inviting students to reflect on their learning and engage in metacognition is challenging, especially in K-2 classrooms. However, this class made “thinking about thinking” visible, proving that children are smart and their teacher is pretty great, too!

October 20137 October 20138

Student art always makes me smile and these two examples are no exception. Encouraging creativity and innovation is so important to brain development as well as the development and expression of personal identity. Our schools are filled with examples like these. Note that no two artworks are the same – the sign of great creative expression.

October 20139

These grade seven students were preparing for a re-demonstration of learning. Their first assessment had not gone well enough to leave the topic, so their teacher was re-teaching before the second assessment event. The students were taking the science concepts they had been learning and were connecting them in concept maps. It was clear they had learned the material more deeply as a result of the additonal time spent on the topic.

October 201310

On a cold Thanksgiving weekend, I volunteered my time at my husband’s school, installing their new playground. Not only had the school community raised tens of thousands of dollars for this play centre, but over thirty volunteers showed up to help install it over two days. The commitment of this school community brought tears to my eyes. Our communities care about children and this makes the work of schools so rewarding!

October 201311

My colleague and I hosted the grades 1-3 teachers in our division for three data response days last week. We will be having three more days next week for grades 4-6 teachers and then 7-12 teachers will follow after Christmas. Nevermind the time it took these professionals to prepare for a substitute teacher so they could come to these workshop days, but their engagement in the data and in the learning associated with it was a testament to their commitment to children. This photo shows an activation exercise we did at the beginning of the day, when we asked the teachers to reflect on their current instructional practices. We spent our time looking at the data around student reading and refecting on the strategies that offer the highest impact on learning. We then collaborated on what our ELA could look like to maximize learning opportunites.

All in all, much to celebrate and consider. Even when a “system” seems to be in turmoil, there are always people doing great work inside schools.

Creative Chaos

Wow, last night’s art class ensured I fell asleep before both my own children after we got home! It was a whirlwind of excitement and busy-ness, where everyone was exploring for the entire time, so I count that as success. However, I am finding the class make-up this time around requires a little more energy than past years. I have six students who are 4-7 years old and four who are 9-15. I have divided the class into these same groups for the next few weeks and I think that division was wise.

With the younger group, we embarked on an “experiment with colours.” We started with baking soda, vinegar, food colouring, eye droppers, trays and cups of water. We tried various proportions and combinations of the ingredients until we got interesting new colours with proper fizzes and pops of liquid floating in our trays. We then practiced cleaning up all on our own, which was an experiment in-and-of-itself. Nevertheless, we got there and we were ready to set out on our second adventure: Contemporary circles and colours! We used paper cups and acrylic paint to make circles in colours of their choosing (we spend a lot of time practicing sharing, compromise, turn-taking). We then used brushes to fill in details. We ended by making “Respect Monsters,” which was a project one of the students really wanted to do (they have been learning about respect at school and he wanted a monster for his desk. The others felt it was a great idea.) The students responded especially well to the idea of experimentation. We asked questions along the way and I prompted with, “I wonder..” statements to generate discussing and prediction-making.


clean up


The older crew set out on an entirely different adventure: Fashion design. This past summer, while in Northern England, we came across an art show by students which focused on fashion. I was enchanted with the creativity of their arts expressions and I knew I wanted to try this with my own students.

I started by visiting the local thrift store, purchasing a number of interesting clothing items. I then added needles, thread, embroidery thread, beads, ribbon and cloth swatches to the mix. While I got the younger group set up, the older group chose their clothing items and began to plan. They needed very little guidance. The class rolled out as an inquiry, with the students making choices about how to attach things, and doing some preliminary design drawings. Their only snag was learning that they needed to be taught how to finish a stitch. I gave them a mini-lesson and then they were on their way again. I am incredibly excited to see the final products.

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fashion 3 fashion 4 fashion

The art that lives inside us!

Today, we all dove into our ongoing art works as soon as we arrived. Everyone was in a different place. Most people were working on their portraits, or their Picasso studies. Everyone embraced colour. I am finding that facilitating is so much better when everyone works at their own pace. Some students want to learn how to mix colours because their just-right colour isn’t in my selection. Some want to learn how to balance their works. Some teach each other how to blend oil pastels. Others go in a totally unplanned direction and make creatures, working in pairs and laughing at their combinations. Regardless of where they all are, they ask to explore something as it relates to the image they are striving to create. This is when learning is magical – the sweet spot. They learn because they want to learn and not because I think they should learn.

Here are some of their results:


She spent a great deal of time trying to master blending with oil pastels and the results were powerful. She taught the others what she had learned.


She mixed every colour on her own! She was unhappy with the brown that I had so she experimented until she found the colour she wanted. Once she started mixing, she decided to make every colour on her own.



She did some amazing work today. She has worked really hard on balance and her Mona Lisa showed it. Impressive for grade four! Her Blue Period work was also completely independent. She just dove in a made it work. Her challenge was working in mostly monochromatic and still making her figure “pop.”


She has no fear of colour. Her challenge was colour balance. Picasso really moved colours around and she decided to add the pink around the head at the last minute.


This five year old completed the paint and portrait on his own and then he worked with a grade four friend to create the crazy creatures. They amused themselves for the whole hour and a half. The results are really funny and interesting.

There is no doubt that art lives inside human beings. The fun part is watching it come out.

The Great Portrait Challenge!

Four weeks of art-making resulted in some pretty vibrant final products last night! Most importantly, the students were so proud of their work and I think one or two surprised themselves. The sequence:

  • Learn to draw faces. Focus on proportion, shape, variety of features. Look at each other, look at our own faces. Compare “rules” for drawing a face to real faces by drawing on tracing paper and placing the image over a photo on my I Pad. Found that the proportions varied a little from person-to-person.
  • Repeated practice. We did this through games and invented faces. One game that was really neat was we each drew one feature and then rotated our paper from person to person. We got pretty creative with our features, laughed a lot and ended up with nine different and very funny faces – all drawn to proportion!
  • Focus on a final product. We spent time drawing a face (either from a magazine, from our imagination or even from the wall of the art room). By this time, everyone had a pretty good comfort level. We made sure to fill the page. We then learned to tint our portriats with conte and a blender. It gave the portraits a soft quality. We cut them out when we were finished and set them aside.
  • Prepare the background. I asked every student to find five images in a magazine that they liked. They had to incorporate them into their background somehow. Some glued them on right away and others set them aside. They then chose five acrylic colours and put puddles of paint in five spots on their paper. They worked on spreading the paint around, blending and filling the white spots. We then let the paint dry. Afterwards, we added oil pastel and the magazine pictures (if we hadn’t already). Some students created their own effects through scraping and layering.
  • Put it all together. Lastly, students had to decide where to place their portraits on thier prepared backgrounds. This invited consideration of balance and Portarit3 Portrait 3 Portrait4
  • There are more examples to come in two weeks.

How children pull me into joy

What is it about kids? They are joy, plain and simple. I know this may sound a little rose-coloured but I am sincere. I don’t mean everything about them is joyful or that their lives are constantly filled with joy. I just mean that their beings, their energy, their freedom brings me joy.

Today was a tough day. I hurdled through many conversations and meetings. I was facilitating and thinking all day and by the time I got home from work I was more grumpy and tired than usual. Art classes seemed like a mountain I wasn’t sure I could climb.

Then the first student arrived-my new five year old student. She smiled and skipped her way into the art room. She was closely followed by another new addition, who had been thinking about and planning for classes all week. She was prepared to work on a portrait of her grandpa. The others tumbled into the room and gathered around me for my motivational video and in that moment, my challenging, exhausting, adult day fell away and I was immersed in the moment. Teaching has always been like that for me…I slip into a zone of focus and attention to the present moment. It has carried me through many difficult out-of-class situations. Today was no exception.

The beautiful thing about children is that they are so easy to please. Listen to them. Ask for their ideas. Let them make choices. Give them independence. Believe in them. Challenge them. And they give you back joy. Pretty awesome, if you ask me.

Speaking of joy, here is a joyful portrait created by my newest five year old student.


Well, that went better!

Tonight was week number two of art classes and, if you’ve been following the story (see previous blog), things went much better. Why? Well, accounting for the complexity of all learning experiences, likely for many reasons.
Firstly, I have to confess that I was missing three students this week (hot family vacations took them away and with the weather we have been having, I understand the appeal). This allowed me to spend more time with everyone. Every teacher knows that class size doesn’t determine success but it makes a difference, for sure.
Secondly, I planned to differentiate. I had a new student this week and so I really had to think about how things needed to look. Flexible grouping was the name of the game. I did a whole group fun warm up but then I worked with the new student and the five year old, while the others began on their own. We were working in a circle so I could see and talk to everyone easily but I could focus where I needed to. I introduced a new medium into the technique we used last week, which was engaging and challenging for the older students. The five year old really worked fantastically well, as did the new student so I was soon able to move from student to student. I think this is a key part of differentiation…you have to build in supports and skills for everyone so you are free to move between flexible groups. Every individual has to be given a measure of independence. After all, the students themselves are the most important part of the teaching-learning relationship.
Thirdly, I introduced a problem-based component. Once they completed their portraits, which combined skills they learned last week with a new medium, we set those aside and began the background. I asked them to cut out any five magazine pictures and glue them down. Then they had to choose any five paint colours and we poured puddles onto the page. It was their decision how to apply the paint. This seemed to be the right balance between choice and challenge. We are just getting into this process and everyone (including me) was sad when the class was over.
Thing just work so much better when I plan thoroughly and anticipate different needs. Next week, we will have more students join us and will need even more differentiation. I can hardly wait!





“We can do whatever we want!”

“What do you like best about the altered book project?” I ask the grade six students, as they sit with me one-on-one yesterday.
“We get to do whatever we want.”
“We get to wreck a book and make it our own.”
“I get to show my creativity.”

It was such a pleasure and a luxury to be able to sit with every student and give them 5-10 minutes of undivided attention, so they could discuss their altered books. I acknoweldge¬† this is often simply not possible in the day-to-day life of a classroom. We are teaching groups and are hard-pressed to do otherwise. I began to wonder whether it would be worthwhile to invite parents or other adults into the school for the sole purpose of listening to children make sense of their learning outloud every now and then. It might be a nice family engagement opportunity but, even more importantly, it would give students the chance to be heard without other background voices clamouring for attention. Just thinking out loud…

Here are some of the most recent versions of their work:

Altered books give students an altered view of learning

Last week, I had the tremendous privilege of working alongside an amazing teacher inside her grade six arts education class. We had met previously to generate ideas for an art project that would connect to her visual art outcomes and we decided to tackle Altered Books with her students. It was an exciting idea because not only did it invite exploration of the three goal areas in arts education (Creative/ Productive, Critical/ Responsive, Cultural/ Historical) but it also became a cross-curricular plan, integrating English Language Arts as well (Viewing and Representing).

On the first day with the students, we began by looking at a number of art images created from found materials. We asked the Essential Question: How much can I use found material in my art work and still call it my own? Through images of multi-media art works, assemblages and altered books, we explored this question deeply. We even asked whether it is the idea that makes someone creative or the executiion of the idea. We began to come to the conclusion that creativity exists in many forms.

We then began to work on the learning strategy of Generating Ideas by asking How do artists get ideas for their art? We practiced three strategies for generating ideas: Looking at the art of others; Looking at the materials available to us; Talking with others. We handed the students the books they would be altering and they immediately began to flip through them, examining the contents and thinking about opportunities for altering the pages. We invited them to record their ideas for future use. We also re-examined the artwork we had looked at and invited them to jot down ideas the artists had used that they thought they might like to try to make into their own. Lastly, we paired the students up and asked them to share their ideas with each other and continue to record ideas that sprung from the ideas of others. We had already decided this was a legitmate way of being creative, so there were no choruses of “She stole my idea!”, which often happens during paired sharing.

Once we generated a list of ideas, we asked the students to choose one page and one idea they wanted to develop. We talked about the message they would be creating and gave them permission to either decide their message before beginning or have it emerge through their exploration. We knew they would want to experiment and we wanted to encourage them to explore the idea of an altered book in its rawest sense with their first page. We knew we would develop the messages over time and so risk-taking was the most important aspect of this first attempt.

My favourite moment was just before they began, when the hands flew up as students tried to clarify the criteria and parameters for the task. “Can we use paint?” Yes. “Can we leave half the page like it is in the book and alter the other half?” Yes. “Can we cut out parts of the page?” Yes. I stopped them and asked if they noticed a pattern in my reponses to their questions. They confirmed that I had said yes every time. I explained that they could take risks and explore in ways that were meaningful to them. The only limitations were the supplies we had and even that was a challenge the teacher helped them overcome the next day, when she brought in additional materials like yarn and tissue paper. The excitement was incredible. It was like they had been given a very important gift – freedom!

I left with only a small start on their books under their belts. Their teacher is continuing the work with them over the next couple of weeks and I return in the middle of next month to see the results. I can hardly wait to look at their work and discuss it with them!