29 September 2008

the good ole days

i couldn't resist getting a picture of me in front of the infamous 65 court street during my trip to nyc this weekend. 65 court street is the nyc department of education headquarters. it is always referred to by its address, as in, "you'll have to take those copies and a check for $75 to 65 court street". i spent many an hour trying to convince very cranky older ladies that i was qualified to teach. eventually they believed me and here i am...or was.

26 September 2008

above the sink

yes, they're in high school and yes, they need this. they are not yet adults...or professional artists...not yet.

scenes from my office

status of the blog experiment

the oil painting blogs are really coming along. for some students it has been a total god-send...especially those with organizational or handwriting issues. and those students are finding a lot of success. check out this one, this one, and this one

but for others i think it is out of sight out of mind. in other words some student are just not keeping up. and this bugs me. 

i have made checklists for them. i put the homework on the weekly syllabus and on the class blog. and the truth is blogs are hard to check and assess. i've made this big checklist to keep track of what they have and haven't done. it's in no way an assessment tool but it helps me to keep after them. 
so i will continue to ponder the usefulness of these things and invent as i go. 

my art comes to school

one of the best things about my current job is this group of people, my department. we have a lot of fun together socially and we also love sharing our ideas about teaching. we are a creative bunch if i do say so myself. 

so it gives me a nice warm fuzzy feeling to have my work hanging with theirs in the faculty exhibit which happens every three years in the gallery here at school. the reception was this week and although receptions in the gallery are never as well attended as i would like...quite a few of our colleagues came to support us which was really nice. many of them asked smart questions and showed great interest in what we do outside of school. a few who couldn't be there sent sweet emails too.

i was very disappointed and a bit surprised that almost no parents were at the reception. i know evenings are a tough time for people with kids, especially teenagers. but it would have been such a big demonstration of support if a few had come. i will say that i did get emails from three parents who said they couldn't make it but that they had already been to see the show and thought it was great. and one even said she would trek to the south end to see my work in the boston drawing project. 

it's funny seeing my work in school. usually i keep the two worlds pretty separate.

25 September 2008

student quotes

me, teacher: do you see the progress you've made in the last three weeks?
very, very shy girl who has lots of trouble seeing things accurately, smiling: yes. yes, i do.

1 down, lots to go.

24 September 2008

some ideas about scheduling and routines

our schedule, although at times frustrating, really feels like a gift to a former public school teacher like me. i see my students four days a week, three of those days for one hour and one day for two hours and ten minutes. in new york i learned that routines are my friend and i continue to use them here as much as i can.

my intermediate drawing and painting class meets monday, wednesday, thursday, friday. so i decided each day would have a separate purpose. and since monday is all on its own at the beginning of the week...and the fall of 10th grade is dangerously close to 9th grade and they are still let's say... hmm hmm..."maturing"...i thought something should happen on that day that doesn't have to tie in directly for us to get going on wednesday. so the schedule i created goes something like this. 

on mondays we "drop everything and draw", also known as d.e.a.d. (they like that). 
on wednesdays i introduce a more in-depth drawing or painting project. 
on thursdays they have their 2 hour block and they dive into the more in-depth project. 
on fridays they decide how to use their time best, either to work on or improve homework assignments, finish major projects, or make up d.e.a.d. assignments they might have missed due to absence.

my ultimate plan is that i will use wednesdays to introduce a new project each week for about 6 weeks (half the term). the projects will take longer than a week to complete so by the middle of the term they will be working more independently. the focus is on the final portfolio of works rather than on individual assignments. we all start together but we finish at different times (at our own pace). no due dates. things can always be worked on more. 

i started to think about doing this when i was visiting my friend julie who is a middle school montessori teacher last fall. i visited her school and she told me how they don't really hold class per se. the students move along at their own pace and i thought...duh. maybe i could do that in my classroom. now, montessori students have been "trained" to do this, but i have small classes and the support to try it so here it goes. 

will they be able to handle it? i'm not sure. last friday was a little rough. what i've alrady discovered is that the stronger students are moving more slowly and the weaker students are moving more quickly. i'm not sure i like that. 

i'll keep posting the tactics i develop to combat...socializing during the time when they should be moving ahead, tracking their progress, having critiques with people at different stages, etc.

another monday...

as i prepared monday's drop everything and draw lesson i was thinking about the inside/outside project we will be starting at the end of the week. this group has had a lot of trouble with seeing things as they actually are so i anticipate they will struggle with the perspective of the architectural element of that project.

i thought to myself...how can i teach them some of the rules of perspective without actually teaching them the rules of perspective. i have always felt dishonest when teaching students "rules" in art, like the rules of perspective in drawing, or the rule of 3rd's in composition. i prefer to have them observe closely, describe what they see or what they think is most interesting...figure out why, and work from there. they struggle more without the "rules" but in the end i think they retain the concept more by seeing and doing.

so i set out these two long tables and put on it scraps of foamcore and wooden blocks. it started to look like a city or a map so i continued to arrange it that way. i asked them to use only lines to draw what they saw. i did teach them to use their pencils as a measuring tool so they could get the proportions right.

doing lessons like this always makes me want to go back to school to study how the brain works. it amazes me how the brain tricks you into seeing things differently than they are. students will argue and argue with me about the angles of the lines or how long the table is. they kept saying but the table is a long rectangle, how could it be that my measurements tell me it's as wide as it is long. it's so hard to get them to see that we're creating an illusion, not a map.

then at some point they have this a-ha moment and then they get it from then on out. i see in their faces the sense of accomplishment. i didn't get it. now i do. you didn't tell me. i found it on my own. it was a huge struggle for all but two of my students.
you can see some of the struggles in the drawing on the right.

student quotes

"i always thought you seemed like a cat person miss roberts." uh-oh, maybe i need a makeover?

"you were the subject of my dinner conversation last night. my mom said you never seem so happy after school and i said it's all cause of my art teacher." said by a student who had a major a-ha moment when i threw some new agey ideas her way in response to her struggle with oil paint yesterday.

23 September 2008

student quotes

in response to a teacher "being in a bad mood"...not me, although it easily could have been...

"teachers should leave their personal lives at home."

reflecting on the hike

a few weeks ago i wrote about how i used the junior hike as a lesson for my advisory group which was met with mixed reviews. unfortunately we didn't have time to reflect on the experience until two weeks later. i didn't want to belabor my point of trying to get them to work together but i knew we needed to get some thoughts out in the open.

so i asked them to write down their thoughts on the hike in terms of 4 categories...positive things they experienced, positive things they saw others experiencing, frustrations they experienced, and frustrations they saw other people experiencing. i asked them to go write these things down in a private place and not to put their name on it. when they returned to the group we put our notes in the bowls you see in the photo below.
then we passed the bowls around, reading one slip at a time aloud to the group. my hope was that we were able to hear everyone's voices while at the same time experiencing everyone's happiness and frustrations by reading other people's thoughts.  here are some of the responses (if you click on the pictures you should be able to enlarge them to see the writing better):

i can't be sure how long the effect of this activity lasted on the girls but in the moment it felt powerful to hear them reading one another's thoughts, especially when it came to the frustrations. i didn't do a lot of talking after we read the slips of paper. i wanted to let the voices continue to be heard rather than my omnipotent summary.

student quotes

in response to the insanity of me not letting my oil painting students (some of whom are "know-it-alls as i've mentioned before) use black for the first two months...

"but i've been living without payne's gray for three weeks."

maybe that's only funny to the painters out there...

this is september.

we've been together for about four weeks now...450 teenagers and however many adults...maybe 80? the temperature has started dropping and we're all sick, including me. i hear sniffling everywhere. uggh.  this is september. where's my airborne?

in response to my not feeling well a student said to me this morning, " well miss roberts it's getting colder and you are wearing short sleeves." noted.

22 September 2008

the truth is...

...these first few weeks of the school year have been really tough. i've been posting all these cool things my students have been up to but the real truth is i have not been loving life as a teacher this far. 

i'm teaching an extra class and i now realize how soft i've gotten since i left my job in new york.

 you see, i got used to actually teaching. to me this means, having smaller classes so i know my students really well, having the space to create a magical learning environment for my students, finding the time to reflect on my students' progress and on their struggles, and to create lessons tailored to each group so that each student has the best chance to learn and progress. 

but this fall...i feel like i'm just managing bodies, and supplies, checking up on whether work is done or not...listening for what the school will add to our to-do lists. and my students don't seem as prepared for the content i'm ready to throw their way. is this overwhelming feeling all just because of one extra class? maybe. 

but, yes, ive gotten soft. my actual student load hasn't increased at all. i do, however, have three days a week where i go almost five hours with constant student contact so i'm totally wiped when it ends...and that is driving me crazy. i didn't used to get wiped out. in fact my first two years i saw 22 groups of kids per week. 

am i smarter now?
have my expectations changed?
am i spoiled?
is it just september?

19 September 2008

line wrap-up or how unprepared i was on monday.

ok here's the truth. sometimes it's hard to force myself to plan on the weekend. i knew i needed to do something that would wrap up our work with line for monday but i was at a loss. i thought about how it had ended last week. they had gotten the idea of varying the line but they still weren't observing as closely as i would have liked so...i thought sharpies could be the answer to that. no erasing. no hesitating. fit it all on the paper or start again. see the whole thing. but what would we draw? another irrelevant still life? what has lots of lines and details? 1 hour till class. 1/2 hour till class. 10 minutes till class.

i had them all take their shoes off. they loved this...which shocked me.
i laid two pieces of newsprint on the fool in an x and we placed our shoes side by side. a little perspective preview for next week.
and to my surprise it was silent as they slowly and intentionally observed and moved along the line of shoes with their sharpies. they wore out at just the right time with 5 minutes to go.
i can never get enough of kids sharpie line drawings. what is it about them? they always hate how they turn out and no matter how many ways i try to explain how honest the drawings are and how much evidence i can see as to how closely they were observing they just never believe.

tricking them

when i'm studying line with my intermediate drawing and painting students one thing i really like to emphasize is the ability we have as artists to communicate the "character" of an object... through our choice of materials and through how we vary the use of those materials to make different kinds of lines. 

usually, after a day of experimenting, i set up an arrangement of stools and chairs, all with very different characters, and i ask the students to draw them, keeping these characters in mind. last year, my students were so "into" this that they begged for a second day to work on their drawings and the results were beautiful. i can already tell that this group is wired very differently and so i will need to adjust many of my projects. there aren't as many students with natural drawing ability as there were last year and, in general, their attention spans are shorter. 

i wasn't willing to ditch the whole assignment, but i knew that if i asked them to draw a bunch of chairs for two hours they would revolt. so...i put the chairs and stools out in a line across one end of the room. i asked them to think of the chairs and stools as they would people, each with a different personality and look. their goal was to make a portrait of each chair.
i had pre-cut pieces of paper for each chair with the idea that if they filled up the whole page the proportion of one chair to another should be correct. they could use any of the materials on the table (ink, charcoal, pencil, sharpie, charcoal pencil, etc.) and use their inherent qualities to further express the character of each chair.
they dove right in without hesitation. they were able to focus on one thing at a time and they seemed to welcome the choice to start with what felt natural to them...the more challenging chair or the more simple ones. i heard them sharing tips for how to see particular angles or how to use the different materials. they were putting to work the experiments we had done the earlier in the week.
as they drew i had the cut out the shapes so they had a pile of cut out chairs and stools. 
when they came back the next day i had arranged the chairs and stools into a group as i did last year for the whole assignment. i asked them to glue their cut-out chairs and stools together to create the arrangement they observed and to begin to add some value where they saw one chair affecting the light or shadow on another. here are some of the results:
most students had interesting revelations while working on this project. they began to see how observing accurate proportions while they work (not just at the end) is crucial to a drawing making sense. many students also saw after putting all the parts together how they hadn't varied their lines enough to show any difference between the characters of the different chairs. those same students were clearly able to look at the work of their classmates and recognize how using different materials or varying their use of those materials made one chair look heavier or slicker or older than the others. 

my hope is that by breaking this drawing down into parts and making it kind of gamey i have begun to build their drawing stamina for later, more intense work. 

15 September 2008

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

I ususally have my beginning oil painting students start by making some small studies of fruit. They set the fruit on a background that is the complimentary color of the fruit itself and this helps them to start to see color relationships. It is, however, a case of teaching how I was taught which, as good as that was, I am always skeptical of. So...when I mentioned last week that the first paintings would be of fruit and...my students moaned and groaned..."fruit? so boring..." I went home and thought about it. I thought, well, maybe they're right. Maybe fruit is boring and maybe I can provide a variety of small objects that can be studied in this way. Maybe these different objects will even allow the students to work at their own level...the beginner beginners choosing a wooden block and the more experienced beginners choosing a pine cone let's say. I wrote a whole new lesson plan and made a detailed project sheet. I arranged the various objects in a pleasing way to entice them to "mix it up".


...almost every student has chosen to paint fruit.

Maybe...if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

11 September 2008


so i have a few know-it-all students in my oil painting class. they've taken lots of art classes outside of school. from their point of view those classes are more legitimate...the teachers "real artists". they think the way they did things in those classes is the only way. they also answer every question i ask even when i'm trying to help another student learn. this frustrates me...a lot. 

clearly i have to find some way for these students to share their knowledge and feel acknowledged while not stealing other students' thunder but...how?


how can i convince students they're progressing? sometimes they just don't see the difference between what they used to do and what they're doing now. my encouragement is not enough.

nine eleven.

7 years ago today was my fourth day as a teacher. 

i watched the twin towers fall from my classroom window in brooklyn. one minute we knew where manhattan was...the next, we didn't.

 i'm pretty sure that helping kids to understand what's happening in times of crisis helps you too. 

 i've always felt lucky to have spent that horrible day in a school with kids. i brought the art supplies downstairs and we drew as a community to keep our minds off what was going on. the drawings i saw kids make in the weeks that followed were like none i'd ever seen and haven't seen since (i was working in an elementary school then). i made copies of some of them. 

i always feel homesick for the city and for the sense of community i always felt with new york city public school teachers today.

10 September 2008

structured freedom.

today i started talking to my d&p students about how to use lines to communicate not only our observations of shape and location, but also the character of an object....its essence. we talked about varying the materials, weight, and the style we use to make our lines.

in a effort to have the whole class working toward the same goal but at different levels i placed the same materials and the same still life objects on each table. i also put a sheet of paper with a phrase that referred to the pre-assessment observation drawings we did on monday on each table. the four phrases were different and referred to the levels the students are at.

i asked them to read each of the four phrases and to sit at the table that best described how they were feeling about the work they did.

i choose the still life objects very carefully making sure that some can be altered or manipulated to make the still life more or less complicated. last year this worked out perfectly. the more advanced students went nuts with the fabric and string creating something that would really challenge them. but this group is sooooo different. most of them chose to sit at the middle of the road table and did little to manipulate the objects.

so...what did i do differently? did i not introduce the concept the same way? was i trying to cram too much into an hour? or is this just a different bunch of kids? could be as simple as the difference between 10th grade fall and 10th grade spring?

these are the materials they worked with. maybe they don't even know them well enough.
here are the resulting drawings. i was glad to see the variety in the drawings...very different than when they only use pencil. but i was frustrated to see how they generalized the pattern of the basket...especially after we'd spent time doing blind contour and contour drawings. they didn't make the connection between that work and this work despite my reminders.

I'm hoping to get them to practice this a little more tomorrow and review the contour line drawing concepts with them. They want to sketch it out first. They want it to be perfect. They have a hard time silencing the critical voices inside their heads.

08 September 2008


i usually spend the first few days with my students trying to get to know them better...as artists and as people.  i decided awhile ago that fair isn't always equal and that not all students have had the same art training as they might have in english or math. so i try to determine their starting point and assess their learning from there. i give them questionnaires and ask them to do crazy things with little or no instruction. 

on monday i created the still life you see below and asked them to draw it using only lines. i went over how i expected them to behave while working at the easels and what the goals for the exercise was. these posters hung right next to us as we worked so i could point to them when necessary.

as they drew i made notes about what i was seeing so i could use it in my assessment. at the same time i kept a running list of things i was seeing and wish i had put on a checklist to make my note-taking quicker. i am lucky to have a group of only 12 and know that with a larger group a checklist would make a big difference. so i saved those notes and plan to put them on a checklist to be used next term.
when they finished the drawing i asked them to answer these questions on the back of their paper.
here are some of the results...
usually when i teach this class i know all the students from 9th grade but i don't know this group because my 9th grade class was so small last year. they are definitely not used to me and haven't "bought in" yet so getting through this drawing was a little tough for them. in their writing they seemed pretty clear on what would have improved the final outcome. it will be interesting to look back at these at the end of the term.
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