31 October 2008


when i left for work this morning it was....dark...and 28 degrees.



my school has what i consider to be a pretty cool halloween tradition. only the seniors are allowed to dress up and they come up on stage one at a time, sometimes with music, and often with a performance. the whole school watches and waits their turn till they're seniors. most of the costumes are awful and some are inappropriate. it's a great excuse for the boys to dress up like girls just like it was back when i was in high school. it's all in good fun and funny.
the art department loves to get involved. last year we did the wizard of oz. this year we decided to be fenway park with peter as the field, amy as the green monster, meriah as the bleacher seats, and me as the pesky pole. tara always joins us in these adventures and she was our player. the kids get a big kick out of seeing how hard we work to build our costumes since many of them are used to the store bought kind. 

30 October 2008

this is what faculty meetings should look like.

From Untitled Album
yesterday i was lucky enough to spend the day working at the home of one of my colleagues with my fellow lead teachers and the new teachers. it was so re-energizing to be out of the building for the day and to have stimulating conversations with adults about teaching. the energy was consistently positive and calm throughout the day. i feel so grateful for this group's love and support.

we began by sharing what we're calling brags'n'snags...high points and low points in our teaching lives. many of the snags focused on time management, getting everything done, and having a life outside of school. we brainstormed ideas about how to streamline planning and grading. one teacher even shared his system for giving comments on papers orally using a feature on word. this amazed most of us. so cool. another teacher talked about grading papers for only one thing at a time...grammar, spelling, etc. 

after sharing tips we worked on developing units and plans together in small groups. mariah and i brainstormed about her photo 1 curriculum and talked about how to do more with less. i remember learning this strategy from caroline who came into my classroom 6 years ago and said whoa there new teacher, you're trying to do too much. the kids are overwhelmed and so are you. so we boiled down all of her lovely ideas to about 2 essential questions and 3 units for the term, which is only 11 weeks long. 

we ate a wonderful lunch together and got to know each other better. i think everyone left feeling closer and energized. i feel lucky to work for a school that supports this kind of thing. we're hoping to do it a couple more time over the course of the year.

surface and texture still lives.

my oil painting students are working on paintings that force them to grapple with creating the illusion of different textures and surfaces. for this assignment i let them set up their own still lifes. i encourage them to make sure that the set-up allows them to work at their level and that it is interesting to them. here's what they've got going.

28 October 2008

thoughts on how girls dress for school.

in preparation for our faculty meeting this morning we were sent a list of behavior scenarios to read over and think about. the list included things like overhearing kids swearing or talking about drinking, seeing students sleeping or talking during all-school meetings, seeing a boy grabbing a girl’s rear end, inappropriate cheering at an athletic event, students leaving campus, and seeing a girl wearing a low-cut shirt. the goal was for us to talk in small groups about which of these issues felt challenging. at the end, we came back together as a large group to share our ideas.

the issue that each group focused on the most was how the girls at our school are dressed.

this pisses me off for a couple of reasons (and I’m sure I’ll think of more over the course of the day). first and foremost, the concept of the meeting was to focus on issues that made us uncomfortable. if every group talked about how girls are dressed i can only assume that we were really talking about were (mostly) the male teachers’ concerns. secondly, it bothers me that how the girls are dressed took precedence over substance abuse (drinking & smoking), missing out on education (sleeping), gambling (online), and assault (boy hitting girl on the butt).

now don’t get me wrong…i have jokingly suggested that i would like to give a workshop on undergarments to the girls in this school on numerous occasions. i have also had many, many conversations with girls about how they’re dressed and why it matters.

i think this issue is important!

but I also think that in a school that is not ready to truly enforce a dress code (we’re not) the state of girls’ outfits should not take precedence over some of the other topics that came up. i think the reason it took precedence is because it’s easy. it’s easy because men can bring it up as a concern and then say well, there’s nothing i can do about it because it would be inappropriate for me to comment. men are seen as sexual beings that can’t touch this issue without seeming inappropriate while women are seen as maternal, and obligated to “deal” with it. i get that the male teachers don’t want to deal with it directly and i’m not suggesting that they should. What I’m suggesting is…let’s move on.

in 2008 talking to teenage girls about fashion is tricky. clothes today are revealing. bra straps are in. leggings count as pants. on top of that we’ve got teenagers in this country exercising less than ever before so these kids are trying to squeeze all kinds of bodies into what’s trendy. it’s tough even for us grown women to figure it out. we are never going to agree on what’s appropriate unless we wear uniforms or enforce the dress code by meeting kids at the door like we did at my school in brooklyn. so let’s talk to girls about something OTHER than how they look. maybe if we take our focus off their looks they will too.

in the meantime i will continue to preach my mantra to the girls i teach…TIME AND PLACE. are you getting dressed to go to a club, to school, to church, or to a college interview? you don’t dress the same for all these things. where do you want the college admissions officer to focus…on your boobs or on your accomplishments? Only one of those will take you places. and i will continue to lecture my advisees about the length of their skirts, the width of their bra straps, and their cleavage. I won’t even try to get into the concept of slips and maybe someday i’ll figure out the leggings as pants thing.

i would like to take this opportunity to thank my Mom who made all this easier for me by making me wear a slip despite my griping, introducing me to strapless bras when it was time, and helping me to understand that “adult” fashion was something you grow into over the years. she taught me that i could be a powerful, sexy woman by being smart, talented, and opinionated. thanks Mom.

BUT…i will continue to be pissed off about women doing most of the work in raising our children…still, today, in 2008…even at school. we need brave, bold men to help us out once in awhile. i’ll take on the girls if you, guy, will take on the boys…

27 October 2008

this is what silence looks like.

my 10th graders are so into their imaginary place pictures you could have heard a pin drop today. they are driven...thank god.

talking to students about assessment

last week i had to submit mid-term grades for my students. i usually worry a lot about how the grades i give my students match their knowledge. i spend a lot of time talking to my students about how i come up with their grade and what their grade actually means.

in preparation for this conversation with my oil painting students i made this little drawing. what i usually say to them is it's my job to teach them something new. it's their job to learn something new and to show me how much they know. then it's my job to report on that learning. i say to them, "if they don't show me what they know how can i report that they know it?" if i don't see it i assume they don't get it. so they have many chances to do this...the blog, verbally, in their paintings, etc. they usually get this and it takes the focus off of a, b, c, etc. 

learning to develop ideas

my 10th graders at work on their imaginary place projects. it's the first imaginative project we do and i have them use "source materials" to develop their ideas so they're not exactly working from pictures and they're not exactly working from their imaginations. 

i find that although i want my students to develop their own concepts and work from their imaginations the work when they do so is often mediocre looking. mediocre looking work discourages kids in my experience. using pictures as a reference only, not to copy, seems to help them achieve the look they want. 

planning for halloween

my little art department takes halloween very seriously. last year we had a lot of success as the wizard of oz and this is what our planning session looked like this year. lots of fast-talking and categorizing of ideas. i feel so lucky to work with these people. someday i'll record our conversations. they are an art form themselves. i think what we've come up with is pretty great. i'll post pictures after the big day. 

great shots.

worriesome 11th graders

at my school (and probably at many other schools) the 11th grade is known for being the year to worry about. they get a lot more work and a lot less help from the teachers. it's also the year most students start to realize how their actions over the past two years will affect the kind of college they'll get into. 

my advisees are in 11th grade and they've been pretty tense. and so have i. so i thought we would tackle this during our meeting this week. 

i gave them 5 minutes to list everything that was on their minds. the worries ranged from getting a boyfriend to the red sox record to the health of parents. then we chose three worries we thought other people might share and wrote them on post-its. see the worry list above. i had made these charts beforehand and we categorized our post-its into things we can work on now, things we can put on the back-burner for now, and things we have no power to change.

i hope this made an impact on them. they spend a lot of time worrying about teachers they don't like and sat's...things that just can't be changed. i want them to start to make the things they have control over a priority.

26 October 2008

finished white objects paintings.

figure drawing.

today i had my 10th graders draw each other. this is always hilarious because they get embarrassed and/or love to show off. it went pretty well with this group.

as a group, they have a very hard time seeing the big picture when they draw. they have a tendency to focus on the little things and then when they step back to evaluate their work they realize the proportions or color is off.

so i started them out by telling them they could only use 3 lines to capture the spirit of the pose. then i asked them to draw a shape for a box we could put the model in. finally, we did some loose gesture drawings and i'm pretty sure the preliminary exercises helped. next week we'll focus on proportions.

24 October 2008


i hate to post two t.g.i.f.'s in a row...especially because the tone of them is usually pretty negative, but isn't that what the expression t.g.i.f. is about? here goes...

this week i have handed in ten college recommendation letters, calculated and submitted mid-term grades for four classes of students, hung a new show in the school gallery, and had two days of parent-teacher conferences, 8am-6pm both days (more on all this in posts coming this weekend). for now i leave you with a few inspiring quotes from parents i've seen over the last two days...

"she has it pretty easy this term because she's only taking three classes....well, plus art."
"i know he wants to go to art school, but, well, you know it's just too difficult to make a life as an artist."
"maybe if you could just offer her some encouragement and positive reinforcement."
"is the art grade weighted as much as the other grades he gets?"
"she responds better if she feels like her teachers respect her."

there were plenty of tears, funny stories, and good moments too. i'll write about them over the weekend...but these quotes best represent the taste i have in my mouth as i trudge home tonight.


seeing not the objects.

as a drawing exercise for my 10th graders i set up all these objects and...
had them observe closely while painting the negative space between and around the objects with ink. this was very very hard for them. it forced them to work slowly which i thought was great. they are beginning to understand how closely they must observe to be able to represent things accurately.

17 October 2008


this is the view from my office window right now. 



on wednesday i had jury duty. i sat for a painful 6 hours before i was excused for...being a teacher.

i was amazed.

the judge asked me if serving would be a hardship for me. i said it would be a hardship for me and my students. i told him that i have mid-term grades and college recommendation letters due next week as well as two days of parent-teacher conferences...from 8am-6pm.

he just shook his head and said, "you're excused."

it felt good to have someone in "the system" get how much we do. thank you judge neil.

painting of duke and student.

duke comes to school for a day.

i brought duke to school one day this week. 

he was quite the celebrity in the studio and it was fun to see my teenagers acting like little kids around him. 

he made everyone so happy and at one point he even went over and laid down next to one of my students who struggles quite a bit with painting. every now and then this student would reach down, give duke a pat, and then keep painting. it was truly dog therapy. 

i wish i could bring him to school everyday. he definitely lightens the mood which has been heavier than usual as we approach mid-term.

one of my students even made a painting of herself playing with duke. 

student quotes

"miss roberts, i had a dream last night that there were no more shop towels left on earth and i was searching everywhere for them."

i've finally brainwashed them.

14 October 2008

student quotes

"of course miss roberts' dog is well behaved. i can totally picture your kids miss roberts. they'd all be using napkins and stuff."

13 October 2008

students reflecting on their work.

i have written before about my experiment with my intermediate drawing and painting class. they're all starting projects together but finishing them at their own speed. i'll write on the task of assessing this soon because...it's mid-term. i almost always give my students a self-evaluation to complete at this point. here are some of their responses. in the midst of a busy week ahead these responses were a welcome pat on the back.

12 October 2008

getting student feedback

mary and i talked about teaching over coffee and a cookie at flour this weekend. she said i should watch how to draw a bunny which i put in the netflix queue and will report back on. i told her to check out this blog and hopefully she will.

she also told me that at bennington, halfway through the term, there is a day when the teacher leaves the room for a certain amount of time and the students discuss how the class is going. one student is assigned to take notes and submit a summary. 

i was immediately intrigued.

i wondered about my students and whether this would be helpful to me in anyway. 
would the students feel too empowered by doing this?
would they actually give me helpful feedback or just goof around while i was gone?

11 October 2008

getting to know ALL students

i just attended the student of color check-in at my school. these events are held several times a year. it's a chance to get most of the students of color in one room together. it's a chance for them not to be the minority in the room and to share their experiences, both positive and negative, here at our school.

i have attended one or two of these meetings in the past and i have to make sure to bring tissues next time. i always end up getting emotional watching these brave students share their very personal and sometimes hurtful stories with each other. 

they began by watching this video made by a student who couldn't attend the meeting. he talks about his experiences, especially in regards to the racial stereotypes he's encountered. 

several students shared feelings of being obligated to know the answer in history or english classes when discussions of race or civil rights came up. they told us about the pressure they feel on them in that moment. they said they felt like a disgrace to their race if they didn't already know the answers. and those same assumptions show up when subjects like hip-hop or basketball come up and their classmates or, god forbid their teachers, expect them to have all the answers.

a female african-american student who excels in math and science told stories of teachers and students who acted surprised to see her in honors level courses. another story involved a coach who never learned the names of the four african-american girls on his team. and one girl became emotional when trying to explain how torn she feels about wanting to spend most of her time with her friends who are students of color because the are "like her", but not wanting to seem like she's cutting herself off from the rest of the community.

one of the most difficult situations students of color face here at our school is the assumption that they are all from the same kind of place with the same kind of bank account. of course they're not. some come from tough neighborhoods and face hurtful comments from their white classmates about the places they call home, while others are more well-to-do, and live in "fancier", whiter suburbs, and they face misunderstandings from their classmates of color. 

my wish is that all of my colleagues could hear the stories i heard during this meeting. 

naturally, this isn't possible. the students wouldn't be able to talk freely with a large group of adults sitting around them and they shouldn't have to suffer through telling hard stories in order for us to learn what we should already know...that ALL of our students are unique individuals who come from very different places and part of our job is to learn about that.

it makes me think of a colleague of mine who gave me a piece of advice that i come back to time and again. he said, "you're supposed to be enjoying this, you know. it should be fun." he wasn't referring to teaching but the advice still applies. my life has been so enriched by all the different kids i've taught over the years.  i really enjoy getting to know what makes my students tick and so i really enjoy my job. i just want everyone else to have that same rich experience.

as someone with a small leadership role in the building, i am thinking of possible ways to share what i experienced in that room with the larger community...but how do you do that without being preachy or accusatory? the new agey philosophers i love so much would say, be the example and people will follow, but is that enough? these kids are suffering for pete's sake...i'll get back to you when i have it all figured out...


student: "are we gonna make any abstract paintings in this class?"
me: "no."
student: "that's too bad. i was hoping we would. abstract paintings are so easy."


revamping oil painting.

when i told a good friend (and probably the best painter i know)  i was teaching three sections of oil painting this fall he said, "oh that's easy. just tell them to move the paint around until it looks like something." lately, i keep thinking of him saying that and laughing as i look around the studio at all of my students' paintings that look like they will never be finished. 
the first major painting of the course is always a set-up of white objects. they only use two reds, two blues, a yellow and white. no black. they ask me for it...daily. but no, no black.
they make thumbnail sketches, using viewfinders to create an interesting composition. they build their paintings from the general to the specific, from thin to thick, with me barking out those phrases over and over again. and most of them do quite well, BUT...in this class more than any other i find it so hard to manage the variety of skill levels in the room. some have barely ever even drawn and some have taken class at the mfa since they were 5. 

most of them need practice. last year's group was very advanced so i created the curriculum for them. and somehow i didn't realize until it was too late that these guys would need something different. less finished paintings and more of them. we should have done 30 paintings by now instead of 3. in the face of challenge they have become precious and uptight...and yes, it's my fault. i've been managing it student by student, but the truth is, i'm exhausted...and part of the reason i'm exhausted is because my curriculum isn't doing enough of the work for me. i flit about the room like a dragonfly managing crises. half the time the crisis is a tipped jar of turpentine or paint on new shoes rather than any deep artistic issue. i kicked these kids off the dock and now i'm saving them one by one.
many of the finished paintings look good to the students. they were able to model most of the forms and mix the colors they needed...but it feels like it took and awfully long time and i wonder how helpful it is to do all that learning in only one painting.

how do we decide what speed our students should be working at?
how do we use time as an ally in the fight against preciousness and tightness?

i'm already planning for next year.

08 October 2008

birthdays at school?

when i was first handed an advisory group with no curriculum to work with one of the things i did was to hand some of the time back over to the kids. they each drew a tuesday of the month from a hat and that was their day to plan however they wanted. we called it first tuesdays and it was very successful. now i have more students than there are months in the school year so i just picked a bunch of random dates and they're running advisory on those dates.

one of them planned a birthday party for two of the others last week. and yes, i did allow them to swat at a pinata in the middle of my classroom as you can see in the slideshow and no, i have never see them so happy.

i've never been a big fan of the in-school birthday party (maybe pent up frustration at always having had a summer birthday) but i saw something happen this week when one student helped a group of students make two students feel special for one day. and when one of the birthday girls thanked the hostess with the mostess on our advisory blog...it was one of those moments that makes me think maybe everything will be ok

oh, and i was also reminded...they're still kids. so maybe we're doing birthdays now...or at the very least monthly pinata swatting.

06 October 2008

patience is a virtue?

i think patience is something you have to practice very very hard. 

when the kids start to get to me...and they do... i pull this book out even though i've read it several times. i would not be the teacher i am had i never read this book. if your life in any way involves people between the ages of 13 and 20 please read this book. 

it even mentions the high school i went to...in the chapter on sleep deprivation. hmm.

should i be allowing this?

like any dutiful painting instructor i always require my students to make 3 thumbnail sketches before they start painting. i make them these cute paper viewfinders like i used to use when i was in high school. my quote, "your first idea is usually not your best idea". 

but today one of my students asked if she could use her camera as the viewfinder. she wanted to take pictures to literally find the painting she would make of the still life she set up. i couldn't think of a reason why this wouldn't be ok. the lcd screen on the back of a digital camera if literally the best viewfinder i could think of. not only that, but they usually fight me on making 3 sketches. these girls, however, took at least 10 pictures slowly and thoughtfully and we were able to cover the screen with a sheet of paper to see how the composition could be different. 

maybe we discovered something new today.

03 October 2008


two different students scheduled appointments with me during lunch today. neither showed. t.g.i.f.

02 October 2008

candy for not quite kids

one of my favorite assignments of the year is the candy paintings i do with my 10th graders. we look at wayne thiebaud and will cotton and practice doing a lot of color mixing. i see the inner child come out in these not-quite-kids playing with the candies like blocks. and of course we eat the extras.
they love all the freedom it feels like they have picking out the candy, picking the background color, and arranging the candies how they want. they are very focused when we do this. i feel like the candies are just the right level for them. simple shapes, complicated colors. and the more advanced students have the opportunity to make set-ups that are more challenging while the more beginner students can make simpler ones. 
stay tuned for the finished paintings.

trying to give them what they need

my drawing students have been struggling with proportion. they have so much trouble seeing the relationships between objects. when i point out the comparisons to them they see it but they have trouble seeing the big picture. it's like they can only focus on one small part at a time. the big problem with this is that when they spend hours on their drawing and only later realize that they have to change something from back at the beginning they get frustrated to the point of giving up.

so i decided to spend another monday on this. in addition, i built a still life that i thought would allow them to put all their energies into the subject of proportion. i built something relatively flat and with objects of widely varying sizes. i intentionally put more than one of the same object but not in the same place so they could use it as a measuring tool. i overlapped things carefully using things like the tambourine as a target.

we reviewed using the pencil as a measuring tool and i told them to go ahead and write their realizations right on the paper they were drawing on. this seemed to help them. many of them started to get the idea of seeing the whole and then the parts. my hope is that they'll now be able to apply what they've learned to lager more involved projects.

great speaker thoughtful question

our entire school, middle and upper, and the entire faculty comes together once a week for a meeting in the old fashioned assembly hall in my school. most people think these meetings are kind of a drag and often they are. but, having come from schools where we were never able to come together physically in any kind of organized way, i always get almost emotional when we do this. there's something powerful about literally laying eyes on the whole community.

we often have very interesting speakers come to these meetings because i work with interesting people who know lots of other interesting people. today an economics professor from m.i.t. to talk to us about the current financial crisis. i was worried it would be way over the 6th graders heads which probably most of it was. the speaker was really dynamic and had sneaky ways of explaining things so the kids could understand.

but during the q&a time one 6th grader stood up (in front of all 450 people mind you) and asked, "if all these people are going to lose their homes, where will they live? will they live on the streets? will they be homeless?" so so sweet and thoughtful.

child of the day

yesterday afternoon i had to go to two meetings. 

at the first meeting there were 20 people in attendance. lots of good ideas. very little listening. i told the story of me getting my advisees to reflect on the hike and no one...said...a thing...in response. total silence. i was very frustrated. 

the second meeting i went to had about 6 people in attendance. we talked a lot. we generated wonderful ideas for how to support our new teachers including something we're going to call brags'n'snags (my term) where teachers can share what's going well and what's troubling them. it might take the form of a blog or a cool looking worksheet (which i'll generate) they can keep in the back of a notebook for future brags'n'snags chat sessions.

but the best part of the meeting was when one of my colleagues (a middle school teacher) shared with us the story of the child of the day. once a week he selects a student to be the child of the day. each student in the class says something nice about the student and then they get to talk about whatever the student of the day wants to talk about for a certain amount of time. so nice...

keep meetings small. listen to each other. be nice.
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