Art Vocab Cards

Doug Allen’s Art Vocab Cards

Today we tried the critique process using Art Vocab Cards. My classes have seven students, so I selected sixteen of the cards that most applied to the work at hand. I passed out two cards to each student, then held two myself. I purposefully grouped the cards into elementary and conceptual terms.  Students received one of each and were asked to explain how this term was evident in at least one presented piece. As they selected work to match their cards, I had a chance to explain gaps in knowledge and challenge ideas that were either off-base or not well enough developed.

Students responded well to this activity. Because it forces everyone to contribute, I had excellent engagement. Students were very confident in their selections, and were willing to convince myself and others of their decisions. I consider today’s activity to be a great success. I will use these cards again for reinforcement with many of the same vocab words. I may include a written self evaluation to help students determine the best place to spend their energies.

I made an important personal realization. I don’t know that I have taught lessons about balance for a couple years. I have instructed students individually, but not as a group. Mostly, I think I approach balance intuitively. Today I was able to fill in this gap with the groups who participated. Looks like I have a goal for my self evaluation.

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Poetry in the Art Room

I’m bringing back a lesson that has been both successful, and wildly unsuccessful in the past. I’m asking my students to read poetry with me in class, then illustrate the poems as part of the interpretation process. Our goal is to understand symbolic writing, and transfer those ideas into concrete visual images. The transition from words to imagined images to concrete images holds great benefit for every visual artist.

I have selected a series of poems by Stephen Crane that I like for their descriptive language. Crane tends to write about things as opposed to emotions. This provides an low risk entry point for my students.

To begin, I read the poem all the way through. I then read one or two lines at a time, and ask the students to describe what they hear in the poem. We are looking for both surface-level, and metaphorical or symbolic meanings. Sometimes the symbols are obvious, other times, the students must work to understand the poem. I try not to provide answers, but instead ask questions to draw answers out of the students. When we are finished, I have lead them in interpreting the poem. I then ask them to draw the pictures that are in their head. Towards the beginning of the year, I allow them to draw the surface-level ideas from the poem. At some point, I begin to ask that they only draw representations of the symbolism in the poem. Either way, I don’t grade the drawing.

The exercise is presented as a “stretch” for art students similar to warm up activities athletes participate in at the start of practice or competition. This activity is not evaluated like an assignment, participation provides the benefit.

When I used this exercise on a regular basis, I found that my students were able to think creatively. Their projects had a more defined voice, and creative approach to the problems presented. At one point, I assigned this as part of weekly sketchbook homework. My students abruptly stopped participating in the exploration of the poems. It was like pulling teeth to get even stick figures as illustrations. Worse yet, the benefits of the exercise disappeared as well. My students began to struggle to create works with personal voice. They seemed to flail when it came time to create unique themes or images.

When I was talking with a couple of AP students about their high school art experience, they told me that the sketchbook assignments had made them hate drawing. Both students had previously used a sketchbook, and found it very enjoyable. However, when it was assigned as homework, all the fun disappeared from sketching. It wasn’t until the rigor of AP that these girls began to sketch again. At the end of that year I discontinued all my homework assignments, and with them, the poetry exercise.

This year marks a new attempt at using poetry to help students to develop into thinking artists. So far so good.


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AP Summer Intensive

At the end of July, I attended a summer class for teachers who offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses through College Board. The workshop was packed with great information and teaching ideas that should make every student better at thinking and creating. Of course, these techniques are also intended to bolster scores on the AP Studio Art portfolio exam. Many of the ideas were basic, some were common sense, but most of the course centered around fully understanding what was desired when a judge was “reading” a portfolio. I feel so much more prepared to teach my upper-level and introduction Art courses. These are some of the things that I learned.

Critique participants

Cathleen presenting for critiqueCritiques

Critiques are a great way to build knowledge of what is expected on the next project. We as a group of teachers created artwork, then proceeded to critique it using a variety of strategies. One of my favorite techniques was using a set of Art Vocab Cards. Each artist was given a card with a different word and its definition. In turn, everyone read their definition, then chose a work of art that exemplified this word, and explained how. In a class of nearly 20, a huge variety of concepts were deeply covered in one critique. I have since bought a set of the cards, and plan on using them in the coming weeks.

Real - Abstract - NonObjectiveSkills Tests

A portion of the AP Studio Art portfolio is called Breadth. It consists of 12 disparate works that show the students skill in a variety of approaches to creating visual art. My students have not struggled in having enough work for this category, but have often not had great work. One of the problems is that usually they only had 12 or 14 pieces, and we could not eliminate poor examples. We simply submitted what was available. The idea was presented to assign short projects of 1 or 2 days where students prove their abilities. As it happens, this fits perfectly with my plans to show MSL (Measures of Student Learning) to comply with a new part of Colorado law titled SB191. I have already planned to use first and last projects to prove student growth. Skills tests simply enrich the amount of knowledge I have about student. Because the projects are short, they work well for risk taking, and should feed very nicely into the Breadth section of a student’s portfolio. My current plan is to assign a 2 week project, then a 2 day skills test. We will start with some straight observation drawings and paintings, then introduce risk to stretch the students.

Self in colored tapeProject Ideas

I have so many new project ideas. After 10 years of teaching visual arts, I was finding myself tapped out. I would find one or two new ideas each year, but they were usually tired re-workings of something I was already doing. I now have pages and pages of new lesson ideas. I need plenty if I’m going to offer skills tests every two weeks. Many of the lessons were designed to either help a student create a body of connected work, or add to their breadth of work. The breadth assignments can easily be adapted to any of my courses.

I hope this boost of energy and surge of new ideas will raise the production level of all of my students. I believe that what is good for AP students is good for introduction students in the same way that strategies targeted at English language learners help all students in the classroom.

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You don’t know what you don’t know

Jr. High art is learning about observation and recording detail for drawing what they see. Today we learned that we cannot list all of the things we don’t know about because we don’t know all the areas where we are lacking knowledge. Often when observing a new item, we cannot know all of the details that we are not observing. This is the principle that mystifies the untrained artist. Other people seem to be able to draw so much better than they. It is usually not a mechanics issue. Instead, the untrained artist is most often also untrained at observation.

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Student Driven Curriculum

Everyone wants students to “own” their learning. It is in the latest books. It gets bounced around at staff and leadership meetings. I have set through countless PD sessions where describing students graphing their data and growth. It sounds great, and I have tried to make this happen, but my attempts have fallen flat. Either I couldn’t get student buy-in, or my projects were too rigid, or I was just too controlling of my facility and curriculum.

Last year I watched my colleague Chis Ludwig allow students to design a “Phunsics” course. The students identified the learning targets, then set about learning them. The environment fostered student excitement and yielded student learning. It seemed like a great fit for my classroom, but I would have to let things get messy to accomplish the learning similar to the Phunsics students. The mess has begun, and it is glorious.

Starting with my Advanced Art students, we as a group compiled all of the media we could use to produce art. The first project assigned was to create an imaginary animal. The students now have the choice of media, from our list, to create this project. In the next week or so, the students will begin to finalize the learning targets for media. How many painting projects should be required during the year? How many drawings? How many 3D? In this way they students can meet the Colorado State Standard 3.1 to demonstrate new and traditional media.

The best part so far is that the students are excited to “own” their own learning. Last year, in the same course I laid some groundwork for having student driven critiques. That will the next step. By the end of the year, I want my students to choose the direction of their projects, lead group critiques, and track their own progress by posting examples of their work.

We are off to a good start.

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Parent Teacher Conferences

Yesterday was the Trans-Am/Dakar Rally/Tour de France of teaching. A full day of teaching followed by an evening of parent conferences, a room tour for a local business, and my regular late night Wednesday college drawing class. 14 hours of school. It was a long day, but I’m not tired.

I’m energized!

Nothing gets my motor going like seeing parents latch onto the ideas of Standards Based Assessment. The parents I spoke to last evening voiced some concern about not seeing grades until the report card. But, they were all reassured when I told them about collecting a body of work that could be accurate in assessing a standard. I thought one woman was going to give me a hug when I told her that the number grade was just an estimate, and that I wouldn’t punish her child if he had a rough start in my class. I talked to all parents about how the standard score was a representation of the most recent demonstration of a skill.

Somehow, I also manage to build energy just by describing my method of grading. You see, I am using SBAR because I BELIEVE in it as the most accurate representation of student learning. When I have a chance to recount why I like this method of assessment, I become more passionate about using it in my classroom.

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A New Semester, A New Approach

Today, I am grading the first batch of assignment/assessments for my Art II and Advanced Art classes. Instead of starting with a huge project that only assessed a single standard, I began this semester with three 4″ x 5″ painting assignments. Each painting was assigned for a single day, with a day at the end for make-up, and a final day for evaluating and assessing. I strategically assigned the paintings so that we could assess all 6 classroom standards. This will be the baseline for the semester.

One of the problems I had last semester with my recording system was that some standards weren’t assessed very early, and I had to field questions about why there were open spaces in the grade book. Hopefully this will take care of that inconvenience, and also provide an accurate baseline for my students. This way, my students can identify their weaknesses and focus their efforts to strengthen this area.

Now on to the giant project… 6 weeks of acrylic painting.

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The Day of Reckoning Has Arrived

Standards Based Assessment and Recording has been a success this semester. There are always bumps with any system, but talking to kids today and yesterday as part of our final grade reporting has made me think that the students get it.

I’ve read a couple blog posts on recording semester and quarter grades in the Standards Based system. My system is incredibly simple, but is based on a complex relationship that is developed during the semester’s conversations.

I ask students two questions, “What do you want?” and, “Why do you want it?”

Most kids are honest about their progress. They know how hard they have tried. They know what each of their projects looks like, and what they wanted it to look like. They also know better than anyone else what their artistic limitations are.

The conversation usually progresses like this:

Me: What do you want?

Russell: How ‘bout an 83

Me: Why do you want it?

Russell: My drawings look real good, but my watercolor projects are not stellar. I do all the assignments, and…

Me: I agree, but I’m also interested in how you do in each standard. Looks like your composition standard is low. Can you tell me how to use the Rule of Thirds to add interest to your focal point?

Russell: It has something to do with dividing the paper, and placing the subject on the intersections.

Me: Great! Maybe this standard should be a 3 instead of a 2. Do you use the rule of thirds in any of your work?

Russell: No.

Me: OK, we’ll just leave it as a 2 till you prove it in an assignment. So you are comfortable with an 83%? Me too. Be sure to let your mom know that you wanted the %83.

How do you do it differently? How would you change what I’m doing?

Critiques and Comments are encouraged.

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Authentic Assessment

How in-depth and accurate are the assessments in your classroom?

For most of my career as an Art teacher, I have prided myself on having what I thought were some of the most authentic assessments in any curriculum in our school. Either you can draw or you cannot. Either your painting looked like a bottle or it didn’t. For simple things this worked fine. I have found that while this can evaluate a student’s ability to paint or draw or sculpt, it does a less accurate job of evaluating learning in conceptual standards like Composition or Engaging the Viewer. I am constantly looking for ways to refine my assessment to glean as much information as possible.

For my latest and most open assessment method, I have come up with what I call “Prove It” assignments. Instead of lecturing for a couple days on rule of thirds or some other topic, I send students out to research on the Internet. I am present to answer questions, and facilitate the self-directed learning. When the students understand the concept, they prove what they learned with a blog post and an art project. When the artwork is complete, I have my students work individually through a series of questions designed to start a conversation about the assigned standard. I meet with students one-on-one to discuss their learning, and ask them to “prove it.”

My questions often sound like this, “Where in your drawing did you use overlapping to create the illusion of space?” or “Tell me about how you used leading lines to draw attention to your focal point.”

This method of guiding my student’s learning sometimes means that I give the same lecture 30 times in one day. The difference is that I am asking kids about their own artwork. Many of these students would have drifted off during a whole-class lecture. It is too easy to shrink back in a class of 15 or 20. Some students plan up front to not answer question. But when it is just me, one student, and their artwork, real learning takes place. This is the most authentic assessment method I have ever used.


What do you think? Do you have a more authentic method in your classroom? I would love to hear about it.

Comments and Critiques are always welcome.


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Standards based assessment in practice

This first semester has been a huge experiment in the 2D art classroom. Each assignment has been structured to meet specific standards. Each standard has been evaluated at some point during the semester. From those statements, you’d assume that everything was easy and moving along smoothly. It is not.

When I began the semester, I tried to evaluate three and four standards per assignment. I used a complex rubric, and students were able to calculate some of their progress, but the process of evaluating often overshadowed the actual growth students were making. I quickly determined that it was important to evaluate only one standard at a time. This allowed the assessment to be more in-depth, and focused. My plan is to begin my classes next time with a series of small assignments, each targeted at a single specific standard. This will set the base line for students, and allow them to quickly experience a variety of assessments.

The second major problem I ran into was that beginning students cannot meet end-of-year standards in the first week of class. My fancy rubrics assumed that students could achieve a 4/4 in each standard on the first project. I had not thought about what would happen if a student had perfect scores in the first week. The result was that I had students who were ready to quit creating after they had achieved perfect scores.  To correct this, I am working to devise a plan where students standard scores fluctuate up or down (previously only up) based on the most recent assessment. The limiting factor in this is the school grade book application I’m using to track growth.

So far, I have opted to record scores in GoEdustar, our district’s chosen grade recording system. To make standard scores visible, but not count towards a mathematically calculated grade, I have entered a letter followed by the score. “x2.5” This fools the grade book into thinking that there is no value for a particular assignment. This system of recording presents one obvious problem. If a new value is entered in the grade book, the old value disappears. I believe that new data should be more important that old data, but in the art room, it is possible that early data is more accurate than late data. If early data represents an ability in a comfortable media like pencil, and later data represents ability in a more challenging media like watercolor, then I would rather take the early pencil data into account for the end of quarter reckoning. If the early data is erased, I have no choice but to record the later data.

One of my colleagues, @chrisludwig, uses a series of spreadsheets for his grade book. Each student has their own page of the spreadsheet on which is recored individual assignment with appropriate standard assessments. While @chrisludwig‘s approach is more informational than mine, and solves most of the problems I’ve encountered, it is also noticeably more complex and time consuming. Maybe I’m just being lazy. My plan for next semester is to record each project’s assessment separated by a letter. “x2-y3.5-z3” We’ll see if I like this better. I fear that I will eventually succumb to the @chrisludwig system of long hand recording.

Next post I will try to detail my the progress in making my assessments as authentic as possible.

Comments and critiques are always welcome.

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