Casting Workshop A Huge Success

Casting with Fort Hays State

Friday afternoon, Toby Flores and the Fort Hays State University sculpture department presented a casting workshop in our studio space. Earlier in the semester, I had made arrangments with Toby bring the FHSU mobile foundry to cast aluminum for our 3D Art class.
Casting with Fort Hays State
Students have been carving designs into scratch molds in preparation for the molten metal. Each student collaborated with another student as they explored the process of imagining the reverse of their idea into the molds. Some students had an easier time than others, but that is to be expected.
Casting with Fort Hays State

In addition to the scratch molds, one of Toby’s students worked using our petrobond sand molds. These molds are created by packing oily sand around a pattern in an open iron frame. When the frame is full of sand, the pattern is removed leaving a space for liquid metal. While I have known of the existence of these materials, I had no experience using them. Toby and his expert students were very generous in demonstrating and sharing with me and my students.
Casting with Fort Hays State
When the mobile furnace had been assembled outside the lower studio, scrap aluminum was melted at temperatures exceeding 1200°. FHSU supplied all of the aluminum at no charge to us. This was a great blessing.
Casting with Fort Hays State
Casting with Fort Hays State
Casting with Fort Hays State
The large crucible was removed from the furnace, and placed inside the pouring handle. When locked into the pouring handle, the crucible was tipped to pour molten aluminum into each mold.
Casting with Fort Hays State
Casting with Fort Hays State
Every mold turned out as expected or better. One of the FHSU students even brought some personal artwork to cast. I was very pleased with how smooth everything went, and how much fun my students had.
Casting with Fort Hays State
Casting with Fort Hays State

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Constructivism in the classroom

With the new movie “Waiting on Superman” getting lots of press on NPR, Oprah, and NBC morning programming, I’ve been reading and listening to a great number of teachers and education reformers as they present what they think is the best solution for America’s schools. Many of the most vocal reformers push for a constructivist setting for all of education. Teachers are to stop lecturing, and start “facilitating” learning. Students are to be no longer forced or even allowed to complete worksheets or memorize facts. Instead, the facilitator, asks questions and prompts and guides the students to explore learning and knowledge. A student’s unique needs and background dictate the direction and speed of learning.

None of this is far from what happens in my Studio/Classroom. Art is most often taught from a constructivist perspective. We have a few processes to memorize, and some vocabulary that makes it easier to communicate, but students have usually directed their own learning.

The public doesn’t seem sure about Constructivist thinking. At least, I haven’t seen any rallies in my town, or large scale public events or media concerning Constructivism. In fact, some schools use very different approach, and have recorded a certain level of success. KIPP schools, and Classical curriculum both encourage a great deal of memorization and traditional lecture. Many parents seem eager to let their children experience the success promised by these non-reform schools.

There is even a resurgence of ultra-traditional art schools called ateliers. In these schools, students are not allowed to draw anything they want. Instead, they draw and paint plaster models. They paint them again and again, until they have mastered light and dark. Next, the students work from live models. When a student leaves the atelier, they can paint anything they want. Their skills as an artist are so sharp, that they are ready to approach any subject or style with ease.

I wonder what it is that makes us so eager to jump into constructivism. Is it the custom fit for every student? Is this realistic? If this is the answer, what is the explanation for the success of schools with the KIPP system? If artists can have custom fit constructivist education, why is there demand for scripted, old world training of the atelier?

It seems to me that something is missing.

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Today was a good day to apologize.

Everyone has a load of stress they carry with them. I unloaded some of mine on a student yesterday. Today, I made it right. Not revolutionary but part of who I want to be.

Always be slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to anger.  – James 1:19

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Parent Night

Last evening, I had the pleasure of welcoming parents of my students into my classroom. Each parent moved with their child from class to class like a regular school day and teachers gave short presentations about the general activities in their classroom. In my presentation, I commented on our first few assignments where we learned about the illusion of space, and shading etc. However, the real push was to inform parents about our new Standards Based Assessment program in the art room.

While I talked, I watched as parents expressions started to tell of their apprehension, then understanding, then acceptance. I tried to point out to each group that until now, it was almost impossible to explain where an art grade came from. Many parents nodded in agreement. With our new standards based assessment, I still record grades, but these are educated guesses made by students as to what their grade should be. I occasionally council a student to change the percentage. But for the most part, students are willing to celebrate victory, and identify weakness. Usually, if I ask a student to modify their “guess grade” it goes up instead of down.

One parent explained that she was worried when she saw the “guess grade.” She remembered being asked to guess at her grade in Electronics, and she said “B-” out of modesty. She soon realized that she should have said, “A.”

In my talk I also advertised our new student blogs. For most of my teaching career, when I talked to parents, they had very little information about what actually happened in my classroom. They might hear about a great painting project, or a broken ceramics attempt, but they really know what was being described until parent night or the end of the year show. I could see the excitement in parent’s eyes when I told them that they now had a window into my classroom. They could check our their students work, even comment if they like. Mentioning comments drew sharp stares from the students who attended. On student commented, “That only leads to trouble at home.” Both the parent and I smiled.

I think we had a great night.

In Studio 201 we are not Waiting for Superman. We are making things happen.

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New Studio Classroom

Studio 201
This year started in a new space with some great new benefits. Probably the most noticeable is the air conditioning. Though it has been nice enough to leave the outside door open most every morning, the A/C makes a real difference by afternoon. Our new studio is also smaller. This sounds strangely like a drawback, but the small size means that I can hear people when they ask for help. In addition classes feel like a community instead of a group of individuals.

Of course, this new studio also comes with some challenges. Where should I store supplies? Where should we store or display artwork? Where should I put 30 kids when there are only 20 desks? I try to solve as many problems as I discover in a given day. Some have been considerably easier to deal with than others.

So how did I end up with a small, clean, air conditioned studio? Our school combined some buildings over the summer, and I had an opportunity to move two of my classroom spaces closer together. In the past, art class was held in a large industrial metals classroom. This has been ideal when I taught jewelry, or sculpture, but it was a problem for my drawing and painting classes. In addition to the industrial space, I had also inherited a ceramics classroom on the opposite side of the building. Teaching in different parts of the building, was very disruptive to my creativity and organization. At one point, while I taught Stagecraft, I was supervising 4 separate classrooms simultaneously. It just became overwhelming.

The move has allowed me to keep my industrial space (Studio 213). And, I now have a classroom (Studio 201) directly above the shop, with observation windows, and a staircase connecting the two.

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Standards based rubric frustration

Last week, for the first time, I applied my standards based system for assessment. I really love being able to see the amount of learning each student achieved in each of the standards. For the most part, the students appreciated what we were doing. They were fairly eager to participate in assessing their own learning, and we have some real data that they created. I believe that for most students the mystery is removed from assessment in the art room.

For all the success that my students experienced, I have encountered a couple of real problems. The first is the problem of every rubric I have ever used. Each area has been assessed, and I am comfortable with this data. However, when I try to combine the data into a summary number or “grade” it all falls apart. I had hoped to use this summary number for our school’s eligibility, but I don’t think it is accurate.

Right now, none of my students have mastered any of the standards. This is expected at the beginning of the course. As a result, their summary “grade” is between an F and  C. Most students have an F. These students aren’t failing my class, they are beginners.  To solve this problem, I just had students assign a percentage that they wanted in the grade book. Again, because it is student generated, it is not mysterious. It is still meaningless, just not mysterious.

Our second problem is one that I should have seen coming, but didn’t. In the past when I set up a rubric, the top box was for mastery at the level appropriate for the assignment. If a student met or exceeded the project goals, they received the highest mark in that category. This will not work on year long standards based assessment.

The class project introduced Value as an Element of Design, and a tool in creating the Illusion of Space. Many students excelled at this introduction project, and I told them to mark the highest learning level, giving them a 4 in that standard. A 4 indicates full mastery of the standard, and this project did not assess full mastery, only basic mastery.

For now, I have removed the possibility of mastery from my introductory rubrics, and have instructed my students about how meaningless their summary “grade” is. I am not pleased with how this new system is working, but I still believe that it is the right thing to do in my classroom. I’m just not certain of how it will work.

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

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Series of Amazing Events

A few weeks ago, I received contact from a young man named Mark wanting to learn about linoleum printmaking. He and I made arrangements to meet for a one on one workshop. I showed him my small studio and we both started cutting. Cutting and talking. Turns out that both his mom and my dad grew up in Africa. What’s more, they went to the same boarding school, Rift Valley Academy.

When Mark had cut a few blocks, we proofed and printed. Mark is quite an artist, and made a nice little print. Here he is with a his work in my new studio space.
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Assessing Without Grades

I’ve never talked with anyone who could explain an objective grading system for the art room. Our culture is littered with phrases that reinforce the idea that no one knows what beauty is, or how to assess it. Have you said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” or maybe you prefer, “There is no accounting for taste.” This semester, I delivered a lecture entitled, “Judges smoke crack.” All of these are attempts to explain the idea that it is very difficult to systematically assess visual arts projects. No one is ever happy with the outcomes. Should an art teacher assess effort? Should final product be the only item of importance? I’m not sure. Honestly, I’m not even sure that the grades I entered last week or last year are accurate or important assessments of my student’s knowledge or ability in visual arts.

Something had to change.

After lots of blog reading, I decided to try an experiment in my classroom this quarter. In each class, I would only be assessing through conferencing with students and writing short paragraphs explaining their growth. My ultimate goal is to share my little paragraph with parents on a regular basis so that they can have a reliable account of what is happening in my classroom.

For my first project using this system, I taught linear perspective. As a class we took notes, and practiced drawing cubes, then street corners. When I was mostly sure that the students could proceed to independent work, I asked them to prove that they understood linear perspective with an art project. If the student had interacted with the lecture, notes, and practice, they should need very little help proving their knowledge. It worked. Not only did students create some of the best perspective projects I’d seen, they also were very handy with the material.

When it came time to assess the project, I distributed a worksheet for the students to develop their responses to my questions. Each student was asked, “How would you use this project to teach someone else the system of linear perspective?” A separate question asked, “What will make your project a show winner?” Each question had some vocabulary listed to help prompt a reasonable response. I called students to my desk, and discussed their answers. I only had one student who did not learn the material. This was due to absences. Some students were ready to teach a lesson on perspective, and others new only basics, but almost everyone had learned the material. I had several students who could not create show-winning work, but I had expected this result. What I had not expected was the level of learning.

If I had only assessed show-winning (beautiful) work, like in the past, I would have missed the opportunity to really know how many students understood linear perspective.

What I want this to look like in my classroom next year.

  1. Classroom Art Standards will be discussed in connection with each assignment.
  2. Students will write and verbally discuss their assessments on at least 50% of their projects.
  3. Students will blog about their projects so that parents can see semi-daily progress.
  4. Parents will be contacted when students meet a classroom standard.
  5. Grades will only be given when necessary at Quarters and Semesters. Arrived at in conference with student after considering standards met during projects.
  6. Every project will have a specific due date. Previously, I let projects go on indefinitely. This worked when grades were assigned on a variable day of reckoning. Without a numeric grade, students were not motivated to finish projects after they had proven their knowledge of the content.
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Student work. Amazing smoke

Arianna has been working on smoke this week. I’ve seen several versions of this. Some were OK, but none were great… until today. She really surprised herself and me as well.
The assignment was to find a lyric or poem to inspire our paintings. Something in her lyric has to do with breathing in a person like smoke in her lungs.

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Charcoal Self Portraits

Upon returning from break, our first 2D Art project is charcoal self portraits. In the past, I have lectured for a couple of days about the planes of the face, and we have drawn eyes, noses, etc, but the students never really seemed to be able to transition from that exercise to voluminous self portraits.

Now that I have a projector in my classroom, I decided this would be a good opportunity to show students a little corresponding art history. My original plan was to just flash through a collection of portraits I dragged down off of the net. Then it came to me, I could have the students practice from the master pieces. Our previous project was painting masterpiece copies, so this worked very well.

 Self-Portrait with Pipe, ca. 1849 Gustave Courbet

I organized my examples from highest contrast to lowest to allow my students to gain control of charcoal. The first day was delightful. Most every student had paid attention to the shadows in Rembrandt’s face. The second day was better. Several students had sketches that looked remarkably like the original. Today, I had another epiphany, I took each of my examples and made a gray-scale version and a posterized version in Photoshop. This made it very easy to point out how most of the shading was to indicate form, and only a few dark areas should be added as lines. By the end of the hour, most every student had a likeness of Courbet. Some did bear a slight resemblance to Chè Guevara, but that is to be expected in the art room.

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