The multiple literacies—visual literacy, maker literacy, reflective literacy—being taught and activated in art classrooms each day make them some of my favorite places to coach. These disciplinary literacies are one of the reasons that art classes are vital to student success, as they teach ways of thinking and seeing that learners aren’t typically getting elsewhere in their school day. This is something I may have known or considered, but it’s not something I had ever really seen activated. Art classes can feel like an outpost, separate from other content areas (even physically in our school), but there would be important benefits for student literacy if there were strategic collaboration between art and the so-called “core” classes, particularly English, my core subject area, as we think about promoting the transfer of important literacy skills and moves across our school for students. These sorts of cross-discipline learning opportunities have been on my mind, as our school begins an Instructional Rounds pilot for a more comprehensive roll out next year: how do we normalize and encourage this sort of learning?
What English Teachers Can Learn from Art Teachers
“I care more about the message and meaning of your art more than anything else.”
My core philosophy centers on trusting students—the trusted become trustworthy, as Adrienne Maree Brown concludes—and art classes are some of the most trusting spaces in our schools, as students are given instruction with models, raw materials, and radical choice about their process, materials, and design. In short, students are embedded in classrooms that center a kind of maker literacy. Students are consistently making and remaking, they are experimenting without the common worry if what they’re doing is exactly “right.” What’s made can be unmade; their work is always in beta. This isn’t the ethos in many English classes, which can, at times, be “over-scaffolded” and prescriptive. Marcelle Haddix reminds us that, in most cases, students’ competence is rarely ever presumed; they are assumed incompetent until proven otherwise. That means rather than experimenting—making, unmaking, remaking—there is a top-down approach that stifles. This might mean several iterations of drafts and a good amount of productive fits and starts, but it also might be the most productive learning experience our students can have, especially as we trust them as experts on themselves and their own learning.
In my Writing Center course, students write autoethnographies about their literacy and writing histories. Here’s a representative example of a pattern I’ve been seeing, a pattern which has become increasingly dominant:
Upon closer inspection, however, there is another difference that I’ve become aware of; a difference that doesn’t show up in my old writings, but one that nevertheless has become apparent to me…my once-apparent love for reading, writing, and history seems to have dampened somewhat.
In the art classes I’ve observed, I’ve watched teachers honor student literacies through thoughtful, genuine encouragement and value student funds of knowledge even when they haven’t always shared the same knowledge. Students will tell stories—often personal stories—through their work, and the level of support they receive when sharing vulnerability is a trait we should be actively emulating. There’s no constricting prompts or tight guidelines, and, from the conversations I’ve heard, this feels fundamentally different from some other parts of their experience, which challenges us to make changes in our instruction that these feelings aren’t isolated to certain parts of the school day or school building.
It’s at the intersection of trust and respect where we see the power of maker literacy in our art classes and how it might be extended across curriculums and schools: students are learning how to think through their own changing interpretations about the world and their place in it rather than following along with narrow interpretations, remix and adapt the thoughts and techniques of others to say something meaningful for authentic audiences rather than producing solely for grades for a standardized test, and how to extend these skills across different media and platforms rather to being confined to a single output, like a five-paragraph essay. What I’ve seen students do in art with some fairly basic tools and every day materials is nothing short of incredible; it’s critical thinking at the highest possible levels. I’m taking the maker literacy ethos I’ve learned from my art colleagues with me in my coaching across the curriculum.
What Art Teachers Can Learn from English Teachers
If art teachers have the ethos, we might say that English teachers can provide the literacy frameworks that can help build or reinforce certain skills. This isn’t to say that art teachers (or teachers in any other discipline) lack literacy pedagogy, especially in their disciplines, but ELA teachers often have the kinds of specialized training to put key literacy skills into action, make them tenable and tangible. Put simply, we want students to be able to activate key literacy skills in a choice-based, trust-rich environment. If I had my wish, I’d co-teach with an art teacher for a term because the results could be powerful.
My latest coaching experience in an art class came about. because my colleague is having students write artist’s statements for their work, which is an awesome way to build student metacognition about process, but they needed some support helping students understand and activate the skills necessary to do this level of work. Part of my coaching centered on the sequencing of instruction, and another part of my coaching looked at practices that could help teach students what it means to analyze, interpret, and evaluate, as these are distinct moves. While I knew commonalities existed, I had to respect that analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating might look a little different in the art room than they did in ELA room. ELA teachers sometimes think these are “our” moves, and they are, but they have shared ownership and multiple meanings depending on discipline and context.
In the sequencing of instruction, we focused on getting students to move from seeing a piece of art, a sculpture in this case, to generating a list of what they notice, to sorting through their observations and starting to make meaning from them both in writing and conversation. The process is very similar to Rosenwasser and Stephen’s “Notice and Focus” method in Writing Analytically. Students had time to look at Karon Davis’ Muddy Water sculpture and collect their thoughts, then they were given two minutes to record every observation they had—whether it was about materials or composition or even some overarching theme considerations—on separate sticky notes, and then they were given time to sort through their observations, considering what stuck out to them. From there, students engaged in some conversation with their tablemates about what they chose and why, maybe it was interesting or strange or revealing or problematic. Had there been additional time, we had talked about doing a Harkness Discussion in a way that may have even made the discussion more robust, but the reality is that time isn’t always on our side.
Following their conversation, students slotted their sticky noted into where they fit in the critique method that the teacher was using, and students were able to talk about why they put their sticky notes in certain spaces, which gave my colleague an opportunity to do some formative assessment on how students were thinking about describing, analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating. The discussion, which was open-ended, generated content for each move that students would have to make, and provided a generative model for them to do their own work. This high-level discussion was, in part, made possible by the way the lesson was sequenced, which allowed students to generate ideas, test those ideas, and share them with a broader audience. It also helped that the teacher wasn’t searching for “right” answers or having students play a guessing game about what they were thinking, the maker ethos was maintained throughout, but the process of noticing, discussing, and debriefing did help foster important conversations about what this process of metacognitive reflection looks like and what skills are needed to do the work. This process provided students with the necessary prewriting to create strong artist statements.
When we combine the foundational literacy pedagogies of ELA teachers and the maker pedagogies of our art teachers, a powerful set of classroom practices start to emerge that are authentic and engaging, as we’re valuing what students know and their natural curiosity while helping them understand how to best use their knowledge and wonder to reflect on their work and express themselves to external audiences.