Coaching Notes: Reimagining Literacies Through Art-ELA Collaboration

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.”
–A Colleague

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.

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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.

Final Thoughts

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.

The Urgency of Imagination: What #WhyIWrite Means Now

If you look in the student-blaming outposts on Twitter, you’ll find literally millions of “kids these days” posts about how entitled, lazy kids are responsible for an epidemic of plagiarism without a moment of reflection or introspection from the tweeter themselves (I won’t link them here, but you can find them by searching Twitter): what was the assessment, and did students find it relevant and meaningful? Did students master the necessary skills, such as paraphrasing, prior to the assessment being given? If a student is only writing for a grade or if they feel like they lack important skills, they might turn places we don’t want them to turn. It’s hard for teachers to hear that plagiarism is rarely a student’s first resort, and, often, a symptom of a larger issue with the assessment or their pedagogy. This isn’t to say that there aren’t students who might cut corners, but defaulting to that conclusion requires a fundamental belief in some of the deficit-oriented thinking that might be causing some of the issues in the first place.

At a recent professional development session, I heard a teacher say: “Grades are the only way to get students to improve their writing.” Despite this being anathema to my own beliefs and practices, I took a moment to think through this because, on its face, there might be some truth here; students will often compliantly do what we ask for a better score, and they might learn some skills in that kind of revision process. My worry with this formulation (and others like it) is that the skill students are really learning is how to “do school;” good soldiers get rewarded. I’m also concerned that if a critical mass of a teaching staff believes that grades move writers, they probably believe that scores compel readers, too. There’s a great ILA article, written by Colette Coleman, on the way that students get pulled toward teacher interpretations of a text rather than pushed to develop their own. The article implies that teacher assessment might have something to do with this phenomenon:

When a teacher conveys that students can get to an author’s meaning only through her or his hints and leading questions, the underlying message is that students can’t navigate the text on their own.

My sense is this happens more than we like to admit, and my sense is that this makes students largely insecure about their own abilities to make interpretations and the veracity of their interpretations when they do make them. If that’s the case, can we really be shocked or surprised when a student hits SparkNotes or Shmoop to validate their thinking by finding the “right” answer? Barthes may have argued that the author was dead, but, often, the author—and their adjacent Authority—lives on through our work in the classroom, especially our assessments, which reward alignment with our ideas and agreement with the literary establishment.

Once the Author is gone, the claim to “decipher” a text becomes quite useless. To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing. This conception perfectly suits criticism, which can then take as its major task the discovery of the Author (or his hypostases: society, history, the psyche, freedom) beneath the work: once the Author is discovered, the text is “explained:’ the critic has conquered; hence it is scarcely surprising not only that, historically, the reign of the Author should also have been that of the Critic, but that criticism (even “new criticism”) should be overthrown along with the Author.

Not only is this inherently inequitable, as much of the canon and its attendant literary criticism are written from dominant perspectives that lack what bell hooks terms an “oppositional gaze,” but it facilitates a fatalistic sense for students that the interesting, engaging work is done. All that’s left is the parroting and the grade, and why spend time on something that’s a fait accompli?   It’s all over but the scribing.

All of this being said, I believe that what motivates students to write is relevance, choice, and opportunities to fire their imaginations, but it seems like assessments that ask students to do this kind of work are rare, at least in my educational circles. Recently, Ann Blakeslee and Cathy Fleischer from Eastern Michigan University visited to talk with students about our community-facing partnership, and students were asked to reflect about their interest and their questions about the work. Their questions and concerns largely centered around nervousness on doing the work “correctly;” they were really interested in being “right.” This was surprising, and, if I’m being honest, a little discouraging; our Family Fun Nights are all about writing along with students, actively engaging them in storytelling and sharing, and, most of all, helping kids and their families find the fun in writing (as they often find in reading). We never correct, edit, or otherwise comment on someone’s writing at one of these events, and there’s really no way to be “right.” You can be authentic or you can be inauthentic, but that doesn’t have much to do with being “right.” Problematically, however, tutors, most of whom are new, couldn’t really conceive of what this sort of event looked like and how they could promote fun and imagination in writing. Some even said after that they struggled to understand how fun and play could be a force for literacy building, and I have to think that it’s partially because that’s so far away from their current lived experience. What’s writing without grades and competition and assignments and compliance? Without these motivations, participation seems almost pointless: what are we doing this for again? One of the purposes of Family Fun Nights is to help K-8 kids keep their imaginations engaged longer and stave off writing as a purely academic exercise, but there’s some worry on my end on whether my tutors are fundamentally equipped, at least in terms of mindset, to do this work.  In truth, I think our Family Fun Nights do more for my students than we do for the K-8 students.  Indeed, my students need to recuperate their will to write from the grips of a compliance-based machine that has made writing about learning management systems, an interpretive guessing game whose answers are only a Google search away.

I’m excited about our Writing Center’s upcoming visit to the Sweetland Center for Writing, as we’re going to celebrate the National Day on Writing with activities for our tutors that reimagine and rekindle why we write with our college-level colleagues. My sincere hope is that students can remember what drew them to writing in the first place, which I’m willing to wager wasn’t anything that’s drawing them there now. If we can remember why we write, we have a good chance to help others do the same. There won’t be anything to Google, their won’t be any interpretation to mirror, and there won’t be any grades assigned at our event, but I would argue what’s at stake is more important—and more urgent—than any of that. I’m hoping students see it that way, too.