Michelle Mathias runs her art classroom at Meeker Elementary like an art studio; full of student-choice with the ability to simply create. This means that students come to art class and get to make and create whatever they envision and desire from a number of centers, called “studios,” that are open that day.
To begin the year, studios are rolled out individually starting with drawing. Each studio sets high expectations for cleanliness and safe use of tools, and provides best practice techniques and ideas. More studios are opened following the same pattern as the first and eventually students have an opportunity to work in painting, collage, paper sculpture, modeling clay, printmaking, and sewing and weaving studios, among others. “With the opportunity to use and choose from so many of the studios, students are given the choice to create almost anything. With this freedom of choice comes great responsibility and freedom,” said Mathias.
Five years ago, Mathias, along with a team of art teachers in the District, began researching a pedagogy and philosophy of art called Teaching for Artistic Behavior, or TAB. New to the profession and fresh out of college, she admits that she was “resistant” to the idea. “I taught the normal way while walking alongside the art team researching, reading, exploring, and observing TAB classrooms. Then one day the idea clicked.” This happened in 2017 when presenting a self-portrait project to a group of 5th graders. It no longer became a teacher-direct project, but one full of student choice. “The excitement, hard work, productivity, and general “good things” I saw from students during this first try at choice was amazing! After this, I knew that the next year I would be offering full choice to the students.”
In many ways, this student choice format follows that of a professional artist who has a studio full of tools and has the desire to create. “The artists in my classroom are presented with many tools and asked to create something. These artists can explore tools and ideas, can create practice artwork, or finished and displayable artwork. They can work alongside peers or work independently. These young artists explore and develop unique and new ideas. They find that some ideas fail while others succeed.” But creating professional artists is not her goal or focus and she is very clear about that.
When students are given the choice, they get to learn what they want and when they want to learn it. They get to be inspired by their peers which often leads to a very collaborative environment. Student choice also has a pragmatic side to it. Students are able to explore open studios with supplies they may not have access to at home. They are also able to complete projects that are on their mind such as creating a birthday gift for a parent. “Some students may find that creating art is at the heart of their adult work, other may use it as a fun side/free time hobby.” Either way, for Mathias with student-choice as the basis for her classroom, learning is certain to happen.