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Student Engagement and Participation – Art Ed Bloggers Network

“You learn at your best when you have something you care about and can get pleasure in being engaged in.” – Dr. Howard Gardner

This post is published as part of the Art Ed Blogger’s Network series of posts on the topic of Student Engagement and Participation. I’m responding to this topic from the perspective of a middle school art educator in a public school in Massachusetts.

First of all, let’s make sure we are all talking about the same thing. Here is the definition I’m using:

In education, student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education. Generally speaking, the concept of “student engagement” is predicated on the belief that learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired, and that learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise “disengaged.” –

Although it is true that some students become engaged by the traditional education process itself (listening to a lecture, taking notes, studying, testing, scoring well on the test), it is certainly not the majority and this model typically doesn’t translate to the  art classroom. I would estimate about 10% of my art students would be content to spend their time in class blithely completing artworks or singularly exploring the complexities of various artistic media without socializing or employing technology. In the spirit of meeting this generation where they are, we have to makes changes in the way we teach to engage them with our curriculum and the creative process. In the quote from Howard Gardner above, the two areas on which we as teachers focus are – 1. What we want our students to learn 2. What will cause them to care about learning it enough that they will derive pleasure from their engagement in the learning.

There are standards, our passions, and the passions of our students that help guide us to establish what we want them to learn, but discovering what will cause them to care about it enough to derive pleasure from their engagement in the learning is more personalized and fluctuates over time. With my demographic (lower middle school), I know that students enjoy working with friends, they enjoy screen time, and they enjoy movement and talking. So, my challenge is in finding a way to engage them that harnesses these likes while exposing them to visual art content.

My students come to me with preconceived ideas about art class and often make statements like, “I’m not good at art” or “I don’t like art”, which blows me away when I consider the many ways art is made today, whether collaborative or individual, with a wide range of mediums and scale. Artists are working with light, sound, electronic media, nature, to name just a few. Just like Disneyworld, there is something for everyone. I am also grateful to work in a district where my students have art class every year before they coming to my school, and have developed a strong visual art foundation.

Thinking like this has informed my teaching practice over the past several years. It is with collaborative learning, project-based learning, and 3D printing as an art medium in mind, that I have focused on developing units that meet these criteria as well as embrace technologies well-utilized via iPads in our 1:1 device school. The focus of this work is Design Thinking.

Once each semester, my students are engage in one of the four units as follows:

Fall –

5th grade: Product Design based on the Agency by Design Teaching and Learning in the Maker-Centered Classroom Thinking Routines and Disposition Development

6th grade: Game Makers Game Board and 3D printed Game Piece Design

Spring –

5th grade: City Planning with 3D Printed Structures

6th grade: Architecture of a Castle 3D Design

Each of these units takes about 10 classes to complete, with classes meeting every other day for 50 minutes. Students collaborate, get their resources from Google Classroom and a Google Site, use traditional and digital tools for creation, and develop some kind of group sharing piece, whether a 60 second elevator speech or a commercial.

Given that all of the other time we have together is spent creating traditional, tradigital, or digital art, the ten classes or so out of 45 total classes is a welcome switch and change of pace. I find this investment in group projects breaks down a lot of barriers  and has a dramatic increase on the comfort level within the class, helping each of my nine classes to become a community of learners. This is especially noticeable after the units are over and we resume a more classic art education approach. My students are willing to try anything and are relaxed enough to engage with art making in a new, different way.

When I first started teaching art, my focus was on providing a classic art education (similar to the one I had) for my students. Over the years, my focus has changed to the students and what they need to know, what they want to know, and how they learn best. I have made choices about my curriculum to include big concepts such as design thinking and systems thinking, because the disposition of being able to think in these ways will help my students navigate through their future education and career work. Yes, I have set aside many traditional art lessons, because I am confident my students are being exposed to them at other times in their education. By embracing the way today’s students enjoy learning, engagement and participation are rarely a concern.  

This post is a part of The Art Ed Blogger’s Network: Monthly Tips and Inspiration from Art Teacher Blogs. On the second Tuesday each month, each of these art teacher blogs will post their best ideas on the same topic.

Participating Art Teacher Blogs:

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