Newest publication

I have a short section in a book that was recently released from the National Art Education Association. You can read a bit about the book below…

Practice Theory: Seeing the Power of Art Teacher Researchers
Melanie L. Buffington and Sara Wilson McKay, Editors
Teachers are powerful individuals who have the ability to effect change and meaningful educational reform. Seeing research at the heart of teaching can grow engaged educational practice and aid teachers in realizing their power.
Chapters on methodologies, as well as example studies in diverse art education settings, work to bridge the perceived divide between theory and practice. Examples beyond public school classrooms include senior citizen centers, preschools, museums, and international sites. 
This collaboration of voices—including those of the authors, a graduate student, and a wide range of researchers with various perspectives on how research occurs in art education—will help new researchers and teachers who may not have considered conducting research as a possibility for them, find a glimpse of themselves as a teacher-researcher.
Practice Theory is especially relevant for art teachers who wish to engage in research and have their voices heard and valued. Readers will be engaged in a research process themselves as side bars, comments related to the real world by the two editors, essays and research reports, and visuals and graphs demand they play a role in interpreting the text and arriving at understandings relevant to their own research practices.”
—Enid Zimmerman, Professor Emerita of Art Education and current Organizer of Gifted and Talented Programs at Indiana University School of Education, Bloomington
You can view the Table of Contents and order online at:


School Experiences, Part 3: Montessori

This morning I visited a Montessori school. The Montessori school is 15 minutes away, easy to get to, has accessible parking, and is located in an urban area close to museums, galleries, and a university. The large brick building in which the school is located also has commercial and residential spaces within it. A majority of the students were white, but the school appeared to be more diverse racially than the Waldorf school.

Sending our 3 year old there for two mornings a week isn’t an option, and so I can’t do a direct cost comparison to our current preschool she attends two days a week. The least amount of time a student can spend in the montessori primary classroom is three mornings. If I worked it out to an hourly cost, I suspect that the price is just over twice what we pay now. Sending both of our kids there once they become elementary school aged would cost us $600 more a month than our mortgage payment, which is almost twice what the Waldorf school would cost.

I entered the school and was handed a clip board, two papers, and a pen by the secretary. She asked me to sit down and fill out the top paper that asked for basic contact information, ages of our children, where they are currently in school, and why we were interested in learning more about the school. The last question only had one and half lines of space to answer, and I probably should have just written the link to this blog. A group of four parents stood in the lobby talking about local restaurants. When I finished the paperwork, I glanced at the second, which was a very detailed sheet suggesting how I should observe (how to act, what to say to a student who attempts to engage me, and what to look for). 

The admissions director then came out, said hello, and told me we would head to the first observation. I was in a primary classroom for approximately 20 minutes. There were 17 students, working all throughout the room. They were engaged in a wide variety of activities. Some were completing puzzles, others were building with blocks, drawing, practicing writing letters, playing at a kitchen, and painting at an easel. Most students were working with at least one other student. All of them seemed engaged in their task with a freedom to change tasks or join someone on different work if they chose to. One student who was working in the kitchen approached me with a bowl of carrots she had just cut and offered one to me (note: how to respond to this offer was not on the detailed sheet!). One student got a wooden object off of a shelf and approached one of the two teachers in the room, asking, “Can you teach me a lesson on this?”

In this first classroom, one teacher was attempting to help about 6 students on different tasks simultaneously. Some times the students would sit and wait. Others would persevere through trial and error until she offered assistance. One student told the teacher three times he was ready to start the lesson but the teacher was reading math equations with another student and didn’t hear him (or heard him and ignored him). I realized how essential the teacher:student ratio is in this model and wondered if these class sizes were too big. 

In the second classroom, also a primary classroom, I could sense a different culture, which I believe is attributed to a lead teacher with a very different personality. She was almost theatrical, moving around the room using exaggerated gestures to push in chairs while singing a song about pushing in chairs. At one point, I heard a student crying. He looked as if he had just fallen from his chair onto the floor, but neither the teacher, assistant, or I saw what had happened. Neither the teacher or assistant attended to him right away. A moment later the teacher asked him why he was crying. He did not respond. She said, “If you use words, we can help you. Using words can help,” which seemed to dissolve the issue. The next time I noticed the student he was sitting at a table working with another student using blocks. A few minutes after that, a frustrated student on the other side of the room declared, “I’m not coming to school ever again!” to which the teacher responded, “Please change your attitude.” 

In general, the Montessori school was clearly doing a number of important things: fostering independence, responsibility, and honoring student interest. Students could choose their work, could complete it at their own pace, would return it to the appropriate space when finished. The admissions director explained to me the significance of the types of activities students were engaged in — but that’s not a hard sell for me. You don’t have to convince me that a three year old pouring water back and forth between two containers is learning. I get it. 

However, I found myself unable to think about this experience without comparing it to the Waldorf school yesterday. As I think about the two experiences, I have two main observations:

1) The Waldorf school philosophy (or at least how I saw it in practice) doesn’t seem to be as student-centered as I tend to prefer. I use principles of democratic education in my own teaching in which students make a large majority of the decisions about how, when, and (to a certain extent) what to learn. In the Waldorf model, the curriculum and activities, at least for the main lessons, are chosen, paced, and guided by the teacher. One could argue that this is also true in a Montessori setting (because after all there are a limited number of options students can pick from for “work”), but unlike Waldorf, students were able to work independently on something when they wanted to and for as long as they needed to. 

2) The ethic of care present and deeply felt throughout my visit to the Waldorf school wasn’t present (or at least in the ways I would expect to see it) at the Montessori school. 
The Montessori school I visited had an institutional aesthetic (lots of classrooms with blank white walls) and felt a bit unwelcoming following the previous day’s experience at Waldorf. When I was asked to sit and fill out paper work upon entrance, I felt like I was at the doctor’s office. In contrast, yesterday at the Waldorf school, the admissions director greeted me warmly, offered me tea or coffee, and asked me about my children by name based on her notes from an earlier conversation we had by phone. The admissions director at the Waldorf school sat in each observation with me, which allowed me to make comments or ask questions about what I was seeing. The admissions director at Montessori dropped me off at a classroom and picked me up. She told me the names of the teachers, but I had to ask the teachers in the first room about the ages of her students. (I also had to ask to see the art room, which she didn’t mention on our school tour).
The ethic of care I saw at the Waldorf school also extended to how teachers were treating students. When a third grade student held up an incorrect time on her interactive construction paper clock, the teacher responded with, “look at that one more time” or “this is a tricky one, isn’t it?” When one gave an answer that wasn’t exactly what the teacher was after, she said something like, “well, that was not at all what I was expecting you to say, but you’re right!” I was struck by the contrast with the second primary teacher I observed today who told a student to “change his attitude” when he said he never wanted to come to school ever again. I think I would have preferred a “why is that?” I mean, maybe the student had a really good reason!

Still to come in future posts: a homeschool coop, a meeting with the principal of our local public elementary school, and a post about a democratic free school.

School Experiences, Part 2: Waldorf

I am going to write this on a professional blog space knowing full well that I am not going to be able to artificially separate my professional and personal opinions and impressions. I am both education professor/researcher and mom simultaneously. Sorry if you were hoping for one perspective without the other.

This morning I visited a Waldorf school. The Waldorf school is 15 minutes away, easy to get to, has accessible parking, and is located on a quiet street. It’s located in an old brick two-story schoolhouse that used to be owned by the public school district in which it is located. A large majority of the students were white.

Sending our 3 year old there for two mornings a week would cost twice what we are currently paying at your average run of the mill church-based preschool. We could probably swing that financially. Sending both of our kids there once they become elementary school aged would cost us $350 more a month than our mortgage payment, which unless/until my spouse transitions from stay-at-home dad to the workforce (and we want to spend half that income on education), isn’t happening.

Walking up to the main doors, I could see through the glass and look directly at a woman sitting at a large wooden desk located up half a flight of stairs. I pushed the buzzer and she waved me in. I was a bit taken by the large abstract painting hanging behind her, lit by an appropriately-placed spotlight. The admissions director met me in the lobby and we proceeded to observe three classes (8th grade, 3rd grade, and Kindergarten).

The twelve 8th graders present in the class (and their teacher) had their desks in a circle facing each other. They were reading their own pieces of writing aloud to the class. I was surprised by the sophisticated nature of the writing prompt that challenged the students to write about one place from two perspectives: one person having a positive experience and one having a negative experience in the exact same space. I noticed that one student offered some helpful feedback to another student who voiced concern about her ability to complete part of the writing task, which indicated to me that students’ ideas were valued among their peers and teacher. The student offered feedback before the teacher. Immediately after reading their writings, the teacher passed out charcoal and they began working on drawings that would represent these pieces of writing.

The twelve students in the 3rd grade were reading words out loud as their teacher pointed to single words written on the board. The teacher asked students how many syllables were in each word, and asked if it was true that the number of syllables correlated with the number of vowels in the word. Students described to her why that is not always the case, using words like book and tree (included in the list on the board) to come to the conclusion that two of the same vowels often work together as one sound. I noticed the schedule on the day included “Games” and “Chores.” They continued some work on time-telling using clocks with moveable hands they had made out of construction paper and brads, and in the last part of the lesson I saw, were working in their notebooks to describe a measurement activity they had completed outside the previous day. The notebooks, which I had seen in the 8th grade as well, were student-created illustrated textbooks, and a summative record of the things they had already learned in various subjects. While I was in the third grade classroom, the sound of a piano being played (quite well) in the room next door became a soundtrack for what the students were doing. I later learned they had a eurhythmicist that visits for 6 weeks each year, and it was she who was playing the piano.

Finally, I saw 14 students in a mixed-aged kindergarten class. They were engaged in play, with fabric, fantasies, and a complicated storyline that involved a freestanding piece of equipment in the room as the “castle.” There were a number of play areas or stations. A few of the students had made a tent and were sitting underneath it in their created world. Bread was rising in the room and the assistant teacher was making snack for the day. The entire room smelled heavenly. When a few of the students struggled to negotiate their diverse perspectives on who should and should not be allowed to use the sliding board, one upset student approached the teacher to taddle-tale. The teacher casually asked her if she would like to join her and two other students in what they were doing, and began humming and singing as a means to calm and redirect the student. I asked permission to take a picture of the classroom because it was so stunning. I saw special attention to the lighting in multiple rooms and common areas throughout the school.

Also during my visit, I found out the mixed aged kindergarten teachers and assistants teach kindergarten continuously, while other teachers move up the grade levels with their students (grades 1-8). That helped me make sense of the deep relationships the 8th grade teacher seemed to have with his students…after all, it was their 8th year together.

There were a number of things I really appreciated about the school, some of which aren’t different from most private schools: small class sizes, curricular and budgetary freedom, teachers that look like they love what they do. There were a few things that I wondered about, mostly because I don’t know much about the philosophy that undergirds Waldorf Education. It certainly has it’s critics, both in the scholarship and among my parent friends. One friend recently said to me “yes, my friend sends her kids there, and they can’t read.” Well, they can’t read YET. Waldorf doesn’t put pressure on students to become literate in the same ways and on the same pace as public schools. So among parents of same-aged children it looks like public school kids outperform these students, yet the priorities for what these students should know when are fundamentally different in the two settings. The 8th graders I saw were completing a writing activity that I might struggle with rather easily. So apparently they can read and write quite well, and the way they were integrating a number of subjects together, easily floating from one to the other, was impressive.

Most importantly, the students at the Waldorf school looked happy. In contrast, both of my friends who have high achieving students in another great local public school have first born children that stay up late every night with their noses buried in a book. However, both parents have told me that these children don’t like school. Isn’t that interesting that yes, they are young readers (and I assume, love learning through reading), but hate school? They aren’t happy there.

How can we make public schools a place where students want to go? And like it? And are happy? Because not all families can pay anything, let alone more than their mortgage payment, to send their kids to a different type of school. These are the issues I am wrestling with.

School Experiences, Part 1

I live in a very good public school district. I can say that with confidence; I’ve been in hundreds of schools in a handful of states in the last 7 or so years. There are many things I admire about the district in which I live.

However, even the good districts are under pressure by measures of accountability put in place by educational policy. Furthermore, teachers who teach subjects like art that are free from a standardized test aren’t free from things like increased expectations about a standardized curriculum, students pulled from their classes for “remediation” of more “important” subjects, and cuts to class time as schools increase time in tested subject areas. My sadness has grown as I’ve watched educational policy suffocate the life out of good teachers across all subject areas. Not all teachers, but some.

For instance, I was observing one of my university students teaching at an elementary school that happens to be in my district. The students had a very energizing class period working with materials that they typically did not use. Each table of students worked together with various objects and the excitement in the room was contagious. The students were learning all sorts of things about structure, adhesion, design, functionality, and collaboration.

The classroom teacher came to pick them up, as is the custom for most elementary art classes. Her presence came with expectations: students were to get in line, be quiet, and ready to move to the next activity. As students quickly cleaned up and worked towards these expectations, she said, “It’s time to stop creating now. Get in line.”

At that moment, my heart sank. I, as an educator and parent, sure hoped those students would have opportunities to create other things that day — if not artistically, intellectually, socially, or otherwise. I was also disappointed because the teacher failed to acknowledge the obvious energy in the room. No, “Wow, look at what you’ve done! Someone tell me about these pieces” or, “You all look very pleased with yourselves. What did I miss?” Her words dismissed the significance of what students had just experienced. To me, it felt like pulling the plug on an electrical device prior to turning it off.

I am pro-teacher and believe teachers mean well. If I was that teacher, with a class that was too large, teaching in the current educational policy climate, and had to take students to get their hearing checked earlier than planned and would now have to rework my whole plan (all true), I might have said something similar (but I hope not). Statements like the one made by this teacher seem like the subtle evidence that the humanness, or ethic of care, might be slowly disappearing from teaching as educators struggle more and more to “fit everything in” while performing well on their teacher evaluations.

This post described one specific and recent experience in a public school that made me seriously reconsider whether I want to send my students to this fantastic public school. I have never seriously considered sending my own children to a non-public school, but I know that I want to send them to a school where the culture fosters learning, and compassion, and where they are deeply cared for. I want them to play, and for art to be seen as valuable as math, and for them to find out how to live life alongside others. And I am more worried that teachers (and public schools) who do have these priorities face serious barriers when attempting to enact them in the current system.

So, I determined to spend time over winter break attempting to assess if the culture of non-public schools using alternative models of education were different, and if so, if it was worth the money we don’t have to send my kids there. The rest of the posts in this series will describe my experiences at these other schools.

The troubles with school performance profiles are…

Lots of things.

The Lancaster Newspaper published the school report cards on December 12th. The newspaper received a number of letters to the editor (here’s one) and public critique via social media suggesting that their coverage of the report cards didn’t sufficiently address the limitations of the scores or offer a broader context for and interpretation of what they might mean.

A colleague of mine invited me to sit with the reporter who wrote the original article. As a result of that interview, the reporter published a follow-up article that includes one of my suggestions about how we might consider a school’s effectiveness.

What College Freshmen Taught Me About My Teaching

Relative to other institutions, the teaching load at my university is heavy. I embrace this because, quite simply, I love teaching. The two external indicators I have of my teaching quality (i.e., student evaluations via a scantron sheet and observations by colleagues/department chair) have been favorable, with one exception: the students’ evaluations of my freshmen seminar.

My freshmen seminar was a course about contemporary art required for freshmen art or art education majors. I knew going in to the semester that the primary thing my students would learn (often through repeated failure) was not about contemporary art, but about how to be responsible in a university environment that grants them more autonomy than they’ve ever had as a learner. This class was difficult for the students who were not used to open-ended assignments, reflecting on their learning, and managing their time outside of class. They sometimes felt I was being unfair and responded with indignation.
Yet, I felt like I taught this class more effectively than all others this past semester. I spent sleepless nights wondering how to most effectively engage them. I pushed them to reconcile their freedom with responsibility, and gave them challenging assignments. We had conversations in class about gender, sexuality, culture, and other potentially uncomfortable topics as they related to the contemporary art with which we engaged. There were moments of intense aggravation in which students were actively redefining their world views in light of other people’s perspectives. When I think about all of these things, I care less that they gave me the worst evaluations I have ever received because I believe the experience that I gave them was one of significant learning and of value. This is a risk critical educators take, and my freshmen taught me how strongly I feel the risk is worth taking.
So, in this new year, I feel at peace with the idea that my standards for good teaching may not be shared with my students, or always reflected in my evaluations. I vow to teach for learning (of content and otherwise) rather than for evaluations. However, in this time of increased accountability experienced by K-12 and higher educators alike, I will have to find ways to negotiate my own internal ideas about effectiveness with the external indicators if I want to keep my job. This will be my true test – whether my strong conviction that learning includes provocation and disruption can somehow still result in positive teaching evaluations, and in continued employment.

Spring 2014 Manifesto

I think there will always be a tension in my teaching between creating a safe space and attempting to provoke or disrupt. Both seem to be necessary elements of/for learning. In the past I have erred too heavily on creating a safe space and wanting students to like me. This semester, I commit to provoke, and to read about pedagogies of disruption/crisis/discomfort by people like Boler and Kumashiro to consider what these practices might look like in teacher education.

I have also resolved to find new indicators of good teaching for myself. The student evaluations at my university report mostly on whether students like me and feel like the course met their expectations, not whether students had a significant learning experience. I wonder, what other indicators will I accept as valid beyond my own relative level of satisfaction? Or is that it?

Finally, I resolve to feed my intellectual soul, which is perhaps the most satisfying yet most frequently cast aside element of my university position. I will read, present, discuss, write about, and foster ideas. I will collaborate with people who have interesting ideas and not spend undue energy on institutional obligations disguised as opportunities. I will pursue my scholarship confidently alongside people who foster intellectual voracity by offering their own ideas and critique.

May 2014 be a happy, healthier year of scholarship!

Why Differentiated Instruction as a Special Topics Course?

This spring I will be teaching a special topics course in Millersville University’s graduate program in art education on the topic of Differentiated Instruction. Faculty can propose special topics courses, and here is my rationale for proposing this most recent one:

Differentiated Instruction, or “DI,” has been a part of education scholarship for a very long time. Educators for the past century have understood that one of the foundational challenges to teaching is the diversities (in all senses) present within and among the students that make up classrooms. In the late 1990s, Carol Tomlinson’s work (which had previously advocated for teachers to use Howard Gardner’s ideas of multiple intelligences and brain-based research to better reach both gifted and struggling students) began to use the term differentiation, which she described as the process of “ensuring that what a student learns, how he or she learns it, and how the student demonstrates what he or she has learned is a match for that student’s readiness level, interests, and preferred mode of learning.” Tomlinson’s work met the field at a time when school leaders across the United States were struggling with how best to meed the needs of their student bodies, which were of increasing ethnic, racial, learning, and social diversities. The growing DI literature, and with strong support and endorsements from Education Leadership organizations such as ASCD, quickly became the topic of many required professional development sessions and district initiatives. As a result, DI joined other acronyms like AYP, NCLB, and IEP that reflected both formal and informal policies that significantly influenced what teachers were expected to do.
I would posit that the felt need for teachers to offer differentiated instruction to students is magnified in the current, overly-standardized educational climate. Differentiated instruction, and it’s relative popularity among administrators as something they desire of their teachers, gives me hope that education leaders haven’t completely lost all good sense about teaching and learning. Of course one size/method/process/product/environment doesn’t work for all students. Unfortunately, the rest of the system is build on an industrial model that may pose serious barriers for differentiation. My current view is that differentiation is possible, but might be very difficult work for over-burdened teachers especially because it runs counter-intuitive to the very system in which teachers are being asked to teach. As one teacher friend recent asked me, “We’re expected to differentiate in our classrooms full of diverse students, but then we are told all students need to take the same test, at the same time, in the same amount of time, and get the same (proficient) score. What sense does that make?”

So why this course? In short, it seems like the right time given the convergence of a few factors. First, Davis Publications recently added Differentiated Instruction in Art to their Art Education in Practice Series. I use this series often in my art education courses and have respect for many other books in this series. If they add a new book to this series, it’s worth the read, in my opinion. Second, the author of this book, Dr. Heather Fountain, is someone whom I’ve worked with and respect greatly. If she is writing about the topic, I can assure you it’s because she has the best interests of students and teachers in mind. Third, it is showing up in local district’s strategic plans. District’s intentional focus and provision for professional development on DI demonstrates a continued interest and need for conversations about the needs of learners. As a result, I expect this graduate course to be a dynamic and energetic gathering of art teachers who want to think critically about DI and what it means in broad educational contexts as well as in their classroom contexts. 
I bring a number of questions to this course and look forward to adding my students’ questions about differentiation to our exploration. So far, my list of wonderings includes: Why differentiate? Differentiate how? What are the relationships/tensions between differentiation and standardization? What did constituted differentiated instruction before Tomlinson and Fountain’s work? What relationships/tensions exist between assessment and differentiation?