A Glance Backward and a Step Forward: My Art Education Journey

Last night when Dr. Craig Roland began my first year review by asking, “What do you do?”, I hesitated.  I do a lot of things.  Would it be appropriate to rattle off my absurdly long list of jobs for the Art Ed Area Coordinator and Graduate Advisor at the University of Florida during this tight, thirty minute time slot?  Nope.  I’ll keep it short and sweet.

“I teach art.”

Of course, he wanted to know a little bit more, so I offered up “writing curriculum, teaching at museums, mentoring private students…”  He gave me a sleek, chic term for this- I’m a teaching artist.  He also commanded me to blog.  So here I am.  Hi, everyone!  Many thanks to Dr. Jodi Kushins for advising me on getting back into this world. (She is an excellent blogger!)  And here is my glance back on my past year in the Masters of Art Education Online program at the University of Florida.  Funny how a quick glance back can result in some sublime forward propulsion…

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.  Caspar David Friedrich.  1818.
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Caspar David Friedrich. 1818.

Before my experiences in this program, I had no point of reference for my understanding of art education besides my own instincts and the examples set by the artists and art teachers in my life.  Expanding my understanding of the field through the study of professional literature exposed my weaknesses that I might develop strength and affirmed my good instincts that I might defend them.   I studied Studio Art as an undergrad, but just as I was compelled to create, I was also driven to teach.  After graduation I began taking part time jobs teaching art classes.  What began as a fun thing to do for a little extra money turned into the only thing I wanted to do, so by the time I applied for this program I had taught art in about thirty different settings in less than a year, often maintaining four or five art teaching jobs at a time.  However, because none of these settings were the public school system, I felt a deep sense of insecurity.  I had lingering doubts about my own abilities because, for the most part, I had only ever answered to my students and to myself.

My first class in the program was Contemporary Issues in Art Education.  This course was an exciting, though overwhelming, learning experience.  I had anticipated and planned for the amount of time and work that I would need to commit to this program, but I had no idea that my learning would influence me in such a fundamental way.  Two weeks into the course I felt compelled to immediately change everything about the way I was teaching art.  Because of my insecurities I was obsessed with documentation and a high quality product.  Those are great things, but they masked my fear of letting my students struggle and fail.  I was teaching very defensively.  I had built up an arsenal of worksheets and armed myself with a portfolio of student work and artist statements primarily to convince myself and others of my value as an art educator.  I was not spending an adequate amount of time focusing on my students and their needs.  Contemporary Issues called me out on a teaching style that was clever and professional but not very honest, compassionate, or relevant to my students’ lives.  This course broke my crooked, art teaching bones to reset them in a healthy way.  The readings selected for this course helped me get my bearings and develop confidence while continuing to challenge my presumptions.  I completed my final project on art education in assisted living communities (or the lack thereof) and my eyes were opened to a new, underserved population.  I shared my research with art educators in my area and began to develop a network of peers, something I had craved but didn’t know previously how to seek out.  Also, having an understanding of discipline based art education and visual culture has been especially helpful in several job interviews as well as the classroom.

The next class, The Digital Image, pushed me to consider the future of art and art education and shifted the way I discussed viewing images with my students.  This class paired well with what I had learned about visual culture, and I have used memes as a teaching tool with great success.  The History of Art Education presented me with an understanding of the origins of our teaching practice and provided excellent role models as well as cautionary tales.  As was advocated in the Curriculum class, I have been pleased to find that our coursework is comprehensive and cohesive.  The focus on essential questions and key ideas throughout our coursework has ingrained that language and focus in me so that it bleeds into my own curriculum.

I must admit that, though I was discovering that the methods and ideas I was learning about worked in my classroom, I wasn’t completely sold until taking Sketchbook during summer studio.  This class gave me a wealth of tools to take back to my students and demonstrated how the teaching practices that I had been studying actually worked.  I had been itching to be on the other side of art education, to be a student so that I could gain their perspective, and summer studio was the perfect means of meeting that need.  The memory drawings, altered books, Sol Lewitt pieces, and techniques for organization a sketchbooks have all made their way back into my classrooms.

Perhaps the most important things I have taken away from my first year is that I am not just an outlier.  I am connected to so many valuable resources, encouraging and insightful peers, and gifted instructors that, even though we rarely (if ever) see each other, I do not feel alone.

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