Hailey Burke

3rd Year, Art Education Major

Modeling behavior, environment, and attitudes for success: Putting transformative theory into practice

Through reflection, I realized that the role of an art educator is to act as a facilitator by establishing an environment that both fosters the diverse needs of students and provides a clear structure for participation. I believe it is essential for their development to have youth learn, engage, make, and appreciate art.

In anticipation of entering a new community art class, teaching twelve students aged five to eleven, I began drafting lesson plans. I imagined students hard at work, attentively listening while I glossed over art history, joyfully immersed in their art making process. I dreamed that the students would naturally participate, make connections, and engage in meaningful social interactions. I created a unit plan that focused on the theme of transformations. The lessons incorporated art history and pop-cultural references. The design of my lessons included a collective brainstorming question, followed by a brief answer period to help students create ideas about their projects. The projects were focused on creating interdisciplinary artworks that used a variety of skills including spatial awareness, planning, and fine motor skills. This type of multi-faceted project planning was designed to allow students to excel in different areas of learning. As the students would invariably have different skill sets, I would encourage them to help each other during their art making. These methods sought to ensure that students would find some sense of accomplishment during the program.

Walking into the classroom on the first day, fully prepared to engage the students in a collaborative art project, full of challenges and exciting materials, I was confronted with a plethora of sighs, moans and a distinct distaste for ‘art class.’ Based on my previous experience, I thought that in order to gain support by students, I could encourage their engagement through age relevant projects, which promote responsibility towards each other in the classroom. Despite my efforts, their preconceived attitudes towards art and art making became a much larger obstacle to overcome than expected. One particular student displayed oppositional behaviour characteristics that set negative examples for the other students in the classroom. The behaviour would quickly spread, and I began to realize that it was detracting from the quality and authenticity of their art making process. This quickly became the biggest challenge during my time with this class. I began to think of possible strategies to change negative attitudes through modeling and environment.

I decided that in order to guide students towards a more positive outlook on art and art-making activities, I would attempt to foster an open atmosphere. Drawing from Richard Schechner’s theories of performance and ritual, I began to investigate the relationship between behaviour, identity, and performance. Schechner, states that “[t]he many performances in everyday life such as professional roles, gender and race roles, and shaping one’s identity are not make-believe actions […]. The performance of everyday life ‘make belief’ – create the very social realities they enact” (Schechner, 2006, p. 42). For this reason, I thought of challenging the students to think of themselves as ‘real artists’. This was done through creating portfolios, pretending to be in a gallery, modeling vocabulary, engaging in critiques, and developing serious art projects. I wanted the students to begin to think of art as a serious intellectual, cultural, and creative endeavor.

I began to implement my ‘make-belief’ modeling technique by focusing on desired language. During critiques, I would define what the students were to look at, and comment on. In order for students to have a better understanding of meaningful language I would offer the first comment. This type of structuring helped students to remain positive and use appropriate language towards their peers. Confident with the progress, I began to use this modeling as a behavior management tool during the rest of the class time as well. Lowe argues that “[t]he most common mood conducive to a positive community-art experience is comfortable and playful. There must be a safe space for interaction. A social setting that occurs as non-threatening and relaxed for participants. That space is constructed very deliberately by words and actions that set the stage.” (Lowe, 2001, p. 460)

I therefore began to moderate the environment towards an optimally positive and comfortable space for all participants. By reflecting on the role of the environment, I realized that as art educators, we need to be thoroughly conscious of the parameters we are setting for students. Whereas initially, during the art-making process, conversations would often go astray, I found asking questions about the participants’ process, intentions, choices, and feelings at different moments helped veer conversations towards a productive direction. This allowed participants to focus on their personal art-making process. Students were better able to engage in the tasks at hand and were more likely to produce creative and self-driven projects. In retrospect, I realize that although the older students started with a low interest in art and making art, what they needed was to be given opportunities to express themselves in a capacity that was comfortable to them. I think that, for some students it was difficult to leave behind their developing ‘young adult personas’ and truly engage without fear of their peers’ reproach. It was therefore truly rewarding to watch these students become engaged and creative in something they had initially been opposed to. Pacific (1998) states that “Art is or should be an agent of social change, and that everyone is an artist … There is no doubt in the minds of community artists that social change takes place – for artists and community members alike… the production of art by people who don’t define themselves as artists – is a radical, transformative act” (Pacific, 1998, p. 40)

Through reflection, I realized that the role of an art educator is to act as a facilitator by establishing an environment that both fosters the diverse needs of students and provides a clear structure for participation. I believe it is essential for their development to have youth learn, engage, make, and appreciate art. It is now my understanding that this begins with an environment that encourages growth through exploration of different modalities and ways of being. The numerous skills that students acquire through the art-making experience, that include problem solving, different ways of being, developing vocabulary, and creativity, are essential to their social development.

It is our responsibility as art educators to enable students with the opportunities that engage them in this manner. Chambers (1997) argues in favor of a postmodern outlook on the education environment. He states that through this environment, “The trends towards centralization, authoritarianism and homogenization are reversed. Reductionism, linear thinking and standard thinking give way to an inclusive holism, open-styled thinking, and diverse options and actions” (Chambers, 1997, p. 89) It is my belief, based on this rewarding personal experience, that the exploration of new ways of being and thinking can be developed through pedagogical approaches that help enable the students to be more versatile, not only in understanding but creating culture, art, and community. Through transformative experience, we can afford students in our art classes with the tools and skill-sets required for success.

Chambers, R. (1997). Whose reality counts: Putting the first last. London: Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd (ITP).
Lowe, S.S. (2001). The art of community transformation. Education and Urban Society, 33, 457-471.
Pacific, R. (1998). This is not a Benetton ad: The theory of community art. MIX, 23(3), 28-43.
Schechner, R. (2006). Performance studies: An introduction (2nd ed). New York, NY: Routledge.