Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Doing it up (in the classroom) the PIXAR way.

Over the summer I had the great blessing to read an amazing (but most recently very controversial) book called Imagine by Jonah Lehrer. It is a nonfiction work intended to examine and discuss the inner workings of creativity and reveal some of the secrets of how to be more creative. Some stuff was a rehashing of what I already knew like that the physiological effects of blue are so powerful that they they can actually make you more productive, inspired, or creative. Other stuff? It kind of blew my mind. And also, it made me feel like I completely needed to revisit and revamp the way I was teaching the creative process to my students as well as fostering a space for it to exist within. Thank you, Pixar, for helping me to finally see the light as well as the gigantic shadow I was casting upon my classroom and daily doings and happenings in my classroom. Pixar? I am an entirely new art teacher because YOUR creative process is what I am now going to be doing in MY class.

While Jonah Lehrer has definitely failed in grand form in very noteworthy ways, one way that he didn't fail was in his chapter about how Pixar does the amazingness that they do not only in the big pictures (no pun intended) but just as much on the daily that no doubt makes each of those big pictures that they churn out so gosh darn successful every single time. A myriad of things contribute to their success and while I can't do all of them - like, centralizing the location of the bathrooms to promote a guarantee that each person working will have the greatest probability of crossing paths with as many other people/coworkers as possible in the midst of their daily work flow - I CAN make one thing happen in my classroom. And that is: A serious commitment to doing (essentially) formative assessments and critiques (both peer and self) of student work and performance FREQUENTLY and CONSISTENTLY. 

Now, Pixar is known for having exemplary visual design, illustration, and animation in ALL of their products - be it full-length pictures or animated shorts. While they easily have the "best in the biz" working for them that would certainly cull and employ expert skill, technique, and knowledge for any given task, where they do it right isn't based solely within that. They don't rely on their obvious talents. Why? Because the only way to remain talented is to keep pushing yourself AND your talents to keep sharp enough to cut any competition down to smaller size. That's where the frequent and consistent formative assessments and critiques come into play.

According to Mr. Lehrer, one of the big things that Pixar does that ensures they are always #winning (Yes. I DID just do that!) is by regularly and FREQUENTLY gathering in order to tear apart each others work and design so that it can be put together again in a way that could never be argued to be anything less than THE. BEST. version of itself possible. Even if it takes tireless rehashing of something that doesn't work, that's what they do in order to make it work. Their ultimate goal is to find every and anything that might need tweaked or outright fixed and FIX IT. They do this by putting their work up for all of their colleagues to see and then having seriously critical and analytical discussions about what does and doesn't work for each piece of work. At times they are brutally honest and though it is reported that feelings have been hurt with some of feedback offered, what they do is SO much an integral part of their creative process that pretty much everyone is used to it and they see it less as a tool to be cut out by and more as a tool that is helping them cut from something - whether it is bad design and/or idea or it is cutting the roughness of in order for them to be polish worthy to become (for lack of better way of putting it) DIAMOND-quality type products.

Now, I'm not in the business of multi-gazillion dollar animated films. However, I would argue that what I am in the business of - shaping the hearts and minds and guiding the hands of the individuals who will one day be holding the collective fate and success (or not) of our world - well, what I do is a whole heck of a lot more incredible than trying to top the last blockbuster animated film. (Maybe I'm biased? Whatever. I maintain my position.)

So how does this apply to art education? Well, my thinking is if Pixar can do that and find the incredible success that they find on a regular and continuing basis - and I don't just mean the obvious success but more in their success of being on the cutting edge of visual creativity - why can't I institute this into my own classroom for the sake of my own students' success with their artworks?

Related to all of that, I have some huge confessions to make related to my own failures as a teacher:
  • I am TERRIBLE at doing regular and consistent assessments of any and all student work.
  • I have rarely (OK, never really - I said it) done peer critiques. 
  • I have a very general and non-specific grading rubric I give at the beginning of any course I teach but I don't really use it and I also don't really use a specific grading rubric for specific projects even if I do verbally communicate what the "general" idea/learning objective is for any given project.
  • The timeliness of the feedback in the form of grades that I provide? Uhmmm it starts out reasonably timely but it doesn't take long until you could say it takes me forever and not be exaggerating. You might even be able to call me late to my own funeral. Seriously. (SHAMEFUL)

Now, the aforementioned isn't said in pride in what I am guilty of in the least. Rather, I am reporting it in order to confess of my own sinfulness so that I can receive forgiveness for what I have done and ultimately redeem myself and seek reconciliation by doing something different that isn't so incredibly shameful and failing to be an adequate teacher to my beloved students. And now that that's out of the way, let's get on with me being oriented toward being a solution versus being the root of the problem.

Last week, on Friday (the third/last day I saw each of my classes for the first week of school), I did my first open forum self and peer critique of student work. This is because I FINALLY got a visualizer AKA document camera to hook up to the classroom projector!!! (seen to the left with a quick caricature I did of my 4yo daughter)

Each of my students did a quick project (intended to serve as a formative assessment for me to draw direction from and gauge where each of them stands with their abilities and understandings) and on Friday I had each of them do a brief presentation of their work (inspiration behind what they did, techniques they used, etc. etc.) as well as a self-critique and a peer critique. They were required to use the sentence starter "This piece is SUCCESSFUL/UNSUCCESSFUL because... [enter something constructive with specific terminology that does NOT relate to how they liked something because it was their favorite color or the like]"

One of the pieces that was presented at today's round of critiques. Not bad for a class and a half of working time!
I kicked off the critique session by explaining my particular caricature style portrait, critiqued by own work, and then acted like a third-party critique and gave specific and intentional suggestions of how what I did could be improved. Internet friends? IT WAS AMAZING HOW RECEPTIVE THE STUDENTS WERE AND HOW QUICKLY THEY CAUGHT ON AND REALIZED HOW MUCH BETTER IT WAS TO TALK ABOUT THINGS IN TECHNICAL TERMS vs. THAT IT WAS "NICE" and THEY JUST "LIKED" IT.

One of my students in the midst of her first critique session ever!!

I know. I KNOW. Pretty much, I'm late to my own funeral by taking three years to FINALLY do this type of thing in class. Let's not dwell on me being an epic failure of an art teacher before though. Let's instead recognize that my failures are a thing of the past and from here on out I am going to be doing critiques like this OFTEN and CONSISTENTLY for both works-in-progress (WiPs) as well as finished pieces. Why? Because doing it this way will do the following:
  1. Help to teach AND model conscientious working and creative processing
  2. Regularly employ and practice the use of vocabulary of the elements of art and principles of design
  3. Provide the opportunity to bounce and springboard ideas within the largest pool of creative minds possible vs. just allowing the students to limit their proximity of creative inspiration to their immediate classmates/best friends that they might be working alongside
In the past I have not believed that doing things like this are so important (I KNOW. I know. I stand corrected and shamed.) I get it now and you better believe I am going to keep doing things like this. My goal is to do major ones (where EVERY student gets up and presents) at least every other week and then periodic ones with volunteers or those I feel should present because what they are doing is unique, particularly impressive/innovator, or presents a real teachable moment type thing at least twice a week. I know there is room for me to fail at this because I'm human and definitely far from perfect but still? Doing something different in my classroom/for my students is absolutely the first step in a direction to both transforming my teaching as well as transforming the type of work my students will inevitably turn out.

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