Their Work, Not Mine: The Student Centered Studio Classroom 2014
Their Work, Not Mine.
In 2003 I replaced a teacher who was retiring after 30 years, at a high school in Brooklyn,
New York. Filing cabinets lined the room and blocked the windows. I threw out a dozen
garbage bags a day for a week straight, and in doing so I found this, a paint by number
worksheet made by the retired teacher entitled Road To Nowhere. It was one of many he
created for his students. I saved it as a reminder that the art being made in my classes is
theirs, not mine.
I now teach at a small private school on the outskirts of Boston.
At my school, seniors take a class in called Senior Studio. There are no projects
assigned and the course ends with an exhibit in our school gallery. Students are
expected to come to the class with ideas for their own work.
One of the classes they take as sophomores and juniors is called Mash-Up Studio.
Its goal, in part, is to prepare students for Senior Studio by making their own work.
In Mash-Up Studio students commit to exploring one theme for the entire term.
The search for a theme begins by reading the newspaper. My students are well
informed about current events, but they do not spend much time looking at the
newspaper. I have been surprised by their level of interest in this old fashioned
medium. They discover things they wouldn’t online. Obituaries and the police
blotter have been of particular interest. As they read they work together to list
articles and topics of interest.
We discuss the students’
findings and build a list of
possible themes to make art
about. There is a lot of debate
about which topics will work as
themes and about which ones
have the most potential. We
define a theme as a big idea,
something that you cannot
hold or touch.
Students commit to one theme for the entire term. The goal is to choose something
that is broad enough so they can explore many different ideas, but not so broad that
it will overwhelm them. Some students “try on” different themes before committing.
Everyone begins with a web. The web is a place for uncensored thinking. Anything
that comes to mind related to the theme ends up on the web.
The web becomes a road map for the rest of the term.
Students use the same newspapers from which their themes came to create their first
work of art, The Newspaper Project. They begin by clipping images and text from the
newspaper and arranging them on a sheet of paper. I encourage them to work quickly
and intuitively, not to plan too much. We are getting warmed up.
I feed the following steps to students a few at a time to avoid over-planning.
• Cover 20% of the paper with full strength gesso.
• Cover 80% of the paper with watered down gesso.
• Add three collaged elements that are not from the newspaper.
• Add at least three linear elements.
• Cover at least 20% of the paper with full strength ink.
• Cover at least 80% of the paper with watered down ink.
At this point many layers have been added and much work has been done. We slow
things way down and I ask students to study their own work and their process. They
start to make decisions about where the work is headed.
At this point lots of editing happens and hard choices are made.
Newspaper Project, by Rory Martin, 10th grade.
Ink, gesso, stickers, pencil, marker, and newspaper on paper.
In the end this…
Newspaper Project, by Maddy Cary, 12th grade.
Xerox, marker, stickers, colored pencil, oil pastel, gesso, ink, and newspaper on paper.
Newspaper Project, by Kent Ellertson, 10th grade.
Ink, gesso, stickers, oil pastel, and newspaper on paper.
Students settle into their theme. They also learn new techniques and
materials and discover the power of working in layers to develop content.
At this point students begin a series of projects using their theme as a guide.
The Translucency Project
A project that asks students to think about an aspect of
their theme as it exists over time or throughout history.
We explore working with wax, tracing paper, acetate, and acrylic mediums. Also, at
this point I stop giving students a surface to work on. They must make choices about
what type of surface they want to work on and what size best suits their idea.
Translucency Project, by Emma Lynch, 12th grade.
Xerox, marker, tracing paper, found objects, and wax on board.
Translucency Project, by Emma Welch, 10th grade.
Fabric, plastic, magazine, paint, and found negatives, with wood frame.
Translucency Project, by Clare Eberman, 10th grade.
Marker, plastic, tissue paper, and xeroxes, on found canvas.
Theme: Human Rights.
The Pattern and Repetition Project
A project that asks students to think about how their theme is understood by the world through symbols.
We explore block printing, “found” stamps, stencils, and spray paint.
Pattern & Repetition Project, by Rory Martin, 10th grade.
Spray paint and block print on found blueprint.
Pattern & Repetition Project, by Remi Shore, 10th grade.
Spray paint, block print, and ink on found map.
Pattern & Repetition Project, by Joey Searle, 10th grade.
Spray paint on found canvas.
Theme: Life and Death.
Pattern & Repetition Project, by Marc Davis, 11th grade.
Spray paint, xerox, acetate, and paint marker on found canvas.
The curriculum is layered and projects overlap. Work that supports this
includes sketchbooks, blogging, and art historical research.
Students work in their sketchbooks outside of class. Weekly
assignments create a lens through which students see their theme in
the world. Students use what they’ve discovered in their sketchbook
to fuel their in-class projects.
Students use blogs to
collect source material, to
record artists they relate
to, and to document and
reflect on their progress.
In addition to making their own work about their theme they research artists with
similar interests and curate and online exhibition.
Consider the possibilities.
Feedback & Reflection.
My goal in developing this curriculum was to help
students see that they could commit to exploring one
big theme through many ideas and through different
ways of working. Watching my students do this has
influenced how I approach all my classes. It has helped
me to see what kinds of things help to create an
environment that supports students in finding their own
Artists are collectors by nature.
Images, objects, experiences,
become fuel for the work.
Encouraging students to be
collectors keeps them from coming
into the studio cold. It creates flow
and provides students moving
through a disjointed day of high
school a connection to their work.
In my classes students collect images, ideas, and experiments in their sketchbooks and….
…online, where they spend a lot of their time.
Students use blogs and Pinterest to collect images they are drawn to.
Students develop better ideas when
they have a chance to consider their
options, to understand what’s
possible, and what’s already been
done. We are not working in a
vacuum; there is a big world of art
In order to find the idea worth
exploring you have to make
room for it by getting the ideas
not worth exploring out of your
Crossing off one name at a
time, this 9th grader arrives at
his top choice on a list of
possible subjects for a portrait.
Students use their sketchbooks to consider possible outcomes for their ideas. Sometimes
students feel so precious about their ideas it can be hard for them to progress. The
sketchbook allows them to choose one thing to work on now, with the possibility of coming
back to work on other ideas later.
This habit of considering all ideas is especially important when students work
collaboratively. Everything is worth a second look. Ideas inspire ideas.
Understanding how artists from throughout history and across cultures have
approached what you’re working on in important. We look at slide shows of artists’
work in class. They live on the class website so students can refer to them as they
I am happy to report that this table of old fashioned books also gets a lot of use.
Teenagers will be more invested in
finding their own work if they have
choices about what they do and how
they do it. I am always thinking about
how much choice makes sense for
my students. I try to make as much
room for choice as I possibly can.
To make choices that lead to interesting and successful work that represent a student’s
unique ideas, they need to have experiences with a wide range of materials and
techniques. They need to understand the potential of both traditional and…
…non-traditional materials and techniques to communicate their ideas and…
…they need to be comfortable with the unpredictable, with what they don’t know.
To make good choices students need access to a wide range of supplies, traditional and…
Parameters, when carefully laid
out, give students something to
hang their ideas on. Varying the
parameters from project to
project allows students to see
different ways to make their
Pattern & Repetition
How might you use pattern and repetition to to ask a question or make a comment
about how a particular aspect of your theme is understood through symbols by
For this project you will explore the power of symbols to communicate and the
potential of stamps and stencils to generate images. After some
experimentation, you will develop a concept for a work of art that is made up
of repeated shapes and patterns, develop the appropriate method for creating
it, and execute it.
rubber stamp, stamp pads, found objects, spray paint, stencils, paper, found
● Stamp sampler
○ at least 3 “found” stamps
○ at least 1 carved stamp
○ at least 2 stamps created from found items
● Stencil sampler
○ at least 3 “found” stencils
○ at least 1 cut stencil
○ at least 3 different surfaces
● Evidence of planning for work of art.
○ how will you use your SB HW to influence your work?
○ what symbols will be repeated?
○ how will shapes be organized?
○ ideas about color?
○ what are you trying to say with your work?
● Work of art poses a question or makes a comment about a particular aspect of
● Uses symbols.
● Primarily made up of repeated shapes generated by stamping and stencilling.
● At least 2 different stencilled shapes.
● At least 2 different stamped shapes.
● Shapes will vary in size, at least three different sizes.
● The shapes and colors that make up the work of art should be unified and work
together visually and/or conceptually.
I discuss the parameters with
my students so they
understand what they’re
designed to do. I also give
them a Project Sheet for
The Project Sheet serves as a checklist which helps guide students as they make
decisions about their work.
THE PATTERN & REPETITION PROJECT
TITLE OF YOUR WORK:
PROCESS Yes. Kind of. Not really. No.
I discovered new ways of working in this project.
I took a risk in making this work.
I developed new ideas for my work.
I asked for critical feedback.
I used critical feedback to improve my work.
I spent time thinking about and/or working on this
project outside of class.
Stamp sampler explores the potential for using
stamps as mark making tools AND includes at
least 3 “found” stamps, at least 1 carved stamp,
at least 2 stamps created from found items.
Stencil sampler explores the potential for using
stencils as mark making tools AND includes at
least 3 “found” stencils, at least 1 cut stencil, at
least 3 different surfaces.
Evidence of planning for work of art can be
found in SB and/or on blog.
Work of art poses a question or makes a
comment about a particular aspect of student’s
Work of art uses symbols to communicate ideas.
Primarily made up of repeated shapes generated
by stamping and stencilling.
At least 2 different stencilled shapes.
At least 2 different stamped shapes.
Shapes will vary in size, at least three different
The shapes and colors that make up the work of
art should be unified and work together visually
When students feel finished
with their work they fill out a
rubric. The rubric asks them to
reflect on their learning and
holds them accountable for the
parameters laid out at the
Artists are reflective about their
process. Students should be
encouraged to see sharing and
reflecting as part of the work of the
artist. Their work grows from the
experience and the more they reflect
and share the better I am able to
gather data about their learning.
Students feel more confident in their ideas when they have the chance to share them
with each other. Critiques serve as a chance for students to share ideas and ways of
working with the purpose of moving their work forward rather than as judgment of a
I do not participate in group critiques, except for the occasional nudge
when a group is struggling. It is the student-artist’s responsibility to get
feedback from their peers.
Students are expected to document feedback for future consideration.
In addition to the constant conversation going on between me and my students in the
classroom, I have developed a system for delivering written feedback. Sketchbooks are
handed in once a week. I write on post-its, attach them to the pages, and put them
back in the bin. Students read the notes and sometimes we discuss what I’ve written.
Students fill out self-
assessment rubrics regularly. I
look at their responses and
add my own. We talk about
where we agree and where we
Written reflections require students to stop and think about how their work is
developing. Thinking about the twists and turns of their creative process allows them to
discover their own unique skills, challenges, interests, and passions.
I ask students to reflect at the end of the week. We use the same format each week
which speeds the process along: looking back, looking ahead, takeaways. I often refer to
what they’ve written at the beginning of the next week.
I have found time in the curriculum by de-
emphasizing due dates and by
overlapping projects. I introduce new
projects before others are finished so that
students have multiple projects going on
at any one time. This allows students to
work at their own pace and to get more
involved in some projects that others. It
also reduces the number of times I hear,
Taking time allows students to get
used to the idea that the creative
process is something that unfolds
slowly and often in unpredictable
ways. Students should be
encouraged to screw up, to make
mistakes, and to see what is
Students need time to figure out what they are interested in at their own pace. They need
time to figure out what they want to communicate and how they want to express it. These
pictures were taken over the course of two minutes. Everyone is doing something
different and is at a different stage in the process.
For this to work I have to be more available to students and students have to be more
self-sufficient. There are many questions I now refuse to answer…anything that starts
with “Where is…” for example. Project sheets hang on this bulletin board in the studio
and are posted on the class website to help students serve themselves.
We keep track of what’s happening on this white board at the front of the room. Daily activities
are posted and a running to do list grows on the right hand side. Teenagers struggle to
conceptualize time. I set aside time to talk about time explicitly. We refer to paper calendars
which allow students to visualize how much time we have together. Students learn to organize
themselves and to prioritize.
Consider the possibilities.
Feedback & Reflection.
I have found that focusing on these elements
of teaching has led to increased student
confidence, dedication to the work of the
class, and in the end, to stronger finished work.
It has freed me up to work with students one
on one and to collect data about their learning
as they work. My students make their own
work, not mine.
I have a lot of ideas about teaching art, some might even be original. I am a collector and so they come
from experiences I’ve had, things I’ve read, and most importantly, people I’ve been lucky enough to know. I
did not come to teaching via a traditional path and the people I’ve met on my journey have made me the
teacher I am.
My art teachers have had a tremendous influence on me. Muriel Marschke who taught me to paint in her in
home studio overlooking the reservoir, Mrs. Roth who told me “tree trunks should be brown not purple”,
Elise Curry who taught me to “dive deep”, Mary Lum and Ann Pibal who taught me to “paint the
painting”, and David Dunlap and John Dilg, who made me feel like a “real artist”.
I am forever in the debt of the teachers who taught me how to teach and supported me while I cried in the
closet at the back of my Brooklyn classroom. Pat Dobosz, a master pre-K teacher, and Laura Peterson, a
master 5th grade teacher, who taught me to manage bodies and give directions, Linda Morales who told
me “I sounded like a wimpy white girl”, Caroline Garrett who taught me to edit, Christine Pallotta, Henry
Quinn, Don Brugel, Christian Bowen, and Meghan Burke, my Brooklyn teacher family.
I couldn’t do what I do now without the unending support of Beaver Country Day School. I have enough
money, enough time, enough space…enough said. And the art department there, David Ingenthron, Sejal
Patel, and Amy Winston, is like family. All teachers should be so lucky.
And of course I’d have learned nothing without the most important teachers, my students. On my first day
of teaching those kindergarteners smiled at me as I rattled on and on in English when they only spoke
Spanish, and I have felt the love ever since. My students have tolerated my experiments with patience. The
hard work, the slacking, the wandering, the questions, the slamming of doors, it has all led me here.