Success Stories

These essays originally appeared on via the Education Alliance at Brown University.

John Crowe: A Long Road to Choice

Burnell Laboratory School  Bridgewater, MA

For art teacher John Crowe, the long road to choice−based art education began with teaching in elementary and high schools, then evolved to a position as professor of art education and hands−on work in schools. It has been an ongoing investigation of how to bring elements of choice to art education.

Crowe was initially trained in the theory and practice of Victor Lowenfeld, who was concerned with the emotional, intellectual, physical, social, and creative growth of children through art experiences led by the teacher. (See Lowenfeld and Brittain’s Creative and Mental Growth, 1967.) In his first teaching experiences, however, Crowe felt “on stage,” conducting Lowenfeld−inspired motivations every 45 minutes for over 2,000 students in seven different elementary schools with no art rooms, no sinks, and no carts. The once−a−month art lessons were exhausting but provided him with enthusiastic applause six times a day, and, he states, “What job offers that?”

At the age of 25, he decided to change the pace and context, and he transferred to the high school level where he taught for 11 years. “The luxury of meeting with high school students every day and working on long−term projects led to a more fulfilling teaching experience involving more individualized instruction,” he says.

In 1989, Crowe became an assistant professor at Bridgewater State College. One component of his job was developing the art education program for 300 elementary students at the Burnell Laboratory School, which had an affiliation with the college. Reentering the classroom as an elementary school teacher, Crowe had a surprising reaction: “I began by relying on my tried and true Lowenfeldian approach, but it now felt heartbreakingly hollow. I noticed that the results of the lessons were driven by my role as the sole provider of motivation, subject matter, materials, and methods. I felt on stage: My relationship to my students was like a performer to an audience. I really missed the one−on−one dialogues I was able to have with my high school students, and I wondered if I could build those intimate, artist−to−artist relationships with my new elementary school students.”

In an effort to connect more to his students, it occurred to him to survey the fifth and sixth graders’ interests in preparation for conducting a unit on painting. He asked two questions of the 100 students: If you were able to create a painting about anything, what would you be interested in painting? He asked students to ignore what they felt they couldn’t do, maintaining that he would teach them. Sample responses were: something outside, mountains of Vermont, mother and daughter doing something together, a football game, Paradise (Revelation 21: 3,4), a bald eagle flying, things of cheer, a glass castle. If someone were to ask you to paint something, what would be your least favorite thing/subject to paint? Sample responses were: a boring painting, a fishbowl with no fish, falling off a cliff, Hitler, a well textured animal, a dancer, a picture of someone I know, a one−color painting.

He took the surveys home to organize them; it was easier than he anticipated. The student responses fell into the categories of people, landscapes, objects, and imaginative scenarios. He compiled a list of preferences from each of the four classes and gathered books and resources for the chosen subjects. When he met each class at the art room door, he called out the names of students organized by interest category. Each group was assigned to a large table and asked to look at the material piled in the center. Some students figured out that the resources related to their surveyed interests. After a brief introduction to what he had arranged, he stated, “I want you to follow your interests. Use the resources for inspiration if you wish. I will teach you individually and in small groups what you need to know to paint what you want to paint.”

He offered mini−lessons: for example, mixing a variety of skin tones to the figure painting group, the many ways of creating the illusion of distance to the landscape group, the tradition of drawing upon dreams to the imaginative scenarios group. In addition, he honored individual and group requests for instructional topics. Since he provided a wide variety of exemplars, the class had many sophisticated discussions around the definitions of the genres in addition to the ‘how to’ requests. He reflects on the success: “Teaching became more fulfilling for me, learning more engaging for my students. The resulting artwork was more authentic and varied. My first step toward student choice was modest, yet encouraging. I was off the stage and into the more intimate venues of small groups, organized around their own motivations, not mine.”

The substantive discussions around the landscape, figure, still life, and imagination/dreams genres inspired him to revise his curriculum for fifth− and sixth−grade students. “I was thinking about how we teachers try to accommodate different learning styles and wondered how I could concurrently support a variety of art styles. As a start, I decided to adopt the identification and descriptions in Edmund Burke Feldman’s Varieties of Visual Experience (1972) of four art styles: objective accuracy, formal order, emotion, and fantasy.”

The following year, Crowe offered students a choice of these four styles for every assignment. For example, a figure drawing assignment would outline four distinct challenges, each based on a single art style, from which students could choose. “I was working with many student teachers and interns at the time,” he reflects. “They found this structure to be helpful in designing lesson plans, looking at an assignment in four different ways. The students clearly appreciated the choices and were intrigued by their classmates’ choices −− it was like multiplying the art content by four.” (In retrospect, Crowe comments, “If I were to pick up this curriculum structure again, I would use as the foundation Graeme Chalmers’ roles of artists, outlined in his book Celebrating Pluralism: Art Education and Cultural Diversity −− it would be much more inclusive.”)

Meanwhile, he was teaching grades 1−4 in a more conventional manner. Searching for ways to open up, his thoughts returned to the elementary school teaching of an old friend and colleague, Kathy Douglas. He says, “I remembered the energetic spirit of students working in the many centers in Douglas’s choice−based classroom: The room was alive with purposeful activity. But I knew couldn’t spin all those plates at once, all those 2D and 3D centers, even a clay center with a firing schedule!” Crowe thought hard over the following summer about how to structure a center−based art room that he could handle. He started with what he wished students would do better. “I was struck by how most of my students weren’t inclined to play with materials or ideas. And, at the same time, they weren’t apt to care about any single work beyond the allotted 45 minutes. How could they, within my conventional pedagogical structure?”

As a solution, Crowe developed the themes of PLAY &CARE as the basis of a curriculum framework. Every class brainstormed what ‘play’ and ‘care’ meant to them in terms of art work and shared the results. The sharp focus of these age−appropriate themes helped to clearly communicate the goals of program to the most important group, the students.

He posted the following schedule for all his students in grades 1−6 to see:

Term 1: Drawing PLAY (4 − 5 weeks) & CARE (4 − 5 weeks)

Term 2: Painting PLAY (4 − 5 weeks) & CARE (4 − 5 weeks)

Term 3: 3D PLAY (4 − 5 weeks) & CARE (4 − 5 weeks)

Term 4: Student Choice PLAY (4 − 5 weeks) & CARE (4 − 5 weeks)

Crowe and his college student helpers provided a dozen media and content−area centers designed around the subjects of each term. For example, the drawing centers covered media such as colored pencils, ink and related tools, mechanical drawing instruments, charcoal, and chalk. Centers for content areas included human anatomy and “writing as drawing.” There were fewer 3D centers, but they included found object, woodworking, and clay centers. An age−appropriate library with a reading rug was always accessible.

Working in the centers, students conducted PLAY experiments with media and content. Over time, students assembled their experimental artwork into portfolios that provided the basis for reflecting on their artwork and guiding their learning. Crowe asked students to place stars beside their favorite PLAY experiments and file these in the front of their portfolios. Then he had individual discussions with students about their PLAY experiments. Discussions centered on finding a direction to explore for their CARE works, or longer term projects. “With some classes, who seemed skittish about truly playing, I mandated that they make at least 10 mistakes and number these in their portfolios. It was a revelation to some that their ‘mistakes’ could become some of their favorite PLAY adventures and even lead to a longer term CARE project.”

The one−year PLAY &CARE experiment was a huge success. He explains, “It seemed to strike a perfect balance of structure and freedom both for me and my students. So many of my classroom management problems disappeared when students could pace and direct themselves. Students could hop from one center to another in a single session, or work week after week on a major undertaking. But above all, students were required to find their own paths and delighted in the freedom to pursue them. I delighted in teaching individuals and small groups about topics they were motivated to learn. I was free of a prewritten script.”

Assessment of PLAY &CARE was a challenge, however. Crowe was required to grade each of his 300 students four times a year. The grading system was as follows:

O = Outstanding

S = Satisfactory

To align this grading system to his PLAY &CARE centers−based curriculum, he took a creative approach. “I decided to base a grading system on a version of the old ‘saw’:

A laborer uses his/her hands.

A craftsman uses his/her hands and mind.

An artist uses his/her hands, mind, and heart.

He devised a grading system symbolized by three icons: a small drawing of a pair of hands, a brain, and a heart. The trio of icons were posted in the art room and served as a basis for ongoing assessment discussions. “I talked about behaviors, and I dramatized them to the students’ amusement. If a student came into the art room and simply worked, talked to their neighbors about recess and paid no mind to what they were doing, that behavior earned an N grade; if a student thought out a solution to a problem, that behavior earned an S; if a student was totally involved, concentrating, working, and thinking, that behavior earned an O.”

At the end of the PLAY & CARE phases, each student received a small self−evaluation slip. Students circled the appropriate icon of hands, mind, heart; older students were asked to add written comments. After students filled the evaluations out, they met with Crowe individually to review their PLAY & CARE portfolios. This could take place during class time because the class expectation was clear: to be engaged artists. As Crowe describes the process, “Students were working in the centers, obtaining the materials they needed, and pursuing their own objectives, while I was free to sit and have a private discussion with each and every student for at least a few minutes over two or three sessions. This was truly gratifying and fun!”

Crowe adds, “Another benefit of this transparent grading system was the clarification of the art grading process for parents. My initial presentation of the system to the Parents’ Council was met with enthusiastic support because it helped to demystify grading art. Many parents told me that they had nteresting discussions with their children about what the icons of hands, mind, and heart meant. The principal agreed to print the icons on the actual report card −− they were quite a sight in the context of all the other words and codes.”

From developing engaging assessment methods to choice−based centers to flexible curriculur frameworks, Crowe has developed art education practices that enable him to interact with students as artists and to communicate to parents and administrators about the richness and value of students’ authentic artistic behavior.


Katherine Douglas’s K−3 Art Class, Central School

When Katherine Douglas presented the choice−based teaching model at the National Art Education Conference in New Orleans, she also revisited the divide between art education and artistic work. As she listened to other sessions, she understood the education speakers’ concerns about curriculum issues, standards, and testing, but the undercurrent of all of these meetings was the lack of motivation on the part of the students, the discipline problems, the lack of originality, and so on. Dispirited, Douglas sought out the keynote sessions presented by practicing artists and there heard a very different song: the joy and frustration of creating work, the playfulness, the intense desire to react to life in a personal way, the learning that had to take place so that the artist could make the desired image, looking for new skills, and trying new materials. Douglas noted, “I once again saw my teaching practice in the light of bridging the chasm that separates art education and art making. This chasm was obvious to me long ago when I began my teacher training: I was looked down upon in my studio courses for having made the choice to teach.”

For over 25 years, the toolbox for Douglas’ teaching has contained the tools of the artist: time, space, and, most important, the creative spirit that she offers her art students. According to Douglas, “The assumption underlying my pedagogy is that the students have a lot to say visually before they ever encounter me; what they lack is a familiarity with the range of media available to them, with the work of artists who have gone before them, and with the elements and principles that form the building blocks. My method is to get them making art, having them first set their own tasks. The instruction takes place as much as possible within the context of the work that they have chosen.” Thus, she bridges the divide between art education and artistic work.

This in no way means that there is a lack of structure or instruction in the routine of the choice−based classroom. Each week a 5−minute demonstration for all students explores something of interest: an art history topic, a technique, or materials. Then, students may choose to further explore that aspect or work on another in one of the learning centers. Around the classroom, the learning centers are organized into sections for painting, printing and stamping, mask making, weaving, collage, sculpture, computer, drawing, bookmaking, puppet making, and architecture. A classroom museum of visual resources, books, and tools provides information that all students can access.

The weekly demonstrations address needs that Douglas has observed over 25 years. A significant number of students demonstrate the need for the information to be contained and connected to what they need to know. The timing of the demonstrations varies from year to year and from class to class according to student needs. The arrangement of materials and furniture in the room is also responsiv to the children in a particular class or in a particular year.

“Instead of planning clever motivations that are really my motivations and not the students’, my time is spent in working with individual students or small groups, in modeling art making and in careful observation of what is happening in the classroom so that I can plan subsequent demonstrations.” Douglas continues: “The joy of this method of teaching is that I never know what I will see coming from my students. Originality is not a problem when the students have been told explicitly that they will make their art and not Mrs. Douglas’s art. And because each day is a surprise, I don’t get teacher burnout.”

Until recently, Douglas met with 30 40−minute classes per week, serving up to 860 students aged five to nine; her current student load is under 700 per week. In order for this to function smoothly, she pays close attention to room arrangement, material organization, and student behavior. Demonstrations are scheduled in a sequence that relates to student needs, while helping children to connect what they already know to what they will be doing in the future. In addition to demonstrations, students see many ideas posted in the centers, use extensive reference files, and view the independently produced work of their fellow students. Given that an average elementary student might receive only 30 40−minute art classes in a year, ‘choice’ students have seen and heard much more than in a traditional classroom.

Conversations in the classroom often focus on what artists do. Douglas presents the range of approaches and working methods that she has noticed among artists. Some artists:

  • follow a particular line of thinking over time, sometimes making a series of similar works over and over again
  • make several pieces in a very short time or work for weeks on one tiny part of a piece
  • use materials in idiosyncratic ways
  • combine materials and genres (e.g., sculpture with painting)
  • comment on their personal lives and on popular culture
  • often have more than one work in progress
  • play with materials
  • dream and plan at length without putting anything on paperBecause all of these artistic behaviors are made difficult, if not impossible, within the boundaries of most school art curricula, Douglas nurtures them in the choice−based classroom.Teaching for artistic behavior sets up the circumstances for art making to happen on a personal and individual basis. Students with multiple learning styles find a prosperous environment in a choice−based classroom’s flexibility and open−ended curriculum. When students are given good information and the responsibility to use it, their work often exceeds teacher expectations as students find their artistic voice.
  • Design & Implementation:
  • Arrange the classroom into learning centers so that a broad range of two−dimensional and three−dimensional wet and dry media are available in an organized fashion each week.

    • Using your current curriculum, create a series of short demonstrations to begin each class. Balance experiences in drawing, painting, printmaking, collage, sculpture, and fiber arts.
    • Consider the big ideas (symbolism, transformation, variation, imagination, invention) that underlie all instruction.
    • Plan demonstrations to ensure that students can set up their work spaces independently, especially in painting and print making.Plan demonstrations addressing the use of materials: how to tear tape, thread a needle, use a painting palette, etc.
    • Start students with the easiest to manage materials, moving to more complex demonstrations as the students show that they are working well independently.

    Later demonstrations can address observed student needs or the particular interests found in some classes.

    Students will need reassurance that they will be able to choose their ideas and the materials that will express them. Students who are not comfortable with choice will need additional support from the teacher and peers.


    • Align the program with state and national standards (Massachusetts Visual Arts Curriculum Frameworks and the National Visual Arts Standards).
    • Students have more working time because demonstrations are brief.
    • Students gain skill in structuring their time and are able to work at a pace that suits their learning styles.
    • Students have the opportunity to become “experts,” by exploring one idea or medium over time, working more closely with the teacher in a small group, and teaching peers.
    • The teacher is able to expose students to a large number of ideas, techniques, and materials since something new can be demonstrated each week.
    • The teacher can call attention to emergent positive behaviors such as taking risks, making multiples, and working in organic cooperative groups.
    • The teacher can connect art history and culture references to the personal work of the students.
    • Students show interest in the work of artists who have created work that has connections to their own.
    • Able to choose their work, students often start where they are strongest and gain confidence to work in areas that are more difficult for them.
    Replication Details
    • 1. Make certain that each demonstration contains enough information to get students working, without limiting the style and art ideas that each child will bring to art making.
    • 2. Keep as much flexibility as possible in yearly lesson planning to allow observed student needs to be met.

Central School, K−3 Art Show

As a public school art teacher, Kathy Douglas tries to foster an authentic artist’s experience for students. Because exhibition is an important part of the artist’s experience, she wants to create a similar opportunity for students to show their accomplishments, communicate about their process, and connect to a larger community. For Douglas, creating a student art show presents both wonderful rewards and enormous challenges.

“In the past, I had looked forward to our spring exhibition with a mixture of pride and dread,” she says. Like many elementary art teachers, Douglas has a large number of students (700−900). Choosing one piece from each student was overwhelming. “I kept all the finished work in growing piles around my room until it was time to make the choice. Often, the students did not particularly care for the piece I chose; more often, the students were uninterested in my choice.” She used to hang the exhibition in the town library, but few people saw the show, and there were too many students involved to have a proper opening reception. Many of the people who did view the show would walk by the work quickly, looking for their own child’s piece. There did not seem to be much enthusiasm or appreciation for the work that the children had done. She left wondering: Was this worth our effort? What were the students gaining from the experience?

To address these problems, she developed a choice−based approach to creating a student art show about seven years ago. Now, the spring exhibition has become a highlight of the season. While only the eldest students exhibit, the entire school is able to participate in viewing and responding to the artwork.

The curriculum theme is “What do artists do”? Because artists choose what, when, and how many pieces they wish to show, she invites the students to choose the artwork for the exhibition. Additionally, to decrease the number of artworks in the exhibition, only the eldest children exhibit. At Central School, this is the third grade, which varies in size from 180 to 220 children from year to year. “Having the students participate in curating the exhibition was the biggest change for me and made the project more manageable,” says Douglas.

Planning for the show begins in September. At the beginning of the year, she invites the students to leave work for the show in a large marked box. During the fall the box slowly fills up. She does not look at the work until January, when she sorts it by class to see what has accumulated. As she meets with each class, she lays out the work that she has so far, and they discuss preparing for the exhibition. Because some children have taken home artwork that they wish to add, they bring it back to school.

At this time, a parent volunteer joins the third−grade art classes. She calls students to the computer and invites them to discuss their piece. Acting as a scribe, she types their exact words on the computer and prints them out; this becomes the artist’s statement attached to the artwork. Older students can write their own statements, but the teachers found that the children have a lot more to say when they had the services of a scribe.

In January and February, Douglas takes dozens of digital photographs of the students at work; these too become part of the exhibition. She also makes big printouts of quotations from famous artists studied in art history. All this material is mounted outside each third−grade classroom in the hallway gallery and stays up for the entire month of March. This is the time for parent−teacher conferences, enabling all the parents to see the art show for more time than an opening reception.

The exhibition features paintings, drawings, prints, collages, fiber art, weaving, masks, sculpture, and puppets presented on the walls, tables, and a glass case in the hallway gallery. Douglas sends a letter to each teacher in the school encouraging an “in−school field trip,” in which other classes can view and respond to the exhibition. Most teachers in the school walk their students through the exhibition. Some teachers create graphic organizers to help younger students view the show in a more focused manner. Some invite students to choose their favorite piece and describe it. Many create a letter−writing experience, asking students to write a fan letter to one of the artists using a graphic organizer. Often the artists write back to their fans.

According to Douglas, “The school−wide gallery visits create excitement in a number of directions: the artists see crowds admiring their work, the younger children see the work of their older friends and siblings and begin to anticipate being in the show.” Teachers report that the children wrote well when they chose a piece that connected to them. The letter exchanges built an awareness of the decisions that go into making an artwork and the multiple responses viewers can have. The student art show created a shared experience for the whole school community.

“A choice−based exhibition is easier for me, and by focusing our collective efforts, it is more meaningful to the school community,” says Douglas. “Because the children are showing the work of their choice, they are incredibly invested in the show. The show proved to be a motivator for many students who worked extra hard to finish in time. I also got to know the students better, more intimately, through their artist statements. I noticed a different quality to our eye contact even when we passed in the hallway.”

For those viewing the show, the photographs and artist’s statements were “speed bumps,” causing them to look more carefully at all the work and often to marvel at the depth of thought displayed in the visual art and the written statement. Parents commented on how much more confident their child has become as a result of the class and show. The elements of choice, reflection, response, and community have made this project a success year after year.

Design &Implementation

The project incorporates student choice in every phase of its design and implementation.

  • Throughout the year, students choose both subject matter and media studied in class.
  • The content of the show represents the choice of the individual student artists.
  • Students are given the opportunity to explain their thoughts and working process in writtenartist?s statements.
  • Members of the school community have the opportunity to view the show in depth andrespond to the artwork of their choice.

Implementation Steps:

  1. At the beginning of the year, send a letter to each grade 3 teacher to ensure that the hallway gallery will be empty for the installation.
  2. Encourage students to leave work in the designated box all year long.
  3. Photograph students creating artwork.
  4. In January invite students to bring back artwork that was taken home.
  5. Sort the work by class and lay it out so students can choose what to show.
  6. Touch base with students who have not selected work to make sure that they do not wish toparticipate in the show.
  7. Transcribe their artist’s statements.
  8. Attach the artist’s statements to the artwork.
  9. Mount the selected artwork simply−−stapled to construction paper.
  10. Hang the exhibition on a Saturday morning (an average of 400 pieces).
  11. Send a letter home to the parents describing the show.
  12. Invite all teachers to make “in−school field trips” in which their students can view theexhibition and respond.
  13. Designate a gallery manager for each classroom to check the work every morning and tape upfallen pieces.
  14. Make sure that at the end of the month the gallery managers take down the work and return it to their classmates.


The annual Grade 3 art show at the Central Elementary School in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts incorporates the following elements:

−−self−selected student work for exhibition
−−art work accompanied by artist statements in which students reflect on their creative process or explain the work
−−students serving as gallery assistants to help the teacher organize, hang, and disassemble the show −−viewing by other students in the school who each select a favorite work and write to the artist to express their thoughts about the piece selected
−−viewing by family, friends, and townspeople

A number of results are noted by Katherine Douglas, the school’s art teacher.

  1. Students who self−selected and exhibited their work in the Central School art show experienced feedback from family, friends, and other students. Many parents commented that they viewed their children’s work with more respect after seeing it displayed with the artist statements. Students told me that they were very excited to receive written comments from children in other classrooms.
  2. The entire school was able to interact with the exhibit and with the artists in a variety of ways, from observation to written interaction with the art works. Teachers reported that students wrote well when describing their favorite piece of art work in the show.
  3. Parents, teachers, and other members of the community were given the “big picture” of the breadth and depth of the school’s art program. The town’s local arts council viewed the school show and invited students to exhibit their work in the annual Art on the Common show, along with juried adult work. This additional exhibition experience added to the sense of pride in accomplishment that students and their families felt.
  4. The teacher was able to manage a large show due to the ownership and participation of the student artists. Student “gallery assistants” showed their pride in their jobs and expressed disappointment when it was time for the show to be taken down.
  5. Younger students learned from the work of their older peers and were motivated to be a part of the show in the future. First and second grade students said that they were inspired and influenced by the work of older students.
  6. The show proved to be a motivator for some students who became very focused as the show grew closer.
  7. A number of students who were struggling with academic or behavior issues in their regular classrooms were “superstars” of the show, producing very exciting work. The show provided another arena for these students to show excellence and capability.
  8. The show was a highlight for some of the cooperative groups which function organically in the art room. Students who had worked on similar pieces together over time could create a larger display at the show. For instance, a group of students initiated and formed an Egypt Club as part of their interaction in the art room. They made paintings, drawings, masks, and sculptures on that topic, unrelated to anything required in school. They arranged a long table with all of their work for the show, and it was a real hit with the attendees.

Katherine Douglas comments, “My relationship with the students is always changed and improved as we prepared for and during the show. The artist statements help me to know the children on a more personal level, and the students find that I mean what I say throughout the year −− they CAN choose the work to display and are in charge of their own learning.”

Replication Details

The first important step is to work with the assumption that students have a lot to say visually. The students will get the message that the teacher respects them as artists. During class, it is essential to observe student work carefully to identify those needs that require subsequent individual or group instruction. While teaching, be responsive to the “teachable moment” by highlighting the unexpected and wonderful things that emerge from the independent work.

Following are some tips about how to manage the classroom, develop the curriculum, meet educational standards, and create the art show.

  1. Arrange the classroom so that a broad range of two−dimensional and three−dimensional wet and dry media are available in an organized fashion each week.
  2. Provide instruction so that students can find materials, use them properly, and put them away carefully.
  3. Limit whole class instruction so that students have adequate time on chosen tasks.
  4. Make indirect instruction constantly available (signage, menus, peer teaching, teacher/studentcoaching.)
  5. Balance instruction in various media: painting, drawing, printmaking, collage, sculpture, andfiber.
  6. Consider the big ideas (symbolism, transformation, variation, imagination, invention) thatunderlie all instruction.
  7. Align the program with state and national standards (Massachusetts Visual Arts CurriculumFrameworks and the National Visual Arts Standards.)



Diane Jaquith’s K−5 Art Class, Burr School

The third graders appear at the door to the art room and quietly enter. They arrange themselves in a large circle on the floor and exchange greetings with their art teacher, Diane Jaquith. Though anxious to get to work, the children are attentive, knowing this meeting will not be long. A group of student paintings is spread out on the floor, and the class is asked to find examples of “contrast” in the artwork. The discussion expands to clay, fibers, and sculpture, and a list is generated to encourage variation within the artists’ work. Soon, the artists leave the meeting area to work at studios spread around the room. They will return in 45 minutes to share their work and discoveries.

“From a teacher’s perspective, transitions can have enormous impact on the success of a class. For some students, moving from their classroom to other spaces in the school can be stressful. Others have difficulty leaving the art room. An important part of my job is to make these transitions as smooth as possible for everyone,” says Jaquith. Consistency is the key element that enables students to embrace new routines. Children appreciate the predictability, especially when they only have art class once a week.

The change from a traditional art room to choice−based art centers did not happen overnight. First Jaquith set up the centers with various materials and instructions, but there was no central meeting area. Seated at tables, students would play with the art materials while Jaquith was delivering instruction. Because this failed to reach everyone spread out across the art room, Jaquith decided to design a meeting area that could fit an entire class in a circle. A large classroom made this task easy; she rearranged studio centers along the room periphery, leaving an open central space. Set in front of the white board, the meeting area has become the place to assemble at the beginning and end of each class, and has provided additional open workspace during studio time.

Every August, Jaquith cruises the hallways of her school, hoping to find furniture that is discarded by other classroom teachers. Each year, she adds a few pieces to the room to make it more functional for choice−based learning. The first addition to the meeting area was a low bookcase filled with children’s books, games, and resource materials. A large, moveable bulletin board fit behind the bookcase, making a room divider. A circular easel appeared at the front of the meeting area to display items of current interest. Subsequent years have brought a rug; shelving to hold work going home; cubbies for general−use tools (such as scissors, markers, pencils, paper punches); and storage for work−in−progress.

Students enter the room and immediately form a circle on the rug. Jaquith carefully observes how the class enters to determine their energy level. After informal greetings, the meeting begins, focusing on a single objective. Often, Jaquith demonstrates new art materials and processes. Concepts, such as “contrast,” are presented with examples in various media, which can be incorporated into students’ art making. Resources and ideas for art content are reviewed by discussing artwork and books. The group builds aesthetic experiences by viewing artwork and discussing it using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). On occasion, Jaquith uses this time for student assessments of the centers and determining future directions. The meeting lasts between 5 and 10 minutes, depending upon the grade level and activity. When the group activity is over, student artists are invited to go to the center of their choice.

For all grades except kindergarten, art classes run for one hour (kindergarten has shorter classes). Students work at centers for 40 to 45 minutes. Five basic centers are always available: drawing, painting, 3−D construction, clay, and fiber arts. Additional centers appear for shorter periods throughout the year. “I find it overwhelming to manage many centers,” Jaquith admits, “so we operate five basic student−run centers. Students have been able to create almost anything they wish by utilizing the basic centers. Because the centers are student−run, I have the time to get out specialized materials for students who need them.”

Time for artists to talk about their work is reserved for the very end of class, again in a meeting format. “Self−assessment by sharing artwork is a vital piece of artistic learning,” according to Jaquith. “By talking about what they know and can do, artists develop confidence to accept new challenges. Our students get very excited about this part of the class and their enthusiasm makes cleanup time more efficient.”

Cleanup is a very difficult time for some student artists, and it can be extremely stressful for art teachers. Having clear routines in place makes cleanup run smoothly. Jaquith begins reminders 10 minutes prior to cleanup time, encouraging children, “You still have a lot of time to work. Make one goal for yourself to accomplish in the remaining 10 minutes.” With the 5−minute warning, students know they need to write their name on their work. No new centers can be started at this point. Students will bring their work to the take−home shelves or work−in−progress box in the meeting area and then clean their centers. When an artist needs just a few more minutes, he or she will request extra time. If the work can clearly be finished in that time, the child may complete his or her work or save it in the work−in−progress box for the next class. Clay in−progress is wrapped in damp paper towels and plastic, with the child’s name and class written clearly on the plastic. Large constructions are stored on shelves in the 3−D construction center. Students who have completed their cleanup can play a game or look at books while waiting for their classmates to finish their tasks. Sharing time is a highly valued experience for students and works as an incentive to cleanup quickly.

When the class has assembled on the rug with their artwork, sharing begins. Jaquith invites artists to show their work. If a small number of children wish to share, they are each given time to talk about their work and answer questions from classmates. Collaborative groups enjoy using this forum to talk about the development of their ideas and how they worked together. When many students have work to share, Jaquith will invite artists from different centers to stand as a group and display their work. “Painters, please stand up and show us your paintings.” On days when no one offers to share, Jaquith may lead with questions, such as “Who got an idea from the materials today?” or “Who can show us contrast in their artwork?” or “Who learned something from another artist today?”

Gathered together, students and teacher form a community of artists, focusing on personal and classmates’ achievements. Reflections of the day’s work serve as assessment for both teacher and learners. Classroom teachers arriving to pick up their class enjoy listening during this time, gaining insights into their students. When sharing time is completed, students calmly line up to return to their classroom, proudly carrying their work at their sides.

Design &Implementation

Knowing that she wanted to offer choice, but not knowing where to start, art teacher Diane Jaquith continued to manage a traditional art room for several years. Upon moving to a new district, Jaquith met a colleague with a choice−based art room. For two days, she observed Pauline Joseph’s classes. Seeing the program in practice enabled her to make some decisions about centers and room arrangement.

Early on, she offered centers to several of the better−behaved classes. She noticed that younger students were able to make the transition to choice more easily than older students. Choice was offered in limited capacity to all classes as they completed their teacher−assigned work. Jaquith observed the quality of their work time and how students interacted and managed time.

Initially, classes began with students seated at tables. Noticing that more structure was necessary, she determined that meeting together away from the art materials would serve that purpose. In the following year, the meeting area was designed with furniture arranged to accommodate and support student learning. As Jaquith noticed difficulties around cleanup time, she began to offer sharing time. Students would sign up on the white board if they wanted to share their work at the end of class. With more and more students wanting sharing time, Jaquith eliminated the sign−up, inviting all to share spontaneously. An area was designated for work−in−progress and completed work, so students could make the transition from working time to cleanup time. After two years, students had totally embraced the new routines and followed them without prompts.


When students know the routine and expectations set by meeting times, they are good listeners and offer strong insights. While meeting, they are making internal decisions about their work agenda for the day. At the end of class, students make good decisions about their artwork, determining whether it is completed or needing to go into the work−in−progress box. In addition, classroom teachers appreciate collecting their class in a calm and orderly manner as they line up from the sharing time to proceed to the next class.

Replication Details

1. Determine how you will use meeting times. If you do not have space for a separate meetingarea, establish how students will enter the room and seat themselves quickly. If you are on a cart, the classroom may have a meeting area already, or it may be easier for children to remain in their seats. Do you need a table or can you work on the floor? Will you write on a board or easel? Search for the materials you need well ahead of time.

  1. Establish routines at the beginning of the year and then stick to them. Consistency is the key to making meeting times efficient. Children work best when there is a plan that remains the same. Write out the routines and display them.
  2. Be patient. Don’t expect that all children will pick up the routines immediately. Some will adapt within weeks, others may not remember throughout the year, especially when they only come to art class once a week. Gentle verbal reminders and signs will help get the message out.
  3. Think carefully about how you will use the group instruction time. As you prepare for each class, think back to the week prior, and see if you can expand on any events of the previous class. Some of the best instruction flows from discoveries made by students. Use this whenever possible during group meeting times, or, if more appropriate, for small group instruction at the centers.
  4. Use pre−alerts and reminders to make that additional teaching time more effective. If you know the meeting time will be longer than usual, inform students ahead of time.
  5. Be aware of the expectations that your state and district may have for standards and outcomes. Determine what can be covered during initial meeting times, and what can be integrated into the centers. Be realistic about what you can accomplish in 10 minutes’ time.
  6. Know that some children are not going to manage cleanup time easily. Work with them to discover ways to facilitate completion of their work. Give them special tasks that they enjoy. Be firm but understanding.
  7. Take notes while children are sharing. These are the stories that become artist’s statements later on in exhibitions. Artist’s statements are compelling evidence of knowledge and the best advocacy tool to convince classroom teachers, administrators, and parents that choice−based art education is effective learning.
  8. Inform parents about the program and invite them to come visit.
  9. Make meeting times a solid bonding experience for the teacher and students. This is youropportunity to relate to the whole class −− make it a very positive experience for all.

Note: If you are interested in pursuing the Visual Thinking Strategies, the curriculum is available through Crystal Resources. You can visit the VTS website at