One of the perks of changing my career as a public school art teacher to that of a teaching artist was that I no longer had the daily task of grading my students’ artworks. With this new occupation I felt freer to allow them to develop their creative voices without giving constant subjective criticisms of their work.
Three years into this new career, in spring 2013, I was invited to work with the Youth Empowerment Program (YEP) of the University of Utah at Glendale Middle School. This program follows a group of youth from middle school through high school to help them become leaders in their community. We needed to come up with source material for a large mosaic mural representing positive steps and negative pitfalls on the road to a successful adulthood.
During the first session we brainstormed which ideas to include in our mosaic mural. We then converted those ideas into visual symbols by having a “sketch battle”, a timed white-board drawing competition. The sketches were photographed at the end of each two-minute round.
In the second session I was going to pick which sketches needed to be redrawn. I had three usual criteria by which I chose sketches to collage into my mural designs:
- Technical skill
- Creative interpretation of the subject
- Evidence that youth had participated I the design
As I pondered how to do this a light went off in my head: Why do I need to be the one deciding which drawings were acceptable for the mural? Somehow I had convinced myself that I was no longer grading my students’ work but now I realized that the opposite was true. The act of evaluating and sorting the images had more a concrete impact than just a number or letter grade: it determined whose drawings would be part of a mural design.
Due to my desire to have the murals look professional, I had retained the jurying step of the design process to myself. What would happen if I released this step to the youth?
As class began that following week, I held up one of the sketches from the previous week and I explained that we would be sorting each of the sketches into “Yes”, “No” and “Redraw” piles. The “Yes” category would receive amazing drawings to be part of the mural, to be used as long as the design permitted. The “No” category would receive lazy, uninterpretable and overly-simplistic drawings to the trash. The “Redraw” pile would return good drawings back to one of the student artists so he or she could improve upon their work. One girl in the class spoke up that she was worried that her drawing would be rejected. I reassured her that everyone knew that the sketches were done quickly, and that the drawings would be anonymous during the jurying.
I explained my judging criteria, held up the first sketch, and gave my own personal opinion as to its merits. I invited the students to help judge the next sketch. We sorted through the pile of about 50 sketches one-by-one. In the end, the “Yes” category held about 6 sketches, the “No” category held about 8 and the “Redraw” category contained the remainder.
I found that I was advocating for sketches more than the students were, convincing them of the value of underlying concepts within rough drawings, and trying to save them from the “No” pile. On some of the sketches that I might have sent to the “Yes” pile, the students insisted that they could do them better and sent them to the “Redraw” pile. By the end of the jurying process I realized that the students had more confidence in their ability to achieve better quality drawings than I had anticipated.
Assigning the sketches for redraw was a bit difficult, as the expectations were higher than the previous week. However, I provided encouragement to each student as they chose their new assignments for the day. As the students created their redraw sketches, I had them concentrate on adding unique, creative details. They seemed to focus harder on their work than they did the previous week and the resulting sketches were much less simplistic and far more personalized.
A few weeks ago, as I was sorting through my own art assignments from high school, I noticed the rubric sheet that my teacher Dana Wilson had me attach on the back of each work. On this sheet there was a section for self-evaluation. Almost unequivocally, I was a brutal critic of my own work, as I felt that there was better quality art somewhere within me. My teacher would in turn provide a rebuttal stating the positive qualities she saw in my attempts. Perhaps that process of self-critique and outside encouragement was part of what led to my rapid development of technical skill during my high school career. For my YEP students, their self-critiques may have been harsh, but the act of surpassing their previous quality level gave them true reason for confidence in their abilities.
Since the YEP project, I have been more eager to allow my students time for self-critique making sure to maintain a positive attitude in the process. Hopefully I can balance the creative explorations in my lessons with my newfound appreciation for self-criticism. That way inventions, creative failures and non-standard definitions of beauty can still be discovered within the framework of self-improvement.