Are “Guided” Art Projects OK?

Art vs. Craft in the classroom

Yesterday I posted about arts integration, and how it is a pedagogical journey. One of the issues raised was the role of “guided” art projects in the classroom.

The question at hand: Is it OK to assign the kids a subject and give them step by step directions?

In my previous post the answer was yes, but I noted that not all guided projects are created equal. I see them falling along a continuum. At one end, you have something like this:

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7 Ways to Make an Author Visit Fabulous

7 Ways to Make an Author Visit Fabulous Bringing a professional children’s book author to your school is a wonderful way to build school-wide momentum and enthusiasm for writing! (See my previous post on gearing up for an author visit.) Here are seven ways to make the experience extra-amazing.

1. Begin the day with a big bang. As soon as the children are settled for the day in their classrooms, there should be an “Elvis is in the building!” moment. The principal can make an announcement, “Boys and girls- Jerry Pallotta just pulled into our parking lot! It’s almost time to meet him!” Another option is to  launch the day with a school-wide assembly.  At Ashley River we used to march the classes past the author (so he/she could see all our costumes*, hats, signs, etc.) and into the cafeteria where there was a brief “pep rally” welcoming the author to the school. It was short and sweet. The key components were a welcome from the principal, the Pledge of Allegiance, a cheer, and a song or two by the chorus. We would set up a “throne” on the stage where the author sat and sometimes had different classes or grade levels present the work they had done to prepare for the author’s visit. The important thing is to keep it brief, purposeful, and energetic! It usually ended with a few remarks from the author to the entire student body and faculty before we resumed our normal day. (If there is such a thing as a “normal day” when a REAL AUTHOR is in your building!)

* Costumes make everything seem more celebratory. My fellow teachers and I always would “sign up” for one of the author’s books and have our students dress in the theme of the book for the assembly. It wasn’t too fancy- just simple paper hats or basic costume pieces did the trick. The kids loved it!

2. Interview the author on the school news show. Often an author has a pre-planned presentation to deliver during his/her time with students, so a Q and A on the news show with questions submitted by the students works very nicely. Older students are great in this role!

3. Present the author with a gift/ memento from the school. It doesn’t need to be expensive or lavish- just a little something that represents your school or city. Being from Charleston, we used to present our authors with some tea from the local tea plantation, some benne seed wafers, and a small sweetgrass basket (part of our local cultural heritage.)

4. Find a way to memorialize the author’s visit. This is a special moment in the history of your school! Document it! Here are some ideas:

  • Have the author sign the wall in your library. I’ve seen many school media centers that have a special spot set aside for author signatures. Worried your district will paint over it in a few years? Have the author sign something else- a school mascot statue, a plaque, etc. 
  • Buy a picture frame with a wide mat in advance. Take a good photo of the author with some of your students that will be hung on a special “Author’s Wall of Fame.” Ask the author to write a brief message to the school on the photo mat and sign it before he/she leaves.
  • Document the visit with a photo book/ scrapbook. Take lots of photos- of the author throughout the day with students, signing books, giving his/her presentation, etc. Also take photos of special work/ displays created by the students and teachers and assemble a book for the school library. You can set aside a special shelf just for these kinds of books and can keep a set of the author’s books (signed to the school) next to them on the same shelf!

5. Don’t forget to ask the author for a list of their own favorite books and authors. By the end of the visit, the visiting author will be quite a celebrity with your students- capitalize on it! Obviously he/she recommends their own books, but remember that authors are usually vociferous readers too. His/her book endorsements will carry a lot of weight with your students!

6. Make sure teachers get some time with the author. The easiest way to accomplish this is to arrange for an afterschool meet-and greet or presentation especially for the teachers. It’s also nice to bring in lunch for the author and invite some teachers to join him/her. (We used to draw names out of a hat to make it fair.) Authors have lots of good ideas for how to motivate and guide our young writers. Make sure you get their tips! (And if only a few teachers are privy to this information, make sure they share it at the next faculty meeting.)

7. Schedule a “Writer’s Intensive” with selected students. If you can make it work in the schedule, authors are often quite happy to meet with a group of students and talk with them about the craft of writing. Sometimes teachers select their most dedicated young writers for this experience. Other times, it can be powerful to send a reluctant writer to this special class. Authors might share thoughts on keeping a writer’s notebook, the revision process, where they get ideas, tips for conducting research, etc. There might even be a time for the author to give students some specific feedback on a few of their pieces. No matter how it is structured, these kinds of experiences can be life-changing for young writers.

In my next post I’ll feature a favorite author of over 20 alphabet books, Jerry Pallotta. (Pictured above.)

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7 Ideas for Replacing Worksheets with Wonder

7 Ideas for Replacing Worksheets with Wonder Photo credit: Genocide Intervention Network via Flickr, CCL 2013.

Is “worksheet” a bad word in today’s educational climate? Or have worksheets gotten a bad rap?

Keep in mind that not all worksheets are created equal.

The important question is this: what is the student really being asked to do?

  • Organize ideas and words to use later in Writing Workshop? Good!
  • Record data from a hands-on science experiment? Good!
  • Fill in a long list of rote problems that require lower-level recall? Not so good.
  • Color in the cute clip art if they finish early? Yikes! Really not good.

Perhaps the question is not whether we should use worksheets in our teaching. Perhaps the vital question is this: am I engaging my students in the most authentic, real-world, interesting learning experience possible at this time?

Sometimes a worksheet provides an important scaffold for students as they construct their understanding. Just recently I created my own “worksheet” where I asked students to organize their thinking and plans prior to beginning a painting project. It was an important step and forced them to settle on a specific idea. Other times we need the “paper” record of a child’s work to document their understanding (or lack thereof.)

However, too often worksheets become the curriculum instead of a carefully selected tool used to support the curriculum.

In her recent interview, Chrissy Greenman raised the issue of worksheets when I asked her which weak teaching practices she would like to see eliminated from our schools. Her answer?  Reliance on worksheets.

Chrissy said, “It’s about student engagement. When I hear my kids talking about their memories from the year; all the stuff they talk about is the interesting, fun stuff we’ve done- and the arts based stuff. It’s never a worksheet! They remember Jitter Juice from the beginning of the year, our Gingerbread unit, doing Reader’s Theater with Eric Carle stories, creating Dr. Seuss art, etc. That’s what sticks!  I know sometimes a worksheet is necessary, but when kids sit and do worksheets all day; what kind of learning environment is that? It’s not authentic. The children have no ownership- it’s just something they have to do for the teacher. It’s not memorable or interesting. I’ve moved away from worksheets and embraced more arts-based lessons this year. The difference in student engagement is amazing! When I get out the art materials they are so focused and excited! In fact, when my students are absent and parents ask me to send the work home, I have to tell them, “Sorry! There is nothing to send home! I’ll have to catch them up in class. They missed learning experiences, not worksheets.

In the spirit of proposing a solution to the worksheet conundrum, here are seven ideas for replacing worksheets with Wonder Teaching!

1- Is the worksheet the heart of the lesson, or is it simply a tool for capturing thinking?  If your lesson plan is designed around a period of direct instruction followed by a block of time during which the students complete worksheets, it is likely that your kids are not fully engaged or thinking in deep and meaningful ways. How could you change the dynamic? Could you engage the children in real-world problem solving? Could they work in cooperative groups? Could they create a product instead of filling in blanks? See how you can shake it up.

Roots image via Wonder Teacher2- Does the worksheet ask children to draw/ label something? (Such as the parts of a plant?) Why not let them draw instead? They are far more likely to remember the parts of a plant if they draw them rather than labeling a piece of clip art.

3- Is the worksheet full of rote math problems and facts? I know these kinds of pages are necessary sometimes. However, could you balance that with math games and stations? They are so much more more engaging and give the children opportunities to practice the same skills. This product on Teachers Pay Teachers is very helpful for learning how to set up and run math stations.

4- Does the worksheet ask children to answer comprehension questions from a story? Try using more meaningful ways to determine comprehension. Some choices include reading conferences with the teachers (see the The Daily Five and The CAFE Book for more info. on how to make this work), creating products such as story maps that display setting, characters, problem, solution, “acting” out story  events and elements, etc.

5- Does the worksheet ask children to recall and list factual information about social studies or science? Brainstorm other ways children can show what they know. Can they make a poster? Create a painting or drawing with labels? How about a drama structure such as pantomime or tableau? Could they work in groups to write short skits that share the facts in a creative way? There are so many possibilities!

6- Could the worksheet be replaced by technology? These days, all students should have access to materials like computers and iPads. Technology engages this generation like never before, and they need the skills for 21st Century work! Check out this post by Katie King (who writes a terrific blog over at Queen of the First Grade Jungle) to get an idea of what I mean.

7- Is there a real-world experience that could replace the worksheet? Instead of completing a worksheet about the life cycle of a frog, could kids actually go outside and catch tadpoles in a pond? Could they keep a few in the classroom and observe them each day in a science journal, noting the way they change and grow? How amazing! Instead of doing worksheets on money, could the children play games using real money? Could you set up a class store (like Cassie’s shoe store) that gives them an authentic opportunity for application?

Students engaged in real world learning

I suppose this is the heart of Wonder Teacher: equipping teachers to engage students in deep and meaningful learning experiences through creative methods. Stay tuned- I have so many ideas for you that I wonder how I’ll ever share them all!

In the meantime, examine your practice with a gentle spirit. Look over your “worksheets” for this week. Which ones are valuable and worth keeping? Which ones could be replaced with something a little more WONDERful? If you can trade out even one lackluster worksheet, you are on the right track!

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