Allowing students to have choice is integral to impactful, meaningful learning
By MeMe Ratliff | JCPS teacher engagement resource teacher
A medium is a type of art. I learned that in elementary school. There is a plethora of mediums out there; most of us probably could think of several of the more common ones if asked. In deeper learning, however, the mediums are as diverse as the learner whose hands create the art.
I recently visited the J. Graham Brown School to see deeper learning in action. Trying to connect with the students, I arrived confident in the fact that I could ask, “What medium are you using?” to begin conversations and not look out of place. Being a physical and health educator for more than 20 years, arts and humanities took a back seat to locomotor and manipulative skills.
Laura Sebastian, an educator in her third year at Brown, welcomed me into her learning space, with two large work areas with tables separated by a center mass of what looked to be a miniature Hobby Lobby store. The walls were covered by student murals; a skeleton with feathers “stood” in a corner. The space was as an eclectic mix of students as it was décor. This was more than a classroom. This was a space where creativity blossomed.
Laura (students at the Brown School call teachers by first names) explained that an Art II class was working on an independent project on one side while the smaller, more active side comprised mostly senior students working on a year-long independent study. As she took my bag and coat, she revealed that these students were the embodiment of deeper learning. Students partnered with a local business, nonprofit organization, or an educator in the building to develop a project that had specific ties to the community—a new layer for this school year. Laura wanted to ensure that the work would matter outside the walls of her classroom. There is an exhibition of student learning for these students planned for May 2.
At the beginning of the year, the 15 independent study students chose a subject that had meaning to them. Morgan, a student who had not been in an art class in years and had gone through a “rough spot” during that time, chose the topic of love to remind herself of what she wanted to focus on. Amelia, a student with visual disabilities, chose to create a project that gave the viewer an idea of how the same subject would look to individuals with differing eye conditions. Makayla developed a character biography project of mental health and the black community. The student’s projects are shown here.
As the year progressed, the students began to shift aspects of their work, as they had complete autonomy to have a free-flow experience that led them in new directions. Fatima’s work focused on body image. “A lot of teens bring themselves down because of body image. All body types are beautiful,” she told me as I browsed her watercolor and pencil pieces. The work began as all-female, but as she interviewed her peers, she realized the exclusivity was limiting. “Having complete freedom gives me the opportunity to try new things and go outside the box. With body positivity, you have to be creative. There are so many body types. Instead of getting stuck into one project, I can do something that matters—something I’m passionate about.”
Noah’s project centered on advocacy on funding for the arts. He is spending the year writing, directing and casting a play that will be performed at the May 2 event. Another student, Kayla, is collaborating to create the art for the play. About the year-long project, Kayla said that the students “Could take societal issues and make statements to prove the importance of art education in schools.”
As I moved around the space and spoke to each student, it became obvious that my simple question, “What medium are you using?’ was a shallow attempt to begin the conversation. “Tell me your story,” seemed much more effective. Whether it was Sean, who was trying to recall the face of a rescue animal his family cared for when he was young, to Kayla, who was recreating a photo of her walking with her father on a beach, the passion and individuality of each teen was remarkable.
As we wrapped up my visit, Laura inquired if I would be interested in coming to the exhibition of their work at the end of the year. Not only will I attend, but I will bring my peers. The potential of our young people is limitless. Allowing them to have choice and agency in their learning is integral to making learning impactful, relatable, and meaningful. The mediums of student work may differ, but the cultivation of learning is something we must support together to ensure their future is bright.