Sunday, October 12, 2014

Cultivating Advanced Art Courses in Middle School

This is my fourth year teaching AC or Advanced Content Art in middle school.  Sometimes, I post about the innate awesome-ness of teaching such courses on my social media, and I’m always touched by the responses of “omg I wish I could teach advanced courses in Art.” 

Like, omg, you totally can. Imma tell you how I did it.

Here’s the thing: No principal (or at least very few) are going to stroll into your room / send you an email / issue a missive to you saying, “Yo. Why don’t we have an Advanced Art course?” It is not because principals are some sort of Art nay-sayer (at least not across the board!), but principals are simply bogged down in the day-to-day madness that comes with being responsible for An. Entire. School.  If you want to teach Advanced Art, you are going to have to go after it yourself.

Trust me, it is easier than you think.

Start Small
Principals don’t go into the business of educational leadership because they are visionary trailblazers. Principals tend to be more steady leadership types who are good at management. Management isn’t exactly known for visionary, innovative ideas. Management is responsible for cultivating the environment for ideas to grow. At the same time, most principals loathe trying something new; they want data, proof, what-have-you, so they can justify change. I suspect they also want a reason to avoid criticism and responsibility in the event your great idea fails too. As Art teachers, we tend to be the opposite. We are experimenters and typically unafraid to try something new. If you want an Advanced Art course, start small and ease your leadership into the idea.

Four years ago, I asked my then principal if during the last quarter of the school-year I could teach one Advanced Art class.  The class identifier on grade reports would be the same, students would not earn any “extra” AC credit, but it would give me an opportunity to demonstrate what can happen when students are given the opportunity to choose Art for themselves. I made sure to collect data, enter students into Art shows, and make a Huge Deal out of every accomplishment (no matter how small).  The class spoke for itself, and the next year my principal granted me a dedicated, year-long, Advanced Art course for 8th grade students.

Unfortunately, at that time, there was no such class offered by my district. So, while the students got to have a special class, they did not receive any special AC indicators on their grade reports. But, actually, that was okay. Sometimes, you gotta trail blaze on your own.

Go After Specific Groups of Students
Right now, the academic powers that be seem to recognize that tracking students is a Bad Thing. This is an ongoing debate, so I find it worthwhile to recognize this topic is frequently debated. Tracking is when a school consciously or unconsciously puts students onto certain types of educational tracks based on (in)ability. For instance, in the 80s and 90s (when I was in school), high school students were placed into Career or College track.  College track classes were more rigorous and the “smart” kids were College track and the “less able” kids were put on Career track. Seems a bit ruthless and unfair doesn’t it?

I know what you are already thinking, “Um, we kinda do track kids still. Just in really sneaky ways.” And, yes, of course we do. That is also hotly debated. One the ways in which I was able to go after Advanced Art courses was to utilize the tracking debate to my benefit. I pointed out that AC classes often do  -inadvertently- place students onto tracks by virtue of the fact that all non-AC kids are placed into the same classes and don’t have access to a more diversified classroom experience. Additionally, the non-AC kids don’t have the same opportunities for field trips and special learning experiences as the AC students. The obvious counter to this argument is that the non-AC didn’t have the ability to keep-up with and/or participate in AC Math, Science, Reading, ELA what-have-you.

And, this my darlings, is where I had leadership in the palm of my hand.

I simply pointed out that many of the students that are most successful in Art are not successful in the more traditionally academic classes. And, that offering an AC Art class would enable my school to offer a more diversified AC class that was more inclusive of all students and their exceptionalities (use the big words, my dears). ALSO, my district (and I’m sure yours does too) offers extra “points” on the school-rating index for AC classes and the percentage of students who take AC classes. Offering AC Art enabled my school to offer AC classes to students whom would have otherwise never been able to take an AC class. And. . .it helped our school rating index.

It’s all about the bottom line. Play to it, and you can rule.

Share Your Experience With Others
The moment I landed that first AC class, I let the Whole Entire World Know. All that bragging I did to my principal? I made sure that the Art Supervisor and Curriculum Advisor in my district were also aware. I invited stakeholders, educational leaders, and parents to my class; I wanted them to see how exceptional Art can be when students have the opportunity to choose it for themselves.

People were impressed, and they wanted this experience for their own schools.

During my second year teaching Advanced Art courses my district made a new class listing. Essentially, 8th grade Art students could take a year-long 9th grade Art course and earn high school credit. There were several good reasons for doing this with regards to management of classes and student within my district. . .But, I also like to think that my proving to many of the educational leaders that it could be done was a big slice of why this happened. . .Who knows?!  The reality is that for the past two years I have been teaching a year-long 8th grade course wherein kids can get high school credit for Art.

It’s a Really Big Deal.

Educate Your Stakeholders / Protect Your Course
Advanced Art classes are awesome, but I’m sure you’re all aware that Art is one of the first things that gets cut when the chips are down.  It is your responsibility to ensure that your AC Art course in an invaluable part of the course offerings at your school and a course that could NEVER EVER be removed. I educate 6th and 7th grade parents about this course all the time. I talk about it at Meet and Greet, Open House, and heck, when parents are just volunteering I talk about it! I also bring it up a lot in my 6th and 7th grade classes. My students are practically panting to be invited to be a part of the course! Additionally, make the actual class ah-mazing. Ensure that the students who are currently enrolled in the course are proud of it and eager to share how awesome it is with other students; you can’t beat the student gossip line!

Enjoy It

Lastly, take the time to savor your success. We spend a lot of time online complaining about Art and how it isn’t protected. Once you’ve successfully earned that first AC class take the time to thank your leadership, brag on your kids, and enjoy the class. Enjoy my loves. Teaching an AC Art class is the pinnacle of what we dreamed about at Art Education students. 

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