I took a course in college called The Art of Engineering. For the final exam, the professor walked into the classroom, placed a narwhal tusk on the table and said, “You have three hours.” He then left the room. I felt a surge of adrenaline. My creative juices were overflowing. I started writing furiously and didn’t stop until time was up.
When I became a middle and high school history teacher, I took that narwhal experience to heart – or forehead as it were. I decided to start every class with a writing prompt. The more obscure the better. I used primary documents, photographs, quotations, statistics, and all kinds of attention-grabbing “artifacts.” I also put together visual collage. I would have my students analyze and interpret them via their own narratives. I was, as my students would attest (and sometimes protest), especially fond of using Bob Dylan songs. Now that he’s won a Nobel Prize in Literature, I feel somewhat vindicated!
From KWL and Cloze, to think-pair-share and tableau, I used a number of “templates” to organize the activity. I quickly discovered that without that structure, I got a lot of blank stares. Some of the prompts were a huge success. For example, my garbage can archeological dig and School of Athens speech bubble exercise were always crowd pleasers. A few did crash and burn. I remember a blowgun demonstration that went particularly awry.*
I’m not sure my daily prompts helped my kids do better on standardized tests. And, at times, the connection to the curriculum was nebulous at best. Nonetheless, I am convinced that it was worthwhile. Giving kids an excuse to think and write is always a good idea! As the founding principal of an arts integrated school, I wanted to make the practice an integral part of our daily routine. We would start each and every day with an arts-based prompt. We would expose our “creative learners” to incredible songs, paintings, and sculptures. There would be architecture and fashion, dance numbers and scenes from films and plays. The practice would epitomize the school’s mission and vision; it would define both our professional and learning culture. I wanted to put creativity on center stage. We ended up calling it A.R.T., or Art Reflection Time.
Initially, we followed a visual thinking format. Teachers presented their kids with a work of art and then asked three questions: What do you see? What do you think about what you see? And, what do you wonder about? After a while, I encouraged our “docents” to explore other models, from free writing and group brainstorming to pantomime and debate. “The possibilities are limitless,” I told them. A.R.T. was not always a masterpiece. Some teachers grumbled and others just went through the motions. Because it wasn’t in the textbook or aligned to GLE’s (Grade Level Expectations), they saw it as a waste of time.
If you choose to unveil A.R.T. at your school, consider the following:
• Make it a “non-negotiable”
• Recruit and hire teachers who buy-in from the get-go
• Provide them with hands-on professional development and plenty of examples
• Share and celebrate “best practices”
• Identify teachers who do it well and have others visit their classrooms
• Give instructional teams time to collaborate and to develop quality prompts
• Stockpile successful A.R.T. plans and incorporate them into the school’s curriculum map
• Hire and/or bring in practicing artists to participate
• And, most importantly, get excited - as though you had just seen a narwhal tusk for the first time! *
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.