Teaching For Artistic Behavior

By: Jill Stepak
from Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation's Capital

Differentiated Instruction

Subject(s) of entry:

Blended Learning

Grade(s) to which this was taught:
1, Elementary school

Grade(s) for which this will be useful:
1, Elementary school

Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) is a style of choice-based art education that focuses on the students, their interests, and their ideas. Students are viewed as authentic artists, and groups of materials are made available. Play and experimentation are essential to creative development and confidence in risk-taking.

Entry Narrative

The summer after my second daughter was born, I decided to work with a professional coach to see what I should do next in my life. During one of our first meetings, she shared her belief that who we are in high school is who we are at our core.  When I was in high school, I was very involved in Jewish youth group, but I also loved creating. All my friends were artists, I took art classes and I stayed up late, locked in my room, just making.  However, I never considered myself an “artist”.  I didn’t have the same drawing and painting skills as my peers, so I shrugged it off as a hobby or a phase, something that would pass.  However, it’s something I’m drawn to do, and something I need to live. This professional coach opened my eyes to a problem that I now see in so many of my students– just because one isn’t good at one type of art, does not mean they are not an artist or that they can’t use art as a form of expression.  Not all artists can draw or paint well. It was then I decided to pursue a new career in art education.

Although I am a seasoned Jewish educator, teaching art posed some new challenges for me.  The first was that the standard format for art education is often to introduce an artist, his/her style and for the teacher to develop, present and guide a project that reflects this learning.  All students would be required to complete the same or similar products that would then be put on display in the halls of the school. My first year teaching art, I followed this formula. Students produced beautiful art, parents ooh-ed and ahhh-ed at the miraculous nature of their child’s talent.  However, in my previous experiences teaching in other settings, student voice, constructivist learning and choice were essential to creating dedicated and passionate learners. I was struggling to find a way to do this in the art room. I often would take a “free” day between teacher directed projects, put out unused art materials and tell students they could make whatever they wanted.  Students artwork was so immensely creative, they were so well behaved, they created amazing art and they were more proud of these creations than anything I was instructing them to create.

I then had the privilege to attend the conference for the National Association of Art Educators and attended a workshop on Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB).  I finally found art teachers that were driven more by the development of creativity for each child than by the collective impression of finished projects. I found other art educators who believed our work was to help students learn creativity and skills they can use in every area of their lives.

As I began to read more about the TAB classroom, I recognized so many of the challenges described by other art educators:

  • Students completing teacher directed projects do not have as many opportunities to really show who they are as an artist, what their voice is, what skills they have and where they can show growth.  
  • They struggle to apply learned skills from the teacher-directed projects to other works.  When given the same project/task to complete, students were seeing how they compared to their peers.  
  • When students couldn’t complete the task, their self-esteem plummeted and often their behavior in class declined. These students are the ones who claimed to dislike art, to waste art materials and to disrupt the classroom dynamic.
  • Students were saying “I’m not a good artist” constantly in my classroom.  It was so disheartening and deeply personal.

After researching a bit more about TAB and talking with our school administration, we agreed that a change would align the art curriculum with the rest of the school’s philosophy.

Faculty members embrace each child and guide them to stretch and grow as learners and unique individuals. We engage students’ curiosity and make learning meaningful, experiential, and enduring across all grades. In our classrooms, Science Labs, and Design Lab, students ask questions, research, brainstorm ideas, prototype solutions, take ownership of their work, and address real-life issues.”

The art curriculum needed to reflect this.

In my second year at Milton, I began to introduce Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB).  We began each lesson with some art vocabulary and a mini lesson about an artist or a skill set.  Students then had a choice, they could complete the project I introduced, or work on their own projects (for which they were expected to complete a planning sheet).  Since so much of TAB is about exploration of materials and one’s own creativity, not all artwork is meant for exhibition. Some is about play. Each student was expected to complete at least two original pieces of artwork during the year that were exhibition worthy.  These pieces had to take two or more classes to complete, had to be an original idea, completed without a partner, and students had to write an artist statement about their work.  These projects were amazing. The aesthetic was definitely more of a child than an adult. Students were proud of their work, they were focused, they were brave and explored, they found and solved problems.  Most importantly, they were finding their passion in the art space. They could build sculptures, they could paint, they could weave.  They had choice. I guided each and every student to explore new materials relevant to their work, to study famous artists who tried similar methods, and to consider how they could make more than one draft of something if they weren’t pleased with the first version.  Students were driving their own art education and it was stunning!

Examples of student artwork in 2017-18: 


There is also a network of TAB educators and flipped classroom art educators who help each other provide resources, answer questions and troubleshoot.  It’s been amazing to watch my students grow, but also to allow myself to grow as an educator.

In year two of TAB, I am now implementing and framing the art curriculum around  Harvard’s Project Zero’s “The Studio Habits of the Mind”.  Students are asked to think like artists.  They are asked to develop their craft, persist through challenges, envision original ideas, observe the world around them, push themselves to try new things, and reflect.  Each student does these things naturally, but drawing attention to them ensures that they are really engaging in their artmaking like an artist. It’s also helpful that these skills translate to useful skills and thinking strategies for the rest of their lives.

We have continued to do skill-builders at each studio at the beginning of the year and I am hoping all students will complete four WOW projects (Wonderful Original Works of art) this year and also be responsible for putting them on display.  

A typical class is structured liked this:

  • As students enter the room, they choose which studio center they want to work at (Drawing, Painting, Printmaking, Sculpture, Clay, Fiber, Collage or WOW planning).  
  • They then come and sit on the floor. On the board in front of them is a famous work of art (such as Van gogh’s Starry Night or DaVinci’s Mona Lisa).  Students are asked to look at the artwork and draw what they believe to be the essence of this piece.  We talk a bit about what they notice, and then students head to their studios to work.
  • Within each studio is an ipad. Students are asked to view videos as part of their mini-lessons. They can learn a new skill at their studio, they can learn about a new material or they can review something they want to try again.  The videos are either recordings of myself or curated by me to fit their level of learning.
  • After the video they get to work. They visit the studio to gather their materials. They select what they need from a large variety of tools (studio tours on youtube if they need a reminder and the signs/labels aren’t helping).  They work through their projects, experimenting, playing and asking lots of questions! I guide each student as needed, I introduce them to famous artists in history and how they solved similar challenges or presented similar ideas.  They continue to work.
  • At the end of class, students clean their studio. There is a sense of ownership of the materials and the space. I no longer have kids throwing away usable supplies, I don’t have paint left spilled on the floor or watercolor palettes that are stabbed to death.
  • They then mark a studio tracker (where they tell me where they worked for the day) and then they sit again on the floor to T.A.G with a friend about their work for the day (Tell each other one thing about what they did, Ask each other a question about their work, and Give a suggestion about what you see or hear). How can you help your peers improve? How can their artwork better convey what they are telling you about it?
  • Students then put their artwork away and are then dismissed.

The primary advantages to TAB have been that students are able to feel successful in their own artwork. They are no longer comparing themselves to others. They are able to explore materials and topics that interest them (and learn to research at the same time).  They are able work at their own pace and they receive more individualized attention from me, their guide and teacher. I feel that the anxiety of “doing it right” has vanished in the room and it’s a much calmer and focused atmosphere.

I find that I’m able to introduce Art History, skill builders, and different uses for materials with each and every student in an individualized way.  One student is trying to draw a dinosaur in detail, while another is trying to make a castle out of cardboard. Both students are engaged, thinking, and expressing themselves.  Both students are learning how to persist through challenges, how to communicate their ideas, assess theirs and others work, and demonstrate self-motivation.

Although I occasionally look back at those teacher-directed projects and see something impressive. I remember that my job is to teach, and my students’ job is to learn.  We are doing that now more than ever before and I’m grateful to work in a school that authentically honors students voice.

Entrant Bio(s)

Jill Stepak has been the art specialist at The Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital for three years. Prior to teaching at Milton she was the Vice President of Academics for a Jewish online learning company called ShalomLearning and prior to that served as the Director of Education for a large Reform synagogue in Washington, DC. She is also a graphic designer.
Jill received a BA from the University of Wisconsin- Madison in Jewish Education and Modern Hebrew as well as an Executive Masters of Jewish Educational Leadership from Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion.