How Creating Choice Transformed My K-8 Art Studio

Ellen Tarabara

Ellen Tarabara is a K-8 art teacher who believes in reevaluating traditional educational philosophies, instruction, and assessment models to better meet the needs of the fluid and subjective nature of the Visual Arts, as well as meeting the needs and assisting the development of each student as an ever-growing learner and person.


How do you create full student choice with a couple hundred of kindergarten through eighth-grade students and one art teacher? A) Pedagogy, B) Planning, and C) Personalized Learning.

I am a K-8 art teacher, and I run a choice-based, student-driven art education program that combines the Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) pedagogy with Personalized Learning. I am an advocate for providing students with authentic learning opportunities at each stage of their K-12 educational experience. I switched to Teaching for Artistic Behavior because of its philosophy.

The true product of a TAB program is not a finished work of art, but is the development of a fully autonomous, self-directed, intrinsically motivated, ever-growing artist and person, who will learn the skills and tools to think creatively, persevere, problem-solve, and communicate their ideas.

Over the last six years, I moved from a teacher-driven, limited-choice approach to a teacher-facilitated, student-centered approach where the driving force of the artmaking process is student choice.

Choice is a powerful word that can simultaneously provoke excitement and fear. For an artist, being comfortable with ambiguity is a vital part of the creative process. Yet as a new teacher, I felt that being “in control” was an essential part of establishing and maintaining the creative learning environment. Four years ago, my first reaction to learning about TAB, which led to discovering Personalized Learning, was that I loved the theory; however, I was concerned about how it would work out logistically. Also, I thought giving students more choice meant giving up teacher control, which would lead to even more questions and uncertainties from the management perspective.

The turning point for me was the realization that by providing more student choice I am still staying in control because I control and manage the boundaries within which the students make their choices. In essence, teachers provide the structure that makes student choice possible, productive, and manageable.

While every subject has its innate differences, when it comes to structuring choice across multiple subjects and grade levels, TAB offers a framework that can ease the transition to a Personalized Learning model. The level of choice within this framework can then be altered as each teacher discovers what fits their individual teaching style, the nature of their subject, the needs of their students, and district requirements.

Regardless of subject area and grade level, the Four Core Practices of TAB — Personal Context, Pedagogical Context, Classroom Context, and Assessment — offer a guiding framework that can be a starting point for reevaluating teaching practices. Reflecting on the following questions helps make the switch to a more student-driven approach possible:

    • Personal Context:
      • What is the student’s role in the class?
    • Pedagogical Context:
      • What is the focus of the learning?
      • What is the focus of the work, i.e. “desired outcomes?”
      • What is the focus of the curriculum and how will it be taught?
    • Classroom Context:
      • How are instructional time, workspace, and resources organized?
    • Assessment:
      • What assessment approaches best demonstrate students’ authentic learning progress and achievement?

The answers to these questions, as outlined by the TAB website and the book Engaging Learners Through Artmaking: Choice-Based Art Education in the Classroom (TAB) by Katherine M. Douglas and Diane B. Jaquith, provided the structure I needed to make personalized learning possible in my art studio.

Acting on the Four Core Practices of TAB resulted in a highly productive and engaging learning environment that aligns with the Four Personalized Learning Attributes — Voice, Co-Creation, Self-Discovery, and Social Construction. In our choice-based environment, students: 1) exercise their personal voice as artists, 2) co-create their artwork with their peers using various studio centers, 3) learn through self-discovery by encouraging play, experimentation, and practice, and 4) learn how to work and provide feedback within the social constructs of a supportive community of artists.

As I look back on how I transitioned to full student choice, I had to reevaluate eight aspects of my teaching in order to structure choice across nine grade levels in a manageable way:

  1. Curriculum Structure: I had to establish, starting with my youngest students, a gradual release of responsibility in order to transition from a teacher-centered to a progressively student-driven approach. For example, kindergarten students did not have choice of multiple studio centers until December after every student had successfully demonstrated their learning and responsibility in each center.
  2. Room Organization and Layout: I designed the art studio with student autonomy in mind. For example: flexible seating based on grade level and each individual class’s personality; clearly labelled and organized materials, tools, and resources that students can easily access and clean up; and continually assessing and reassessing the studio’s traffic patterns and storage needs.
  3. Procedures and Routines: I provided a gradual training period to teach students the procedures for how to set up, use, and clean up each studio center (drawing, painting, collage, etc.) and the routines for how to use their work time during each phase of the artmaking process. Then, these expectations were continually reinforced with reviews when needed and loss of privileges when expectations were not followed. The procedures and routines I established allowed me the freedom to spend more individual time helping my students problem solve their independent work. Another routine that has saved me instructional time is creating a digital art library of short video demonstrations that students must watch before doing an art form that follows step-by-step procedures, such as: paper mâché, relief printing, screen printing, plaster wrap, and more. I have the students film me using my old smartphone during class. The process takes about 5-7 minutes, and then I upload the video for more students to use in the future.
  4. Creating a Shift in Student Mindset: I found that students, especially at the middle school level, need a shift in mindset in order to navigate student choice in a productive way. I did this by linking the standards and desired learning targets with a specific part of the artmaking process and habit of mind. For the visual arts, I used the artmaking process as outlined by Douglas and Jaquith in combination with the 8 Studio Habits of the Mind established by Lois Hetland and her team at Harvard Project Zero; however, Bena Kallick’s and Art Costa’s 16 Habits of the Mind apply to all subject areas and help with addressing how students think and work in the classroom. For example, the following National Core Arts Standard, “VA:Cr2.1.6a – Demonstrate openness in trying new ideas, materials, methods, and approaches in making works of art and design,” works in tandem with the Hetland’s Studio Habit of Mind: “Stretch and Explore,” as well as Kallick’s and Costa’s Habit of Mind: “Thinking Flexibly.”
  5. Managing Behavioral Expectations: I reinforced the idea that full student choice is only possible when students adhere to the following core values of our school: Show Respect, Be Responsible, and Practice Safety. I clearly outlined how each core value applies to working in the art studio, and, using the classroom management philosophies outlined in Restitution: Restructuring School Discipline by Diane Chelsom Gossen, required students to fill out a “My Choices in Art” sheet if they chose not to follow our school’s core values.
  6. Monitoring Student Progress: I monitor student progress using Seesaw. This easy-to-use, digital platform is a place to record students’ progress during the making of their self-paced, independent projects. My new class routine involves going around to each student during the last fifteen minutes of class and co-creating a Seesaw Progress Post. I use Seesaw’s mobile app on an old smartphone that only has wifi capabilities, and I have a brief one-on-one conference with each student. We take a picture of their work and students dictate or type in a progress quote that gives credit to their work and thought process, as well as reflects on what they did that class and outlines their goal for next week’s class.
  7. Self-Reflection: In addition to their weekly Seesaw Progress Posts, grades 5-8 students were also expected to write an Artist Statement for all showcase pieces that meet the finished artwork goal, which I defined as “creating an original work of art with focus and purpose that goes beyond what you’ve created before and shows your personal interests, new learning, and growth as an artist.” For grades 1-4, they looked at their entire portfolio and selected two showcases pieces (a two-dimensional and three-dimensional piece) for the spring Art Show and wrote an Artist Statement for those two pieces. I explained that Artist Statements are important in a choice-based art studio because it gives credit to their work and thought process, as well as their personal choices in their artmaking.
  8. Self-Assessment: I required grades 5-8 to complete a formal self-assessment at the end of each trimester where students looked at their art portfolio and reflected on their artmaking process, finished artwork, and artist statements. Although not included in their grade, I also had students assess how consistently they worked using our school’s core values. Requiring middle school students to self-assess is not new to my practice; however, the biggest shift was replacing art project rubrics with artist statements after each student finished a showcase piece and using a trimester reflection and assessment sheet that gives equal credit to the students’ artmaking process, as well as finished products. In addition, I did away with deadlines for students to finish a showcase piece. Instead, I built into my curriculum deadlines for school fundraisers, events, and art shows that give students the real world experience of creating a work of art and managing their time to meet a deadline.

Throughout the year, my students and I reflected on the benefits of implementing our new TAB environment and philosophy. Here is a list of the positive outcomes that have resulted from switching to Personalized Learning using the TAB approach:

the artwork of the 6th grade students who said they like when I have time to teach them a technique for their own projects
    • Higher levels of student engagement
      • Students are more invested in their independent choice projects and their thought process extends outside of our studio class time.
      • “I’ve been thinking about what I want to do for my next project all week.” – 8th grade student.
      • “We have to have school on Friday. Even if it’s a delay, we’ll still have our art class.” – 8th grade student.
    • Higher levels of student independence and responsibility
      • After establishing the new art studio procedures, even my kindergarten students can autonomously set-up, use, and clean-up the drawing, painting, collage, and sculpture centers simultaneously.
      • “Art is my favorite subject now because we get to choose what we want to make. I like the freedom, it’s like when you’re in college and you get to choose what you want to do.” – 8th grade student.
      • “I like that everyone is doing something different, we don’t have to do the same thing. And you don’t have to finish at the same time, you can finish when you’re ready.” – 8th grade student.
    • More time as a teacher to work one-on-one with students
      • Students are working on independent projects, which are self paced. As a result, once the class is set up, they do not need the teacher all at the same time.
      • “I like when you have time to sit down with us to show us a new technique for our own projects.” – 6th grade student.
      • Also, once I have taught a few students the procedure for a specific technique or art form, they can teach their peers, which frees up more of my time during class.
      • “Yes, I can show them how to set up for paper mâché.” – 6th grade student.
    • Exposure to more media, techniques, artists, and history
      • There is a greater variety of projects being conducted at the same time, which exposes students to various parts of my K-8 curriculum in a shorter time span.
      • “I like art because you get to experiment.” – 2nd grade student.
      • There are more opportunities for me and the students to make meaningful and relevant connections to history and artists (past, present, or peer) as students experiment and work through ideas.
      • “Your mini chalk pastel experiment looks similar to Mark Rothko’s work. His work is very large, what would happen if you enlarged your experiment?” – Teacher comment to 6th grade student.
    • Experiencing and working through the entire artmaking process
      • Students experienced the challenges and rewards of creating personal artwork as they worked using the artistic behaviors required for each phase of the artmaking process — starting with perhaps the most challenging step: generating an innovative idea.
the artwork that resembles Mark Rothko work

The responses from students, teachers, administrators, and parents to this philosophical switch in my teaching practice has been overwhelmingly positive, and my concerns about how to make student-choice possible, productive, and manageable have been eased. I will admit that the preparatory work necessary for implementing a personalized learning environment using the Four Core Practices of TAB is overwhelming at times; however, the long term benefits are well worth the effort and, once the procedures and routines are established, have proven to actually lessen my workload in the long run.

Four years ago, I loved the premise of a full student choice art studio; now that I have transitioned to TAB, what has been equally rewarding and surprising is that TAB has given me an energy and excitement about teaching that I have not experienced since my first year as a teacher. As a result, I can confidently say that, “Yes, providing more student choice is not only possible, but a manageable and a productive learning experience for both students and teachers,” and, “No, student choice does not equal a ‘free-for-all’ because the teacher creates and controls the structure in which students make their choices.”

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