I love children that challenge me and make me think. Recently I had something happen twice in one day that has happened to me many times over my teaching career. This is one of those times it has caused me to stop and think. On more than one occasion over the past semester I have had a student complain about the art assignment in which the class was otherwise engaged. I realize that complaining about something a teacher has assigned is not something new. I encountered plenty of that when I was a general classroom teacher and I know not to take that kind of thing personally. However, there are times when I really do listen because at times there is merit in the complaint. This day is an example of one of those times.
The first complaint of the day came from a student in kindergarten; the second one came from a student in fifth grade. Normally I wouldn’t have given the fifth grader’s gripe much attention as I know to consider the source and this particular child doesn’t ever seem to want to do what the rest of us are doing. However, his complaint came after the kindergartener and it made me more sensitive to the older child’s plight.
Developing the ability to think independently and generate new ideas and new possibilities is often a goal of teachers, particularly in the realm of art-making. So, when a child is busy pursuing his own idea rather completing the given assignment, there is a part of me that wants to cheer him on rather than steer him back on track. Today, as my other kinders were completing patterns of color and shape in the style of an artist named Bruce Bodden, one young man was working on an impressive drawing on the back of his incomplete assignment. When I questioned him about it, he responded what what we were doing wasn’t art.
I directed him to the original piece that was inspiring our work and asked him whether that was art. When he stated that it was I pointed out that we were creating a class collaboration in that style and asked him whether what we were creating was art. He reluctantly agreed but complained that it wasn’t the kind of art he wanted to do. When I received a nearly identical complaint from that fifth grader later in the day, it gave me pause.
Educators know we need to get buy-in from the learners. If students do not see the value in what they are doing, if they are not sufficiently motivated, little learning will occur. It made me ask myself, “What could I have done to create more buy-in and investment for these students? How could I have facilitated the same learning objectives yet allowed for more choice in how the objectives were reached?” These are valuable questions and ones I need to continue to ask myself as I constantly try to improve on my teaching and therefore the learning experiences of my students. In order for us to create student buy-in, we must reflect upon our own perceptions, techniques, and gaps.
It is only through taking the time to think about our own teaching and learning that we truly begin to understand where we struggle and where we triumph in engaging our students and creating that buy-in factor. I am sure I will never eliminate student complaints but I hope I never stop listening just in case there is something I can learn that will end up benefiting all my students.
Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.