Student Ownership at the Art Show Set-up

If you want to create a powerful learning experience, put on an art show. More importantly, let the students put on an art show.

I am the sole art/photography teacher in a small, rural high school. Almost 2/3 of students in the school take an art or photography course every year. Timetabling challenges mean that all my classes are multi-age and multi-course. It’s a little crazy, but it works. Student learning is hands-on and project based and, to borrow the term from a book I’m reading, student-centric by choice and necessity.

The serious art students take Studio Arts courses with a specific focus, for example, drawing and painting. To these devoted art students, I assign the organization, planning, installation, and promotion of the annual spring art show. This event is held in a central community location and is a celebration of all that occurs in the art room throughout the entire school year.

Today, a crew of 9 of us set up for this year’s show. I don’t know if it’s the blogging, or the mental space I’m in, or all the reading I’ve been doing lately, but this year I was much more aware of the students’ learning related to the art show set up. It’s obviously a rich learning experience, but today I was trying to figure out how and exactly what it was they were learning.

These students have been selecting their peers’ work for the show for the last eight months. They spent the last few weeks tagging, framing, and wrapping art work. They spent the day asking questions of each other and discussing possible solutions to the countless problems they had to deal with while arranging and installing the artwork. They worked harder in ‘school’ today than they probably have all year. There were no right answers, no easy solutions, no meaningless tasks.

While observing and listening, the one thing that I kept thinking about was student ownership. The students today were owning their learning. The were absolutely engaged and very much in charge. They were proud of themselves and their accomplishments and they are excited about the show tomorrow night.

The more I thought about ownership, the more I wanted to understand what happened today. I see ownership as learners owning their learning. What does that mean? To ‘own’ something, in this context, is to take responsibility for the learning, which, if we define ‘responsibility’, leads to an even wider meaning. To be responsible for something is to be accountable for it, to have earned or been given authority in relation to it, and to be seen as reliable in relation to the task you’ve been given.

The students today were given, and accepted, the huge responsibility of putting on an event showcasing young artistic talent to their family, their peers and the larger community. They will be held accountable for their learning by essentially everyone who attends the show (hundreds of family, friends, peers, etc) as the night is basically one big critique of feedback on their year-long project. That aspect of the show is always nerve-wracking for me, I can’t imagine how they must feel at their younger age.

They earned the authority to take charge of their learning and I handed over as much power as possible during the set up today. I wanted them in charge. I wanted them making the decisions. I backed off more during the set up this year than in any years previously and I enjoyed watching the students take over. It’s interesting to see how they accept that leadership role. In all the chaos, all the confusion, all the panicked moments, they did a great job. They are so smart; it never ceases to amaze me how clever and practical and insightful students can be. They impressed me with their work ethic and their motivation to get the job done and do it to the best of their abilities. They chose to stay late too, not leaving until the job was complete.

By having the students responsible for the set up, I was trusting in their reliability. For a student to realize that their teacher trusts and relies on him/her enough to hand over the set up of such an important, culminating event must be a powerful realization. I hope, in all the craziness of the day, that they did realize I trusted them to do a great job. I know they realized how much I was relying on them. I could see that they were feeling the pressure and I’m sure it helped to motivate them throughout such an exhausting day.

Ownership, responsibility, accountability, authority, reliability, trust. That’s a powerful learning experience. And the show hasn’t even started yet…

Imagery by Erik B on


7 thoughts on “Student Ownership at the Art Show Set-up

  1. Hi Errin, thanks for dropping past our class blog. This is a speed comment as I am in the final throes of my master’s and I have a project due Friday. I would recommend getting in touch with Josh Hite at Arts Umbrella–he will walk you through the process. The software is truly amazing, and the results were stunning. You and your students would love it. 🙂

  2. By the way, a teacher at our one of our high schools will be using the software next year–you may want to connect. Let me know.

  3. Thanks Jan! Speed comments are just fine! I’m definitely going to look into the software – great results and it looks like something that would really catch the students’ attention. Good luck with the end of the master’s and thanks for the response!

  4. Errin
    Reading about your various projects, possible roads, CEET contributions, art shows and school professional development, I have come to the conclusion that I am nothing but a lazy slug and need to get going.

  5. You are not a lazy slug! You’re doing some wonderful projects with your students, and Cayoosh Kidz, and CEET, and a connected classroom project next year. We’ll have to have tea again soon, my treat this time!

  6. Errin, this is a great post. I really liked how you tried to get to the bottom of what it really means to “own” learning. I’m really interested in how this links to motivation.

    I am curious how you structured the experience and guided your students throughout the process? I am struggling a little at the moment with our school yearbook. I have a truly amazing little yearbook team and they have really taken ownership of the final product but by virtue of their age and inexperience they have a hard time with the details as well as the big picture. I feel like I next time I need to do a better job front loading them with skills and exemplars so that they have a better idea what they are trying to create. Had your students already experienced other art shows with an eye on creating their own?

  7. I’m thinking this could have been another post! Hope you’ve got some time to read all this! Living in this neck of the woods (literally), this is the only art show most students ever experience. All the students involved this year had work on exhibit in our annual show at least once before, so they had all attended prior shows. That said, a key part of the process is having older, experienced students guiding and training the younger, up-and-coming, crew each year. This year I had two grade eleven students who, although they had each helped on the actual set-up day twice before, were taking the Studio Arts courses for the first time so this was their first year to be in charge. Also, the typical Studio Arts student (who works on the art show year long as an assigned project) is a serious art student who has spent a lot of time with me and in the art room so they have a pretty good understanding of what’s involved.

    As far as the structure is concerned, I have a basic unit outline, more like a to-do list, that I bring to the students in October. They start with the simple, beginning tasks like choosing which tonal still life pieces from our first drawing unit should be framed and kept to be put on display and possibly into the art show. They ask each student individually for permission to do just that – it’s a powerful thing to watch when a senior, extremely talented, art student role-model goes up to another student to ask for permission to show their work!

    The students shape the show right from the start. We have meetings every month or so through the fall/winter and then weekly meetings or meet as needed through the spring. I delegate almost everything, and train those in charge to delegate effectively as well. It’s really a project in leadership as much as anything else.

    I do the school yearbook too! I spend about the first two months teaching skills like photography, the online program, composition tips, etc. I also have a stack of yearbooks that they go through for ideas. At the same time, I’m training the editor/editors how to be in charge of the whole thing. By late October, I have the editors take over the weekly meetings and we go from there! Next year, for the first time, I’m teaching it within the timetable. I’m sure I’ll have to make some adjustments, but I’m excited to have so much time to work with the students!

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