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 Flickr.com.