Meta Thomas teaches at Lionsgate Academy, Minnesota, a charter school with a mission to provide a transition-focused, personalized learning program for all students, specializing in educating students with autism spectrum disorders. In this guest post, Thomas shares here experiences using the Teaching for Artistic Behavior education approach with students with autism.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Humans are creatures of habit. Cue the wall of birch tree paintings or cityscapes in the style of Klee. Not only have I done these projects as a student, but I’ve also taught them. These are products of a teacher-led art program that result in beautiful reflections of the art teacher’s sample. When I began teaching, I taught how I was taught because that was all I knew. It didn’t take long for me to realize that something felt amiss.
I was in my third year of teaching and secretly beginning a soul search for my next career when I first heard about Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB) at an Art Educators of Minnesota fall conference. TAB is a choice-based pedagogy developed more than 30 years ago in Massachusetts’s classrooms with the precept that each child is an artist. With the support of MassArt, NAEA, and the Education Alliance at Brown University, the Teaching for Artistic Behavior Partnership (TAB) was formed in 2001 and incorporated in 2007.
The presenting art educator spoke with passion and confidence about giving students an authentic studio experience where they develop their own ideas and choose the materials to carry out their visions. In contrast to a teacher-led, project-based approach where the art teacher actually does most of the problem solving prior to introducing the project to the students, a TAB studio uses responsive teaching, acknowledging each student’s unique interests, motivations, and talents.
At the time, it seemed like a laughable concept. As the presenter detailed this dreamy cooperative environment where students worked autonomously on their individualized artworks, my teaching partner and I were exchanging skeptical looks. I understood the importance of student-centric work, and I tried to offer my students creative “options,” but I figured this approach would never work considering the extensive adult support that they needed. In fact, we had to leave the TAB session early so we could set up our presentation about how to teach students with autism through regimented structure and compliance-focused task lists.
Monkey Research, Monkey Change
Nevertheless, the concepts lingered with me. Most notably the idea of authenticity: how could I foster authentic creative thinking and problem solving while retaining the structure that helps students with autism succeed? As I continued teaching how I was taught, the flaws in my approach kept rising: they remained disinterested as I presented projects that I had spent weeks preparing, attempting to grade “creativity” when really I was just grading my own. More urgently though, my students came to me with deeply rooted learned helplessness from years of adults telling them how to think and act in accordance with societal expectations, and I was just doing more of the same.
A year after my first introduction to TAB, I started my research. I read articles, visited a TAB classroom, and did a lot of planning. I changed my verbs. They were no longer my students; I now addressed them as artists. It was not my classroom anymore, it was now our communal art studio. And I was no longer their art teacher, but instead their Creative Consultant.
The TAB Ethos: Letting Go
The switch involved so much more than changing my language and making the studio more accessible. I had to reframe my perspective on teaching. I’m not here to bestow my knowledge of art upon my students. I’m here to support them in their creative journey. It is liberating to let go of having to be the expert, and this opens me up to model problem solving and learning from mistakes. By letting go of control, I get to say “yes” more.
Artist: “Mrs. Thomas, I want to build a giant trebuchet with the help of my friends in class.”
Me: “Well, I’ve never made one. Let’s do it!”
Result: Engineering, teamwork, communication skills, and something exceedingly more amazing than any project I would have come up with!
I let go of applying my formally trained adult aesthetic onto their art because child art is not adult art. This was one of the hardest shifts because I think all art teachers feel the pressure from parents, administration, and co-workers to create attractive hallway displays. The artwork on display now is raw, uninhibited, some a little silly, some completely confusing, and others deeply emotional. The artwork is always showcased with an artist statement so that viewers get a glimpse into the artist’s inspiration and message.
I let go of intervening. I took off my superhero cape and stopped swooping in to “save the day” when something was going awry. Instead, I stand back and observe. I take note of their process and problem solving tactics, I feed them encouragement and helpful tips, and I keep my hands off of their work.
The art studio is now as much of a teacher as I am. It is organized by stations that include all of the necessary tools and materials to work within that medium, all of which are labeled and color coded to promote independence. Each station has an inspiration binder filled with menus that showcase the possibilities of a material or tool, examples of artwork, or step-by-step instructions. Set-up and clean-up visuals are attached to each material. All of these visuals are comprised of concise language and large pictures that I take myself in our studio so that artists can directly relate it to our environment. These non-verbal reminders of process and technique help the artists make informed choices and are invaluable to achieving the autonomy I strive for.
Teaching TAB in an Integrated Setting
Considering the scheduling difficulties at our small school and the disparate motor skills and cognitive abilities we see in our young artists, my co-teacher and I have decided to run a mixed age studio. We split artists into two groups, Yellow and Blue. The Yellow Group consists of artists new to the studio or who need more practice towards independence. They divide their time between “play” and “care” days (based on the work of John Crowe). A “play” day begins with explicit instruction on a new material or technique followed by time to learn through experimentation and play. “Care” days are offered as open studio days where artists can apply their understanding to an artwork of their choice. The Blue Group takes on a higher level of thinking, and the focus is placed on creating meaning in their artwork. We study artistic behaviors (based on the work of Ian Sands), and artists respond with their understanding of the behavior we are studying. Through collaborative activities, discussions, and featured artists, I stress the importance of connecting their work to their human experience. Having the mixed age studio allows for mentorships to happen naturally. They practice the social rules of a shared creative space. Most importantly, they build empathy, tolerance, and acceptance for their peers.
On a typical day in the art studio, artists enter already knowing what to expect because we have a set weekly schedule that rotates through featuring an “Artist in Action”, technical skill building labs, or critique activities. Each class starts out with a 10-15 minute mini lesson and then artists have studio time to either work on a skill building challenge or independent project.
If you are snickering at this sunny description of my TAB studio, as I did when I was first introduced to TAB, rest assured, I face numerous struggles and insecurities every day! The TAB approach requires you to be flexible and responsive, and the remedial teaching of process and routine gets exhausting. One of the biggest challenges I continue to face is finding ways to help artists believe in their own ideas. I’m combating years of learned helplessness and the strictures of our compliance-focused educational system. Just basic idea generation and inspiring originality is one of the hardest parts of my job.
It’s worthwhile exhaustion, though. I see brilliance that I would not typically see if I were telling them what to make and how to make it. I had an artist whose love for Batman was evident through his various renditions of the character. I suggested he try paper-maché and gave him some cardboard to begin building the internal structure. I walked away for a bit and returned fascinated–he had cut, folded, and built up the cardboard to fit together like a 3D puzzle. It was totally different from how I would have taught him. This was the authenticity that attracted me to TAB I love that their interests and skills (not mine) are reflected in their artwork.
At the end of the day, whether you engage TAB, I think it’s important to really examine how and why you teach. I took on TAB because I believe in the approach and feel it gives our youth what they need most: believing that they are artists. Being an artist is not just about applying the correct shading techniques or throwing a perfect pot; it’s about being able to collaborate, communicate your ideas, innovate, be resourceful, and see mistakes as opportunities to learn. There are days when I feel defeated in this journey, but I know I’m doing something right when a student interrupts me to exclaim, “Ok, I think I get it now! We’re not here just to learn about art, we’re here to learn how to be good citizens!”