Studio to School

Reflection on Student Learning at Oaklea

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 ArtCore at Oaklea Middle School is opening up new paths for students and teachers to own and enhance their creative thinking and empower life long habits of success.

At Oaklea we use the core subject of art with habits (Studio Habits of Mind + Habits of Growth) to create a safe container, which rigorously asks one to explore, create and process ideas. We believe these life skills are critical to be successful and adaptable in the 21st century.

Over the course of this past 2015-16 academic year, ArtCore has enjoined the vocabulary with the experience of foundational habits so they can be used throughout all core subjects with our teachers. Habits such as Stretch & Explore, Grit, Flow, Equity, Mindfulness, Reflect, and Gratitude are concepts we not only learn, but we experience through project and process oriented work.

Students are exposed to art, artists and the art world, and the idea of knowing they are inherently a creative being.  Unfortunately this type of curriculum has been dissolved in most of our public schools, it is often found only in the world of privileged schools.  By placing art back into our marginalized schools, we create an advantage that begins to seed and root in ways bringing the very serious problem of equity gap into balance over time.

We witnessed at the beginning of the school year how many students had shut themselves off from their creative side – they arrive with their “art scar” – developed sometime between kindergarten and present, having labeled themselves “not creative.”  Slowly and gently by getting to work and using the Habits as a framework and inspiration for action, we see them starting to explore, take chances, make mistakes, recover, learn to work as teams, and see they are honestly free and empowered to make choices and witness themselves as creative.

We share with them that we won’t all become artists – but we are all inherently creative and this is something they should never let go of.

Reciprocal Learning

Where does student learning in school classrooms begin? We have learned through this past year that learning begins with what we as adults believe matters most to students, in the moment and in their future. Learning begins with what we believe is the foundation upon which the rest of learning builds to becomes deeply meaningful to a students’ development. Learning begins with the questions that we ask students to seek out and pose to themselves. Learning begins the moment we ask students to stop and think about what they are doing—to really stop and witness their own act of connecting. First and foremost, learning begins with the comfort and confidence to take creative risks among peers and trust that others are there to support your growth.

To move into this metacognitive rhythm, a community of learners—both teachers and students—must become reciprocally open to new experiences, new perspectives, new skills, and new ways to approach the act of learning. Who teaches whom? ArtCore at Oaklea in 2015-16 has been as much about our teachers observing students closely to see the different shades that learning can take. Through arts-focused learning driven by the Studio Habits of Mind, teachers have seen the deeper hue of flow and personalization in students who normally struggle. Teachers have learned and expressed that they feel an openness and persistence—a joy—that seems to carry students from their ArtCore learning through other experiences in the school. A piece of art created by a student receiving special education services surpassed any others in her class. What does that mean to her? What does that teach her peers? It was deeply meticulous, richly personal, and original. How do you measure this transaction in the aggregate of a classroom of unique individuals with their own story?

As skilled, professional educators, the 6th grade Oaklea teachers who engaged in the ArtCore project have each made a shift.  These shifts stimulated a larger more challenging shift at the school level. Six months ago, this systemic shift began with a half-day workshop aimed at exposure and collective agreement on defining a common purpose and target for the school. A design team assembled and began to chart a course with the help of the ArtCore support team. The school faculty learned about the journey the school has taken to arrive at this stage of its development. The vision deepened through visits to other schools and willful inquiry into what learning looked like at Oaklea. Through shadowing a student for a day, faculty members witnessed the level of lost learning opportunities that existed across levels and classrooms.

The design team has charted a course that will take the collective efforts of each member to carry forward. The struggle to solidify shared ownership for innovation will require creative solutions, and much more observation of students at the peak of creative engagement. The faculty are learning to grow together and model the growth and creativity they dream of instilling in their students. Student learning begins with the learning that the adults around them commit to themselves. It is an implicit contract. If adults aren’t learning and excited about it, students won’t be either. What will it take to infuse the arts into the fabric of an everyday experience at Oaklea?

After interviews with students and teachers, it is clear that this focused attention on habits of mind and the adoption of this common language in the core classes is beginning to stick. Oaklea students understand what it means to engage and persist in the ArtCore studio and why that matters in math or creative writing. When you think you are done, take another look and make it better. Students recognize that a quality art piece isn’t a thing to look at it is a space to enter and experience. Art is the story of the artist, the moment, and the medium. Students have begun to recognize their creative potential and what it feels like to enter into a flow state where challenge and skill level are in unison. More importantly, the adults around them see it, too. Teachers are becoming more attuned to the conditions needed to generate these learning experiences; they see the capacity of their students to drive this learning themselves.

A Shift to Ownership

Recently, upon examining student work for dimensions of creativity, the Big-C and Little-c theory of creativity emerged. This theory proposed by Dr. Ronald Beghetto and Dr. James Kaufman resonated. Each piece rated at different levels of creativity, but each demonstrated what appeared to be personal meaning for the student. These moments of Little-c creativity provide the chance to interpret the challenge and engage with an earnest response. Work completed in the fall, during early exposure to ArtCore, illustrated a degree of hesitation and uniformity. Comparatively, the work produced in the spring, showed more freedom and expression.

When several students rated themselves on the SHoM self-assessment wheel, it was clear that each felt confident about their ability with most of the habits. Though this may be inflated by the naiveté of the novice, it demonstrates an important efficacy for learners that may not experience confidence elsewhere. As they become more familiar with the challenges of observing deeply and developing craft through hours of drafts, they will learn how much further they still have to go to develop mastery. They will be able to explain each habit with greater sophistication, which is already appearing to happen based on their own definitions of the SHoM. We should expect that these self-ratings may go down, but that this decrease relates to more maturity and the growing awareness of what it takes to habituate these approaches to learning across their school day.

In staff meetings at Oaklea, you can hear both curiosity and hesitation of faculty in later grades that have yet to experience much exposure to ArtCore. The design team exudes confidence and leadership and the 6th grade team is willing to share their own unique journeys through this experience. They are willing to stand up in front of their colleagues and be vulnerable about what they expected and what they have learned. Some began with total reticence and were simply won over by what they learned from watching their students. Teachers know what high quality learning looks like. They know when a classroom of engaged students shines. They can hear the sizzling of intrinsic motivation spread through a group of learners. When they witness ownership and drive, from even the most resistant or hesitant, their beliefs begin to shift. Multiple teachers express these grounded reflections. Their self-assurance to acknowledge their own growth illustrates the theory of change in the ArtCore project. We are all learners; thus, a school should be a system of learning.


To understand what is changing in the school and for students, we have a series of measurement approaches and research angles that will explore changes over the course of each year and across years. For students, we are gauging dimensions of their creative potential, generally, and in their production of work in ArtCore. We also measure a wide array of other components of creativity and student engagement, including: flow in learning, attendance, creative ideational behaviors, self-efficacy, value of school, relationships to teachers and peers, and future orientation. We also interview students and survey them on their assessment of how much the school setting supports their creative development and openness. We also will include the traditional data about students’ experiences school, such as attendance, GPA, and standardized achievement tests.

To understand the setting and the shift in teachers’ approach to the instructional design and delivery, we conduct classroom observations. We made an observation tool that measures teaching for creativity, metacognition, and high engagement. We survey teachers on dimensions that relate to their own attitude and perceptions and the conditions of the school. We also interview teachers and will look for themes in what we hear as well as opportunities to improve the project. Finally, we also will track the progress of school-wide design work using an implementation science framework. All of these approaches will provide numerous relevant variables that provide potentially important information about each level affected by the project—school, teachers, students, and the larger community.  After data is collected this spring and analyzed over the summer, we will be able to share much more about the effects of project over this past year. We will also be able to share some of the measurement tools that appear to provide reliable, valid, and meaningful information.

This group of students will teach us all a great deal over the next two years before they transition to high school. Their learning, creative expression, and desire to think big will continue to raise the bar for the adults around them. Based on the openness, drive, and collective capacity of the Oaklea team, we are confident they will be able to meet and exceed their student’s expectations for creative engagement in learning.

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