How to Teach Middle School Art with Studio Time

middle school girl sawing wood

As a middle school art teacher, I am often inspired by my students.  Middle schoolers are knee deep in the messy process of trying to figure out who they are, what they stand for, and what makes them unique as people.  They ask the big questions.  They begin to rebel against the constant adult monitoring of earlier times, but they are still seeking adult feedback and approval.  Middle schoolers are filled with ideas and longing to give their ideas form, but they are still unsure of their ability to do so.

Therein lies the tricky spot I find my students in when they arrive in middle school, in terms of their creative output.  With the background of elementary school art classes, students tend to think there is a “right” or a “wrong” way to make art.  A middle schooler’s natural drive to assign labels and organize people into groups leads them to decide that they are either “good” or (especially) “bad” at art.  Loosening up those labels is part of my job.

Give Students Freedom to Explore their Creative Sides

middle schoolers and teachers making clay potsAt Arthur Morgan School, art classes are structurally different than what most students have experienced. Most of them are accustomed to being given an assignment and told how to do it. They expect to be kept in a single room. They fear taking ownership over their work and don’t instinctively seek out resources for themselves.  In trying to empower them through the arts, I challenge them to make work that is their own.  I ask them what they want to make, and offer them my help and feedback. 

Shedding the mentality that they have to have an assignment in order to think of something to make is difficult, but it’s worth it.  Helping them to see that the act of making something is itself a worthy goal, and that anyone can do it, is what our art classes try to encourage.  And now, we have another tool: Studio Time!

Provide Students with Opportunities for Free Expression

middle schoolers and teacher examining a box in a wood shopStudio Time is a new addition to Arthur Morgan School’s schedule this year. Students love working in our various art spaces, even using their free time to do so, but that didn’t feel like enough. We wanted to provide them with a designated time each week to devote to their creative projects. Studio Time allows them to experiment and express themselves without a project looming over their heads.

Students have many different reasons for doing independent creative work.  Many of them were exposed to new methods of making things during the Settler of AMS unit. They found they connected with a particular material and wanted to play with it more. Some students are aspiring artists, needing space to focus on finding their voice and building a portfolio. Others students have a practical problem that can be solved in our art spaces like building a shelf for their cubby or making an amplifier for their iPod speaker.  Whatever their reason, Studio Time provides the opportunity to get that work done but also get mentoring assistance if needed.

We hope that as students continue to see their ideas come to life in their own hands, they will develop the understanding that all judgments of artwork are relative and provisional.  As middle schoolers they are increasingly striving for greater detail and realism in their artwork, while experiencing incredibly intense thoughts and feelings about how they fit into the world.  By providing them a safe space to practice their crafts and experiment freely, the judgments they make of their own work and that of others are more gentle.

Empower Students to Express Themselves

middle schooler playing guitarThe most powerful thing about Studio Time is that the students themselves decide how they will use it.  With Settlers of AMS under their belts, they have the confidence to go into our art studios and use the spaces the way that best meets their needs.  Staff members are just there to check in. It is not a class.  It is a time for students to ask themselves, “What do I want to make?” and to make it!

Recently, the students wanted to expand Studio Time to include performing arts.  By bringing a proposal to All School Meeting, students decided that Studio Time will also include music, theater, and dance.  Students can use this time to play instruments or practice their performance skills.  The entire school community was supportive of the change. If the goal of Studio Time is for middle schoolers  to learn how to express themselves, then adding new possibilities will only increase that learning.

-By Natalie Monaghan

Arthur Morgan School’s art program offers lots of different opportunities for students to express themselves.
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