"Eyes on Progressive Education" Blog

A Green Acres School journal that chronicles progressive education in action, the research that supports and informs our practice, and ways in which we live out our mission each and every day.


5th & 6th Grade Art: Promoting Innovation and Creativity, Fostering Joy and Curiosity

Shellie, Art Teacher

What does progressive education look like in the middle school art room? In the lower school, we talk about fostering a sense of wonder, curiosity and joy in our young students. This idea holds true for our middle school students as well. In the art classroom, projects are designed to encourage students to maintain their curious and joyful nature while, at the same time, challenging them to stretch their minds and think beyond the obvious and expected. 

Progressive education is largely based on the ideas of the philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey who believed that children learn through experiences and not through rote memorization. This experiential approach is vital to the way middle school students learn in the art room. Each project gives students the opportunity to explore different mediums and build a skill set that allows for greater choice of expression. As the art teacher who sees each child as they move from grade to grade, I am able to help them build upon these skills sequentially. They are introduced to different drawing, painting, printing, and sculpting techniques, and they expand this knowledge from year to year. I tell the children that art is a skill just like learning to play soccer or the piano. The more you practice the skills, the more you improve. By the time they reach 5th and 6th grades, they are able to use the artistic abilities they have developed to expand their creativity and make their visions reality. 

That’s not to say that students only create in the art room. The curriculum incorporates open-ended questions and discussions as well. Art teaches children that there is more than one solution to a problem and that questions can have more than one answer. Each project begins with an open-ended question that often leads to a lively debate. I love seeing the students engaged and actively participating in discussions. Many of the students have a wonderful ability of defending their positions and beliefs while, at the same time, remaining open to what their fellow classmates have to say. 

In 5th grade, the overarching essential question is “What is art?” We begin the semester looking at different images and, in small groups, the students decide whether what they are looking at is art or not. The students are easily able to identify paintings, drawings, and sculptures as art, but can a chair be art? What about a shoe or a car? After deciding as a group to call it art or not, the students then present their findings to the rest of the class. Through this process, the class comes up with a definition of art and multiple answers to the essential question. Next, they explore this question through hands-on projects. To expand on this question, students debate whether graffiti is art or vandalism (or both!) and create their own graffiti with the theme of social awareness. They debate what constitutes artists’ materials and tools. Are they limited to traditional materials such as paint and clay or can Legos or recycled materials be used to create art as well? Can craft materials like felt and sequins be considered “fine art”? 

In 6th grade, the students spend the semester trying to answer the question, “What is the purpose of art?” Looking at different images of art from around the world and from different historical periods, the students come up with different purposes including art as expression, ceremonial, historical, political, spiritual, communication and more. The projects presented for this unit help students to explore this question more deeply. For example, this year, students looked at different self-portraits and discussed why artists make them. They then created their own self-portraits with the intent of telling the viewer something about themselves through their facial expressions and poses. We also discussed Vodou sequined banners from Haiti and why artists create them. To make this project relevant to their own lives, the students created their own banners with personal meanings. 

Albert Einstein may have said it best: “A society’s competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity.” The goal of art is to enable students to express themselves visually when words are inadequate, to see the world in a new way, to become creative problem solvers, to understand the viewpoint of others, to promote innovation and creativity, and to foster joy and curiosity. My goal is to create an atmosphere of joyful learning where students feel safe to explore and to express themselves visually.

Posted by Mrs. Sara Kendall Huneke in Middle School, Lower School on Wednesday March, 6

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