Teacher Scholar Voices

Connecting to Creativity in the Elementary Art Classroom

Teacher Scholar Voices
 First grade students are amazing. They come to art class full of stories and excitement about trying something new. It’s not difficult to connect them to their creativity—give first graders an opening and their creativity flows with ease onto the paper. The three images below were done while looking at flowers in vases set up on the students’ tables: there’s a still life on an earth with people, watercolor splashed freely over an ink drawing. . .and the third image . . . this student became so engaged with using oil pastel on her painting that the still life disappeared altogether under the energetic multicolor drawing and scraping.

still life grade 1 people on earth          still life grade 1 splashy         still life grade 1 disappears under pastel

In my position as Art Specialist in an elementary school, I see students grades 1 – 5. My goal is to help students keep that connection to creativity open as they move through the grades and develop the skills they need to participate in the complex thinking process that goes into creating works of art. A core component of learning in my art class revolves around this question: How can I balance helping students develop their art skillsuse of tools, techniques, media and processesand nurture and refine their ability to communicate imaginative, creative thinking in original works of art? I have devoted much of my seven-year participation in teacher action research investigating it, including the last four years of my work with Mills Teacher Scholars.

Starters—A way to help students gather visual knowledge at the same time as they develop their own ideas and thinking

An exciting outcome of my teacher action research journey has been the Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 1.35.22 PMexamination and implementation of what I like to call starters. Starters help
students get their hands and minds moving to make those first marks on the paper at the same time as they practice specific art techniques, tools, materials and processes. In addition, the starter initiates a process for students where they access and use their own ideas while they draw or paint.

As a next step in my investigation of starters, my inquiry work this year focused on observational sketching as a starter. With this strategy, students begin an art-creating experience by going directly to the source to observe a subject in multiple sketching sessions. Students also practice incorporating their own ideas, primarily in the background of their sketches as they draw. Students are also invited to make changes to the subject at any point during the drawing session. Consequently, every time students do observational sketching, they have opportunities to include elements that come from observation, memory and imagination.

What I’ve found is that over time with practice, inviting students to combine observations with personal memories and imagination gives students permission to make the art their own. Students gain confidence and mastery in applying skills according to directions but also concrete, daily practice in how, when and where to diverge from an art assignment using their own ideas, imaginations and experience.

Why Include Imagination & Memory In Observational Sketching?

An important component of 21st century skills is for students to practice creativity, to be innovators, to use their own ideas in combination with what they know, to be autonomous and flexible in a variety of situations . . . all this takes practice! To that end, I have found that observational sketching is a great place to begin to ask students to take what they see & combine it with their own thinking.

My experience with students is that they are much more engaged and excited to draw if they have somewhere in the drawing where they can express themselves, be funny, make crazy, outlandish & wonderful connections and create situations that have never been seen before.

Additionally, I’ve observed that giving students a starter helps them feel safe, get those first marks on the paper and their minds and hands moving. I ask students to begin the sketch with the observation; I also invite them to diverge from the observation once they have laid down some observational lines, shapes or colors. Starting with the observation gets students drawing and once they start to draw, often the thoughts begin to flow and one thing leads to another.

I leave the background or set up to the student—this is the place where students can feel assured they will always have a place in a drawing where they can insert their own thinking. Furthermore, leaving the background up to students is a great way to engage students in problem solving. To create a background, students begin to think about things like: Where am I going to put the subject I’m drawing? Is it outside, inside, on another planet, under the water? What is the weather and time of day? And how would my subject interact with this environment; What would the subject be doing? Students also engage with thinking about prior knowledge & experience, such as: How am I going to draw a rainy sky from memory? What do I remember about the colors & shapes of clouds? What else do I remember seeing in the sky that I could add to my drawing?

Inquiry Tools: My Camera and iPhoto

I’ve used various tools and methods for collecting evidence over the years but by far my favorite and most practical tool in my action research toolbox has been the camera. I take lots of photos of student work—as many as possible . . . entire classes, entire grades if I have time. iPhoto is also a great tool. It allows me to scan groups of student work quickly and easily so that I can ask myself questions about what I see.

Generally, the standard action research formula involves picking three or four focal students to help focus the inquiry—I diverged from this formula and tracked entire classes and grades. One of my primary goals was to have as much evidence in the form of student art as possible—I felt this was critical because in order to confirm that students were understanding what it means to diverge from the starter, I knew I should see evidence of a wide variety of expressions and ideas within groups of student work. Example 1 below is a screen shot from iPhoto—this contact sheet of one grade five class is a good example of the variety I see when students are connecting to their creativity, personal expression and originality. In Example 2, I have pulled out six student examples showing different ways students approached creating their composition.Untitled

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 11.10.09 AM

Example 2: Student Work

A further benefit of taking so many photos of student work: looking at and analyzing student work is incredibly inspirational and generative. If I am ever at a loss for where to go next with a class, the work itself opens up my mind and helps me connect to the students and where they are at in their skills and ability to express their thinking.

The Big Question—Can Creativity Be Taught?

In their much talked about 2010 article in Newsweek, “The Creativity Crisis,” authors Bronson and Merryman write, “Creativity has always been prized in American society, but its never really been understood. Not understanding creativity . . . I hear this from teachers, read it in books, hear it in the media. What an odd place I find myself in, aspiring to teach something that many express a worry about not understanding. But I’m not worried. After years of looking closely at my students learning through inquiry,  I’ve realized it’s not so much about “How can I teach creativity?” or ‘How can I tell students how to be creative?” It’s more about letting the students do the thinking, giving them as many opportunities as possible within safe boundaries to express themselves, explore their ideas, memories, imaginations and develop the skills that allow them to make those thoughts and ideas visible. I trust that creativity will happen if I invite it into my classroom and allow it the time and space it needs to grow.

To read more about observational sketching, starters and examples of student work on my website:

For more reading about observation, memory, and imagination, and other great ways to encourage creativity, go to Marvin Bartels website at: https://www.goshen.edu/art/ed/creativitykillers.html


IMG_3885A California native raised in San Diego, Susan Deming received her Bachelor’s Degree in Art Studio from U.C. Davis and a teaching credential in Art from San Diego State University.  She moved to Oakland in 1988 where she worked for several years as a freelance illustrator creating greeting cards and a series of four nature board books for Chronicle Books.  She now devotes her time to teaching art and raising her son, Isaac.  She also continues to paint small gouache, watercolor and acrylic paintings with a focus on nature and children. She has been teaching at Roosevelt since Fall, 2012, participating in the Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry group for several years.