photo from Shelly's video, TABS Choice Learning
So here was the challenge: how can I create a studio environment that is effective for middle school? 

I told the kids I was going to stop teaching (teacher pause)….loud student cheering…. like I have been teaching. I will now only teach about 10 minutes each day. 

"Huh? What was that? What do you mean?" they said. 

"You will now get to choose what kind of art YOU want to create! Anything you want... BUT it has to get approval from me. This will be difficult to do, but I think you are smart and up for that challenge!"

I realized it was all in the buy-in. Did they buy in to this way of creating art? I was determined to make them think it was the most amazing thing in the world. 

I structured everything into the "Eight Studio Habits of Mind." The book, Studio Thinking 2, by Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema, and Kimberly M. Sheridan, illustrates this way of thought best. The Studio Habits are as follows: 

photo credit; Pinterest.com
1. Understanding Art Worlds:
Domain: Learning about art history and current practice. Communities: Learning to interact as an artist with other artists (i.e., in classrooms, in local arts organizations, and across the art field) and within broader society.

2. Stretch and Explore: 
Learning to reach beyond one’s capacities, to explore playfully without a preconceived plan, and to embrace the opportunity to learn from mistakes and accidents. 

3. Reflect: 
Question and Explain: Learning to think and talk with others about an aspect of one’s work or working process. 
Evaluate: Learning to judge one’s own work and working process, and the work of others in relation to standards of the field. 

4. Observe: Learning to attend to visual contexts more closely than ordinary “looking” requires, and thereby to see things that otherwise might not be seen.

5. Develop Craft: 
Technique: Learning to use tools (e.g., viewfinders, brushes), materials (e.g., charcoal, paint); learning artistic conventions (e.g., perspective, color mixing) Studio Practice: Learning to care for tools, materials and space. 

6. Engage and Persist: Learning to embrace problems of relevance within the art world and/or of personal importance, to develop focus and other mental states conducive to working and persevering at art tasks. 

7. Envision: Learning to picture mentally what cannot be directly observed and imagine possible next steps in making a piece. 

8. Express: Learning to create works that convey an idea, a feeling, or a personal meaning. 

photo from Shelly's video, TABS Choice Learning
In the book, the authors present the Habits of Mind in an oval because they believe they are non-hierarchical, so none logically come first or last. The belief is that these should not be taught in a set sequence. Any habit can begin a project and should create a dynamic generative energy. 

So, the first step was designing my space - I needed flow! I didn’t need students constantly bumping into each other and I made sure to put my "Painting," "Sculpture and Mask Making," and "Clay" stations closest to my sinks. My "Digital Media" needed to be as far away from anything liquid as possible. I also was selective about how many students I would allow at each station. I needed to get in my head a maximum number of kids I wanted to work at "Sculpture." 

You are still only one person. This type of teaching makes you feel like an octopus, mind you! I decided I would only allow one student at a time at "Clay." This is a personal preference. I only let three in "Sculpture," four in "Drawing," and so forth. This is something you will have to determine yourself on what you can manage and the number of students in your class as well as how many different type of stations you set up. I also close some stations down. I may not have had the opportunity to demonstrate that area yet. So, until I get to a lesson that teaches students how to use it, RED light on that area.

Now comes the teaching part. The key is 5-10 minute popcorn lessons. There is a time and a place for long lessons. This is an exploratory type of learning. Again, you are there to guide and push THEIR creativity. 

photo credit: Shelly Bailey
Demonstrate different media. Show them how to create a printing foam plate, ink a plate, describe the tools and their proper names. Make lots of posters to hang over each section. Label the parts of a brush and so forth. When you speak to the kids, reference their tools by the proper names. Remind them to read the binders at each table for information. I provide tablets and Chromebooks for students to use as reference tools as well as tons of lesson books, text books, and a variety of picture examples. 

I try very hard to not answer their questions. Yes, I have become that teacher who answers a question with a question! This way of teaching is VERY exciting for students BUT very hard. It will frustrate them a great deal because they don’t want to sit and listen to you but they also don’t want to explore the answers themselves. They want you to tell them how or do it for them. Resist the urge to do this. It is not about you, but about them and how well they are absorbing the process. 

TAB or Choice Based Learning is all in the process! 

TAB stands for TEACHING for ARTISTIC BEHAVIOR. TAB recognizes the student as an artist. That word is important to use. This will build self confidence and self esteem. They are to design their own work. This helps a student to understand what they are doing to become more vested in the end result. I can’t tell you how many times students get ten minutes into a project and come to me and ask if they can move to another station. My answer is always emphatically, "No." 

I will NEVER let a student give up. 

photo credit: Shelly Bailey
It is always super important to help direct their thoughts without doing the work for them. Reference them to samples, send them to teacher approved Youtube channels, demonstrate personally. Ask them open ended questions. None of those "Yes/No" answers! The beauty of this way of teaching is that students can work at their own pace. I had to throw mass production and tons of completed work "out the window!" Some students spend 5 weeks on one project. I have no problem with this if they are engaged and always working. 

The idea is about quality and understanding, not about quantity. The reality is that you are always going to get someone who decides they are just going to sit and do nothing and drag it out. Let me remind you that you are not giving "G’s" for "Good" in middle school. You are giving grades. So, how do you grade if you have a student who only makes two projects for a semester and another who produces five? The answer is simple: daily class participation grades. Yes, that is very elementary! However, you have to be aware of what is going on in your room. You can not sit at your desk and answer emails and get wrapped up in writing a lesson plan. You have to pay attention at all times to what is happening in your room; more specifically, what your students have done to stay on task. I will redirect a few times but then I remind my students that if I see them not working, it is a zero for the day. 

photo credit; Shelly Bailey
I am an all or nothing kind of gal, too. Coloring one section of your piece that is the size of a quarter does not equate 100% participation for the day. I will give a zero for that. They always panic when they see they don’t have a 100 in art. You will hear, “Will I move to the next grade if I fail your class?” The answer is not one you want to advertise as being a "yes." This is something they need to get used to. As I am also the teacher at the high school and I am trying to prepare them for a more intense grading system when they join me over there. I spend the majority of my day teaching 9th-12th graders. I travel at the very end of the day to teach one course at the middle school. I would love to see them have a full time art teacher at both schools. However, right now that is not in the cards. So I do the best I can to prepare the students I do have at the middle school for high school life and try to "unbaby" them. 

So, how does a day look? I start with a popcorn lesson. It may be a demonstration about different drawing tools and how to use them. The parts of a brush, how to use watercolor paint and different techniques, one point perspective, using paper mache, or how to create a pinch pot. You get the idea! 

I go full on elementary level with them. It works! I sit in a chair and make my students sit around me on the floor. This guarantees I have their full attention. If I need to demonstrate, I will set up a small table in front of them or an easel. 

Students are also required to create a plan before they can create. The first time we began, I wrote each child’s name on a piece of paper and drew their name from a bowl. They got to choose where they wanted to go. This was a lottery system of sorts to get them started. As students begin to finish projects they come to me and ask which station is open and where could they go work. 

photos from Shelly's video, TABS Choice Learning

I have paper plans for the kids to fill out and they are required to create a sketch of what they want to make. I have to initial this plan before they can begin work. I make them save ALL plans and sketches. I have folders for each class. This is a great way to assess their progress. This is what I love about TAB teaching. You can really see student growth and development. 

I am going to be honest. My kids really get frustrated because my standards are very high. They want to draw a person and bring me a cartoon. I make them start again and go read books on proper proportions and watch videos. Then I will sit with the student and help them step by step periodically. When students finish their final piece they always have to fill out an artist statement form. It is important they still understand the elements of art and principles of design. They have to have a title for their art and be able to explain their inspiration. It’s one thing to make art, but they also have to be able to talk about it. Since I adopted TAB teaching, I have noticed the students get very excited when they finish a piece! They revert back to that first grade child who splits their face in half with a smile when I hug them and tell them what a wonderful job they did and how much they learned in the process. I always point out their struggles and how they overcame. 

photo from Shelly's video, TABS Choice Learning

I have far fewer discipline issues. Students are doing what they want to do so they are engaged. You will still always have something that happens in class. It is almost impossible to develop a perfect group of 20+ hormonal preteens/teens. However, they are old enough to understand sarcasm. I will say my own teenagers taught me many things over the years. When they show out, I shut them down. I have no problem teasing a child into submission. It is all in how you do it though. They have to know you love them. You can’t make fun of a kid and it come across as mean. They have to see your heart behind your eyes. For example, my kids are very smart. BUT, they still want to do as little as humanly possible and look for the easiest solution to creating something. They will bring me a sketch and I will ask them if they are 5 or 12? They always grin and drop their head. They know. Meaning….they know I am on to them. They have gotten to where they come to me and I just say no to a drawing and point to the resource center. 

I have heard so many times from my other students, “You know that is not complicated enough for her! You have to go put more stuff in your drawing.” OR “That doesn’t look real enough.” They have started helping each other. That is the most amazing thing to witness because they are peer helping. They are critiquing each other’s work. Which is something you want to happen. The beauty is, it naturally happens if you stick to high standards. 

I push them like high school students. They are very capable. They go through some sort of process in art with me now. They don’t like me at first. Who is this woman who is always telling me I need to do more? This is soooooo hard! But half way though they all get a break through. By the end they don’t want to leave and see me in the halls now and tell me how much they miss art. 

They miss ART, ya’ll!! Deep breath, sigh.


After all, aren’t we all teaching art because we love it and are trying to teach others to appreciate the arts? Now back to the reality. Do I have students I struggle with? Who I wish I could pinch? Sure. I still have to write students up. This didn’t cure all misbehavior. Everyone has experienced that one student no matter how hard you try, has a chip on their shoulder and works super hard to be bad. I just have to tell myself they are children, no matter how large they are. 

photo credit: Shelly Bailey
Lastly, their work is very impressive. I love the surprise I experience regularly about different talents my kids possess. It doesn’t take long for the kids to find out they thrive in painting but don’t like weaving. Or, that they love the thrill of having messy hands with starch as they build an amazing creation or dislike the tedious nature of hand stitching. Or, it could be just the opposite. They hate being messy but love the detail work of hand stitching or weaving. They really are exploring a lot of different media! If they have an idea and it doesn’t fit the mold somewhere, I am always open to listening and trying to help them work out a plan to complete it. 

The key here is to try and expose them to as much as possible and allow them to explore. Not all classrooms will work this way. I have too much to teach at the high school to operate a classroom like this at that level. However it works beautifully at the middle school. I suppose I do a version of choice at my advanced Art 3 and Art 4 levels at the high school. Elementary school might choose to do TAB days. You don’t have to set up an entire room to TAB teaching to still use this method. You can have just a few centers set up. Make up a "Fun Friday" on the elementary level. Create a sticker chart where a class has to earn a certain number of stickers for good behavior. Once they have achieved the right number, give them a Fun Friday and do a version of TAB centers. Get creative on how you explore this method. I personally love it and will not go back to my old way at the middle school level. It just works way too well and my students are so much more pleasant and producing amazing pieces of art. TAB is a new way of life for me and one I love so very much!

If you have any questions or would like me to share any lessons or documents with you I am happy to email you what I have. 

Many Blessings and Happy Creating!

Shelly Bailey

Below is a video Shelly created about the process of transforming a middle school art classroom into a TAB studio environment: "Shelly Bailey TABS Choice Learning"

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article by Mrs. Shelly Bailey

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