A Forest Most Beautiful

Meet Kelly Tillman, an art educator at Walled Lake Consolidated Schools who teaches a choice-based art classroom and reminds us that — rather than stepping back to see the forest for the trees — it’s often the variation between the trees themselves that makes the forest most beautiful.
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Sometimes, in education, we need to step back to see the forest for the trees.

Other times, however, we need to remember that it’s the variation between the trees themselves that makes the forest most beautiful. 

Kelly Tillman is an art educator at Walled Lake Consolidated Schools. There, she teaches in a “choice-based” art classroom where students are empowered to make creative decisions as though they were professional artists. 

What does a “choice-based” art curriculum look like? During our conversation, Tillman offered an example of an assignment that helped me better understand.

The way she was originally trained to teach art typically involved having all students create very similar pieces as modelled by the instructor. 

For example: One assignment she used to give her students was asking them to draw a specific birch tree in the same exact style.

Today, her choice-based classroom instead invites students into the creative process to create a tree in a style or medium that captivates them. 

“In choice-based learning for art, we’re making the student the artist.”

“In choice-based learning for art, we’re making the student the artist,” she explains. “I’ll say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna draw trees. What kind of tree do you want to draw?’ They might want to do it in a cartoon style or they want to make it 3D. They become the artist and they have to make those decisions on their own instead of me having to make all those decisions for them.” 

After hearing this example, I was awestruck by the image of an art classroom filled with trees of every shape, size, color, and medium. 

Decorated by the finished projects, the classroom itself becomes a vibrant forest where —  instead of every art piece looking similar — each one embodies some aspect of the student’s personality. 

I couldn’t help but think about how much more beautiful this forest would be than one in which all the trees look the same.

The benefits of choice-based learning

A choice-based approach to art instruction is particularly effective at Walled Lake, where the student body itself is very diverse. 

In her art classroom, Tillman works with students from many different backgrounds. She has students who are Chaldean, Japanese, British, Russian, Armenian, and more. At one point, she says, there were speakers of 50-60 different languages represented in her district.

As a result of her choice-based model for learning, Tillman’s art classroom is a place where art of all styles and cultures can thrive.

Since switching over to a choice-based classroom, she’s found both improved student engagement and a reduction in behavioral issues. 

“You get more interesting answers to problems,” she reflects. “When you tell students they have to make the decisions, then they start thinking differently, and they think of things I never would have.”

She attributes the reduction in behavioral issues and the increase in engagement to increased student agency.

“Kids seem to want to participate because it’s their work and their ideas. They’re invested. They want to come, and they want to do the work.”

“Kids seem to want to participate,” she says. “Because it’s their work and their ideas. They’re invested. They want to come, and they want to do the work.”

See also: How Implementing Voice & Choice Can Improve Student Engagement

Assessing a wide variety of student work

One challenge that often arises with choice-based learning is assessment. 

I asked Tillman what tends to hold educators back from offering more choice in their classrooms.

Her answer?

 “I think the thing that holds us back is fear.”

“I think the thing that holds us back is fear,” she says. “Some people worry: If we open project-based learning or choice-based learning, how do we assess that a student is at grade level? How do we prove that the student is learning and meeting all the needs?”

She says that there are no simple answers, but that teachers need to be trusted to find the push and pull to ensure all students are doing their best learning.

See also: We need to give our teachers the professional trust they deserve

Another challenge: For teachers, the prospect of grading such a sheer variety of student assignments can seem overwhelming. 

In the three years since she began a choice-based curriculum, Tillman has learned a few lessons about assessing a wide variety of student work.

“My old method was a rubric,” she explains, “but I quickly realized it wasn’t going to work because all of the students were doing different things. Now I’ve kind of moved to consider: How are students putting their objects together? What is the quality of the final project? Does this look like they did it in 20 seconds? Have they spent some time thinking about it? Do they have a purpose for how they wanted it to look? How did they meet the theme?

This assessment is more process-oriented, inviting students in to reflect on how and why they created their art the way they did.

Tillman also believes grading ought to account for risk-taking and failure as well. After all, failure itself is a critical part of art, of innovation, and more broadly, of learning itself.

“How do you encourage a kid to experiment and explore, even when their experiment doesn’t work out the way they had planned? How can we encourage failure and fit it within our current models for grading?”

“How do you encourage a kid to experiment and explore,” she asks, “even when their experiment doesn’t work out the way they had planned? How can we encourage failure and fit it within our current models for grading? Or perhaps how can we change our model of grading to allow for failure?”

In switching her classrooms over to a choice-based curriculum, Tillman modelled failing forward for her students as part of the innovation process.

“There were a lot of failures,” she reflects.  “I think that it’s a cool thing when kids see a teacher fail. They’d tell me, ‘Oh, Miss Tillman, that did not go well.’ It allowed me to change the conversation to: How do we learn from this? When they see me failing, I hope they feel more comfortable failing themselves.”

Advice for teachers looking to try choice-based learning

Tillman does have some hard-won advice for fellow teachers looking to try choice-based learning in their classroom.

“With any new model, it’s best to go slow.”

“With any new model,” she says, “it’s best to go slow.”

When she moved to choice-based learning, she dove in right away with three classes at three different grade levels. 

“That was the worst plan in the world,” Tillman admits. “If I did it again, I’d maybe start by just changing one lesson at a time and then eventually get to five lessons. Then, I’d start shifting my whole methodology.”

Another word of advice?

“Don’t start with your oldest students because they know the old way, and they might not want to go the new way.”

The change to choice-based learning, she reflects, was easiest for her sixth-grade students who had just transitioned from elementary school to middle school. Since they were already learning in a new way, it was easier for them to anticipate and respond well to the choice-based curriculum at the same time.

The role of technology

I asked Tillman about the role technology plays in her choice-based art classroom. 

There are many uses, she explained, such as allowing students to create a digital portfolio where they can see how their own art has evolved over the years.

But another critical consideration is preparing students for their future careers where technology is a ubiquitous part of professional life.

“It’s important for kids to see that even if you’re a painter or ceramicist, technology is a part of life. You have to embrace it. You can’t forget that piece of it.”

“Technology is huge in the art world,” she says. “The way artists are now selling and working is all based in technology. If you’re forgetting that in the art room, you’re forgetting a huge chunk of how artists are working in the real world. It’s important for kids to see that even if you’re a painter or ceramicist, technology is a part of life. You have to embrace it. You can’t forget that piece of it.”

See also: Using Google Slides To Showcase Student Art And Create An Inviting Online Classroom

Art projects as an option for differentiation

Many leaders in education are advocating for more student choice and agency in our schools. 

Throughout our conversation, Tillman shared her hopes that more non-art teachers will begin offering art as an option for differentiation or project-based learning in their classrooms. 

“I’d love to see the arts included in all subject areas.”

“I’d love to see the arts included in all subject areas,” she says. “It might be a way for students to push that idea of choice instead of maybe taking a test to assess their learning. How might they demonstrate learning through one of the arts mediums?

It can be uncomfortable at first, she says, for non-art teachers to know how to grade an art project, but for some students, being able to express their learning through art can be much more effective and memorable than taking a test.

Tillman gave an example of a school she visited in Washington D.C. where students performed a Hamilton-inspired musical based on their science unit instead of taking a test.

“They wrote the music and everything,” she says. “The teacher reported that the students could tell you everything from that unit because they had memorized the songs.”

The project was not for a theatre class, but a science class, and yet, it was incredibly effective at helping students memorize the key concepts. Not only were they excited to work on the project, but they remembered the content long after the unit was over. 

A beautiful metaphor for personalized learning

After my conversation with Tillman, I couldn’t help but think that her assignment example — in which each student designs a tree in a style of their choosing — serves as an apt metaphor itself for the power and promise of choice-based learning.

When every student submits a tree in a medium or style of their choice, what results is a gallery of art projects that reflects the full diversity of the students themselves. Rather than looking at a bunch of trees created in the same style, you instead are privy to a colorful forest that is far more beautiful than its homogeneous counterpart.

Though literal in Tillman’s class, this metaphor extends beyond the art classroom.

Even in a science classroom or an English classroom or a social studies classroom, by offering students agency over their own learning, you allow them to bring their own unique flavor to class projects. 

When learning becomes theirs, students themselves become the artists, or the scientists, or the authors, or the historians.

When learning becomes theirs, students themselves become the artists, or the scientists, or the authors, or the historians.

Every student is different, Tillman reminds us, and when we create space in our curriculum to honor these differences and allow students to be co-creators of their own learning, the wide array of work that results can be absolutely breathtaking. 

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Nikki Herta

Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

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