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  • Writer's pictureRobin Murphy

3 Years of TAB at the High School Level

In August of 2020, I made the last minute decision to switch my entire teaching style for my high school Studio Art classes. It wasn't a completely blind jump, thankfully, but it was definitely a huge change from the teacher-directed projects I had been used to assigning. I had only just completed my third year of teaching at the high school level and had thought I was happily settling into some projects I planned to reuse for years to come.


Before starting my maternity leave in Spring of the previous school year, I had ordered the books The Open Art Room and Making Artists by Melissa Purtee and Ian Sands. I can't remember exactly what put me on to TAB (Teaching for Artistic Behavior) in the first place, but I was hooked as soon as I began reading these books and had plans to incorporate more choice in my curriculum in the coming years. The structure of my schedule and knowing that I would have repeat students flipped the switch in my brain and I made the decision to dive in to TAB head first in September of 2020. Looking back, the idea of switching my curriculum entirely right after returning from maternity leave and juggling my all-new mom life at the same time was a bold choice, but it turned out ok!


In that first year of my journey towards a choice-based curriculum, I introduced my students to the Studio Habits of Mind and a new project rubric based on these habits, taught them how to use Google Sites to create a blog to post project updates, and created one major project per quarter based around a theme. We did material bootcamps one day a week and had work days to focus on projects the second day. Side note: only seeing my students twice a week for 40 minutes (plus 30 minutes every other Friday) makes it a slow process to open the art room. It felt like we were still working on material and grading procedures in November.


The biggest problem with this format was that some kids finished their project for the quarter way earlier than others, and were just free-floating along trying to keep themselves busy. Many also weren't able to finish larger projects before the next theme was introduced in the following quarter, so they were trying to play catch-up while planning their next project. This format was scratching the itch of providing more choice to my students, but it was adding unnecessary stress for all of us around report cards.


In year 2 of my journey towards TAB, I decided to lose the thematic units and allow students to plan and submit their own projects to me. I would assign a project-planning worksheet at the beginning of each quarter and students would fill it out as soon as they were ready to jump in to a new project. Each week they would post their progress as a blog post and that would be their grade for the week. If they finished a project, they could choose to improve skills with tutorials, turn their project into a series, or start planning their future projects. I only required that they work on one major project each quarter and I would evaluate them based on their progress in this project instead of the finished product, which solves the problem of projects being not-quite-finished by the end of the quarter.



In year 3 (this year), I switched to full student autonomy with projects. I no longer grade based on finished projects at all. Students are free to stop and start whatever they feel they need to focus on during a given work day. The first day of the week is spent focusing on materials, techniques, and art criticism with contemporary artists/art history. The second day is always a work day. The first day of the following week, they have a blog post update due where they need to tell me about their progress from the previous week. This post needs to include photos, a description of their goals and how they are meeting or plan to meet them (based on our state art standards), and what part of the Creative Process they are currently in. At the end of each quarter, their big assessment grade is based on a self-reflection of their progress throughout the quarter.




So far there is still a lot I might change in the coming years, but I'm thrilled that my grades are no longer based on students' pre-existing skill levels, but on their growth. It's always been important to me that students feel like they can be successful in art, and the teacher-directed projects with a predetermined outcome never quite felt like the most effective way to move students towards creativity and meaningful artmaking.


The student buy-in has been fantastic and it seems as though every student has accomplished something they find meaningful and has gained some new skills along the way. In the first year of TAB, I found students were much more focused on their work and would actually work silently for the first time in my career. I know I'm toeing the line of my class becoming a free-for-all now, but I much prefer that battle to pure apathy.


All in all, I'm so in love with the TAB philosophy and each fall I am reinvigorated when planning the structure of my classes. I love seeing what some autonomy can do for the authenticity of student work!

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