Category Archives: Teaching Art to Children

Successful art teaching strategies and ways to build a supportive environment conducive to art making.

“Yes, and…” How Improv and Design Thinking Set Me Free

“So how do I just let it all be, bear witness and get into the swing? I love Ellington’s tune, “It don’t mean thing (if it ain’t got that swing).” Just let it be. Bear witness to the voices and the instruments–whether it’s a jazz band or life–and then move with them, flow with them. If you can do that, then you’ll be a lot happier because in life you’re always in a band and you’re always swinging. You’re not forcing anything and you’re not being forced.” 

How does this paragraph make you feel?
Because I feel alright. Like all is well and as it should be and my only human task is to ride the wave of life, be aware of what is and react in a positive way that supports the humans, animals and earth around me. That may seem a bit far out there to you at first, but let me put it into context: I work as a Visual Arts teacher of young children, so I can’t help but relate this idea to the ways of the educator and the way we manage our learning space.

Take for example “you’re not forcing anything and you’re not being forced” from the passage above. Traditionally, classrooms have been spaces that have a full-plated agenda and many tasks that must be followed to meet the goals of that set agenda. Maybe your state mandates a set of benchmarks, hence being “forced” and the teacher must “force” this agenda on her students. I have led many activities that begin with a step-by-step demonstration and follow with students forcing those same steps in the exact order to produce a product that looks quite similar to the one I made in the introduction of the activity. This type of teaching does have great success, if a specific product is what your are wishing to achieve. I am not undermining the need for goals, but I am challenging the way we go about achieving our goals with students. Recently, I have tasted something that has opened me up to who my students really are, what they are capable of and how I can be the one who can “move with them, flow with them”. I can be the adult who meets them where they are and supports them on a personal and more meaningful path of learning.


Don Buckley gave me my first taste of how leaning into what is can help teachers become more aware of where problems begin and therefore more successful at solving them. This process has a name. It is simply: Design Thinking. Don taught me that my students already have the answers; that they are holders of an endless amount of innovative ideas and that they are capable of fulfilling tasks that I may have already pre-fabricated for them. During a one-day workshop, Don encouraged participants to roam the campus asking students about the qualities of their best teachers. These simple interviews would later be used as data to inform a new product to benefit teachers and students. It’s so simple, right? If you want to know what students are getting out of their school experience, then gee, why not ASK THEM?! And this is why I have given myself over to the question. That curvy and confident open-ended interrogative clause that screams “I can be anything”. But these questions are not confined. They do not ask: “What color is this?”, insinuating a proper answer. Rather, they curiously wonder: “What do you notice about this color?” These questions leave so much space for creativity. They value risk taking and they thrive on possibility.

If you are an educator, you may be thinking: “Oh that’s totally Inquiry-Based Learning !”, and you are right on. Leading a learning experience with guiding questions, or a Query if you’re teaching at a Quaker school, puts students’ questions at the center of a curriculum. But my story does not end here, rather it just begins. Because inquiry has led me to feel comfortable with “moving and flowing and swinging” with what is. Using Inquiry-Based ideas to guide my teaching has enabled me to accept what is happening in my studio, ask questions that further dissect a situation and decide where to go next rather than take control and drive it where I think it should move to. Bernie Glassman comments on swinging with what is: “You’ll get more done because you are allowing the creativity to flow”.
Which brings us to the intersection of Inquiry and Improv. The first rule of Improvisational Theater leaves no space for contradictions and praises the phrase “Yes, and…”. It asks you to accept where you are, notice the temperature, and make a helpful move to support the group. Can you think of a more clear mirror image of what teaching offers to us each day? Have you ever felt a pain in your chest when you direct a student to a place where they were not naturally headed to just because you had a deadline? Or tried to manipulate the environment in a way that just was not mean to be? That is a clear sign that you are trying to control rather than accepting reality.
So I gave up my need to control every minute of instruction time, took up improv, and have been using a Design Thinking approach to empowering my students and building their self-efficacy.

Here is how I began:

At the start of every school year, all artists in grades 2-5 construct a portfolio, a 24” x 36” paper folded in half and taped at the two shorter sides. In the past, I have demonstrated where to fold, how to tape, where to place your name, etc. This past year I stopped controlling the framework and simply began by asking students a few guiding questions: “What is a portfolio? Why do we need it and what do we use it for? How can we make it more fun to use? stronger, easier to navigate through? interactive?” No more forcing for me, I was putting it all on my young artists because they CAN handle it.

And so they blew my mind with ideas. I was fueled by “Yes, and I have these tiny envelopes that will be a great size” andYes, and you can attach it easier with this tab”. The ideas belonged to THEM and I was a supportive figure offering materials and simple skills to help manifest their innovative ideas.

Don’s courses on Design Thinking have also helped me ask thoughtful questions to achieve the juicy answers I really want but didn’t know how to get. Take end of the year assessments, for instance. In the past I have utilized a questionnaire or a one on one interview but never found out deeper ideas about my students as artists.


Until I asked my fourth graders what it was like to be a fourth grade artist. And this is an example of what I got back. Look at these complex illustrations of what happens in a young artists brain. Pure Brilliance. There is so much information there in pictures that I can use for a juicy discussion. And now I have a deeper awareness how capable my students are and can use this data when designing future assignments.


So I attribute my new insights to the genius that is Don Buckley, an understanding of improvisational theater and its ability to lead me on my path to freedom from constant control. And lastly, Bernie Glassman on going with the flow of things:
“In life you’re always in a band and you’re always swinging”.

The passage at the top is from The Dude and the Zen Master by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman. If you are a fan of The Dude and dig anything Zen, it is a joyful ride. 

I’ll leave you with a few wall spreads of encouraging playing cards that my fifth grade artists designed in September to fuel a year of creative thinking and risk taking.

I challenge you to begin your units with curious questions. Remember what it feels like to be in charge of your learning adventure and what types of steps spark your sense of wonder and generate pure excitement and motivation.
And then please tell me about it!


Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching Art to Children

What is the role of the Art Display?

Each year the National Art Educators Association holds a conference for educators from around the country to come together and share great ideas. This year’s theme is The Art of Design

The conference, this year held in New Orleans, will take place over 3 days and include thousands of opportunities for shared dialogue and meaning making.


I have a passion to share: It involves the role of the art display. You know, the stunning masterpieces that live on the walls of schools, dress up art galleries and also share space on your refrigerator.

My question is grounded in the choices we make when curating an art exhibition and the message we are communicating through what we choose to display. I like to include process photos:


So much magic happens in the art studio everyday, and I want the world to know it. Every picture tells a story and, along with written summaries and student anecdotes, adding these to our art exhibitions will help educate the public about the powerful role the arts play in the development of the whole child.

This year, at NAEA 2015, I will be presenting on this topic. If you are at all curious, feel free to download PDF: TheInteractiveArtDisplay2015

Hang your child’s art with pride,
xoxo -MJ

1 Comment

Filed under Inspiration, Teaching Art to Children

Zooming In


Artist Georgia O’Keefe once said “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.” Her most famous works are large scale flower portraits. Georgia zoomed in on each flower and illustrated their form to help us witness the fine detail and beauty in this tiny living thing.


While observing the life of a paperwhite for a three week period of time, students documented the growth through time-lapse photography as well as observational drawing. Students looked closely and created a contour line drawing each week for three weeks in an accordion-style book and wrote about their observations.


We were careful to place the table line and jar in the same place on each page so that the viewer had context of size and growth from a baby bulb to a 2. 5 foot tall blossom (yes, we are scientists and recorded measurements too).


Enter IMAGINATION. We observed Georgia’s flower portraits and noted on her zoomed-in approach. Using our knowledge of flower petals and our imagination, we developed our own petal and created a personal flower portrait that illustrated our understanding of cropping and zooming in.









We used ink to make our drawing more defined. We work slow and practice mindfulness when using this permanent material.


We noticed how Georgia had knowledge of warm and cool color families. We choose one family to incorporate into our petal spaces and our blossom was born.


We explored mixing the colors that Crayola manufactured for us to invent our own warm and cool creations. If we didn’t like a shade, we changed it. We practice perseverance.

photo (10)

We take pride in our creations.

The next time you spot a blossom, prove Georgia wrong and STOP and see the flower. Feel it, smell it. Savor it. Life is beautiful.




Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching Art to Children

Collaborative Art Making with Rangoli

“Saal Mubarak to All! May your new year be filled with good health, happiness and love”.
I was inspired by this proclamation recently shared via social media by a friend and colleague. What came next was a collaborative art making activity that gave students the opportunity to explore symmetry and design as well as promote cultural awareness.

fifth grade Rangoli

This time of year many celebrate Diwali, the Hindu New Year. The colleague and friend I mentioned above gave a meaningful presentation to our lower school on Diwali this past week. We learned that one of the traditions of this festival of lights is making Rangoli and placing your creation at your doorstep to greet and welcome visitors to your home.

rangoli w/color frame

After learning so much about Diwali, we were inspired to create our own Rangoli in the art studio. Traditionally colored sand and glitters are used to create these symmetrical assemblages, but we decided to use nature (and a few artist-made objects too).

forest mandala

Students worked collaboratively to construct their designs. We discussed the Quaker Decision-Making Process and were reminded that EVERYONE has a voice and that it is our role to make sure we all have the opportunity to share our ideas. We discussed how the group is stronger than the individual and that communicating with each other will help the art making experience to be productive and positive for all involved.

placement is key

I heard students discuss which materials to use and where to place them. Objects were re-arranged to compromise the groups design choices. Young artists were motivated to make this a fun and successful activity and positive thoughts and compliments were bursting like fireworks.

In the midst of it all I heard a student share this anecdote : “We all work together on it and that’s the best part.”

nature assemblage

After our assemblages were complete, we took the time to reflect on our efforts and share with the class. We shared our process, revealed hidden meanings and asked questions to clarify ideas.

caran d'ache mandala

The next day, we discussed the mathematics behind forming a symmetrical design. We began in the center and added lines and shapes around the center in an outward motion to expand our design. We shared strategies for maintaining the symmetry in our design.

caran d'ache rangoli

We chose a family of colors to bring our design to life and thought about how they could help support our need for symmetry in our Rangoli design.


Why would a square piece of paper be a good choice to create a circular design on?
What colors would you include in your design?
What image would you place in the center of your design?
What does your Rangoli design say about you as an artist/thinker?

Saal Mubarak to All!
-Ms. Allegra

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching Art to Children

Happy New Beginnings

Maybe it is because my birthday falls in the month of August that I perceive the annual cycle to end and begin in the summer; I finished each grade level as one age, and began the next as a year older. Or maybe it is because being an educator is written in my genetic code and that is just the way I was programmed. This time of year brings excitement and the promise of a brand new adventure.

Are you eager for the beginning of school? How do you feel when you anticipate the initiation of a new routine?

I am eating up any anxiety by focusing my energy on productivity. Literally. I am producing worksheets to help develop learning experiences. Because if they are interesting to look at, I will be more likely to use them, right?
Heather at The Bees Knees Cousin developed her own planner which inspired me to do the same. I have been playing around just in Word and am discovering how much I appreciate soft shapes and grey tones.

Here’s a look at what I have generated so far…

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 12.45.46 PM


and if you fancy the portrait layout,

Screen Shot 2014-08-21 at 12.44.05 PM

If you want to test them out, download a copy here: Visual Planner 2014

How do you spend these early days prepping for the new year?

Have a productive day,
xo MJ

Leave a comment

Filed under Inspiration, Teaching Art to Children

NAEA 2014 in SanDiego

I am presenting at the NAEA conference in SanDiego, CA the last weekend in March. The National Art Education Association conference occurs once every year rotating throughout major cities in the US. It is a whirlwind of inspiration for artist and art educators and I am thrilled to be sharing my passion this year. If you are curious about enhancing your art display through a variety of interactive and educational media, take a seat and check out my slide presentation. I have no doubt you will discover something new and your eyes will thank you for the visual experience. You can view it by clicking here:  The Art Display as a Learning Object

I will also be presenting an Art&Science curriculum I have developed with my colleagues and sharing successful strategies for collaborating with other teachers and disciplines. View The Art Science Connection to discover how these two magical worlds support one another and share so many learning objectives. Click on the photo below to be linked to actual learning experiences from my sister site, ArtEngine.


Have you attended any conferences or presentations lately?

Share what fuels your fire.

Your fellow life-long learner,

Leave a comment

Filed under Teaching Art to Children

2 Awesome 2 Pass Up



I just had to share this fabulous photo with you all.
You can’t help but feel that gesture. Do you dig it?

I am grateful for the unique instances a photograph can capture so much in a flash. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

Have a grateful day!

Leave a comment

Filed under Inspiration, Teaching Art to Children