Over the past 7 years of teaching youth, this past term made an impressive mark on that timeline: my classroom experienced a record-breaking low level of volume (see: noise, malarkey, jibber jabber, etc.), the most calm atmosphere I have ever experienced in the history of my life as an educator. Whoa, yeah. For real, ever.
Maybe it was the 6-8 grade level that I’m not as familiar with, or maybe it was that our class was on a Saturday morning, or maybe they just didn’t get my jokes. Yeah, maybe they just don’t get my jokes…Regardless, I interpreted this behavior as quiet = not having fun, which led to doubtful feelings and thoughts in my head like “Oh come on! I’m fun…Guys, I’m FUN!
I spent the first 5 to 6 weeks of the class under the impression that I was failing them as a teacher, not connecting with them in the way I feel I need to connect to my students for the class to be considered successful. I really believed that I had used up all of my educator-to-student breakthrough exercise cards that I store up my sleeve, and nothing seemed to get them really riled up.
So let me be more clear about that: it’s not that they didn’t participate, they absolutely listened and followed directions diligently. They made excellent pictures and cooperated with every exercise, but they were just so calm and quiet! The students mostly kept to themselves, no chatty cliques were formed, no lesson disruptions… They were great. “But shouldn’t they be having more fun?” I thought.
At times, I truly felt that the outcome of my class was my belief that I was not as prepared as I should have been to teach this particular course–that I was missing something critical, the key link between fun and learning for this group–and also that my limited library of knowledge and experience as a teacher was incapable of identifying exactly what I was doing wrong. The indicator that led to these feelings was the quietness, the perceived-to-be blank faces in my lectures, the lack of “hey, hey now guys, let’s settle down we’ve got work to do”–or, more honestly and specifically, the incongruence of who my students were and who I’d expected them to be.
Between weeks 6 and 7, I attended Marwen’s most recent Assessment Training Workshop with Susy Watts, where I realized that I had been assessing my students’ interest based on non-universal expressions of enthusiasm and consequently, I was using incapable tools for measurement when assessing the outcomes of my class as well as how I identified the indicators of that outcome. Phew, maybe that’s still confusing…what I mean is that I was making the wrongful assumption that lively energy + loud enthusiasm = interest in subject matter + fun-having for ALL students, when, in actuality, that’s just not true.
Like many enthusiastic educators, I carry a very idealistic dreamy vision of my class outcomes in that I will educate confidence. And while that sounds so beautiful and great and motivating, it’s kind of impossible. Well, it’s impossible to universally indicate or measure how well or if you did accomplish that because sometimes–I mean…always–you’re teaching a group of very different individuals that reveal growth in self-esteem in very different forms.
So I went into my next class with a new consideration: that maybe, just maybe, my students express their interest and enthusiasm and confidence in different ways than being lively and loud. I had noted their tendencies to photograph and participate in class in a mostly solitary and independent way, so I wanted to try an exercise that caters to those preferred ways of participation while also allowing them to express themselves in front of one another. I wanted to hear from them about how they identify themselves within the context of our class: Shutters & Shivers: Young Chicago Explorers.
So I wrote:
YOUNG PERSON LIVING IN CHICAGO
on the dry erase board.
I handed out post-it note stacks and a pen to each student. With less than a minute given for each subject, I asked them to write about how they see themselves and/or how they want other people to identify them as EXPLORERS, PHOTOGRAPHERS, and as a YOUNG PERSON LIVING IN CHICAGO. When they were finished, they were asked to stick their post-it note next to the appropriate title and spend some time reading their cohorts’ writings as well. As you might have guessed, they did this quietly, but this time with visible interest–and as for the words: thoughtful, articulate, enthusiastic, and, interestingly enough, loud: a very tangible representation that I had been misreading my expressive students for weeks.
On the last day, the students collaboratively decided how we would showcase our work at the final exhibition. They expressed that they wanted to include the post-its, identifying their equal representation of their voices to that of their photographs, and also that they wanted their work to be intermixed with each other, with no visible authorship dividing the group. One student suggested that we spell EXPLORE with the post-its, the rest of the class agreed.
A few weeks after the course ended, the results of the student surveys came in, were almost entirely positive, and reiterated how wrong I was about a majority of my self-doubting worries throughout the class. Most surveys noted how much fun the student had and used much of the important language my ATA (the wonderful and talented Lee Kintner) and I used to teach the creative content of the course.
One student took this form of literary expression even further and hand-wrote a letter of thanks to Marwen’s Director of Education Cynthia Weiss, citing and describing her experience with making art in a comfortable environment. The whole time I was scanning and searching for visible evidence that my students were connecting to the class content, they were patiently waiting for the expressive opportunity that suits them.
Matt Austin is an artist and educator based in Chicago. The output of his creative practice ranges widely in form, but share a focus on the importance of honesty and learning from others. Inspired by failure and often motivated by fear, he demonstrates his enthusiasm for living by trying. Austin is the founder and director of The Perch, a Chicago-proud platform for social exchange through the production of books, dinners, and events. He is a co-founder and core member of LATITUDE, an open digital print lab for Chicago, and works with ACRE Residency as a volunteer staff and partner gallery director. He is an arts instructor teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and at Marwen, where he also works as the Coordinator of Exhibitions. His photographs have been exhibited widely, including exhibitions at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Weatherspoon Art Museum, the Catherine Edelman Gallery, as well as solo exhibitions at Johalla Projects and the University of Notre Dame. http://www.mattislearning.com