Art classes at Guanyang Elementary School are completely different as Ms. Kathleen Loew injects elements of inquiry, critical thinking, and freedom of choice into the curriculum.
Liu Wang Jing Kathleen, Guangyang Primary School, Finalist for Outstanding Youth in Education Award 2022
Tell us a story that shows what kind of teacher you are.
“He just doesn’t like art! He’s just not interested in it!
These were common comments about my younger student, Dylan*, by my fellow art teachers during our weekly subject meetings. Admittedly, after several months of unsuccessful attempts to awaken his interest in art, I also began to believe them.
I would catch him sleeping or fiddling with a pencil; sometimes he didn’t even have a pencil with him.
Words of rebuke and encouragement rolled off his back in equal measure. It didn’t matter what artist we discussed or what art materials we used, Dylan just didn’t budge in his indifference to art.
Although disappointed, I continued to think of new ways to attract him, albeit with lower expectations. And one day, when I least expected it, everything turned positive.
When Dylan was in 5th grade, I piloted a choice-based class with his class. During these lessons, students could choose to complete an art assignment using an iPad or a paper collage.
When Dylan first got his hands on the iPad, I noticed a change. His posture straightened, and his eyes lit up. There was a wariness about him that I had never seen before. He really listened and followed the lesson. It came as no surprise that Dylan chose the iPad for every lesson this semester. What came as a surprise was his sustained interest and performance over several weeks. Not only did he get the job done every time, he did it to a standard I couldn’t have imagined just weeks before!
“Choices matter, and choices bring opportunities.”
He was a boy who was considered by all his teachers to have zero artistic aptitude, but when presented with a medium he preferred, he was capable of creating a magnificent work of art.
Choice matters, and choice brings opportunity. As an educator who found empowerment through the choices offered by my own teachers during my school years, I also hope to empower my students in their creativity. By giving them the opportunity to express their preferences – from whether they prefer to work in groups or individually, to whether they would rather draw a flower or a dog for an observational drawing exercise. While providing more choice means spending more time preparing resources for the lesson, if it means I can engage just one more student, then it’s definitely worth it.
* not his real name
A choice-based lesson where some students can make digital sketches and others draw
Describe a teaching method or tool that you find effective.
“The study of art can cultivate 21str-Century skills like creativity, problem solving and even critical thinking.”
Studying the arts can cultivate 21st century skills like creativity, problem solving, and even critical thinking. This is why I welcomed the Ministry of Education’s recommendation to use inquiry-based learning as a core learning strategy following the release of the revised arts curriculum in 2018.
As the name suggests, inquiry-based learning encourages students to question and explore to make their own discoveries and solutions—a creative process that approximates what real artists go through. This is in contrast to more traditional strategies where teachers can prepare everything to be learned and present it to students in a neat package.
Take, for example, the art module I designed for my 5th graders. First, they were introduced to the rather real task of designing props for a National Day photo booth. Although the task may seem simple, the students were encouraged to distinguish between successful props and less successful props not only from an aesthetic point of view, but also from a practical point of view. Students had great freedom of choice in everything from the topic to the materials used. While teaching the basic methods, they had to basically figure out the art-making process on their own. Here they showed inventive thinking and problem solving.
This art module never fails to excite the students – and the teacher! I’m always amazed at some of the ideas and artwork that come out of it, from a felt durian hat to a crafty Minecraft hand with interchangeable attachments for National Day.
Ms. Leo with her students and their National Day photo booth props.
What school project or initiative are you particularly proud of?
Sometimes I feel like a proud mom when I look at the artwork my students create, especially after seeing all the hard work, thought, and spirit that went into it. I love any opportunity to showcase their work because as a student artist I remember at some point the honor and joy I felt when my work was selected for an exhibition and I want my students to feel the same validation and confirmation that related to recognition and appreciation of their work.
Spreading the joy and importance of learning art to students
So when I had the opportunity to organize our school’s first public art exhibition at a nearby community center, I jumped at it. We have previously held exhibitions as part of our school’s open days, but being able to display a large collection of our students’ work in a public space was groundbreaking. In addition to everything, the exhibition also served as a fundraiser for underprivileged families through the Bishan-East Thomson Community Development and Welfare Fund, where members of the public could make a donation each and choose a student’s work to bring home as a symbol.
“Their faces lit up when they found their jobs and started telling their proud parents the stories of their jobs.”
A total of $1880 was collected at the exhibition. While the amount may seem small, the experience for our students has been invaluable, especially in terms of the connections made outside of our school and into our community. I remember the happy but uncertain faces of my students as they ran into the hall, impatiently dragging their parents behind them. Their faces lit up when they found their works and began to tell their proud parents the stories of their works.
The exhibition is one of the main events of the MES artistic program, and rightly so, as its impact can be wide and far-reaching. I hope that this exhibition and others like it will instill in my students a lifelong love and appreciation for art and creativity.