Some years ago my mentor charged me with these words: make magic with children and teach other teachers what you know. As my career has shifted for 14 years across all levels of teaching art and visual culture in K-12 schools, community art programs, and on to my current position in higher education— this guidance has underpinned my philosophical approach. For me, making magic involves kneading into the complexity of questions, allowing the curiosities and concerns that learners bring to bear to joyfully lead. Reaching into wonder infuses our lives with the possibility of change. Too often ‘school art’ practices give the answer away before asking the question, thereby inhibiting authentic investigation and inquiry: Complex issues about art, identity, and the world are shied away from in classrooms. My desire to move beyond such limited expectations led me to embrace a vocation in art teacher education.
At the core of my work radiates a desire to support teachers in finding sustainable ways of becoming artists, researchers, and teachers. This aim requires that I create safe spaces and substantive challenges for teachers to grapple with issues of ethics and justice, to cultivate awareness of local and global concerns, to practice community engagement, to exercise artistic imagination, and to embody resiliency as powerful antidotes to standardized systems of education. I impart to my students that in teaching others, we teach ourselves. If we allow ourselves to set aside tired binaries and hierarchies, we find our shared capacity to co-construct relational spaces of learning. Therefore, I conceptualize and create pedagogical spaces where our roles as teachers, learners, researchers, and artists are complexly and generatively entangled: sharing writing artifacts (teaching philosophies, thesis chapters, conference proposals) in a Critical Friends group, engaging in service learning projects in our community, exhibiting arts-based research findings in campus galleries, grappling with new media art forms and emerging technologies, seeing more complexity and dimension in social issues (diversity and equity, civil rights, globalization, environmental justice, access to education, and so on) by engaging with a work of art or listening to a podcast. My approach is artful as I curate course material, visualize curricular provocations, and design engaging strategies for rich discussions to unfold. Exposing students to a wide range of work from a diverse body of thinkers incites sparks that inspire thinking and being differently in the world. I intentionally utilize a variety of democratic forms of evaluation. However, listening, observing, and working alongside my students through challenges, questions, projects, and discussions are the most powerful assessment strategies I can model.
My research agenda leans into questions regarding teacher preparation and renewal. As such my classroom becomes a contemplative playspace that both grounds and provokes my processes of inquiring. For example, a recent collaborative research project (see, Hofsess, Shields, & Wilson, 2017) encouraged preservice teachers to engage with social media in innovative ways that stretched and strengthened their understandings of multimodality in curriculum design. This project questioned how the Tumblr iconography (text, photo, quote, link, chat, audio, video) might become an opportunity to engage with difficult to grasp educational constructs in teacher preparation. Text can be envisioned in a lesson plan in multiple ways: crafting artist statements, integrating text in a work of art, calling upon contemporary artists using text as imagery, instruction, narrative, and/or invitation. The students generated curricular projects that were shared with learners in area schools. Documentation of the teaching-learning process on Tumblr revealed that reflection and assessment need not be limited— photography, videos, and chats that recap conversation snippets can energize our thinking.
In another interdisciplinary collaboration (see, Hofsess & Thiel, 2016), I co-conspired with preservice teachers in a course entitled Child as a Cultural Construct to reimagine this course through the eight technologies of otherness (Golding, 1997): curiosity, noise, cruelty, appetite, skin, nomadism, contamination, and dwelling. The students were gifted with weekly invitations full of mulling questions, and reading lists comprised of children’s picture books, young adult fiction, poetry, contemporary art, newspaper articles, podcasts, and theoretical texts. Students curated their own material-discursive encounters and play spaces, and went deeper with their questions and inquiries collectively through book club discussions taking place over tea and coffee. Embedded in each invitation was a material prompt: to produce a series of zines that addressed personal, social, cultural, or environmental contaminations using a limited color palette, and to create a work in clay that embodied how cruelty operates in schools, for example. We then documented our shifting understandings of these eight constructs by curating a virtual art exhibition via Instagram. Our shared aim was to leave the course with an expanded view of the production of childhood paired with concrete strategies for reimagining art curriculum at any grade level.
To close, what are the words I offer graduates? I say, Build your fire. Allow the heat and light to nourish you as you do the work only you can offer this world.