Guiding our Students

Profile of Ignatian Educators
“Choice-Based” Art Education Uses Teachers as Guides

When students gather in Kat Lee’s art studio on the fifth floor of Jesuit Hall, they get right to work on projects they have developed. Usually, the medium and subject is up to them, after some consultation with Lee, who is often working alongside them, modeling how to be an artist, how to use the studio to its fullest potential.

Lee and her colleague Jenna Robinson, Chair of Fine and Performing Arts at the Prep, are “choice-based art educators,” allowing students the opportunity to explore their creative ideas.

“We start, of course, by teaching the craft and hold them accountable with high expectations,” Lee says. “After that, however, we allow them the flexibility and creativity to get there themselves, to find their way.”

Robinson says that it is important to ensure that the student artists have the groundwork. “We teach all of the necessary skills at the beginning so they have that knowledge,” she says. “In the fashion of true Jesuit education, we also reflect as we go to ensure that they are really learning the lessons.”

The art teachers facilitate project-based classes. “It is very student-centered,” Robinson says. “Their voice, their agency, is at the center of everything.”

Often, Lee says, it is a challenge to have their students feel fully free to be creative. “Many of our students have succeeded thus far in their academic lives by being rule followers,” Lee says. “We are breaking the hierarchy in our classrooms. When they ask us a question, we will often ask them a question back. They will see that they have the solution or at least they have a way to get to the solution.”

Robinson adds that when a student asks her “how do you do that?” she often replies with “HMM, how DO you do that?” That sparks a conversation. “There are no surefire right answers,” she says. “We teach them how to think like an artist. When you create the right atmosphere in the studio, they feed off of each other, they collaborate, and they learn to problem solve.”

Robinson arrived at the Prep and worked for a few years with Deb Hilton, the longtime art teacher and chair of the department. When Hilton retired, Robinson contacted Lee, who had been her thesis mentor. “I knew that we were both project-based teachers and I thought it was time to flip the curriculum a bit from when I started,” she says. 

Lee arrived in 2022 and quickly became a favorite among the students, who found their art class a place where they could explore their creativity. “I make art next to them in the studio,” Lee says. “Our classroom should be a fun space, a creative space. If they feel safe, they can lower their guard a bit and create.”

At the same time, that does not imply that there are not high standards. However, assessments may look different than in another discipline. “How we assess and what we assess has continued to evolve,” Lee says. “You can try something and it fails but that does not mean that you failed the assessment. We grade half for the technical skill and half for the artistic behavior around the project: studio habits and idea creation. We set ground rules for how to behave in a studio, how to go about a project, and then we observe.”

Still, Robinson says, the studio belongs to the artist. “We tell them it is their space, they own it,” she says. “They know where the supplies are. They also know that there are standards to keeping the space ready for all to make art. They respect that and hold up that standard for each other.”

While earlier, it may have seemed that it might be difficult for a “typical” Prep student to be successful in an art classroom, Lee says the opposite is true. “This curriculum works at the Prep because the students here allow it to work,” Lee says. “They have a desire to be proud of their work and that makes it easy to work with them.”

And Robinson sees the joy in the eyes of the students as they “get it.” “There is such a big change in many students as they discover that they are creative,” she says. “They learn that making art is super satisfying. They want to keep doing it.”
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