Students at Work

Introduction to Students-at-Work 

Students-at-work is one of the Four Studio Structures described in Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education. The Four Studio Structures are what researchers observed in visual arts classrooms when they sought to better understand what happens in a studio classroom. Researchers observed and recorded how time is spent in the studio and grouped the activities into the four categories. The structures are influenced by how teachers organize their studio space, time, and interactions in the classroom (p. 4). They also identified eight habits of mind that are evident in effective visual art classrooms. (See previous chapter “The Studio Structures and Habits of Mind.”)

As Hetland and her colleagues conducted observational research in 38 visual arts sessions, they found time allocated for students to work creating art averaged 70% of class time (p.25). When students were at work, often everyone received a common project or problem, but each crafted their art individually according to their diverse attributes and strengths. In addition to individual creation, some work was executed in small groups or in the class working as a whole.

The teacher's role while students were at work was to spend time attending to the individual learning needs of students. Teachers side coached with questions to inspire their students' creative choices rather than directing their work.

In Studio Thinking 2: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, the authors use the following bullet points to describe the studio structure of students-at-work:

Structuring an environment for students to create their own work requires explicit planning. Although such a classroom often looks messy and unstructured, a carefully crafted invisible foundation is supporting the freedom students experience during this time in the creative process. The students-at-work structure involves an intentional mix of rituals, rules, policies, procedures, and directions. It requires careful management of space, materials, tools, and time as well as sensitive attention to transitions within the session and at the beginnings and endings of sessions. At its highest implementation levels, responsibilities for conception and execution of these elements are shared with students.

Below is a description and elucidation of what students-at-work may look like in the dance studio, theatre, or music rehearsal hall, visual arts studio, and general classroom setting.

Students-at-Work in the Dance Studio

In the dance studio, students-at-work may be working on technique, performance, improvisation, or composition skills, each requiring lots of studio time and practice to master. Students-at-work might take the form of teacher/mentor providing side-coached directions to students who are working as a whole group on different movement problems that guide them to explore the elements of dance: body, movement, space, time, and energy.

More experienced students could be given a rubric to use in creating a dance (e.g., start in an initiating group shape; choose a movement tempo and pattern that incorporates a shape for each level; determine how long your group will sustain work at each level; decide how patterns, tempos, and body centers will appear in various sections of the dance; use music or percussive sounds; and end in a silent sculptural freeze, etc.). Group performances could be the culminating event of either a side-coached or an original dance.

Students are physically working on their art and craft for the majority of the time in dance class. Students may be working on their learning goals as a whole class, in small groups, or individually. Because of the nature of dance arts, it is standard practice to see a dance class weave between students-at-work, critique, and demonstration-lecture several times in a matter of minutes. 

Students-at-Work in Theatre Performance and Process Drama

Students working in a playmaking context could:

Often, teachers working on playmaking structures assume responsibility for key directorial decisions. But, this doesn't have to be the case. Particularly when working on ensemble pieces, play development can be expedited by assigning students into small groups with the charge to create a discrete scene (e.g., the creation myth according to religions, science, cultural stories, etc.). 

In process drama work, the development tends to be guided by the teacher/mentor for the whole class. Using the Where the Wild Things Are example from the chapter on Demonstration-Lecture, all students work simultaneously to put on their wolf suits, make mischief, etc. When characters need to be assigned (e.g., one Max, multiple mothers), this is done to facilitate the arc of the piece (e.g., a Max is chosen to journey across an ocean evoked by the rest of the class, tame the rest of the class who are in role as Wild Things, create the coronation tableau, etc.).

Students-at-Work in Film & Media Arts

Students pursuing projects in film and media often work individually to refine skills, and subsequently, are assigned to small groups to finish sections of the film.  Ultimately, production elements become the focus of small groups that work in teams to shoot, edit, and master the rough cut. As in dance, rubrics as guideposts to help students shape their project are regular features of how problems are worked on and solved in film. 

Teaching Youth About Media Arts

See the section of our website focused on teaching youth about media arts. There are practical activities for students to work on in photography, graphic design, and filmmaking.

Students-at-Work During Music Experiences

In music, students often work in whole class structures. However, exploring small group and individual problems and/or projects could provide a rich opportunity to vary the routine of whole-class music sessions. The problem could be creating a soundscape to complement a picture book, researching and mastering discrete folk songs in small groups, recording the songs, creating original songs, developing the libretto for an original opera, developing arias and chorus pieces for the opera, etc.


Students-at-Work in the Visual Arts Studio

Imagining and structuring small group and whole class projects adds a rich complement to the individual work often associated with visual arts (e.g., graphic novels, murals, large installations that feature compilations of individual student work, sculpture gardens, "docenting" a school gallery stroll, etc.). 

Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB)

“The practice of teaching for artistic behavior, now known as TAB, dates back to the 1970s, when Massachusetts elementary art teachers Katherine Douglas and John Crowe searched for alternatives to traditional teacher-directed instruction. They collaborated and developed a learner-directed concept within their own classrooms and called this choice-based art education.”

Within this framework the classroom is viewed as the child’s studio.

“TAB classrooms are highly-structured studio environments with clearly delineated expectations for self-directed learning in choices of varied work spaces. Available tools and art materials are introduced to students who can then access and arrange these materials independently to initiate and explore their artwork.”

Learn more about Teaching for Artistic Behavior and how it might inform the students at work time in your classroom!

Side Coaching Students-at-Work

Side coaching is when you give simple prompts to students as they are working on their art. Side coaching can occur when students are working through a creative process, a rehearsal process, or other artistic process. The prompts should be simple suggestions that will improve, challenge, or clarify student's choices as they create and produce their own creative work.

Side coaching includes questions and statements that inspire student's creativity. Positive and specific feedback is always relevant and brings attention to what you want to see or hear in a student's work. Open-ended questions inspire student's creative exploration.

Side coaching is different from directing, and some comments kill creativity. 

Side Coaching for Dance

  1. "Keep jumping, jump in zig-zag, or circular pathways."
  2. "Remember, to sustain means constantly and smoothly moving."
  3. "Is that the farthest that your feet can travel? Can your arm reach one more inch?"
  4. "How many ways can you show me that action on a low level?"
  5. "Can you add a twist: a high twist, or a low twist?"
  6. "Face another direction."
  7. "Is there a moment you really love that would be worth repeating?"
  8. "What does that movement mean? How could the meaning be more clear?"

Side Coaching for Drama

For performers:

  1. "How can you express this differently with your voice/body? And another way? And another? Which do you like best? Why?"
  2. "How can you use the space to show what you mean? Can you make all your meaning show in a single gesture?"
  3. "What is the focus of the scene? What does the character want? Need? Can you show that with words? Without words?"
  4. "Who is the focus of the story? How can you support that? Take the focus. Now throw focus to someone else; make the scene about them."
  5. "Rely only on sounds you make to show the relationships. Now only your body. Make it real.  Be precise. Show us, don't tell us."

For designers:  

  1. "How does this work support the meaning? Is there something else you can add/or take away? Your goal is to be understood. How is your work communicative?"

For writers:  

  1. "Can you make this shorter? Longer? Easier on the actors? Are your words colorful? Are you writing what you mean to say?"
  2. "What can the actors/designers do better than your words? Can our crew do what you are asking for? Is there another way?”

Side Coaching for Literary Arts

  1. "While you are brainstorming words for your haiku, visualize the scene you are trying to create in your mind for inspiration."
  2. "Can you find two new transitional phrases to use in your sentences while writing your story?"
  3. “How can you incorporate our spelling list into your writing today?”
  4. “Make a list of words that rhyme with one line in your poem. Do any of these offer something new to your piece?”
  5. “Share adjectives with your peers at your table. Select one new word to incorporate in the next stanza.”

Side Coaching for Media Arts

  1. "I love the music you selected for this scene. Why did you select it?"
  2. "Here are some sites for copyright-free digital images that might help you tell your story."
  3. "Before you move into production, walk me through your storyboards so I get a feel for where you are going with this."
  4. "Check out these other couple short films similar in topic to yours; they might inspire your method."
  5. "Remember that this process takes practice and you are doing a great job persevering through the tough parts. Remember to give yourself a break."
  6. "It looks like a short tutorial on green screen effects in iMovie might be helpful to you. Here is a link to one of my favorites."
  7. "Can I share an idea about how to...?"

Side Coaching for Music

  1. "Listen carefully. Does your voice match what you are hearing?"
  2. "Can you follow exactly what my voice is doing?"
  3. "If that was easy for you, try adding something else in addition (layer beat and rhythm at the same time, conduct, use hand signs, show on the finger staff, add dynamics, etc.)."
  4. "How can you vary the sound? Could you try it faster (slower, higher, lower, louder, softer, etc.)?”
  5. "What words would you use to describe what you are hearing? How could we represent what we hear with pictures or symbols?"
  6. "If we were to change the order of the sections, what would you do?"
  7. "This is what I saw/heard. Does that convey what you are trying to express?"
  8. "If you were going to conduct this part of the music, what would you do?"
  9. "What do we need to accomplish to be ready for the performance? Which part needs more practice? What needs to happen to master this piece?"
  10. "Show the emotion of the piece on your face and in your body as you perform it."
  11. "Listen for ... (form, timbre, rhythm, words, patterns, melody, expressive qualities, etc.). What will our audience hear and see?"


Side Coaching for Visual Arts

  1. "What do you plan to do next?"
  2. "How do you plan to address that empty area?"  
  3. "Let's print some pictures you selected to help you design your art."
  4. "I love the color/shape/texture you chose, tell me about it."
  5. "Here are some artists who created something similar to what you're working on."
  6. "I see you are frustrated. How can I help?"  
  7. "How do you envision the final piece looking?"  
  8. "Let's take a look at your work from far away. What do you notice? How is it different from when you see it up close?"
  9. "What do you want the viewer to see first?"

Read about the other three Studio Structures for Learning:

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