Inquiry Question

A group of teachers at my school created a teaching portfolio centered around an individualized inquiry question.  We then gathered evidence and reflected on the question.  At the end of the year we present our evidence along with a reflection, an example lesson, unit and student work.


Inquiry Question 2012:

Does using different types of media (internet, film, music) during the introductory part of a project promote deeper thinking on the overarching themes and essential questions of the unit?

This year I wanted to have a more reflective portfolio rather than one based on quantitative research.  I focused on two very different ways to start a unit.  My goal was to have increased student buy-in and motivation right from the beginning.  The evidence I will use to judge whether or not there was, in fact, more buy-in, is from observations about quality of work, student conversations and the completion rate of each project.

The two units I will be comparing are:  Abstract Expressionism: Painting Music and Creating a Character.  I chose these unit because they began very differently than other projects.  Normally, projects start with a discussion surrounding the essential question of the unit.  These two units, however, used film, music and online research to initiate student thinking instead.

Overview of Units:

Abstract Expressionism: Painting Music

Essential Questions:

How do we simplify our world and experiences into colors and shapes?

How do the arts (visual and music) reflect the emotions underlie our day to day existence?

Enduring Understandings:

A non-representational painting can mean different things to different people.

Colors, shapes and marks can be used to represent feelings and experiences.

Lesson Sequence:

Part 1:  Research Project, Abstract Expressionism.  Students research the movement of Abstract Expressionism, view different artists, and define key terms.PART 2: Creating Abstract PaintingsTask: Create 10-15 abstract paintings inspired by the sounds and feelings found in music.
1. Use a variety of brushstrokes.
2. Consider how color can reflect the mood of a piece of music.
3. Don’t think too hard, just paint.Part 3: Creating Re-Mixes.
Task: Combine elements of each of your paintings into 3 collages.

Part 4: Creating a book.
1. Cover the surface of each painting with acrylic medium
2. Attach each page as shown below.
3. Follow directions for sewing your pages.

Part 5:  Opinion Piece.
Task:  Write a paragraph stating your opinion on the question: When compared to the paintings of other masters such as Da Vinci or Van Gogh,
do you consider the work of abstract expressionists to be in the same realm of genius as
those painters are considered? Should it be considered “great” art?

Creating a Character

Essential Question:

How does our appearance relate to our history?
Enduring Understandings:
We design our appearance to tell others about our experience.Our appearance helps to tell others our story.
Lesson Sequence:
1.  Characterization and character development:  Spirited Away.  How does the main character’s appearance reflect her experiences and attitude?
2.  Drawing practice:
a.  basic proportion.
b.  skeletal figure in action.
c. adding flesh.
d. adding skin and details.
e.  facial expressions.
3.  Creating our 3D action figures.
How will your characters appearance reflect his/her/it’s experience?
 As both units use different ways to start off the final project, I decided to reflect on each and make recommendations (to myself) for net year.


What factors determine a student’s perception of success on a project?
Does a student’s perception of success translate into higher grades and a higher turn-in rate for projects?

Reflecting on the projects we did this year, some failed miserably.  Granted, as I continue teaching, fewer projects crash and burn, but there are always a few that do. Students were not engaged, few students finished, and the quality of their work would make a kindergartener cringe and they hated what they produced.  My students are not eager learners; they are adolescents who are not comfortable in their skin, very apprehensive of taking risks, and painfully aware of others opinions.  They are very critical of themselves and their work.  It takes a lot of work for them to feel successful.  Yet, on some projects they clearly do.  So, my question is, what factors determine a student’s perception of success on a project?  Why do they try harder on some projects, but not on others?  What can I do to help them feel proud of what they create?

In order to answer this question I felt I had to ask students to name the project they felt most successful on.  They reflected on what they did differently in this project, than with other less successful projects.  Then, they explained how my teaching in this particular project helped them to be successful.  Finally I compared the completion and number of grades above an 80 with a project I felt was less successful.

During the last week of school, when I handed back their projects from the year, students answered a questionnaire that asked them to reflect on their most successful and least successful project.  The questions they answered are listed below.  They reflected on what they as students did differently to make this particular project better than others, and what I did differently as a teacher.  This was very enlightening.  Students most commonly chose the Utopia/Dytopia project as their most successful.  This matched my own observations.  They said that they took more time in choosing and developing ideas, they made it more personal, they had more confidence, had clearer ideas, and they knew exactly what to do.  During this project, they reflected, I helped them to brainstorm ideas more, gave a lot of visual examples, taught with details, thoroughly explained the process using simple steps, gave more help, gave better directions, used more dialog to help students through technical problems in bringing their ideas to life, and never let them give up.  After a year of many ups and downs, it’s good I did something right.  Looking at student grades confirmed that the project that the most students felt successful on had the highest number of students with grades above an 80 (on that project, not for the class).  Out of 69 students (I didn’t count long term absences or students suspended during this semester) 66 turned in a project.  Fifty-three students had grades above an 80, which means they turned in a fully completed project.  That works out to be 76 percent.   Thirteen more students turned in a partially completed project.  Only 3 students turned in nothing at all.

I was able to take away a few insights from their answers.  The projects students’ chose (not all chose the Utopia/Dystopia project) had a few things in common.  The projects students choose had a clear technical process that they needed to learn.  They needed to follow specific steps to create their final product.  Both projects were structured so that first students learned the technical process, experimented with the process, then used this knowledge to create a final project that involved their own ideas.  This must have given students the security of knowing that they can follow a set of steps to create a successful product.  However, art is not just about process. Both projects seemed to provide an opportunity for individual expression.  The theme of the project was open-ended enough for students to make it personal.

Some last thoughts…

I have a problem with relying on teaching a technical process.  There is never only one way to do things.  Students need to behave like artists in an art class (go figure) and experiment and explore with art materials.  They may discover a way of painting I had not thought of yet.  Teaching to the technique is formulaic.  Authentic expression is NEVER formulaic.  Relying too much on process doesn’t give students an opportunity to grow creatively and to become comfortable in a situation where there isn’t one correct answer.  They will never learn to trust their own ideas, only to trust a set of steps.  How do I marry the students desire for a clear step-by-step process, with the very essence creativity, which is to think beyond known processes?

Student Questionnaire

  1. Which projects stick out in your mind?
  1. Why?  What about these projects were memorable?
  1. Which project do you feel the most successful on?
  1. What did you do on this project to help you feel more successful than other projects.  In other words what did you do differently in this project?
  1. What did I do to make you feel more successful?  What was different about my teaching that helped you feel more successful?  What did I do well?
  1. Think about a project that you didn’t feel successful on.  Which one?
  1. What did you do on this project to help you feel less successful than other projects.  In other words what did you do differently in this project?
  1. What did I do to make you feel less successful?  What was different about my teaching that helped you feel less successful?

9.     What might I have done differently to help you?

Spread Sheet with Questionnaire results:

My Most Successful Project/Gateway
Project Name Number of votes Completion Rate
score #of student
total students: 69
Utopia/Dystopia 65< 66
1 Point Perspective 12 80< 53
90< 34
Cartooning total students: 69
Drawing People 6 65< 54
80< 40
90< 31
Silhouette Self-Portrait
The projects students though were successful had these commonalities:
A clear step-by-step process that culminates in a product.
Theme of project is open enough to allow freedom for interpretation .
They were able to personalize the project.
What the Teacher Did
Helped to brainstorm ideas
Gave visual examples
Gave enough time to finish
Explained process step by step
Help with each step
Taught a variety of techniques to help to draw better
Gave good directions
Taught with a lot of details
Sugested alternatives to idea/Brainstroming dialogue
Steps were simple
Didn’t let me give up
Helped me bring idea to life
Reasons why I was successful
I knew what I had to do
The project had more connection to me
It was something new, I had never done before
I took my time, and had a clear idea
I had confidence

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s