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The Art of Teaching the Arts: A Workshop for High School Teachers

Creating Rich Learning Environments

The program opens with teachers sharing passionate insights about why they teach the arts to young people. Then short classroom segments illustrate how arts teachers employ seven “principles of artful teaching” to meet the needs and imaginations of their students. Participants explore how these principles can affect their own teaching. Subsequent sessions will examine each principle in depth, with examples from dance, music, theatre, and visual art.

In This Program

Visual Art

Visual art teachers create a community to give students multiple outlets for artistic learning.


A dance teacher asks students to work in pairs to study subtle aspects of movement technique


A music teacher builds his students’ confidence and skills as they learn the basics of improvisational singing.


An Acting I teacher helps students let go of their inhibitions, and an Acting II teacher encourages students to take creative risks as they interpret monologues.


In a rich learning environment, teachers recognize the central role of creativity and engage students in exploring ideas and issues, challenging traditional assumptions, solving complex problems, and constructing knowledge rather than just memorizing it. Skillful arts teachers create an atmosphere of mutual trust where students feel free to take risks and explore their own thoughts and feelings.  Constructive criticism is the norm, and students benefit from the responses of others.

In a safe and creative learning environment, teachers:

  • Instill personal confidence and respect for others
  • Model and encourage constructive criticism
  • Value artistic expression and individual opinions
  • Provide opportunities for self-direction and leadership

Learning Goals

The goals of this workshop session are for you to:

  • Explore the benefits and challenges of risk-taking in the classroom
  • Develop activities in which students play significant roles in selecting material, auditioning, rehearsing their work

Getting Ready

Being creative involves exploring the unknown, taking risks, and being innovative.  These challenges apply to teachers as well as students.

Discuss the following questions about risk-taking:

  • What are the benefits of risk-taking in the arts for your students?  For you?
  • What are some concerns?
  • What are some physical risks and psychological risks you ask students to take?

Focus On: Critiquing Student Work

Critiquing student artwork demands care. Teachers must be honest in their judgments, because students can only develop as artists if they learn to value critique and take it seriously. But honest judgements may also risk making students feel inadequate or self-conscious, hindering further growth.

Arts teachers have many ways of helping students understand how their work can be improved, without shutting down their initiative.

Elements of effective critique include the following:

  • The work is the focus. Criticism is centered not on the student and his or her skills, but on the artwork or performance.
  • Improvement is the aim. The purpose of critique is clear – helping the student make the artwork better, thereby realizing his or her aim more completely.
  • Description is included. The critique is grounded in talk about the work as it is – in its observable details.
  • Reasons are offered. When giving suggestions, teachers offer reasons for them, so that students begin to understand the way artists think about artistic problems.
  • Understanding is checked. Teachers check for student understanding, and stay alert to how the critique affects students’ feelings about the task.

At Mamaroneck High School there is frequent peer critique in visual art classes. In addition, students ask teachers for feedback on their artwork, and some students have also formed an Art Critique Club, where they give each other feedback.

NOW: Write and Reflect

Read the following questions and respond in light of the students and art form you teach.

Questions to write and reflect about:

Watching the Program

The information sheets below provide helpful background on the classrooms, programs, and schools featured in each segment:

Segment 1: Theatre (PDF)
Segment 2: Dance (PDF)
Segment 3: Visual Art (PDF)
Segment 4: Music (PDF)

THEATRE Joseph Mancuso and Andrea Arden Monologues/Building Confidence

  • What techniques did Andrea use in Acting I to encourage students to take creative risks? In Acting II, how did Joe build on the foundation Andrea  created?
  • How do you encourage students to push beyond boundaries and take creative risks?

DANCE Mary Harding Modern Dance Technique

  • What were the benefits to Mary’s students of giving each other feedback?
  • How do you nurture self-confidence and respect in your classroom?

VISUAL ART Jon Murray Art Department Community

  • Students in this segment are comfortable seeking feedback and setting their own priorities. In what ways do the teachers help foster these characteristics?
  • What opportunities do your students have to get feedback from peers and faculty members?

MUSIC William Taylor Vocal Improvisation

  • How does Will structure the improvisation lesson to build students’ confidence and respect for each other? How does this benefit his students as singers?
  • How do you help your students gain confidence in their own abilities?

Activities and Discussion

Expanding Boundaries and Taking Risks

Taking risks within the learning environment requires a willingness to:

  • Think deeply about a subject or problem
  • Share that thinking with others to hear their perspectives
  • Listen to their critiques
  • Build on those experiences toward a solution or solutions
  • The charts below suggest ways to extend learning opportunities beyond standard practice, focusing on the pros and cons for students and teachers.

Print and distribute the charts so that each participant has at least one chart related to his or her discipline. Take notes on the risks and benefits of several of the enrichment activities, and share them with the group.

After several charts have been filled in, discuss the following:

  • Which of the enrichment activities resemble things you are already doing in your classroom? Discuss with the group what the outcomes have been for students, and for you.
  • Which enrichment activity seems the most challenging? Think about how you might modify it to integrate it into your own practice. Share your ideas with the group and get additional suggestions from your colleagues.

Enrichment Activities


Homework (On Your Own)

In your journal, reflect on the learning environment you have created for your students. Write down three adjectives that describe how you would like students to feel as they enter your classroom.  For example, ‘safe, stimulated, free to express themselves.’  Then reflect on these questions:

  • What specific elements of your classroom environment currently help your students feel this way?
  • What elements are missing? What might you add?
  • What obstacles are there to adding these elements?
  • How might you overcome the obstacles?

Additional Resources

On the Web

Cognition and Creation   Select: Image Galleries and Exhibitions, then Student Art Galleries
An interpretive exhibition of student artwork intended to help people understand the relationships between thinking and the creation of visual art

Bobby McFerrin Web site
An appealing site about the work of jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin


Somerset County Vocational and Technical High School Performing Arts Dept.
Select: performing arts at scvths
Information on the performing arts program where Joseph Mancuso teaches

Arts High School Dance Department, Perpich Center for Arts Education
Select: Program Areas, then Dance
Information on the dance department where Mary Harding and Tom Kanthak teach

Mamaroneck High School Art Department            Select: Departments and Class Web Pages, then Art
Web page for the Visual art department where Dale Zheutlin teaches

World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition
Select: Exhibition  Search for: Murray Jon
Jon Murray’s submission for the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition

East High School
Web site for music teacher William Taylor’s school

In Print

Kirby, Gary, & Goodpaster, Jeffery. Thinking. Prentice Hall, 3rd edition, 2001. ISBN: 0130923915

A widely used interdisciplinary undergraduate text that considers the processes at work in critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity

Thousand, Jaqueline, Nevin, Ann, & Villa, Richard. Creativity and Collaborative Learning: The Practical Guide to Empowering Students and Teachers. Nevin Brookes Publishing Company, 2002. ISBN: 1557665788

Shows how collaborative learning addresses challenges such as literacy, behavior issues, teacher success, and multiculturalism


Produced by Lavine Production Group, Inc., in collaboration with EDC's Center for Children and Technology and the Southeast Center for Education in the Arts. 2005.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-769-X