Collaborative Art in Public School

Recently I got a great opportunity to facilitate collaborative art with an AP Art class at Flagstaff High School.  It was very challenging because of the time constraints – I had 4 days in class, each 55 minutes (or about 49 minutes after attendance is counted), plus one optional session which was nearly 2 hours but not all students were able to attend (it was on an early release day).

Below I will describe the outline of the program, and share some photos.  I will try to keep this one more concise than usual.

The program was sponsored by a local conservation group called Grand Canyon Trust.  They have an annual youth advocacy program which engages students in campaigns in the region, such as the current campaign working to halt the opening of “Canyon Mine” near Red Butte on the rim of the Grand Canyon.  This is a uranium mine which threatens groundwater – especially the sole water source of the Havasupai people, who have a tiny rez within the Grand Canyon – and the Red Butte sacred site, as well as incidental pollution in communities along the 300+ mile haul-out route.  An environmental educator named Maria was excited to try something different this time, and she connected with the FHS art teacher, Dave, after I had explained the type of workshop that I could provide.

Students in the art class (and a couple of others too) were engaged in this project for a total of 5 weeks.  It got started before I arrived, with visits from 3 expert witnesses, all GCT folks working on this campaign.  Two weeks before my arrival, Maria had organized 3 classroom visits and the students received tons of information about uranium & mining methods, groundwater studies, maps of the haul route, stories from Havasupai and other local indigenous peoples, and much more.

My job was to spend one week reviewing, synthesizing, inspiring, training, and practicing collaboration with them, and then subsequently they would have 3 more weeks to execute a collaborative painting.  I knew that every second would be precious, because 55 minutes pass by very fast and it would be necessary to repeat some exercises so that they would remember them better.

Day 1:


Noticing that 6 minutes of class time were already burned up just taking attendance, I launched into a rapid intro, grabbing their attention and talking with a lot of energy, and probably unreasonably fast too.  I introduced myself in about 2 sentences, explained with 2 more sentences what the Beehive Collective is all about (and said “I’ll show you what I’m talking about tomorrow”), pointed at this list and raced through an overview of the process that I was about to do with them (several students got all excited when I said there would be games; I did not talk about the items below “iterations”), and then I asked them what they remembered from the experts, and made a quick list of the first 10 topics that they shared.  And then just over 5 minutes into our first session, we were already reorganizing into an activity.

With Dave’s help, I got them all to rearrange into a big kinda-circle, and then started them off with the classic Caption Game (described here, if you do not know it).  I have often noted that teenagers do not really understand the point of this game, and we struggled with it here too.  It seems to be a combination of laziness, avoidance of the embarrassment normally associated with being weird, and not believing that the point is to be silly (even if I explicitly say “The POINT is to be SILLY”), and it plays out as more than half of the students writing “ice-cream cone” or “its raining” as their first prompt.  If you have played this game before, you know exactly why those prompts are the worst way to start, and usually make the game wicked boring.  In the future I will devote extra time to explaining this game really thoroughly, even if time is tight.  But it worked out all right – by the end of it, 3 or 4 sheets were pretty silly and strange, there were a few laughs, and at least some of the students finally understood the point of the game.  No one seemed totally off-put by this exercise, and we kept it under 15 minutes, so it was an acceptable start.

I brought them all back to paying attention to me, and we rolled into the next exercise.  It was clear that they had received a little too much info from the experts, and that much of it had leaked away in the interceding week.  My first job was to conduct a little review.  Introducing the Mind-Map concept was a perfect way to do this.  We spent about 15 minutes talking about the Canyon Mine.  I asked questions like What is it?  Where is it?  Who Benefits?  Who Suffers?  Who Cares?  How do we fit into this picture?  Responses were slow at the beginning, but once we got rolling it seemed that their memories started working a little better.  I made a point to ask for more diverse voices, and I had to repeat this a couple of times but eventually more and more students worked up the courage to contribute.


Note that the topics in the lower left corner were from my prompt at the start of class; because they indicated which details were most memorable to students, they helped me to facilitate this and the next mind-map discussion better, particularly in terms of guiding them toward more depth and nuance.

Very briefly, I drew a few symbols here and there; when prompted they suggested a few more.  But at this early point in the process, they were not very quick to come up with novel images, and we were running out of time.

We finished the period by bringing it back to the Caption Game.  I asked them to regard the mind-map as one big picture, and to work in three groups to write a sentence describing it.  Then in our last few minutes, each group shared their sentence.  I forgot to take notes on their sentences, so I cannot include those here.  They were not very remarkable.  But I think that even though the students did not have a blast with the caption game (unlike all adult groups), by the end they had understood the concepts and appreciated why we had been practicing conversions between word and images, and eager to find out what would come next.

They were keeping up with me, so far.  Then the bell rang, and day 1 was finished!

Day 2:

I started class with a lightning-quick review of the process we were following, and I reminded them about “iterations” and warned them that we were going to be repeating some exercises already on this second day.  If day 1 was about “introductions” and “setting limits,” an opportunity to find and then begin developing our “learning edge” through games, then day 2 was our only chance to really focus on “expansive idea generation” with the entire class.

I started with a favorite group-building activity, the Tree of Knowledge (you can find a description of that activity further along in that same article mentioned above).  I forgot to take photos of the tree, but that is ok because it looked a little funny.  Being teenagers, they were reluctant to speak about or unconscious of the many things that they had learned from sources other than school.  Therefore, there were a lot of “branches” and the tree, which was allowed only a tiny amount of wall space in the over-full art room, ended up looking more like a blob.  But I wanted this exercise so that I could stress the importance of “other forms of knowledge,” to recognize and encourage all students and hopefully to get them thinking more creatively about our next mind map.  I regret that I had to rush them through it, and I am certain that it would have been much better with more space.  But I think that it got the fundamental message across: “All of you know a lot about this stuff too, not just the experts.”  And then we quickly rearranged and began our second exercise.

A slightly different take on the Mind-Map, here we expanded and looked at the bigger picture.


This one was where I asked questions which required serious thinking, not just repeating what they had been told, for example:  How does uranium mining compare to other forms of mining?  Where does mining fit into the US economy?  How does it play into global politics?  What are the long-term effects of uranium, and mining generally?  Based on what you know about the history of uranium mining, what do you predict will happen next?  How does this make you feel?

This generated a lot of good discussion, much deeper and more responsive and conversational than the previous iteration.  But time ran up, and I made just a few final remarks, including suggestions for simplistic “grand metaphors” like dichotomous “life v. death” or some other type of protagonist-antagonist setup.

And then I took them outside and we had about 10 minutes to look at The True Cost of Coal banner.  I explained the 5 chapters and the main scenes within each, and then gave them a little time to look and ask questions.  Unsurprisingly, they were very impressed.

If they were keeping up with me at the end of day 1, then I had definitely hooked most of them by the end of day 2.  It felt like we were building momentum, and with 2 mind-maps and a similarly-themed beehive graphic for inspiration, they already had a lot to work with.

Day 3:

Every Wednesday is an early release day, and we did not have class.  A very small number of students were willing and able to come to the art room between 1-3 for a special session.  A few enviro-minded students from other classes joined us too.

We started with a Geometric Shapes exercise.  This involves a little spiel about the power of symbols, and then demonstration of how we can build very complex symbols out of very simple shapes.  Then in groups, students are asked to make as many symbols as they can, and to combine symbols into multi-layered metaphors, but only with squares, triangles, and circles.  Similar to the caption game, this one seems difficult for teenagers to handle (only using 3 shapes is actually pretty hard, and it may get boring quickly), but I think that they understand the relevance, and have fun in the process.  Only about half of these drawings actually followed the rules of the game:


Here you can see how I started it out.  There were actually about 15 different variants in the process of drawing all of this out (and it is easy to come up with 30+ if you have more time).  The images below the shapes were part of the following activity…


But before we went into that we did a quick “Yes, and…” exercise (described here).  This small group of students had a fun time with it, and once again, they got the point even if they could not quite manage to follow the instructions (if more than half were unwilling to have fun with the caption game, and almost all refused to stick to the rules of the shapes game, then I was unsurprised when they immediately started breaking the rules of the game that has only 1 rule…).

I explained to them that this special session was “idea generation, part 2” and that their job was to create a whole lot of symbols so that the rest of the class had a good pool of ideas to get them started.  This was actually really crucial, because everything I was doing with them was practice, and I wanted to make sure that the real group work, which would happen without me, was as easy and accessible as possible.  As I remember from high school, art class is full of students who do not like tests or homework, not necessarily those who are most gifted creatively.  Even with this small group, it was a little difficult to really open the flow and get wildly creative – some students were shy, others were super-committed to their personal ideas and not listening to others.  So I pointed at the mind-maps which were hung on either side, and began the Metaphor Push-ups activity that would take up much of our remaining time.


Here you can see again the symbols they came up with, and compare with the mind-map which contains most of the inspiration for these images.  They are mostly very simple.

I gave them another brief session with The True Cost of Coal banner, pointing out more details and answering lots of questions, so that they could have a little more visual vocabulary to utilize.

Then we had about 10 minutes left, during which they re-created some of their favorite metaphors, on transparency sheets so that we could project them for the whole class to see.  These are some examples.


At the end of our time, I gave each of them a poster to take home, as thank-you for volunteering extra work and taking a leadership role.

Day 4:

Back in the full classroom, I started this session with a Frames, Big & Small activity (described here).  I had placed one True Cost of Coal poster on each of 5 tables, and gave each group 2 frames cut out of a sheet of copy paper.  I asked each student to take a turn framing a character(s) and describing what they thought was happening.  And then they looked at one of the previous characters, but used the big frame (8.5×11) to see more characters in relationship and reinterpreted the context.  I explained that since we were now on the “refining & editing” stage of our process, the point of this exercise was to show that telling a story also involves deciding what should not be included.

Then we reviewed the metaphors created the previous day, looking at both the paper and the transparency sheets.  I got some input from students, but mostly just named and pointed at them myself, to ensure brevity.  Then we played “Yes, and…” again with the full group.  Then, we merged pairs into groups of 4-6 each, and did a related game, “And then…” in which students take turns building a story about their chosen topic one sentence at a time.  When they shared their stories, I took notes.  These notes are partial and a little scattered, but you can see a pretty clear convergence in their themes and major metaphors.


With 5 minutes left, I talked very briefly about division of labor and the 5 roles that can be very useful in this type of project – Organizer, Researcher, Story-teller, Concepting, and Lead Illustrator.  We did not discuss this in great depth, but I wanted to reassure students, who would be dividing up into their final groups on Friday, that they could all be a vital part of the development of the final work, even if their painting skills were not the best.

Day 5:

At the beginning of Day 5, we did a fun Objects-in-Action activity (described here).  Students had a lot of fun with this – they were able to practice drawing objects which they had studied in still-life projects (which meant they felt confident about drawing these objects), and the instructions were straightforward and easy.  Here are two of my favorites.

Because this was my last session with them, it was important to review.  I shared this list of everything we had covered in our previous sessions.


Then their teacher split up all students into 4 groups.  I had discussed this with Dave after class on the preceding days, and he came up with a good division that allowed all students to utilize their strengths and to work well together.  And he made it happen quickly and efficiently, which was necessary.  We had only about 30 minutes remaining for hands-on group work.

Now, we did mind-mapping again, but in small groups.  I gave them this example to get them started.


I made it clear that this was, again, just practice, but that this was the last practice they would get before they had to get started on the real thing, so they should take it very seriously.  And they did, as you can see by what they created, below.

I used my mind-map to demonstrate what I meant as I explained the prompts written on the side.  I suggested that they start by copying what I had here.  Then I prompted them to make more bubbles based on the “Character” questions, draw some symbols based on the “Accessories” questions, and to make more connections and decide which concepts to focus on based on the “Framing” questions.  Then I let them work in their groups for the rest of the class time.  These are the maps they created:


This took us to the last few minutes of class, at which time I spoke a few concluding and thanking and “good luck to you all!” kinda words.  And that was it!  They were on their own from that point forward.

Independent Work:

Here I have included a few photos of students working.  Maria took these photos, either on Day 5 or later when the painting was underway.

These 4 panels, which come together to create 1 scene of natural beauty polluted and then cleaned up again, was their finished product.  If you look closely you will see a lot of text in various places (download if it is not big enough on this blog).  It seems that some of the concepts they wanted to include were too difficult to translate into images.  I think this is typical of teenagers, words are just easier than pictures for those who do not have a lot of practice at it.  But I think that, especially considering that most of them were working with acrylic paint for the first time, this work is excellent!  Great job, everybody!



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