Anatomy of a classroom

Inside a classroom where a hungry art monster feeds students’ creative process

PHOTO: Kate Schimel/Chalkbeat
Brown Elementary School art teacher Barth Quenzer introduces his students to Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

In the corner of art teacher Barth Quenzer’s classroom is a door decorated with pictures of famous works of arts — and famous monsters.

Behind the door lives the “Artivore,” an imaginary monster who feeds on art and plays a central role in Quenzer’s classroom. Kindergarteners feed it scraps of paper, a group of fifth graders is writing a book about it, and countless students have tried to imagine what it looks like.

But Artivore’s origin story reveals the most about Quenzer’s teaching style. The art monster was the brainchild of a kindergartener, Jack, who simply began wondering what was in the closet.

Since then, Jack and his successors have built up the mythology of the Artivore, gradually adding details from what it dreams about to what it eats. Quenzer has turned the monster into a teaching tool to help explain different aspects of the artistic process, from the generation of interesting ideas to the letting go of bad ones.

Here’s an interactive tour of Quenzer’s classroom. Hover over the black and white dots to take a closer look at the tools Quenzer uses to run his classroom (and click here to view a larger version):

The evolution of Artivore is representative of the open-source approach Quenzer, an art teacher at Brown Elementary School in northwest Denver, takes to his teaching. Quenzer, who has been at the forefront of Denver’s implementation of the state’s arts instruction standards, uses everything from student input to the state mandates to shape the way he runs his classroom. And he has extended that inclusive approach to the kind of learning he inspires in his students.

(Quenzer is also one of the panelists at Chalkbeat’s event how to use art in classrooms on Thursday, July 17th. See here for more.)

Quenzer’s classroom often rings noisily with students’ voices as they work in groups and bounce ideas off each other. But the clamor of his classroom and his students’ independence mask the groundwork he lays.

What does Artivore look like?
What does Artivore look like?

Each class is constructed around concrete ideas on how students learn best, ideas that come out of his own observations from eight years of teaching at Brown.

When Quenzer began teaching, he started noticing trends in the way students of different ages learned.

“He was listening to students from the perspective of what was essential to their learning and identifying what was enduring,” said Capucine Chapman, the district’s fine arts coordinator and a mentor to Quenzer.

For example, Quenzer noticed that kindergarteners focus primarily on their own projects and don’t collaborate well.

“They run around, telling their own story,” he said. “By second grade, they are such good collaborators that all they want to do is work in the context of their own peers.”

So Quenzer made collaboration a central part of his instruction for second grade and provided opportunities for kindergarteners to improve their ability to work together.

Those kinds of instructional adaptations, he said, have been supported by the state’s grade-level standards for arts instruction, which went into effect in 2009. Denver Public Schools is in the process of testing out and refining assessments tied to the standards for each grade level, a process to which Quenzer is contributing.

Quenzer is also working with a group of other teachers and Chapman on a district-supported project called the “Trajectory of Learning.”

“If an idea’s a good idea, how can we extend it?” said Chapman. The project aims to combine what teachers like Quenzer have learned from their own classrooms with the state mandates in order to provide teachers guidance on implementing the grade-level standards.

Quenzer hopes the ideas will help other teachers begin to be more responsive to their own students and create a space for student-driven ideas.

“[What] if we can design something like curriculum that serves [students’] individual developmental needs?” said Quenzer.

For example, Quenzer never introduces a project assignment with a direct instruction but rather asks students if it’s something they’d like to do. If they say no, he asks them why and attempts to adjust the project to their desires. When a project comes to a close, he checks back in with the class to ask what went well and what didn’t.

“It’s a feedback loop,” Quenzer said. “The kids have become involved in the prototyping process [for my teaching].”

Just as Quenzer is using student feedback to refine his teaching, he’s trying to create opportunities for students to participate in each other’s work in order to grow as artists. The philosophy extends to everything from the basic layout of his classroom, which has “table teams” where students work together, to cleanup at the end of class, when older students leave beads and other small art supplies where they fell for the youngest students to pick up and use in their own art.

And students get the chance to edit their own work as well. Most projects in Quenzer’s class go through multi-week cycles of refinements, with students editing and adjusting their initial work.

On a spring afternoon towards the close of school, he kicked off class with a group of third graders with a discussion of “what to do with an idea.” In previous classes, students had drawn what they thought an idea looked like, as a living thing, and built homes to protect their ideas.

“You have to be kind to your ideas,” Quenzer told his students.

Student responses to the question: "What do you do with an idea?"
Student responses to the question: “What do you do with an idea?”

The students spent the first 15 minutes of class practicing how to share their ideas and critiquing each other’s projects.

And as students dispersed to their tables, they launched into creations of their own design. All Quenzer provided was the initial discussion and the art supplies.

This kind of undirected learning that Quenzer’s students say takes place in few other classrooms.

“In most classes, you have lots of instructions,” one girl said. “I like being able to do what I want.”

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for students. “Some projects are very hard,” she said.

For example, when Quenzer gave third graders the challenge of creating “stitch-monsters” from cloth without using glue, he gave them no other instructions on how to put the monsters together. They had to independently plan out all of the steps to produce the monster they’d created in their minds. Students struggled through the process, from teaching themselves how to sew to figuring out how to sew on body parts and deciding when to add the stuffing.

“There’s no one way to do it,” Quenzer told a struggling student. “There’s only the way you do it.”

And that’s where the rigor comes into Quenzer’s free-form classroom, he said. Rather than follow specific instructions, students must problem-solve to address the dilemmas Quenzer lays out for them.

His students say that process helps them learn in their other classes.

“Art is hard to understand,” one student explained. “It makes it easier to understand things in other classes.”

thrown for a loop

Elementary school teachers sometimes follow a class of students from year to year. New research suggests that’s a good idea.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Student Jaela Manzanares gets reading help from substitute teacher Colleen Rys in her third-grade class at Beach Court Elementary School in Denver.

When Kim Van Duzer, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, had a chance to follow her students from third to fourth grade the next school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “One of the big advantages is starting in September hitting the ground running — you already know the kids and the things they did the previous year and the things they need to work on.”

Now, a new study seems to confirm Van Duzer’s experience. Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same teacher, it finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color.

Repeating teachers is “a beneficial and relatively low-cost policy that should be given due consideration,” write the researchers, Andrew Hill of Montana State University and Daniel Jones of the University of Southern Carolina.

The paper focuses on North Carolina students in grades 3 to 5 who had the same teacher two years in a row. That usually occurred not when a whole class repeated  with the same teacher — what’s often called “looping” — but with a small share of students ending up with the same teacher twice, for whatever reason.

How much did that second year with a teacher help? The overall effect was very small, enough to move an average student from about the 50th to the 51st percentile. But even this modest improvement is notable for several reasons.

First, it’s a policy that, at least in theory, doesn’t cost anything or require legislation to implement. Schools, if they choose to, could make looping a habit.

Second, the gains were larger for kids of color than for white students, suggesting that this could make a slight dent in longstanding test-score gaps.

Third, the students who saw the biggest gains had teachers who were lower performing overall, suggesting that having the same students twice may be particularly useful for helping teachers improve.

Fourth, it’s an idea that could affect a lot of students. Just being in a class where many peers were repeating with a teacher seemed to benefit kids who were new to the teacher, the study finds. The researchers think that could be because those teachers’ classroom environments improve during that second year with many of the same students.

That aligns with Van Duzer’s experience, when she had a handful of new students in her looped class. “The other kids were really welcoming to them, and they became fully integrated members of our class community,” she said.

Fifth, there may be other benefits not captured by test score gains. For Van Duzer, being able to pick up existing connections with students’ families was another perk. “It takes a school year to fully develop a relationship with kids and their parents — for everybody to get to know each other, to develop trust, to be able to speak really openly,” she said.

One important caveat: the study can’t prove that if looping were expanded, that the benefits would persist. Past research also isn’t much of a guide because there’s so little out there, but what exists is consistent with the latest study.

A recent analysis found students in rural China scored higher on tests as a result of the approach. Here in the U.S., the best evidence might come from what amounts to the reverse of the policy: having teachers of younger students focus on a single subject, and thus not have a single class of students. In Houston, this led to substantial drops in student test scores and attendance.

These studies suggest early grade teachers do better when they “specialize” in a small group of students, rather than a certain academic subject.

To Van Duzer, who now serves as a math coach at her school, having a firm understanding of what students learned the previous year is crucial and helps explain the findings.

“A lot of times when kids move into a new grade, the teachers are like, ‘You learned this last year!’ and the kids are like, ‘We did?’” she said. “But then if you say certain words … you remind them of certain experiences, like ‘Remember when we studied China and we talked about this?’ and then they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I do remember.’ But if you haven’t been there with them for those experiences, it’s harder to activate that knowledge.”

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”