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.”

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

More in Detroit story booth