This Saturday, July 20, the Honolulu Museum of Art School Summer 2019 Young Artist Exhibition opens. The culmination of four weeks of classes for students age 6 to 18, the exhibition is one of the Art School’s quarterly student art showcases. And this time it is also something more.

For the past year, HoMA educators have been experimenting with a new way of teaching its visual arts integration classes at Title 1 schools—choice-based art education inspired by Teaching for Artistic Behaviors, an approach co-founded by Massachusetts arts educators Katherine Douglas and Diane Jaquith in the 1970s.

Teaching for Artistic Behaviors, or TAB, at its most basic means putting out a bunch of materials and letting kids make what they want to make. It sounds laughably simple, but is a radical departure from traditional art education. “The thought is kids will be more engaged because they’re doing what they want to do and there’s more autonomy in the classroom and they can access what they need and have the freedom to make what they want to make,” explains Hannah Craft, HoMA’s associate director of youth programs.

The positive results from students and teachers, combined with HoMA’s ongoing effort to ensure its education programs are consistent and well-managed, led Craft to introduce the TAB method to the Art School’s summer sessions. The results are phenomenal.

In the show opening this week, instead of seeing, say, 20 similar self-portraits, you’ll see 20 highly individual artworks. Also new for this show is the process of letting kids be their own curators—teachers asked them to select their two best works from class, instead of putting in everything they made during June. The result is more like a gallery group show, instead of the kitchen sink.

With HoMA's new choice-based curriculum, one student can make prints of Godzilla while another makes a fashion-oriented collage.

With HoMA’s new choice-based curriculum, one student can make prints of Godzilla while another makes a fashion-oriented collage. The idea is to allow students to make art they want to make, not what they are told to make.

The student is the artist
While the TAB approach is student-centered, it doesn’t let kids run wild. “TAB is a framework that teachers follow,” explains Craft. Each class has three phases—“Do Now,” an activity such as sketching or dancing to music that acts as a creative warm up; Inspiration, something that fuels students’ imagination, such as artwork, a video, or a walk; a demo by the teacher that encourages students to make their own discoveries, rather than lays out step-by-step instruction; and finally Work Time, when students can make whatever they want using whatever they want.

“It’s really about the students’ ideas,” says Craft. “The way I learned art and the way I taught it for a long time was that the teacher is the ‘real artist’ and they’re trying to share that with the students. It ends up being prescriptive. I used to do it. When I started teaching here, I wasn’t making my own work as much, so my lessons became like my art. I thought, I’m going to have them do this thing and it’s going to be so awesome! It was about the teacher more than the students, and we want to get away from that and empower kids, let them know they are the artist and they matter.”

The concept of learning the art rules to be able to break them has been the art education standard for centuries. “But great art comes in all different forms,” says Craft. “With TAB, the students’ work doesn’t have to be realistic, it doesn’t have to be representational. It can be messy, it can be doodly, it can be whatever they want.” Pablo Picasso famously said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” TAB lets children paint like children right from the start.

The new curriculum is also about more than art, with long-term effects that can benefit our entire community. “I think the most important aspect of TAB is that we are creating an environment where kids are learning what it means to make a decision and take a risk. It’s a key skill to have to be a successful artist, and in life too,” says Aaron Padilla, HoMA’s director of learning and engagement.

For the museum’s youth programs, Craft, along with curriculum specialist Justin Davies and youth programs coordinator Janna Plant have been trying to empower HoMA teaching artists to let students know they are young artists and their voices matter. Good art is whatever they feel like making, not trying to copy an existing artwork.

“But that means reprogramming the classroom teachers and the parents,” says Craft. “We’re up against all these myths of arts education, that it has to be representational, that there’s such a thing as a creative person and a non-creative person.”

In a case of kismet, Rachel Huntley, who joined the Art School in 2017, worked with TAB co-founder Jaquith and her fellow art education star Lois Hetlund at the Massachusetts College of Art. “When we decided we wanted to adopt this for our Young Artist program, we asked Rachel to spearhead it and put together resources for us and think about how we can apply it and she just ran with it,” says Craft.

While Art School students choose their own materials and subject matter, teaching artists still help them find their way.

While Art School students choose their own materials and subject matter, teaching artists still help them find their way.

Teaching artists saw immediate results using the TAB framework. “Students would ask me if they could make something they imagined, and their eyes would light up in surprised delight when I said yes!,” says Kiara Womack, who taught Exploring Arts for children age six to eight. “I interpreted that light as the freedom to make art they cared about with materials they enjoyed working with. I noticed timid students gain confidence as their points of view and art-making were validated over the course of the class. A variety of materials in the room allowed for continuous exploration, discovery, and innovation. This freedom of choice demonstrated that art making in a classroom can coexist with a joyous state of play, and art can be interactive and well shared.”

Teaching artist Leslie Fleming, who previously worked for a nonprofit in San Francisco that placed artists in elementary schools, said using TAB was a big shift for her, but was “all for the best because it gives children a lot more choice and it imitates much more what an artist does.”

She had been concerned that the choice-based format would be too challenging for younger students, “because they’re not used to coming up with their own ideas and aren’t normally rewarded for expanding their ideas.” But it turned out the majority of even the youngest students found the approach engaging. “I as in college before I was given that opportunity.”