Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Critiquing the Xanos Way

I come from a Greek family. We love to debate and discuss, loudly and passionately. I grew up this way. I raised my four children this way. At our dinner table, in the car, on the couch; there is never a lack of animated discussion about whatever topic someone might introduce. So, as a teacher, I was confounded to find students struggling to discuss an issue or critique an artwork.  Most times, groups would sit quietly while I needled them for responses. Some groups would have one or two outspoken students that did all of the work. I tried guiding a large class setting, and I did all the talking. I tried breaking them into small groups with prompts. I got the same results. So I sat down one day and asked myself "what in the world was my family doing that my students were not?"

I realized that different people in a good debate group took on different roles. The Agitator/Challenger (my Dad and my son), the Supporter (me and daughter #2), the Lecturer (me or my daughter #3), the Questioner (daughter #1). This was interesting as I had not bothered to analyze family discussions before. I figured that these roles made for some great exchanges that would go round and round and often end up in a completely different place than where we started. I probably should add that my son also fulfills the role of the Joker. You know, the one who makes fun of people when they get too serious. I chose to leave that one out of my experiment as it usually results in someone screaming in our house.

I decided to try to replicate this process, using the roles I mentioned above. My hope was to spur the students into animated and eventually complex discussions. I figured the structure provided by role playing and topic prompts would enable students to work off of each other. 

  • I teach high school and see students for 46 minutes, 5 days a week. 
  • In the classrooms, I can have 25 - 35 students in one class. They sit in groups of 4 - 6 at "stations". They make their art there and have small group discussions/projects.  Each group has a "recorder". That is a person who writes a bullet list summary of the group discussion for extra credit. 
  • I have used this particular technique to promote discussion for, 1. a debatable issue (ex. Is Graffiti Art?), 2. To critique a famous work of art, 3. To critique each others art (in progress and at the end), 4. To analyze movies or readings the class encountered. 
  • I give prompts for topic consideration depending on the issue or type of art being discussed. I might have them focus on concepts, controversy, techniques, or aesthetic success. Along with the prompts they must make certain kinds of statements. In the past I gave them a list (along with the prompts) on paper. These statements must be: a) Challenge a speaker or address a weakness in the piece, b) Support a speaker or address a strength, c) Explain what one thinks is going on (in student critique this role must be the artist), d) Raise at least two questions. I let people choose which of these statements they will make as they travel through the discussion.
  • The group starts with the Presenter/Lecturer: the student artist explains their work (or anyone can present the basic facts of the discussion topic.) After this, others in the group can Challenge, Question, or Support in any order they see fit. Anyone can also move back into Presenter mode if needed.
  • Students are told that if someone raises a challenge or asks a question, they are allowed to respond. Often a supporter chimes in at this point and others will choose sides or even raise new points. When someone responds to a challenge they have two choices a) agree that there is a weakness and then the group moves into problem-solving mode, or b) disagree and the group moves into debate mode. 
  • I found that students immediately took to having exciting and interesting discussions. While they were cautioned to keep it civil, the challengers and the questioners made people think and explain themselves. Responders often came up with interesting points that they would not bring up without a "gadfly" in the group. Supporters could bring up positive points that a Presenter might not think of and gave him/her a little back-up. People often switched roles as the discussion progressed. 
  • At first I was worried this might incite cruel comments. However, I cannot remember any time that students got mean during a discussion. Usually, the Challengers are very diplomatic. Sometimes that role is hard for anyone to choose and I have to help. We do practice giving constructive criticism/disagreement early on. I explain that the Challenger's job is to help the group problem-solve a weakness and therefore find a way to turn it into a strength.
  • After discussion, students sometimes present to the rest of the class, using the Recorder's notes. Other times, they just give the discussion notes to me and I read them. During the discussion I walk around and eavesdrop on the groups, offering help when needed.
So, this is one of the ways I get the students to talk. Unfortunately, we haven't done this once 2nd semester due to new and unusual mandates for quizzes, vocabulary, reading, writing, graphs, grammar, and math to be taught in my art class. I'm struggling just to keep the art-making happening. However, I plan to use it at least one last time with our final projects. I miss our lively group discussions. I'll bet the students do too!

When we critique, I'll video a session and post it. I hope this helps for now. 
Valerie Xanos

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