How to Make Time for Reflection in the Arts Classroom

Posted by Sarah Reece-Cusey, Mar 14, 2014 4 comments

Sarah Reece-Cusey Sarah Reece-Cusey

Let’s be honest, when an art project goes long, or a class is a little crazy, structured reflection is the first thing to go. This happens in spite of the fact that we KNOW reflecting makes all the difference when it comes to students retaining their discoveries and being able to apply their learning in other contexts. In the words of John Dewey, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Like most things that are of paramount importance, creating an environment in which meaningful reflection can happen is difficult, especially if you are a teaching artist who only temporarily inhabits another teacher’s classroom. I am currently in the middle of teaching an 8-week, 5th grade residency for the Rainforest Art Project. My students are a perfectionist group, bordering on unruly. Some of the students are so worried about making a mistake, it’s difficult for them to even start working. They are very critical of themselves and their artwork.

Anney1 Sarah's students

Two weeks ago, we tried having a formal reflection for the first time. Anyone who wanted to could share his or her work. All they had to do was stand up, show it to the class, and call on other students for comments. I was very explicit about the types of comments I was looking for. They needed to be positive, but also very specific. For example, “I like your painting” was not going to fly, while “I like how you used the pattern in the water to create movement” was a very strong comment. Our first attempt was quite laborious. We had to stop the class frequently, reminding students to be respectful to the presenters and give appropriate comments. Most students were wary about sharing.

Last week we repeated the process. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, sometimes setting clear expectations can really get classroom teachers on board. It was obvious that the classroom teacher had spoken to her class before our session. They came in quietly, listened to instructions, asked helpful questions, and owned their artistic processes, branching out and taking more risks than in previous projects. When it came time for reflecting, almost half the class wanted to share. We limited it to a few per table group, and revisited the expectations. I was amazed at some of the comments. Students were using our art vocabulary words and comparing and contrasting different pieces. We still had to stop and regroup during the process, but not as frequently.

My goal for this week is to have the presenters say one sentence about their art before they take comments. I want their voices to be heard, and I want them to be able to articulate what was successful about their own work.

The students’ reflections are having a significant impact on my teaching, as well. I have time to listen and reflect with them, noticing more connections between the individual projects we do each week. Although I am using a pre-designed curriculum, I am able to pull out common threads, building on our work in past weeks to encourage and point out growth in student techniques, ideas, and compositions.


Now, full disclosure, these particular class sessions are 1.5 hours, an unheard of luxury for many teaching artists. We have ample time to work on the art, reflect, and still leave the room spotless (a room that is solely dedicated to our art classes). Since these are not normal conditions, how do you prioritize and facilitate reflection in a shorter time period and less ideal space? Here are some ideas (most are shamelessly stolen from other teachers I’ve observed) that come in handy in my more challenging contexts, say a 30 minute, 40 student, after-school class in the gym:

1. Reflect at the beginning of the next session. Sometimes there just simply isn’t time to do it all, and the end of a short class is usually complete chaos. Don’t force it. You can easily hold on to a few student pieces and talk about them first thing next week.

2. Give students a script with blanks and have them reflect with a partner. This works great in a space like the gym, where it’s almost impossible to hear one another in a large group. Here is a sample script: “The art challenge today was to ____________. I accomplished this by _____________. My favorite part about my piece is _______________. One thing I would do differently next time is___________.”

3. Bring in your own work and model reflecting. I often find that students are appalled when I tell them something I would change about one of my paintings. “No, it looks great!” they assure me (and I feel all warm and fuzzy). We then have a conversation about how artists can be proud of their work and want to improve it. Wanting to improve it or having one part you don’t like doesn’t mean it’s not good, it just means you’re learning.

4. Have a mantra or big idea that ties classes together over several weeks. My current one is, “Observation plus imagination makes amazing art.” We go over this at the beginning of each class, and this helps students continually reflect on what they are observing and what they are imagining, in order to create each piece.

5. Your turn! How do you facilitate meaningful reflection in your classes?

Want more information about reflecting, including how to use it in your own learning? Check out this educational consultant’s blog I found:


4 responses for How to Make Time for Reflection in the Arts Classroom


March 14, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Beautifully written! I felt like you were describing many of my own classes and of course, the challenge of making student learning visible and encouraging critical thinking. I love the inclusion of different reflection exercises, thank you for those!

Here's one more (also stolen!) - pass out a post-it to each student with a pencil. As they watch a performance, or walk around to look at art work, have students write one thing that moved them about what they saw, and most importantly, be specific about why it moved them. Then have all students post their sticky on the wall as they leave the classroom. Begin your next class looking at the stickies, reading what you see, pointing out strong vocabulary words, etc.

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March 14, 2014 at 5:48 pm

What a great idea! I'm always looking for ways that require all students to participate and engage in critical thinking, even if we don't have time to share everyone's ideas. I also like that students who are more comfortable writing than sharing out loud can have a voice. Thanks!

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March 18, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Hello, Ms. Reece-Cusey - I am an oratory teaching artist at Ford's Theatre in Washington. D.C. Your post grabbed my attention because we refer to that wonderful John Dewey quote quite a bit ourselves. I will be implementing a number of your suggestions in my work, particularly the sample reflection script. Thanks for that!

Our strategies are not visual art-oriented, but they may still be helpful additions to your repertoire. We use very specific prompts for warm and cool feedback when students recite speeches and monologues for their peers:

Warm feedback prompts:
“I really like how you...”
“You did a great job at...”
“It was clear that you worked hard on...”
“It was really interesting when you...”

Cool feedback prompts:
“You may want to consider...”
“It may be more useful to...”
“Have you thought about...”
“It was unclear to me when you...”

After receiving feedback, the speaker should always say “Thank you.” Then they may do any or all of the following:

•Write notes on the feedback in their journals or notebooks
•Verbally respond to the feedback with peers
•Table the feedback (if it is not helpful or if the speaker does not agree)

I have found this very useful in teaching students to unpack and articulate their responses to the work of their peers. It also gives the performers specific notes on areas of competency as well as those in need of improvement.

Hope this helps!

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Marlo Lee says
February 10, 2015 at 9:40 pm

I love what your post! I will definitely try these ideas in my art room. I never thought of reflecting at the beginning of the next lesson. Clear minds, fresh ideas, why not? I will try this. I've been researching several ways to incorporate art discussion in a 45 min art period and the most recent article I read talked about using index cards for students to write their "artist statement". That is similar to the post-it idea. Then they suggested to gather in an "artist circle" where everyone talks about their artist statement and relate their ideas to one another.
In my school, student buy a sketchbook with their school supplies. They bring it to art with them each day they have art. I use it to write vocabulary, sketch ideas, element of art review, and drawing practice. This year I am trying to incorporate more reflection and journal writing. I think the post-it or index card idea can still be written in the sketchbook.
My latest idea was to discuss artwork as if it were a story through a story structure: main idea, setting, tone, conclusion. I thought this would not only be a great way to reflect, but also to integrate reading and writing into the art room. So far it's been working great, and if we do not have time to write it all down, I have them discuss their answers with their neighbors. I think reflection takes practice because at first they were sharing very basic statements, and now they have gotten more descriptive with practice.
Thanks again for sharing your experience.

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