Choice Without Chaos with Anne Bedrick

I feel so lucky to be sharing an interview with Anne Bedrick, whose e-book Choice Without Chaos was recently released from the iBookstore.  Anne is a primary school art teacher in New York, and she is a choice-based educator.  I asked her a few questions because her book is beautiful and I, personally, am fascinated by choice-based education.  Enjoy, and please get a copy of the book if you have an iPad!

B & A : In your own words, what is choice-based education?

Anne : A choice-based education is one where the students choose what to work on. Not choose this or that, but genuinely design and choose the projects that they work on. Students work on pieces inspired by the teacher and by great art, but also on pieces inspired by their peers, the materials, and their own lives. In a choice art room, ideas can come from anywhere. Students work at their own pace, not on my schedule, so they are never rushed to finish a project. As students finish one project, they begin another. They do not need to wait for the whole class to finish its work to start the next project, nor do they need to wait for me to tell them what it is going to be. Instead they decide for themselves what would be valuable to work on.

Students are expected to try different media throughout the year. Each class begins with a demonstration or a discussion to inspire students to explore new concepts or try media that they might not have otherwise considered. Students are taught how to find ideas that interest them, and then are expected to work on them responsibly, practicing organization and time management.

Additionally, when the students make artistic and creative choices for themselves, they start to understand where ideas come from. Students who are used to listening to step-by-step directions are always waiting to be told how to make art or what can be used to make art. They feel no connection to the idea process that is behind art making. Choice students get better and better at designing their own projects, and realize that art ideas come from everywhere, but most especially from themselves. They feel connected to the process, take ownership over it, and begin to see the possibilities in the world around them. A choice art program not only respects student ideas, but also makes them the central tenet.

B & A :

Choice-based education seems to place a high value on student independence.  How does the physical setup foster that?

Anne :

Classroom arrangement is very important. I spend a lot of time at the end of the year tweaking the flow of materials and storage and bookkeeping to help foster a more smoothly functioning art room.

The first six weeks of school are a separate time; a time for modeling routines and behaviors and for opening centers. A center is simply a set of shelves or a box that holds materials and tools often used together. Once a center has “opened” supplies are out on shelves and accessible to students. This is crucial to a choice room because it allows students to do the important work of planning what they want to work on. If they don’t know that clay will be available they can’t plan to use it.

At the beginning of the year, I “open” one center per class time, showing students where things are kept and how to use them. Every shelf is labeled to help students return supplies to their correct spot. I never open more than one center at a time because even if a student has been with me for four years, they forget things or understand them in new ways, having ah-ha moments. Once a center is opened the supplies remain available to students, so as new centers open, options for art making increase.

I happen to have an enormous room, but teaching with choice can happen in any size space, even on a cart. You need only modify the number of centers that are permanently set up or downsize them to offer fewer supplies. Mini-centers are a great option for teachers without a lot of space. It is the idea behind choice teaching that is important. You want your students to begin to be self-directed, creative thinkers… the exact choices you give them are not as important.

B & A :

Early childhood educators often talk about "centers", and it seems that same model is used, in a way, in choice-based education.  How are choices similar to, or different from, centers?

Anne :

Centers are just a way to organize materials. Choices are in the planning.

Each table is a different “center” or different media. But which table a student works at depends upon the choice that they make or the planning that they did ahead of time. Many different projects, in many different media, occur simultaneously at the different centers around the room. There might be five students at clay, four at painting, six at drawing, four at construction and four at fiber at arts, for example. These are the permanent centers in my classroom: drawing, collage, painting, construction, clay, fiber arts, photography and digital arts. I also have temporary centers that come out for a class or a few classes, such as printmaking or papermaking.

Much of the deep thinking behind art happens at the front end of a project; what to make, with which medium, and why. But, it also happens in the middle of a project when things do not go as envisioned, or other possibilities emerge. If the teacher is doing all of that thinking and decision-making, then the students do not learn how to make a plan of action, they merely learn to follow instructions. By teaching with choice, we put all that valuable thinking back into the hands of the students.

B & A :

Do you document student work?  

Anne :

Students record where they worked themselves. During cleanup they not only put away their work, tools, and extra materials, but also mark a small chart, which I call a placemat, to show which center they worked in. Students in grades 1-4 keep track of where they work by placing a color dot, or two if they worked in more than one center, in the square that represents today’s class. Each center has a color marker associated with it. Drawing is yellow. Collage is green. Painting is blue. Printmaking is turquoise. Clay is brown. Inventor’s Workshop is red. Photography and Digital Arts are black. Sewing and Weaving are pink. Special Projects are grey. I even have special codes for things like Glazing... A brown dot for clay with a blue circle around it means you painted your clay. At any point during the year I can have kids show me their chart if I want to double check that they are having a variety of experiences.

In terms of me documenting work, yes. I take notes about student work and work habits during class and share time. I also photograph finished projects to remember them. This is important because I have to write anecdotal report card twice a year. Having that visual record of what students made brings me mentally back to the day that they made it.

It is easier to remember individual students, their work habits and their artistic advances when you teach with choice because everyone’s work look different. I can pick up an unlabeled artwork and more often than not I know who made it.

B & A :

How do students share their work with each other, the greater school community, or families?

Anne :

Students share their work with each other at the end of every class period. Share time is a crucial part of a choice program. Everyone is excited to show what they have done and to see the work of their peers. It is a time for students to admire and celebrate each other’s achievements. It is a time for students to get ideas for their own future work. And, it is a time for students to learn to articulate their own process and learning. Share time is five minutes, so I only allow students with finished work share. Students tell the story of their work, what they used, what they are proudest of, or a problem that they overcame.

Students share their work with the greater school community as they finish it (and if they want to) in the display cases and on the bulletin boards near the office and near my classroom. Some students love to display their work and do so often, others do so only rarely.

All students however, participate in our school’s twice yearly art shows, by choosing a piece that they are proudest of to display. I require second, third and fourth graders to write or dictate an artist statement to explain to the art show visitors what they made. This helps visitors understand the rich thinking and problem solving behind learning art this way. Additionally, we have a reception for the artists to help them celebrate their hard work with their families.

B & A :

How do you collaborate with other teachers in your school?

Anne :

Yes, I collaborate with other teachers a lot. I try to stay aware of what teachers are doing so that I can make connections when possible. I time certain project demonstrations to match with what they are doing in their classroom. When second graders study the NYC tenements as part of their immigration unit, I demonstrate using charcoal, an art supply readily available in any home at that time, regardless of income.

Some projects happen because students are interested in their studies and want to paint a picture of the animal that they learned about or build it in clay. Other projects are directed learning experiences much like in a traditional art room. We call these “Have-to’s”. Have-to’s are projects that students are required to do. On those days choice art is suspended so that students can explore a concept related to their curriculum. Here is an example of a have-to: In first grade students learn about a store in the local town and write a report about it. In art class they re-create their store-front as a collage. The classroom teachers work with the students to set the collages up into a mural of our town.

I only do a few of these directed and required projects per year per grade because I believe so strongly in choice. Many of the projects that I used to do as have-to’s are now choices and the kids that do them are those for whom the idea is useful or interesting.

B & A : 

Do you find classroom teachers to be important to your planning and understanding of individual children and classroom communities?

Anne :

Behavioral issues in a choice room are many fewer because students are so excited about their art. They don’t want to waste their time and work with focus for long periods of time. Through their work I get to know them as individuals. I know that Johnny is passionate about baseball and will work hardest if he can relate his art to baseball regardless of the medium he is working with. But, I also have the opportunity to chat with him about his passion and know him as a person.

I do collaborate with other teachers about particular students. A good school always addresses the needs of individuals best when teachers in all disciplines work together to help their students and bring their different perspectives on them to the table.

I addressed planning somewhat in the last question. I will add though that I meet with grade level teachers at the beginning of each year to hear about their plans for the year. Then, I try to coordinate my project demonstrations to coincide with what they are teaching to enrich the student experience.

B & A :

Does your school as a whole follow a choice-based model, or is this something about your classroom?

Anne :

Interesting that you ask that because it was mostly just me until just this year. We are a Responsive Classroom school. A big part of the RC philosophy is Academic Choice. Some classroom teachers had been expressing an interest in learning how to offer more choices in their teaching, so this summer as a faculty we read

Learning Through Academic Choice

by Paula Denton to help them understand how to make that happen in a regular classroom. Many of my colleagues are re-thinking their curricula to try to find more places to give more academic choices this year.

B & A :

How might someone adjust a choice-based model for use with 2-5 year olds?  Do you think it is a usable model with children that young?

Anne :

For my younger students I assign tables and offer them a choice of working on a special project or working from the mixed media supplies kept in a copier paper box top at their home table. This still allows them to work with choice, but it simplifies the setup and cleanup for them.

In each are markers, colored pencils, a sharpener, oil pastels, watercolor paints, cups for water, brushes, collage scraps, glue, scissors, hole punchers, paper fasteners and popsicle sticks. The bottoms of the boxes are marked so that students know where to replace things that they remove. The only thing not in the box is the paper that they use for drawing, painting, or collaging. Students help themselves to these papers from the main paper shelves.

Many different types of projects are possible from the limited supplies offered in these boxes. Because of the constancy of these offerings, younger students are able to plan in the same way as older students, who have access to my whole room.

Like the older students, the first six weeks of school are about learning routines, in this case related to assigned tables. At first only drawing supplies are in the supply box. The next class the collage materials go in. Finally, the paints. It is a mini-version of what I do for “opening” centers the older students.

After the routines related to home tables are solid, students begin to have additional projects at the special projects table. They choose whether they want to work at their home table or at the special projects table. Using table boxes simplifies things for the students. They have two choices; to work from their table box or come try the new thing.

B & A : 

Can you recommend any books or resources for someone looking to learn more (besides your book, of course!)

Anne :

Engaging Learners Through Artmaking: Choice-Based Art Education in the Classroom


y Katherine M. Douglas and Diane B. Jaquith is also a good basic book on teaching with choice. I further recommend the

Teaching for Artistic Behavior Listserv

. This is a group of teachers who all teach with choice, at all different levels and in all different environments. I learned all about teaching this way from this supportive and inspiring group of teachers.

B & A : 

Is there anything else that you want to share about teaching this way?

Anne :

Teaching with choice is a gift to students. They look forward to coming to art whether or not they are “artistic” because of the quality of the thinking that they are allowed to do. People are built to be learners, they want to explore the ideas that intrigue them, but school rarely allows them the time to do so. Somehow schools have become less and less about learning and thinking, and more and more about testing and showing. Compliance and memorization have become the priority. The art room has become one of the last places that we have the luxury of allowing students to do the important work of learning in nonlinear, abstract ways.