Studio-Driven Art Education©

Created by Scott Miller, Copyright © 2016


After James completed his self-portrait assignment, he came up and explained he’d selected “music” from the approved studio time theme list.  He then moved to the wire sculpture station where he spent the next few minutes fashioning two wire music notes.  The notes were flat, non-descript, and generally non-sculptural.  After this moment of simple crafting was over, James brought his creation my way for approval.  His stature spoke volumes.  James didn’t really make eye contact, and he held himself a bit like a sack of potatoes.  He was not confident in his work.  I headed him off at my desk.

“What was your topic?”  I already knew the answer, but it gave James a chance to enter the conversation.

“Music. See?”  He flashed the notes up at me.

“Does this meet the requirements from the wire sculpture station?”

“Well, no, not really.”

“You started this the right way.  You chose your topic and you picked a medium to work with, but…”

I proceeded to explain that sculpture is tall.  It’s deep.  It takes up space, but it takes up that space in interesting ways.

James quickly jumped back into his wire sculpting, and I was on to answering other students’ questions.  I’m not sure how long it took.  I’ll estimate thirty minutes.  James returned, but this time he was prepared.  He arrived with a noticeable energy, stood bolt upright and looked me in the eye.

James had constructed a web of wires as a base.  The wires were sewn together in a way reminiscent of a dream catcher.  Up from the base came a spindle, strong enough to hold itself, deliberately designed, correct for its purpose, and interesting in its form.  The top of the spindle attached to a wire ring within which were suspended the original music notes.  It was an amazing piece.  James and I rekindled our conversation.

“Do you think this does the things we talked about?”


James dove into an explanation of the ways in which he’d altered the original plan to create this sculpture including the edits and revisions he’d pursued after our talk.

Folks, that’s learning and, to my end, that’s teaching.  As a student, James was free to explore a topic of his choice within the construct of the classroom studio I’d organized and fostered.  He was free to create and equally accountable to me as teacher and lead artist.  From my vantage point, I let him fail (at first anyway).  Rather than plotting out his path with precision from the beginning, I let him experiment and explore.  This led to a rather low-level attempt at art making.  It certainly wasn’t something he or I wanted to show others, but the attempt was genuine.  James was willing to build on what he’d done.  That gave me the chance to join with him as the specialist to offer expertise and feedback.

James’ second crack at it was a success.  The next time might look much different.  It might take multiple revisions.  It might even need to be shelved for a while.

My classroom is filled with twenty to thirty students all working under the conditions James was working in, but headed toward twenty or thirty alternate endings.  Each student has the freedom to choose and the chance to back up and validate those choices.  This process is Studio Driven Art Education (S.D.A.E.).

The following is an explanation of first–hand observations I’ve made in my attempt to meld the multiple teaching styles that have come and gone over my career.  I will explain how I’m trying to create a studio culture within my classroom.  In the next few pages I will plot out for you the nuts and bolts of my classroom in the hope that you will be able to visualize my classroom studio and take something of what I’ve done back to your own classroom.  Over the years of attending meetings and conferences I’ve learned that art teachers (perhaps all educators in general) have a knack for immediately taking new information and adapting it to their specific setting constraints.  I have no doubt you will do the same.


Best of luck,

Scott Miller




Studio Driven Art Education

If you want S.D.A.E. in a nutshell, here it is:

  • Be the Lead Artist. Create a healthy studio environment.  Model desired studio behaviors for your students.
  • Balance time between whole-class assignments and more flexible Studio Time.
  • Reflect and provide feedback on what has been created.


Be the Lead-Artist. Create a healthy studio environment.  Model desired studio behaviors for your students.

I do not refer to myself with the term “Lead Artist” when talking with my students.  It’s a mindset.  It’s reflected in my actions.  I intentionally find time in class to share my personal sketches.  If I produce something outside of class, I share it.  I want my students to see me as both teacher and artist.  “There’s a reason my name’s on the door,” is a phrase often tossed out in my room when students look surprised that I, too, create artwork.  Showing your students that you, too, wrestle with ideas, and letting them see you fail and try again will encourage artistic risk taking.  Discussing mistakes is healthy.  I run the studio, but I am also a member of it.

S.D.A.E. is not all studio all the time.  This method uses the studio framework (how the room is designed, how lessons are planned, how reflection is formulated, and how feedback is given) to propel work forward.  The studio-driven aspect of the classroom is what makes the atmosphere of creative exploration and experimentation possible.  Being in a room and working side by side with your peers is a powerful thing.

So, what does my classroom studio look like?  There are supplies out on the counters in my room all the time.  Students have access to these supplies during both whole-class lessons and Studio Time.  It admittedly looks busy to visitors, but access to a variety of supplies is crucial to a studio classroom’s success.  These supplies are separated into stations labelled with signage I’ve created to help make the space easier to navigate.

My Stations:

Reading.  This station has two bookshelves with a variety of reading materials.  Some of my books relate to art or artists, and others are on topics that might jumpstart ideas (animals, maps, weird facts).  There is an expectation that students who choose to read are not just reading.  They are reading while looking for an idea that will take them back to their sketchbook to create.

I once had a first grade student grab a book on predators.  The front cover had a crocodile on it.  The student flipped through the pages and then returned to his seat and grabbed his sketchbook.  I circled back around later to find that he’d created a cartoon version of the croc and added a bird friend that would ride around on his back.  Finding inspiration in books; that’s what the reading station is for.

Writing.  There is no physical writing station.  Students who choose to write do so in their sketchbook.  I’ve seen writing go a myriad of directions from letters, poems, and songs to short stories and several plays.  The goal with writing mirrors the expectation from the reading station.  Students write with the intent that their writing will lead them at some point to create artwork in their sketchbook.  I’ve seen this manifest as students finish up writing a play.  They return to their sketchbook to draw out costume designs and scenery.  Sometimes a poem will become an inspiration or companion piece to a future work.

Drawing.  This station is stocked.  It has pencils, colored pencils, markers of various sizes, oil pastels, chalk (white, old-school), chalk pastels, pens, alternate colors of paper if students want something other than white, books on drawing, and a three-ring binder with examples of drawings for reference.  In my classroom, this station gets the most use.  To help maintain some order I took a picture of the station when it was at its most pristine and mounted it on the wall above the station.  Students refer to the photo to make sure everything gets back close to where it came from, and, yes, I do have to remind my students that the photo is there from time to time.  Modelling behavior and reminding students about studio expectations helps to build a productive studio environment.

Painting.  This station presents a challenge.  My students love to paint.  Something about having all those brushes and squeezing out those paints really makes the experience seem authentically artistic.  You don’t do those kinds of things in other rooms.  Keeping this station in working condition is a task unto itself.  I stock watercolors which routinely get put away wet which turns the dried cakes into a semisolid state good for very little.  Modelling good paint tray cleanup has helped a bit.  I now ask students to dry the puddles of water that might be left in the cakes.  That seems to help.  Along with the watercolors I have watercolor pencils, brushes, palettes, cups, a binder with reproductions for ideas, and acrylic paints in this station.  Acrylic paints are quite attractive to students, but it’s tough for a ten year old to know when he’s squirted out too much.  Again, modelling how to use the equipment is a key to a successful studio.  Tempera cakes can also be a much cleaner, more clear-cut option for your students.

Collage.  Before I explain what this station is like, I must say that students must be taught how to glue.  It’s a life skill.  This station can run beautifully and can lead to tremendous production pieces and satisfied studio artists, but if students can’t glue, then this station is not worth the space it occupies.  In my collage station I stock paper, magazine, and fabric scraps, glue (liquid and stick), a binder with collage reproductions, and whatever sort of odds and ends find their way to my room.  I’ve been known to stock buttons, feathers, and funky strings in this station.

Fiber Arts.  This station is introduced to my students in first grade near the beginning of the year.  There’s something about weaving and yarn that grabs young artists and keeps them engaged.  I think this comes from the nature of weaving.  It’s both simple and complex.  The materials are non-confrontational (it’s not like handing your students a chisel), and the method can be learned.  It looks complicated, but if you understand the mechanics behind the materials it can be mastered.  That’s why I start early.

Patience is key here.  If ever there was a time to recognize that students do not all work at the same pace, it’s during weaving.  This station is stocked with yarn, needles, empty looms, scissors, and tape.  Before they are set free, I ask that my students demonstrate the ability to create a loom and load the warp strings.  Many times the projects created in this station are not completed in one class time.  I selected looms that are small enough to tuck inside my students’ sketchbooks.

Wire Sculpture.  This station asks students to meet specific requirements when creating.  It’s stocked with small-gauge wire, clippers (I use fingernail clippers), plastic bags to put unfinished projects and scraps in, and a binder that has pictures of other wire sculptures for reference.  If a student chooses to work with materials from this station, the sculpture they create must stand on its own or hang from something.  It must have an obvious top and bottom.  It must be built so that it will not come apart, and it must have a strong connection with an item on the Studio Time list.

Calligraphy.  Think of this station like you would Google Earth (or any other mapping software).  What do most people do when they first encounter mapping software?  They look up their house and the place they work.  (I’m guilty.  I did just that.)  Sometime over the last decade when Google Earth came out, I hopped on and spent some time looking down on the areas I was familiar with.  Calligraphy has a similar phenomenon.   The first time students encounter it, they either start mimicking the writing style while writing out the alphabet or their first name.  It’s natural.  The key is to ask the question, “What will you do next?” and then follow up on it when they figure it out.

Side Jobs.  This is a low-traffic station that serves an important purpose in my studio.  At first glance it’s six file folders with slips of paper within each folder.  This station’s true purpose is to be an oasis for those students who become overwhelmed by the idea of studio time.  That much freedom can freeze an unconfident artist in his or her tracks.  The six folders in the side jobs station contain lesson outlines that have shown to hold students’ interest while leading them down a path that mirrors the experience of a student moving freely through studio time.  The image in Figure 1 shows an example of a side job.

Balance Time between Whole-Class Assignments and More Flexible Studio Time

I teach students from kindergarten through fourth grade.  As S.D.A.E. took shape, I realized that it needs to look different at each grade level and even within each grade level as we work our way through the school year.  In this section I’ll work through each grade level from the bottom up.  Before we begin to divide into grade levels, though, there is a constant expectation that holds for all learners, no matter their age.  The expectation is that there is no free time in my class.  Units all start with teacher-led, whole-class lessons that will offer choice in subject, media, or both.  When the lesson is completed, feedback has been given and reflection in whatever form (be it written or oral) is complete; then the students move immediately into what we call Studio Time.  I’ll have more to say on that in a moment.

Whole-class lessons build on skills from year to year.  My first grade classes learn to mix tints and shades in a monochromatic work.  The following year in second grade my students learn to create the secondary colors and brown starting with just the primary colors.  This allows us to expand our understanding about complementary colors.  In third grade I ask students not to mix colors but to use their complementary color knowledge to effect color placement in their work.

My whole-class lessons can also center on a medium that will not show up in a studio station.  For instance, ceramics is not something that works well as a permanent studio station.  The space, equipment, and cleaning involved in a ceramics assignment works better when everyone can join forces and work side-by-side.  Units like this still allow for freedom of expression but do so in a manageable studio situation.

Sometimes I use a whole-class unit to introduce a medium or a station.  My kindergarten students create a collage as one of their opening assignments.  This gives them a chance to get comfortable with the supplies and I get to specifically watch their cutting and gluing skills.

Another aspect of whole-class lessons is to encourage multiple station use.  My third grade students create a self-portrait as a whole-class lesson.  After initial drawing and planning is complete, they are free to use all the supplies in the drawing, painting, and collage stations to complete their work.  Now I’ll break class down by grade level.

Kindergarten starts with getting familiar with the materials.  It’s important to get students acquainted with where all the supplies are.  I plan my kindergarten lessons to intentionally pull students to the big three stations.  These are drawing, painting, and collage.  In one lesson a student may need pencils, oil pastels, scissors, and glue.  That will take them to both the drawing and collage stations.  When a kindergarten student finishes his/her work I always ask them to come show it to me.  More often than not, I have edits I want students to consider, and I end up returning them to their work.  This revision practice will stay constant through the upper grade levels.  Eventually students will complete their work and when they do, they make the switch to Studio Time.  For kindergarten, Studio Time is reading (or looking through my books if reading isn’t possible yet) and drawing.

The variation for first grade is that Studio Time now happens in a sketchbook.  Starting in first grade, students keep a sketchbook in my class.  All rough drafts/sloppy copies, Studio Time work, writings, and even some final work are created in this book.  I also open up Studio Time to reading, writing, drawing, watercolor painting, collage, side jobs, and fiber arts (after they have tried a weaving assignment with me).  Reflection at this level is generally a one-on-one conversation between student and teacher.  Toward the end of first grade I also like to throw in the chance for students to reflect with their peers.  Imagine asking students to turn to their neighbor and explain how they felt when they were finished with their work.  I know what you’re thinking.  My first graders will say “I felt good” and move on.  This is where being the Lead-Artist is so very important.  Jump in and model reflection for your students.  Show them a piece of your own artwork (who cares if it’s from college, if that’s the case) and explain to them how you conceived, planned, and created it.  Verbalize to your students your process and eventually how you became satisfied with your work and could call it complete.

It depends on the group of students, but I typically open up the drawing, painting, and collage (the big three as you recall) first for Studio Time and see how the students react.  Do they take care of the materials?  Can they handle more options?  If the answer is no, then we circle back and review how things work.  I model proper procedures and we try again.  If the answer is yes, then I open up more stations.

Second, third, and fourth grade all work with sketchbooks as well.  Since they already know where the supplies are, it doesn’t take much more than a review to get them rolling again.  At this age level I really start pushing divergent solutions even within teacher-led, whole-class assignments.  For example we might be studying Cubism as a class.  When we attempt a final piece (in our sketchbook) students will be allowed to choose drawing, painting, or collage to create their final work.  Subjects can also be flexible.  I put musical instruments out for students, but I leave open the possibility that they may choose any three-dimensional object as a subject.  Flexible subjects, alternate outcomes, and choice must be a part of the S.D.A.E. art studio.

At all grade levels when we talk about Studio Time, we say, “Studio Time must be a challenge.”  Well, what does that mean?  What that means is students are not to slip backward.  They are to be moving forward, attempting new things, finishing up previously started ideas perhaps, but never working below their talent level.  It’s easy during Studio Time to slide back to something easy (painting rainbows or hearts maybe).  Checking in with students as Lead Artist and starting conversations about what students are thinking will help shape this time.  Feel free to halt progress if you see a majority failing to meet expectations.  From time to time I’ll call a whole-class meeting to discuss Studio Time expectations if I feel it’s warranted.

After first grade when students get to Studio Time, they are required to follow this order: Theme, Media, and Production.  We don’t use those words in class necessarily, but as Lead Artist, it’s important to know the order and set the pattern clearly for your students.  I created a list of forty-five themes that students may choose from.  The themes are posted in class and are open for expansion if a new theme comes up.  There’s quite a variety in the list as you will see.  This is intentional.  I see the theme list as something that can vary from studio to studio.  If a student wants to add a theme to the list I am happy to hear his or her idea.  Here are my themes: Advertising, Ancient Civilizations, Animals, Architecture, Astronomy, Beliefs, Bookmaking, Conflict, Culture, Dreams, Fairy Tales, Feeling, Family, Famous Landmarks, Fear, Fonts and Letters, Freedom, Heroes, Honor, Humor, Identity, Incongruous, Kinetic Sculpture, Loss, Love, Money, Movie Posters, Music, Mythology, Origins, Poetry, Realism (any “ism”), Reversals, Science, Self, Shadows, Sound, Sports, Technology, Tessellations, Time Travel, Travel, Villains, Weather, A World Within A World.  These themes guide the students and give us a conversation starter when I come around with feedback.

Once students make their choice, they then select a media station and start gathering the materials they think they might need.  Students get a kick out of telling me their theme choice.  I make it a point to tell them that they are not asking permission (I already approved the list).  They are telling me, and you can hear the ownership in their voices.  Not asking for permission can be so liberating, even when permission has already been implied.  Students simply need to tell me which idea they are going after.  Checking in with me on the theme also gives me a chance to connect students with resources if I have them.

The expectation is that students shoot for finished work during Studio Time, but the reality is that not all work gets finished.  Studio Time is a time to experiment, and not all experiments become finished works of art.  We can learn from them, but they may not hold a place in a future portfolio.  We have to build in time to fail.  Not to get stuck in the failure, but rather to have time to learn from it and rebuild.  If I feel it’s time to regroup and start another whole-class lesson, then Studio Time is halted and can be picked back up as soon as the new lesson has been completed.

Both whole-class lessons and Studio Time need to encourage divergent solutions.  If a student asks to try something outside of what I’ve asked, I’m inclined to let them, even at the risk of temporary failure.  Sometimes my students will go in a direction I initially think is not worth their time.  If they are working below their personal best, I’ll call them over, investigate, and redirect if needed.  More often than not, these situations turn out to surprise me in a positive way.  It’s because of these experiences that I’m inclined to do it again and again.


Reflect and Provide Feedback on What Has Been Created

To aid reflection, writing, and production in general I designed a Studio Sketchbook for my upper elementary students.  It has pages with reflection questions printed in the back, space for jotting down ideas and definitions, and of course blank pages for production.  If you are interested in seeing a copy of the Studio Sketchbook© or even using them in your own classroom studio, please contact me.

Reflection options build as students grow (both as artists and as humans).  In first and second grade, my students reflect through one-on-one conversation with me or through a whole class critique.  I reserve the whole-class critiques for whole-class assignments.  That helps to make sure that all students understand the topic or media that the other students were using.

In upper grades reflection becomes more routine and less teacher-led.  My students respond to prompts such as, “Explain how you changed your mind during this project” or “How did you know you were finished with this project?”  When they have finished their writing, students bring their responses to me.  I read through their writing and give as immediate a response as I can.  If I think their answer needs more fleshing out, I’ll ask them to make changes and bring their writing back for a second time.

Feedback can come during and after reflection, but it also can be inserted as students work.  Whenever it comes, it needs to be specific.  Let your students know exactly what you see in their work, partially because it is just good to be clear and because it will let them know that you are keeping track of their progress.


Things to Watch Out For

Make no mistake; there have been issues along the way.  That’s part of trying new things.  Just as I ask my students to reflect and learn from their experiences, so should I.  This is a glimpse into my reflections over the past few years.  Hopefully these will be helpful as you attempt all or some of S.D.A.E.

  • Supply needs will vary. I truly think my students eat the erasers.  They seem to disappear with alarming speed.  At any rate, having flexibility with media means that you can’t plan too far ahead with supply ordering because you don’t know what materials your students will choose to use.  This was an adjustment for me and our front office.  Again, flexibility is the name of the game.
  • Children are not always 100% consistent. This method does not always work as it is intended.  It takes time and personal reflection on the teacher’s end just as much as the students.  Expectations have to be set, situations modelled, and students have to learn this new environment.
  • Maintaining studio standards will help in a number of ways. If the studios get out of hand, then classroom management can become an issue and work habits can continue to slip.  Respect the space and the materials and show your students how to do the same.
  • Establish an authentic audience. Work habits and craftsmanship rise when there’s an expectation that someone outside the studio will see an artwork.  This can go beyond the walls of the school.  Consider hanging artwork in a local restaurant or salon.
  • Direction following can be a challenge when the directions don’t always apply to everyone. Make sure to move around the studio and check in with your students.  Sometimes when there are so many pots in the fire, it’s hard for students to self-check.

S.D.A.E. is a calculated attempt to give students experience at designing, editing, producing, and reflecting.  This method meets the artist wherever he/she is and asks them to research, choose, plan, and create (even at the risk of temporary failure).   These students are growing into adaptable citizens of the world who are comfortable with feedback and critique.

I’ll end with an excerpt from an email I sent to an art education student who wanted to pick my brain about teaching.

“I come from the direction that I am not out to “create” artists.  I want my students to respect art, understand it whenever possible, recognize the effort that goes into it… that sort of thing.  That takes a load off my shoulders in the classroom.  We go through lessons as a method of discovery.  There’s no pressure to push out incredibly refined pieces.  This gets me into trouble sometimes with parents who want to see cute projects cranked out weekly.  I have summed it up before in this manner:  Art = Cake.  I want my students to know cake when they see it.  I want them to have an idea of the ingredients that went into it.  I want them to know the effort needed to produce cake.  When possible I want them to recognize characteristics of “good cake” but they may not actually be able to make a great cake, and that’s ok with me.”


Scott Miller 2016

Art Guru LLC