Amy Traggianese | December 2016

Student Choice: Improvisation in the Art Room

In an elementary art room, a bit of improvisation equals student choice and student’s voice.

Last night, I attended a Chris Bodie jazz concert at the legendary Blue Note jazz club in NYC. As the talented musicians played and improvised, I was prompted to reflect upon this school year. All that jazz (pardon the pun) and improvisation reminded me of all the changes that I have made in my elementary art room. This year, I am teaching grades 2-5, and embracing student choice in my art room. Honestly, sometimes it feels like I am teaching and kinda winging it at the same time. It is a bit scary, but I am doing it to increase student responsibility, engagement and learning through visual art.

Student Choice, Improvisation in the Art Room, Education Closet

Outside the Blue Note. Even though you have tickets, you still need to wait in line.

Why Student Choice?

Well, I had been teaching art with the gradual release model for many (like 20!) years. As a reminder, that model consists of:

  1. I do it (the teacher)
  2. We do it (practice as a class)
  3. You do it together (everyone practices,) then finally…
  4. The students do it alone.

As time went on, I felt my students were getting bored of this teaching model and I was doing many tasks that they could do for themselves. Many negative student behaviors were increasing and disrupting the class. Was this a cue from those students that they needed more control over what they were learning? Did the students need more responsibility in the art room? I finally concluded that my students needed to make more choices within their art room and their creations.

Painted paper collages, Education Closet

Painted paper collages, 3rd grade artists.

As I reflected on this, it occurred to me that when I go to an art class or workshop, I do not want to create the same thing as everyone else. As an artist, that is just the way I roll. Those painting parties where everyone makes the same thing, step-by-step? Nah, I’ll pass. I realized: if I don’t want that type of class for myself, WHY am I creating that kind of art room climate for my students? I’m not saying those types of art classes are not valuable, I’m saying that in my opinion, artists don’t need that kind of hand-holding to create original art. And in elementary art, I believe we should be teaching students to think and create independently. Yeah.

student choice, 5th grade artist, Education Closet

5th grade artist

Student choice, Stencil she created to make her painting, Education Closet

Stencil, she created to make her painting.

Interested in some awesome classical/jazz/rock improvisation. Skip to the 2-minute mark if you are strapped for time, but watching the whole video is worth it!

What can you do in your classroom to flip responsibility to your students? It is like turning a classical piece into rock and roll. We know we should increase student engagement for more student learning so let’s take a cue from music improvisation: let go a little so you can to let your students own their own learning.

Let me know what you think about increasing student choice and voice in your educational setting.

About the Author

Amy Traggianese has been an elementary visual arts educator in CT since 1995. A former kindergarten and first grade teacher, she has over 30 years of arts integration experience. Amy specializes in integrating language arts, math, science and technology into the choice art studio. She is an arts integration coach for The Institute for ARts Integration and STEAM. Amy is an active educator voice on Facebook and Twitter and loves a good Twitter chat. Connect with her on social media or at