Fingerpainting with Perfectionism

Recently, I assigned students to read a nonfiction article by art historian Richard Mühlberger called “What Makes a Rembrandt a Rembrandt?” We had spent time as a class using the Artful Thinking strategy Claim-Support-Question (from Harvard’s Project Zero) to examine Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch.”

The Lesson: Part 1

For the protocol, students first observed the painting on Google Art Project and we discussed what we thought we saw in the image. The levels of zoom on Google Art project allowed us to see the image more accurately than if we had merely used a full-screen image of the whole painting.

After we had discussed what we noticed, I invited the class to make a claim based on their observations. They then had to support that claim with evidence from the painting. Finally, I invited each student to ask a lingering question about the painting that we may or may not be able to answer. I collected these responses at the end of the class period, gave individual feedback, and returned their responses at the beginning of the next class.

Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, Known as de ‘Night Watch’, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1642

The Lesson: Part 2

We spent some time previewing the Mühlberger article, looking at the embedded images, title, and subheadings. I asked them how previewing these elements might help them better read and remember.

Next, we built a KWL on the board and focused on building the K and W. My seventh graders told me they were not familiar with this graphic organizer, but they were surprised and excited to see just how much they already “knew” about the topic before they read.

Finally, I asked the class to read the article on their own and see if they could answer their W column “wonders” or “want to know” questions through their reading.

I chose three critical thinking questions from the textbook to assess both reading comprehension and drawing conclusions based on the painting, their reading, and their analysis.


What makes this lesson effective are the many ways students have to use their observations to draw inferences and build a mental model of their understanding. If we had read the article without previewing the art, my students would likely have seen this reading exercise as nothing more than “something to do in Mrs. Leung’s class.” Learning how to use claim-support-question as a strategy for approaching art allows students to practice engaging with a visual “text” while drawing conclusions that are not limited to one single interpretation. This is good practice before asking students to read research or write an argument.

The students who struggled the most with reading and responding to the critical thinking questions were high achieving students who tend to worry about whether or not their work is “right” in the eyes of authority. One student in particular who is an admitted perfectionist chafed at one of the first questions.

The question asked the student to consider the painting’s incorrect, informal title “The Night Watch.” After examining the way the painting looks to a viewer and reading the background information about the painting’s true subject, the student was supposed to generate her own alternate title and support it with reasons. Since this was an open-ended response, as long as the student could support her choice of title with reasonable evidence from the painting and the article, almost any response would be considered correct. When we talked, her frustration was clear, so I asked her to try something different. Before writing a “good” title, I wanted her to write three “terrible” ones. If she was able to write a terrible one, I hoped that would help her continue to think about the painting and what would make a good title (or not). That tip didn’t work instantly, but it did offer her a strategy for coping with the paralysis of perfectionism through play. The student did overcome her mental block and wrote a new title (in addition to three pretty silly ones!)

As I continue to grow in my practice, I see a need for more opportunities for students to meet the challenge of “no one right answer” and to give themselves the permission to use divergent thinking in order to fuel creative thinking.

Cross-posted on Sanderling.

Oz: The Great and Powerful

I’m restless. From the first time I set foot in an education class, I was looking and listening for anyone who saw education as a frontier worth exploring.

I dutifully generated bloodless lesson plans for phony classrooms populated with imaginary students. The veil between my imaginary classroom and my ability to teach remained a barrier until I began my career and awoke to reality. With each new group of students, I questioned my methods, learned and tested new strategies, and ever-hungry for more, joined professional groups.

Still, no matter what I did, I felt lonely and isolated. I felt transformed and renewed each time I grew as a professional in my practice through study and application or through the hard-knocks of teacher experience. Teaching was alchemy and each alchemist tested and refined her own methods for spinning straw into gold. We didn’t hide our conclusions from one another, but we didn’t share them openly either.

Parents and the general public questioned: What goes on in that classroom of yours? How do you know that what you’re doing works? Fear of judgement kept us from inviting colleagues or supervisors to visit and learn with us.

I realized our profession has often made us into mad professors hiding behind barriers of our own making. We can easily become the Great and Powerful Oz, obscured behind grade book averages and hidden behind closed classroom doors–mired in “the way we’ve always done things.”

I have sought ways to tear down that curtain, find other like-minded and restless professionals, and show what teaching and learning really looks like in my classroom. The future looks open to all kinds of possibilities: Twitter, Edcamp, Sanderling. These are the tools that will help bring professional development out of the shadows and into the noisy, energetic tumble of teacher professionals.

I’m off to be a Wizard and the journey all at once. It’s time to put on my walking shoes and put this restless drive for change into action.

(Cross-posted on Sanderling.)