Embracing Constraints for Choice

Every year, I have my students watch Embrace the Shake, a Ted Talk by artist Phil Hansen. He describes how his obsession with pointillism led to nerve damage in his hand causing an uncontrollable shake. Through this experience, he came to understand the positive impact of limitations on creativity and how, ultimately, these constraints freed him from paralyzing choices. The Covid-19 pandemic created more constraints than I can count, and all of them tested my perseverance, but as I reflect on it now, I realize that a lot of the protocols and practices that were out of my control led to great strides in understanding my students’ needs, how to craft a student-directed artistic process that engages them in meaningful artmaking, and how by submitting to those constraints, I was able to free myself from many of the burdens of my previous practices.


I place a high value on choice in my classroom. The majority of my student’s time is spent on student-directed experiences developed from early research on Choice-Based Art Education which gives an enormous amount of autonomy to students of all ages and experience. Reflecting on that research led me to believe that treating students like they’re artists when they aren’t is inherently problematic. They must be taught to research, practice, persist, etc. as Hetland advocates for in her framework for Studio Thinking.


I had a large number of students who, due to insecurity, apathy, or absence, would be perpetually behind. I was spending half my time teaching the class, and the other half re-teaching and begging students to move forward in what felt like a futile attempt to get them caught up. This often led to a shallow understanding of the process or, unfortunately, no understanding at all. Many students fought the process. They would constantly question each new step, refusing to hear or accept my explanation. For some reason, my explanation of the process and why each step was important got lost.

The Covid Situation

Usually, I would have spent some time over the summer attempting to address these issues in preparation for the coming year, but it was impossible to plan for such an unpredictable scenario. When I finally knew what my classes would look like, I was terrified.

  • I was going to have to provide identical lessons for students in class as well as asynchronous virtual learners.

  • Daily lessons had to be on our school's learning management system, Canvas, and

  • students would be constantly shifting between virtual and on-campus learning due to preference or quarantine.

  • Students were not allowed to share materials or tools without sanitizing them between uses.

  • Being in a district where over 70% of students are provided free or reduced lunch, many had very limited supplies at home, so I had to ensure my lessons could be completed with essentials like pencils and notebook paper.

  • I was overwhelmed and disheartened. With each new hurdle, my thinking would shift back and forth between survival and indignant tenacity. Sometimes it felt like, regardless of what I did, it would be a wasted year.

Let's take a moment to commiserate with each other on our worst Covid stories.

Embrace the Shake

After a few days of mental paralysis, I made a firm decision to focus on finding a solution. I was determined not to stray from my student-directed pedagogy, though I’ll admit in a few moments of weakness, I considered it. I refused to let the hardships of this year be for nothing. I knew I didn’t have time to look for big picture solutions to last year’s problems. I was trying not to drown, so I would have to do my best to address them slowly as I crafted each week’s daily lessons.

The first step was to establish a way to present my goal process online in small daily pieces. Because our virtual learners were asynchronous, I had to either write down everything or create videos of myself teaching. I opted to stick to writing things down except for the occasional screen recording. In the first few weeks, I didn’t attempt to address goals. We set up digital portfolios on Google Sites, created a few base-line drawings to get to know what they were interested in and what their skill levels were, learned about the difference between art and design, and practiced photographing artworks.

When the first day of school came and we began, my on-campus students often asked me questions about what to do, and my reply was like a broken record. “Read the instructions,” I’d say. It took some time, but eventually, they started reading my arduously crafted lessons and stopped asking me to repeat what was in the assignment. It seemed as though I was running a computer lab. If I had made the lessons clear enough for my virtual learners, there was nothing for me to do during class. I was suddenly finding myself unsure of what to do with myself other than redirect those that were off task. Did they have everything they needed? I wasn't re-teaching, but I wasn't teaching either. When the bell rang, my students would get online and begin their lesson, so what was I going to do?

2-1: What is a Portfolio?
2-3: Creating a Digital Portfolio with Google Sites
2-2: Photographing Art


Because everything was online in small daily assignments, there was a lot more grading for me to do. That seemed bad at first, but when I found myself with time during class to look over their work from the previous day, I found that it was a major upgrade. In the past, their work was in physical journals that they used everyday. It was disruptive for me to look at them while they were in class. With their work turned in online, I could walk around the room and check each student’s previous day’s work on my phone or tablet, allowing me to address any misconceptions or give advice before they had moved too far along in the process. This felt much more like the facilitator role I was used to filling. The online assignments gave instructions, the students, made choices, and I guided them to what they needed to be more successful in those choices.

This new format also made my lessons student-paced. If a student missed a day, or they were quarantined and disappeared for ten, they would just pick up where they left off when they returned. All the lessons had to be completed in order and nothing could be skipped. This might have been the single-most beneficial element. Before Covid, we would have great class discussions and activities that were highly successful in guiding students' understanding of certain topics. And then a student world show up the next day and ask what they missed. It was heartbreaking to me. I simply couldn't replicate the previous day's experience. But with this consistently available curriculum, it was easy. Do I miss those discussions? Sometimes I do, but ensuring every student interacts with the material has become more important to me. We still had some cool discussions in class. In fact, in some ways, they were cooler. The questions that led to those discussions went beyond the expected learning, and involved those that were interested. I wasn't having to attempt to keep others awake while I nerded out on conceptual art or my latest favorite artist with a table of students.

Even with the curriculum being student-paced, there was a certain amount of work that had to be assessed each grading period, so there were a lot of students scrambling to get caught up at the end. I was beginning to see students skipping the last few lessons because they had gotten too far behind and anything over a 69 was okay by them. To mitigate that, I opted to leave the last week of the six weeks open for catching up or extended learning. Those that had finished their work, got to do special projects, like working with clay or paint, that would acknowledge their success, challenge them further, and motivate apathetic students to stay on track the following grading period. Those that simply needed more time, had what they needed to complete the essential assignments. Daily online assignments literally freed me to spend class time in ways that were more beneficial to the whole class as well as each individual student.


These lessons and units have very little, if any choice, but always ask the student to perform a task that allows them to practice an independent learning skill or apply the learning to their own experience.

The content contained in these lessons is needed by every student in order to meet standards or build knowledge and/or experience for student-directed learning.

passion project

These units come at the end of grading periods. They are an opportunity for you as an amazing art teacher to share some of your passion projects with your students. These are projects you love because the students love them.

They are not required and should include minimal assessment because they are designed as an extension for students who are on track with their work while also allowing those that need more time to complete the mandatory work to catch up.

skill goals

These first goals introduce students to the process that will ultimately become fully student-directed.

To begin, students choose an art skill from a list and work through a prescribed artistic process. After writing a goal based on the skill they chose, they then research and practice before using their newly developed skill to create an artwork. Each day, they reflect on their work in their digital journal with a photo and at least 3 sentences. When they're done, they reflect on the process as a whole.

expression goals

After practicing the goal process and participating in some content units on expression and copyright, the goal process shifts from one focused on skills and practice to expression and planning.

The goal process continues to require students to reflect on their work each day in their digital journal, but they are now responsible deciding when and how much they need to practice and research. For these goals, critique is also added to the process.

Taking the time to put all these ideas in writing and address them before students were expected to come up with ideas for their own expression changed everything. It was so simple that I feel ridiculous for not realizing it earlier. Previously, goal setting was more like throwing them in the ocean and then trying to teach them to swim. I constantly reassured them that it was hard, but they would understand eventually. These lessons were referred back to constantly as students navigated the challenges of deciding what to express without the safety net of a list like they had in the skill building goals. This was also a great way to break up the semester.

In having my students listen to Phil Hansen talk about the positive aspects of embracing constraints, my goal had always been to help them come up with ideas for their own work and be a little less salty when I gave them an assignment they didn’t like. If they could take that mentality and apply it to life in general, that’s even better. While I’ve always been one to look for the best in any situation, I’ve never seen the positive ramifications of constraints so clearly before.

  • The quality and quantity of my student’s work improved

  • Their comfort with the structure, provided by the daily assignments, freed up the small about of risk taking they could muster to spend on their artworks

  • No one wanted to copy anything off Pinterest

  • Learning was consistent across all class periods

  • I felt free to spend my time discussing their work with them

  • They saw the value of all aspects of the process

What could MRS. BREI have done to help you be more successful this year?

Let me continue to do the things I wanted to do.

Actually teach the students how to do art.

I don't know.

have more of a structured class like the second semester but also have free time to work on other artworks.

if she push you to make your work, it stops being something you do for fun, and starts being an obligation, another homework.

told me what to do to fix things instead of telling me to look it up.

Focus less on the blog and more on artwork.

I don't think there is anything I can think of

not blogged

I think Mrs. Brei did pretty good for her first year at BHS, it would be nice if she could maybe find more of a balance between letting students to do their own artwork and giving art assignments.

Show me how to do something so I can learn, instead of telling me to look it up online, because I can't learn that way.

Direct help with questions instead of telling students to find out things like, why you need to hollow out clay before you put in the the kiln, on the internet or in a book

Help me add more value

If when ever we asked her how to do something she would of actually showed us how instead of telling us to looked up.

Give more tips on what to do.

There wasn't much that she had done wrong, she encouraged us to make finished works, I just didn't do it.

Not give us a lot of projects we don't want to do.

Teach us more about the types of art and stuff.

She did her best, there is nothing wrong with how she taught our class.

I feel like Mrs.Brei could've given us more time to just do what we want in the art room. That's what I think of when I think of art class, but we spent more time on things that I didn't really find interesting.

i think Mrs.Brei had done a lot to help everyone.

Give more feedback, telling students whats good about their art, providing more time for different projects.

Let us do the art we wanted and not tell us what art to do.

Been more instructive on how to do certain things in art

Teach us art

What could MRS. BREI have done to help you be more successful?

do more hands on art like making sculptures

Went over things

Not much

Nothing really.

Nothing I need to just do my work.

She coudlve made us do less writing.

Can't think of anything

Nothing I was just ignorant and procrastinating

Gave us less writing


nothing shes pretty cool

a do my work

Nothing, she did the best she could.

She could have been more orgonized with the canvis.

hmm she tride her best to help me but i doent pay attetion

not do summarys in the google slites

i dont know

nothing that i no of

Incorporate more hands on learning activities.

More hands artwork

Nothing really being online made me less successful.

Make art actually fun.

nothing she did a good job at helping me

Nothing you did good

I really can't think of anything. You helped me anytime I needed it.

She could not have done anything better because she had to put up with me coming back from online school.

Let me be creative

Laid back a little