Arts website allows teachers, families to chart students' progress

Fifth-graders' art hangs in the halls at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary

COLUMBIA — At what point in his life did Monet begin to see the world in bright blots of color that would coalesce in front of people's eyes? When did Picasso begin deconstructing form? As he sat in elementary school, did the young Dr. Seuss, Theodor Geisel, doodle Grinch-like imaginings on scraps of paper?

There's a lot of art created in elementary schools, and in particular at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School. Students at Lee have twice as much art education as any other public elementary school in Columbia. Students have an hour and 20 minutes of regular art every four days and an additional hour of integrated art, team taught with the classroom teacher, every four days for half the year.

But the art created is usually only something that students, teachers and immediate family members get to see — that is, unless the class is using Artsonia.

The website is free to teachers and schools, with the intent that the artwork created by children around the world can be shared and enjoyed by everyone. The website turns a profit by offering products that families can buy with their student's art on it: coffee mugs with a self-portrait, key chains with a mixed media collage or postcards with a clay sculpture. Artsonia boasts that it has millions of pieces of artwork from around the globe.

Twelve schools in Columbia have Artsonia accounts, but only two schools post regularly: Lee Elementary and Columbia Independent School.

An online portfolio

Lee has had a whopping 20,594 works of art published since 2007.

Keeping up with the Artsonia account can be difficult, largely because it is already hard for teachers to keep up with the volume of student work created — let alone scanning or photographing each piece of art and putting it on the website, "tagging" it with the student's identification and the assignment.

To keep up with volume, art teacher Ann Mehr enlisted parent volunteers who take batches of artworks home, photograph them and put them on the website. Almost all of the photography is done by parent Susan Scott, who Mehr says is integral to the operation.

"Without the parents, I don't know that we could keep up with Artsonia," Mehr said. Both she and art instructor Gennie Pfannenstiel attribute Artsonia's success to Scott and a few other involved parents.

Once the art is on the website, family and friends can find art by assignment or go into a student's online portfolio and see all the art he or she has created.

Brianna Mildenhall, a parent of three at Lee, loves that over the years she has been able to see her fifth-grade son Caden Mildenhall's art progress on Artsonia.

"I don't think every piece they make gets to come home, as they put some of their artwork up on display downtown. ... (Artsonia) gives me a chance to see work that doesn't come home," Mildenhall said.

On Artsonia, artwork is posted fairly quickly, and parents get a notification as soon as art has been posted. Mildenhall also likes that she gets to have photos of some of the students' sculptures that are more difficult to store or transport home.

"It's nice to have a flat image of it as parents probably don't keep every clay piece that the kids make. ... It makes it possible to store photos," Mildenhall said.

"I like seeing it on Artsonia because then I know people in my family can look at it and say, 'Oh, this is what she's done,' and make a timeline in their brain," fifth-grader Keya Beamer said. Last year, her mother gave her a sketchbook that had her "Mixed Media Visions" art on the cover.

Devin Hall, a fifth-grader at Lee, said that as a surprise, her grandmother sent her a postcard with one of her art pieces on it.

How students view their progress

Devin is happy with her most recent self-portrait.

"I liked how we got to mix the colors and play with shading," Devin said. "It looks like ourselves."

Devin can see how her work has evolved over time.

"It definitely changed a lot," she said. "In kindergarten, everything wasn't as realistic. Now that I'm in fifth grade, I'm more capable of understanding depth and shading."

Caden likes to doodle and draw characters and people, he said. Sometimes, he said, when he's bored at night he gets out a piece of paper and draws. He likes drawing with pen best.

"I kind like my pictures in a certain way," Caden said, grinning. "If I don't get it right, I start over. I guess I'm kind of a perfectionist. I like to get the shape and stuff right."

Caden is happy with a recent piece "Ecosystems," where he and other students did research about an ecosystem. He had a forest. "I added a lot of detail," he said. "I like my trees."

Keya noticed that the way she draws faces has changed as she's become older.

"I used to think that a person had to have a lot of makeup on when I drew a face," Keya said. "Now when I draw a face I don't draw full makeup on. ... I used to color her lips bright red, but now I use colored pencil to make it more real."

Keya and her mom look at Artsonia a lot together. Once parents have subscribed, they get email notifications when new art is uploaded.

"Whenever I do something new, I look at it with Mom," Keya said. "We were looking at all the stuff we could get for Christmas for somebody."

Devin has 39 pieces of art on Artsonia, Caden has 25 and Keya has 43.

A way to measure progress

But Artsonia provides more than the ability for family and friends to admire students' work online.

Most usefully, the website allows teachers to track students' progress over time, which provides a "formative" assessment rather than a "summative" one (a summative assessment would involve a quiz or test at the end of study).

"The portfolio really gives you a lot of information about that person at a deeper level," Pfannenstiel said. "You can see their voice. ... Their voice takes form in a visual piece, and you see them develop their style."

Mehr and Pfannenstiel hold art critiques with their classes after every completed project, asking students to comment on their friends work, with questions like, "What do you see working?" and "What are you confused by?"

"For example, if a student said, 'That makes me feel happy,' we would ask, 'What is going on artistically to make you feel happy?'" Pfannenstiel said.

Mehr and Pfannenstiel frequently use Artsonia in the classroom — they'll bring up a student's profile in critique to compare recent work to previous work or help students draw inspiration from their previous work.

Mehr said that Artsonia has even occasionally been useful in justifying to parents the feedback she gives to students. Last year, a parent contacted her asking about the feedback her daughter was getting on a landscape — the student seemed to think that Mehr was being hard on her.

Mehr told the parent that the student simply wasn't performing up to the quality of work that Mehr knew she was capable of. Because of Artsonia, Mehr could put the third-grade landscape next to the current, fifth-grade landscape and show the clear discrepancy to the mother.

"The mom said, 'Oh, I see what you mean,' " Mehr recalled. The student snapped out of it.

Mehr takes great pride and pleasure in getting to see the way students have progressed and the way teachers and parents can see the changing details students notice in their environments.

"Mack (Brown) is in second grade, and he has 37 pieces of art," she said. "We were looking at his art, and we noticed that in first grade, he had to paint a pond like Monet." The students got the same assignment in second grade — the same pond — but they painted it like Albrecht Durer.

Mack Brown had class assignments to paint a pond two years in a row. The first year, on the left, he went with his first-grade class with the intention of painting like Monet. In second grade, they went back to the same pond, and he painted it in the style of Albrecht Durer. Teacher Ann Mehr sees Mack's evolving frame of reference in these two paintings. (PHOTOS: Annie Rees/Missourian)

"This is the same part of the pond," Mehr said. She emphasized that he was seeing the pond through an entirely different frame of reference. "That to me was so, 'Wow.'"

Not just in Columbia Public Schools

Jeanne Tassi, art teacher at Columbia Independent School, is in her third year of using Artsonia and uses it extensively.

Tassi takes photos and uploads the files of all of her students' assignments when they're finished. Artsonia helps her organize her students' work, she said.

"I can click on one kid's name and see all the artwork of everything they've done," Tassi said.

She also appreciates that it allows her to compare students' progress against themselves, not against other students.

"Especially in K through 5, you kind of know who has abilities really early — but you don't always," Tassi said. "Maybe they don't get really good at drawing until third grade. Everybody develops at a different rate. There's no way I can say, 'Oh, you should be at this level because you're in third grade.' ... It's just good to be able to look back, and good to be able to look back as a teacher."

Tassi also asks her students to comment on their own work online. Not all the students comment regularly, but when they do, it allows her to continue a dialogue with them about specific pieces of art.

Tassi said the Artsonia website helps her as a teacher and serves students and parents well. But she acknowledged the website's success is largely because adoring family and friends can buy merchandise displaying students' artwork.

"That's where they make their money," she said, laughing. "Just to make a business work, you have to fill a demand."

Bringing it to the school district

Although nine other public schools in the district have Artsonia accounts, they don't keep the platform up — largely because the infrastructure, such as Lee's army of parents who take photos of the art, isn't in place.

James Melton, coordinator of fine arts for Columbia Public Schools, is looking at ways to create districtwide art portfolios for students. After all, when current students age out of Lee, their Artsonia profiles stop growing.

Melton has had meetings with Mehr, Pfannenstiel and other teachers and has seen how Artsonia works.

"Our goal is looking at collecting cornerstone pieces that will become the property of the student," Melton said. "For some, the journey may end in middle school. For others, it may go through high school."

Art is required in the Columbia schools only through middle school, though some students can choose to take it as an elective through high school. For high school students who are taking Advanced Placement classes in art, Melton said a districtwide portfolio would enable them to have an online record of up to 12 years of artwork.

"You would be able to see a beginning-to-end point from their elementary to high school career," Melton said.

This could start as soon as next year. Melton's goal this year is to develop a process to collect work from select first-grade classes in the district. Then, next year, the goal would be to collect art from every first-grade class and put it online.

Melton and the district are still figuring out what the framework will be — whether they will use something such as Artsonia or create something specific to Columbia Public Schools.

Pfannenstiel would love a more districtwide program, especially since Artsonia is such a useful teaching tool for her at Lee. She has taught at other schools in Columbia that don't have the manpower, or luxury, of people to take photos.

Creating a districtwide portfolio would be a valuable way to create "touchpoints" for the students' art education, Melton said.

"Pen and paper tests don't make the most sense," Melton said about art education. "Our time with our students is precious."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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