The Culture of Inquiry-Driven Learning in Art Classes: Inspiring the Possibilities for Research and Composing Literacy Practices


Last fall  I had the pleasure of spending a good bit of time with Dorsey Sammataro’s art classes during the first nine weeks of the semester.  One of the things that struck me about her classes was the inquiry-driven approach that felt like a real-world workshop because there is shared ownership of learning by the students.   In late October, I was really thinking about how her approach to teaching and learning reflected the ideals of inquiry-driven learning and how could her art classes inspire how we approach research projects.

While I’ve been busy with other projects, assignments/initiatives, and working with other academic classes, Dorsey and I have continued to muse and think together.   Earlier this month,  I had the chance to observe Dorsey’s 1st period students, and this experience crystallized the possibilities of learning I want to see happening as part of our instructional program.  At the same time, it really brought to the surface a lot of the frustrations I have felt in recent years as I’ve tried to elevate my work and role as an instructional designer.   If you’ve taught in a high school, you know that these learning environments are often the most difficult to frame from an inquiry stance on learning and literacy.

I thought it would be helpful to share the aspects of the learner experience I’ve seen in Dorsey’s classes since starting here last August.  Dorsey provides learning structures, but students ultimately make choices.  Some elements I’ve observed include:

  • Students set learning goals—short terms and long term.
  • Students engage in multiple “drafts” and passes at art work.
  • Student have freedom to “fail” because failure is viewed as positive and part of the learning experience that values experimenting and mistakes.
  • Students keep idea books/sketchbooks that they share and serve as a place to pen ideas for immediate use or to revisit at a later time.
  • Students do regular peer review and discussion of their works; collaboration is encouraged and an integral part of daily life in these classes.
  • Students engage in frequent reflection and self-assessment.
  • Formative assessment is integral in these classes as is time to actually engage in the craft of creating art.
  • There is always something to learn from completed projects even if they did not turn out the way students planned or if they are not completely successful in the eyes of the student.

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As I have been drafting this post, I was taken back to the roots of my interest in an inquiry stance in learning:  READ 8100 (Inquiry Based Literacy) with Dr. Bob Fecho at the University of Georgia.  I could write an entire post about this life-changing course, but instead, I’ll point you to some reflections I composed (2002!) in response to a reading on Paulo Freire. Here are some of the qualities of a learning space that takes an inquiry stance on learning (this list was compiled by my classmate Sharon Murphy Augustine, and I incorporated them into my response):

  • DIS-ease. There are many questions raised without answers
  • Establishes more than the teacher as validator of knowledge/work
  • Feeling of responsibility to yourself and the class
  • Recognizes classroom as a complicated, non-laboratory place filled with complex, caring human beings
  • Fights culture of school that wants THE right answer
  • Doesn’t hide what is occurring in class and makes class part of determining what is occurring.
  • Patience- doesn’t give up too quickly and realizes community/learning/inquiry doesn’t happen overnight.

Unlike the banking concept of education,  Freire says,  “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(72).

Of course, these qualities dovetail with those of participatory learning spaces, something I’ve written and spoken about extensively over the last few years.   You can search my blog if you are interested in reading more, check out my pieces in print, or view my presentations.

One of the regular learning structures of Dorsey’s class is peer critique—students have an opportunity to share a completed piece of work and share the successes as well as the struggles.  It’s a fantastic reflective experience for the student sharing as well as the peers providing feedback.

Funky Focus Dorsey Art Review

Here is a sample set of reflection questions that Dorsey uses when students are ready to share out individual projects with the larger class:


Students write or type a narrative based on these questions to help them think about the verbal/oral discussion with the group.  Over a series of a couple of days, each student has an opportunity to share these reflections with the group, and classmates then provide on the spot feedback.  It’s a relaxed conversation, and I’m always struck by how articulate, candid, and invested students are in their work and assessment of their work.

So what does the exemplary work of an art teacher have to do with me as a school librarian?

What I see in Dorsey’s art classes invites us to rethink how we see literacy practices like research projects and writing assignments.  What if more teachers approached research and writing the way Dorsey’s artists approach their work?  What if students had more say in topic selections?  What if the processes of topic selection, developing questions, investigating, wrestling with information, drafting, and composing final products (whether a paper or alternative forms of expressions/composing/creating) were valued as much as the end product (usually a traditional paper)?  What if formative assessments were integrated and valued as much as the summative assessment?  I think we would see deeper learning, higher quality of work, authenticity, and more excitement because students would be taking responsibility for their learning rather than the experience being completely teacher driven.   It’s hard to be emotionally invested in something when you have little to no input or voice.

I’ve been lucky to experience this sustained, inquiry-driven approach with different teachers in recent years, but these experiences are often the exception, not the norm.   I become giddy when I get to help co-design learning experiences where we can go deep and kids are not rushed through some of the most important life skills they will acquire and take with them wherever they go.  I relish these opportunities to do deep dives and give students choice and ownership of their learning as well as meaningful learning structures to scaffold that decision making.  I worry about the consequences of these kinds of literacy practices are increasingly commonplace and  limit kids to certain kinds of assignments that are often couched in “college and career” readiness rather than a broader mindset of life readiness where literacy practices are evolving as people move through different careers and personal experiences.  Many of you teachers, librarians, and students are weary of research assignments that feel formulaic and artificial.    I have always aspired to be someone who helps grow a learning environment of inquiry and curiosity and meaning making like Dorsey does in her classrooms.  As a teacher and librarian, I worry about the practices I’ve seen in recent years with research assignments and how it seems increasingly marginalized at the high school level.

Maybe it’s my life and professional experiences of recent years, maybe it’s part of being this far in my career with only a few years left to go, or maybe it’s the culmination of these factors and more, but whatever the case, I feel a sense of urgency to be a catalyst and team in player in a larger learning environment that dares to re-imagine not only research and literacy practices in academic areas, but also the public school learning experience from an inquiry, participatory lens.   The art studio experiences that Dorsey and her students live and breathe serve as inspiration for how we might rethink the dominant research and composing practices and framework.  I am looking forward to continued collaboration with Dorsey, art teacher Donna Jones, and their students as we all learn from each other.

Maite Nazario: Telling Stories of Immigrant Experiences Through Art, QR Codes, and StoryCorps


I recently had the honor of collaborating with Maite Nazario, an incredibly talented artist here at Chattahoochee High!  Ms. Dorsey Sammataro sent her to me to help her think through how she might make her art piece on student immigrant experiences interactive so that the art would literally be able to tell the stories in a visual as well as auditory way.  Maite wanted people viewing her art to be able to HEAR each student’s story of immigration in a way that would not obtrusive or outside of the art.  After some brainstorming, I suggested she record the student stories with the StoryCorps app and then link the URL for each recording to a QR code.  After I created a mockup and showed it to her, she agreed this was the direction to go so that anyone viewing the finished art piece could scan a QR code that would be embedded on each student’s visual representation and hear each individual story.

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Maite immediately jumped into the technology integration piece of her art and taught herself how to use the app and even set up her own channel all by herself!  I was so impressed by her enthusiasm and the way she embraced the StoryCorp app as well as her interviewing skills.  I then taught her how to generate and link QR codes through virtual means by emailing her a screencast I created for her.  Here is her story of how she approached her work:

You can see the outcome of this amazing piece of art and her creative talents in the A hall, and it will be installed in the main hallway later this week.

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All you need is any free QR code scanner, and you can enjoy the visual aspect of her art while hearing the stories of each student, another layer of art she has richly and seamlessly embedded.

Thank you Maite for letting me work with you—this has by far been one of the coolest collaborative partnerships I’ve had as a teacher and librarian!

Write-Around + See-Think-Wonder + Gallery Walk-Big Group Share=Art Students’ Awesomeness


I’m continuing to collaborate with amazing art teacher Dorsey Sammataro in AP Studio Art and now with her extended period Introduction to Art class along with her fellow Fine Arts teacher Donna Jones.  Dorsey and I began this mini-collaboration last week with a brief conversation and meeting about the new unit on graffiti and public art that is culminating in the students participating in a Free Art Friday drop in October at Atlanta’s Beltline.  She then shared the unit planning guide (a Google Document) with me; we did a great deal of virtual collaboration at the end of the week and over the weekend using the commenting feature as well as the chat tool—it was wonderful to be able to brainstorm and have conversations about the content and plan the write-around using Google Docs.  I love the ease of sharing and collaborating in Google Docs plus the fact you can export the file with the comments in an easily readable format if you are like me and sometimes need a hard copy in front of you (see below).DSCN1892

To build prior knowledge, the students have watched some videos, read a few articles, (see this page in LibGuides for the background “texts“) and engaged in class discussion around these “texts” with Ms. Sammataro and Ms. Jones; I also did the readings and viewings over the weekend to be up to speed on the content.   I then attended the mini-lecture/conversation about the history of graffiti with both classes yesterday (they meet for a 90 minute block daily); this terrific presentation provided students to come up to the board and interact with the slides as well as opportunities to participate in class discussion.  Not only did I learn many new and interesting facts about graffiti, but I also live Tweeted the session with the hashtag #hoochart and then pulled them together into a Storify story (also embedded in the LibGuide).   Dorsey and I then finalized the write-around questions and discussion prompts; we also incorporated two great prompts suggested by my Norcross High colleague Dan Byrne, who once taught Art History courses!  The prompts included:

Today both classes arrived at the beginning of 4th period; our library assistants helped me set up the tables, butcher paper with prompts, and Sharpies needed for the activity.  Once students were seated, I then reviewed the protocols for our write-around:

As always, we encouraged followed these basic protocols:

  • Move about organically during the first pass at each table and prompt
  • Write quietly and channel their conversation energy onto the paper
  • Respond with text, graphics, sketches, and hashtags
  • Use the second and third passes around each table to respond to their peers
  • Visit each table as long as needed; we did not specify a required time or order to move about
  • Students could choose to initial their work or not
  • For this particular activity, we encouraged students to use their sketchbooks if needed (many had taken notes in these)

Students composed for roughly 30 minutes; the trajectory of the conversation was consistent with what I’ve seen for nearly two years now in doing the written conversations with a build-up of energy.  I was very impressed by how quickly these students, mostly 9th graders, jumped into the activity.  Several visitors, including one of our assistant principals, our visiting instructional technology coach, and a parent volunteer were impressed that every student was participating and engaged.

Vine Video:  Writing Around in Action




We then asked students to self-organized into small groups of 4, and I reviewed the See-Think-Wonder structure for the groups to process their thinking and responses to the ideas and thinking of the write-around as well as the content of the last few days.  For roughly 15 minutes, groups used large post-it notes to record their small group collaboration:

Vine Video: See-Think-Wonder in action:



Dorsey then added a really fabulous twist to our large group share since we had over 40 students participating and about 10 small groups.  Students hung their post-it note responses on the wall, and we then groups could either volunteer to come up to the gallery and present their ideas or we nudged groups to volunteer.  Some groups had a spokesperson come up to the gallery and be the spokesperson; other groups came up together as a team and shared.  Students were very supportive of each other during these mini-presentations and shared some incredibly thoughtful observations, insights/understandings, and wonderings/questions:

Vine Video:  Gallery Walk Share in Action

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You can see the depth  of their thinking in the slideshow below with the photos of their work.  They now are moving onto developing their ideas for an original piece of art they will create for the Free Art Friday field trip drop in a few weeks in October.  I’ll be participating in this great day of authentic learning and fun, so look for a future post live from “in the wild” as we move forward with the unit!

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Researchers as Artists, Artists as Researchers: Tinkering, Messiness, and Meaning Making in Libraries as Learning Studios


Last week, I sent out a needs assessment to our faculty.  Initially, I was concerned it was too lengthy, but as a new media specialist here at Chattahoochee High, I feel a sense of urgency to get some idea of what teachers have done in the past, what they are interested in now, and their points of need.  In spite of some lingering reservations, I shared the assessment with our faulty via email.  The next morning, AP Studio Art teacher Dorsey Sammataro came by to see me because she was intrigued by information literacy concepts embedded in the survey.  Long story short, the survey opened a really exciting conversation between us about certain concepts and skills she saw on the survey and how it dovetailed with the needs for a new unit she is piloting related to 2D Design Service Learning and Natural and Human-Made Environments.  Students have started thinking about topics of importance to them but need help growing strategies for search, developing search vocabulary, and becoming more comfortable with web-based resources as well as databases that students can mine to find inspiration for ideas and issues that can then inspire their art.  Ms. Sammataro identified this working list of issues and topics of importance to her students in the course:

  • Issues of socioeconomic equity (rich, poor, middle class)
  • GMOs/Food
  • Education and Equity
  • Human trafficking
  • Environment
  • Cultural appropriation: identifying its effects in everyday life and raising awareness of it
  • Assimilating into a culture:  how, why, impact on those assimilate—what is gained, what is lost
  • Adolescent mental health issues
  • Body image
  • Emotional health
  • A sense of unity and connection to peoples and cultures in other parts of the world
  • Stereotypes and assumptions people make about specific ethnicities
  • Bullying
  • Abandonment of self because of depression/mental illness as well as abandoned communities and/or groups of people

When she said they would be having a group debrief about the first work of art they had created that had come out of their initial pass at these topics, I asked if I could come listen in, and she enthusiastically said yes!  I was able to join them and listen to most of the 50 minute small group discussion as they talked about:

  • expanded insights about their topic ideas—this aspect of the discussion was quite meaty/weighty as students drew from personal experiences.
  • what they had learned about their idea through their initial research and first efforts at crafting 2D art around it.
  • what community resources (people, groups) might be resources for our work and ideas.
  • how and why one might abandon a topic and how the process of making art around a topic may help you realize that topic is not your true passion.
  • one student shared she had discovered she needs a strong intention for figurative pieces, so the idea/topic of interest is particularly crucial for art making.
  • an extended conversation about the importance of time, space, and ownership of experimentation for both literal and experimental/abstract pieces (echoes of Nancie Atwell’s concept of what writers need); the importance of trying new things, art forms.  In the words of one student, “Don’t be afraid to stray from the path of success.”
  • some students discovered they liked new art forms they didn’t think they would like.
  • one student shared how she was excited about the idea that inspired her art but when it came to do the printing process it was very humbling because it was more difficult than she imagined and the piece didn’t turn out quite as she envisioned, yet this trial and error process was important and valuable to her.
  • some discovered it was more difficult than they anticipated to turn an idea/topic/issue into an art piece.
  • one student shared how important it is to find out what you really are passionate about and then wondered how to better go about mining it to yield more strategic ideas/subtopics or focal points for expression of that through art.

I was struck by how deeply invested the students were in these topics and the group discussion; I was also appreciative of their honesty and openness, something that is not easy to do among peers or with a new adult on the staff who is listening to what they have to say.    Their perspectives on these topics as well as their insights on art making processes had a depth I had not anticipated; it also got me thinking about the parallels between making meaning from art and making meaning from working with information (and some form of research whether formal, informal, or some hybrid).   A few wonderings I’m now contemplating:

  • How do the two (research and art) inform each other, and how might looking at art-making processes foreground our conceptualization of “research”?  I can’t help but wonder if some of the precepts of Dennis Sumara’s work with “literary anthropology” in studying reading literacies might be applied when we think of art, the learning environment of a studio, and research intersect as a site of “information literacy interpretation.”
  • How might a library function as a studio where meaning making is elevated across multiple forms of literacy, particularly information literacy processes?  How is research art?  How might research and the cultivation of information literacy skills in art students impact their art-making processes?  What insights from an art studio might we draw upon in designing a library as a learning studio, and what does research look like in this environment?  How will it translate to learning spaces then outside the library and impact a larger learning community and culture where research seems increasingly marginalized in K-12 public schools by the impact of standardized testing?  What tools, resources, experiences, and learning design drivers do artists and learners need in a research/library learning studio as well as an art studio?
  • How is the act of crafting art like acts of crafting research processes and products?
  • Research and art can both be organic, recursive, and frequently non-linear (even though there are those who would like to prescribe models that are contradictory in nature).    Many K-12 teachers, professors, and yes, even some librarians tend to emphasize the consumption aspect of research rather than frontloading the grittier messy work of mucking about in information; students often miss the experience of wrestling with the friction of ideas that comes when one goes beyond regurgitating facts and engages in higher level thinking; it is often the final product, a paper, that gets the most emphasis.  Yet this creative process is viewed positively when it comes to crafting art—-how might it be viewed if we embrace meaning making as the core of research as it is in art?

Building on the extensive work and efforts Jennifer Lund and I invested in developing the concept of library as learning studio at Norcross High (see any of my posts from the last two years), this budding collaborative partnership with the AP Studio Art students and Ms. Sammataro (and my larger/big picture efforts to now develop the library as learning studio concept at Chattahoochee High) may offer opportunities for us to explore these wonderings together by working from an inquiry stance.   I hope to dwell in these ideas and look forward to see how my thinking is shaped by my experiences with Ms. Sammataro and her students.