Introduction: I chose to interview Robin Brooks, art educator and artist because I admire her ability to connect her teaching with her personal artistic journey. If your experience with art in school was typical, most of the time you were instructed to complete projects or solve creative problems that were teacher-designed. Robin and her choice-based colleagues have been exploring the question; “What if we treated all children as artists, capable of creative problem-solving and expressive work from a very young age?” Robin teaches art to children at Lincoln Elementary School in Augusta. On a sunny Friday in November, I visited her art classroom to learn more about TAB-Choice teaching.
Christine Higgins, interview conducted on December 1, 2014, republished on July 5, 2023
Christine: What is your educational philosophy?
Robin: I believe in my students and in their ability to use materials to express their own ideas. My art room is a place where children are empowered to use their own life experiences to play with materials, explore ideas, and to make things of personal meaning. To this end, I have been exploring the TAB-Choice approach to teaching and learning through art.
Christine: What specifically is the TAB-Choice Approach?
Robin: TAB-Choice (TAB stands for “Teaching for Artistic Behavior”) is an inclusive approach to teaching and learning that supports children where they are in their development. For instance, most of the time my students can choose their own materials to explore from the list of open centers. Interestingly, TAB-Choice is not like Montessori or other methods that are highly structured and somewhat scripted. TAB-Choice is a teacher-designed approach that leaves room to adapt the specifics to your own school context. I tell the children 80% of the time you can choose what you do but 20% of the time we have whole class “have-to” lessons. So necessary art skills and experiences (such as drawing from observation) are woven into the program, furthering curriculum expectations as required by my school district and the state.
Christine: What is a studio center?
Robin: Studio Centers are self-serve areas strategically located around the art room that are stocked with materials and tools for student to use with a minimum of teacher input. These centers change and evolve through the year. At the start of the school year I offer simple drawing materials and paper and gradually add materials and processes that are more complex such as cardboard construction, easel painting, weaving, and clay.
Christine: Could you describe the classroom atmosphere?
Robin: My art room at Lincoln Elementary is a creative community and my role as teacher is primarily that of facilitator and guide. Art instruction and specific techniques are offered to individuals and small groups on an “as-needed” basis. For example, if a child wants to make a pillow but needs to learn how to sew, I teach them the basics first–how to thread a needle, tie a knot, and make a running stitch. If you were to be a fly on the wall In a second grade class you might see the following: two boys are tinkering with pulleys made from egg cartons, string, and other found objects. They are lifting and lowering the cup, working out the mechanics. Three others wield markers and pencils, intently drawing Star Wars figures with an encyclopedia open for reference. In another area you see four painters standing at easels. Their brushes are loaded with colorful tempera, as they construct their images stroke by stroke. One notices a sense of purpose and intentionality in the children as they work in this environment.
Christine: What are some of the parallels of a TAB approach to your own studio practice?
Robin: Practice is the key word. I never feel like I have arrived. It’s always the journey that keeps me coming back. I teach my students it’s okay and even necessary to make mistakes and lots of them. Too often, children are afraid to take risks. I make it safe for them to play and explore before committing to longer-term project work. We often forget how long it takes to learn a material and to discover its expressive potential.
I struggle with many of the same things my students do—matching the material and/or process to the idea, keeping my workspace organized, cleaning up, and working within time constraints. The biggest complaint I hear from students year after year is “not having enough time.” Clean-up always comes too soon. When I am working in my studio I forget the clock. How wonderful it is that my students have a chance to experience this flow, if even just for a short forty minutes per week.
Christine Higgins is a retired art educator with more than 30 years’ experience in the public school system. An artist herself, she focuses on ceramics, printmaking, and paper-making. She is a Union of Maine Visual Arts (UMVA) member who participates in ARRT banner painting activities for non-profits. Christine developed the column “Insight/Incite” in 2014 for the UMVA Newsletter to highlight the important efforts of arts educators throughout the region to promote creativity in teaching and learning.
Robin Brooks taught art for forty years in a variety of contexts including a museum in New Jersey, a university in Maine, and public middle and elementary schools in the Northeast. She retired in 2020 to make more time for her own creative practice. You can read more on her “About the Artist” page.
ADDENDUM: I recently came across a TEDx talk by Museum Art Educator Cindy Foley from Columbus that further fleshes out the talk how to teach for creativity.