Your Interpretation is not my Interpretation

It was the end of the school day, and I was wrapping up in my classroom studio before packing up my things to head home. One of the long-term subs stormed into my room, greeting me with artwork in her hands. I recognized the painting from passing it back to the artist earlier in the day. I’ll use pseudo names for the exchange.

“The name in this artwork says “Doug.” Is it Doug’s? Because Jess took it and gave it to Estella saying that it belonged to Estella. Both Doug and Jess were crying much of the day all over a stupid piece of paper. As you can see, the name says Doug.”

“Yes. I passed that artwork back to Doug during class,” I responded, keeping my composure as I died a little inside after the substitute named the artwork a stupid piece of paper. “I gave the artwork to Doug because it had his name on it. It had been on the drying rack from the previous class.”

The sub continued, “Well, Jess believed that it wasn’t Doug’s and that she had every right to take it and give it to Estella. They both believed that it didn’t belong to each other. It looks like it’s Doug’s,” as she pointed to the name on the paper. “There was a lot of drama today over this stupid paper, so I took it and told them both that I would talk to the art teacher to see who it actually belonged to.”

At this point in the conversation, I had already decided to pick my battles, and for this one, I chose empathy over correcting the interpretation of a child’s artwork, why the children were actually upset, and hoping like hell she didn’t call the child’s artwork “a stupid piece of paper” in front of the entire class earlier that day.

I explained that the artwork was created over a week ago, and because I see over 600 artists once every six days, I didn’t recall this particular artwork being done by any particular artist, but it had the name of the artist on it, so that led me to believe that it was created by him, and so, I gave it to Doug. That response was a satisfactory answer, thank goodness, and the substitute teacher left the room. Since this exchange happened, I have been in a battle with myself. Imagine the white angel on one shoulder opposed by the red devil on my other shoulder, both arguing over why I chose to not to get up on my soapbox of the child is the artist, the stupid piece of paper was a child’s original artwork of which he was proud, and he was upset because the sub discounted the artwork as “not good enough” by calling it stupid.


Countless times I have heard people dismiss the art of hard-working creatives saying things like, “I could have painted that with my eyes closed,” or “I could’ve done that,” or “you call that art?” or one of my least favorites, “that looks like a kid did that.”

I have had enough of the judgmental comments.

I have had enough of people believing that art must look a certain way.

I have had enough of artists feeling less than because others do not appreciate all of the hard work and vulnerability it actually takes to put oneself out there and share personal artwork with anyone.

I have had enough of people shaming artists and youth because their creations are not following directions or matching the viewer’s idealized vision of what art should look like.

It is time for a paradigm shift.

It is time to be present for each other, for our youth.

It is time to accept others, their ideas and their individuality.

It is time for change.

What can we do? What does this look like across the board? What can each of us do to be a catalyst for change in our own roles?

Value the power of voice.

Language is powerful. Regardless of age, the person listening to the voice of leadership places some level of trust in those words, in the plan, in guidance, in whatever that voice may be. Our impressionable audience is listening to our words, reading our writing and watching our every move. They can feel our tone of voice and make their own interpretations that may not be what we intended.

Our feedback must be specific and objective. When someone asks you, “Do you like my…fill in the blank…?” avoid responding with generic answers, such as “it’s beautiful” or “nice work!” Instead, try out something like this: “The way you blended those colors makes the sky look like the sunset I saw last night.” If you might be in another grade level or content area, a response could sound like this: “The sound you made with that letter combination is almost on point. Watch my lips as I say it, then try it with me.”

Body language is also a tell tale sign of our feelings. Be aware of your facial expressions and how you hold yourself when interacting with others. Be mindful that just as our audience is interpreting our words, they are also interpreting how our body responds and speaks to them.

Give space and trust.

Every single one of us is programmed with an innate sense of creativity. Creativity is not something that some people have and some people do not. Imagine how the minds of children are bursting with creative ideas; their imaginations are limitless. As we age, as we experience the traditional and systematic standards of education, creativity is stifled. Once we hit kindergarten, we are told exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Sometimes, yes, this is necessary. But at what point does this allow for the learner to make decisions? Even when children make art projects in art class, still, some art teachers require a recipe approach to the projects. When the class sets of work – whether artwork or other classwork – are displayed on the bulletin board, they look beautiful, the teacher receives praise for such a creative lesson that shows off the learners, but I challenge you to consider the question, who is actually being creative?  

Trust in your learners. Trust in their ideas. Teach them the skills. Give them boundaries. Overtly model your expectations. Guide them in their learning experience. What would that look like in your classroom? In my art classroom, I frontload the year with skills and expectations, modeling behaviors, re-teaching, guided practice, independent practice, and all along offering choices to build confidence, trust, and space for autonomy. I use my language to tell my artists that I trust and value their ideas and decisions because after all, it’s their artwork and time to create, not mine.

Partner visual expression with communication.

Sometimes we look at a learner’s work, puzzled, and feeling obligated to make a guess of what we are seeing. Either we land on the correct interpretation or completely offend the creator. I’ve learned two tricks that have helped me in the art studio classroom that can be transferred to similar situations, even at home.

  • Celebrate your learners and all that they have created. This might look like giving time at the end of a lesson for a pair share, small group show-and-tell, gallery walk, artist statement, or spotlight. If time allows, extend that share time to invite fellow learners to ask questions of the creator. Let them share in their own words, not guided by your thoughts.
  • When working one-on-one, ask the creator to “tell me more about this…” or “can you tell me about…?” By taking this avenue, you open the door for the creator to share inspiration and intentions without your immediate assumptions.

The power to change is within each of us. A paradigm shift can only occur when we step into the realm of endless possibilities and open our minds to opportunities. The first step happens when we take these thoughts and desires to change from the traditional, teacher driven approach to education and begin making actionable steps towards more learner autonomy. Try one of the aforementioned suggestions and then tell me how it went. If you are already implementing a learner-centered approach to education and would like to share something with our community of learners, email me at jessica@thejourneytohere.net. I would love to learn from you, write about your tips, and help grow our community, ultimately growing so many more learners.

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