Subscribe for 99¢

CREVE COEUR • It was time for art, and three boys knew exactly what they wanted to choose.

They scrambled over to the sculpture studio, while fellow fifth-graders went to other areas: painting, collage, drawing and architecture.

Pulling out a construction paper Arch and surrounding cityscape, they got to work. Tavin Hamilton was making tabs on small pieces of green cutouts to make three-dimensional grass for the piece. Next up, cylinder roofs for the skyscrapers that flanked each side.

Gym class is usually Hamilton’s favorite. This year, however, art class is running a close second, he said.

“Because you can express yourselves,” he said as he glued down grass pieces. “It’s, like, creative.”

To inspire her students at Willow Brook Elementary in the Pattonville district, Dawn Lynn has tossed out a traditional, project-based curriculum and replaced it with an approach gaining traction among art teachers in the St. Louis area.

It’s called choice art, and it allows each student to do just that. After learning skills for each studio, the teacher lets loose the students — and their creativity.

The idea was first introduced to Lynn by Maryellen Picker, who teaches at Captain Elementary in Clayton. Picker started choice-based art in her classroom a few years ago after hearing a speaker at an art education conference.

Teaching for Artistic Behavior, an organization of art teachers from around the country, describes the approach as a way to offer students real choices for responding to their own ideas and interests. Choice-based art was developed in Massachusetts classrooms more than 30 years ago, and through courses and research at Massachusetts College of Art, according to the organization.

Choice-based art classrooms have different studios set up around the classroom, resembling the centers concept used by many preschools.

While some teachers might shy away from the idea based on fears about classroom management and unpredictability, the idea was so exciting to Picker that she blew up decades of lesson plans and her classroom.

“I was beginning to look at my kids’ art and see it as product, rather than process, and that didn’t feel right to me,” Picker said. “I was teaching them how to have a lovely looking portfolio, but what I really wanted to do was to teach them to be creative.”

The first day, she had 22 students doing 22 different things and it felt like every piece of material and supplies were out. But it was worth it, she said.

Since bringing the approach to Captain Elementary, Picker has helped other area art teachers explore the idea.

Before she took the art position, Lynn was used to differentiating her teaching to respond to student needs, and she wanted a way to do that in art class.

“There were some students I felt like I was just pulling them through projects. I could tell their heart just wasn’t into it,” Lynn said.

During summer break, she divided the room into four studios — collage, drawing, painting and sculpture. She later added fiber arts, sewing, ceramics and architecture. She organized supplies and materials so the students could easily access them.

She brought round, wooden dining room tables into the classroom for work spaces to make children feel at home.

The students choose where they want to work, the materials and what they want to create. A five-minute warning and special song helps students meet the clean-up expectations before class ends.

By seeing the children through their art, the relationships with her students are growing stronger, she said.

The positive impact was further confirmed when she had students not wanting to stop their projects when class was done. On a recent day, some students asked for passes to come back and work on their projects during recess.

“When they have a say in where they go, their focus is so much stronger,” Lynn said.

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

They describe their pieces and the processes to the teacher in art statements about each project.

On Monday, Miranda Lopez, a fourth-grader, had just finished a fiber arts creation. She had woven different colors of yarn together.

“Nature to me is beautiful. The colors are the emotions I feel about things in nature,” Miranda said as she worked on her art statement. “Pink is how I feel about flowers, and neon blue is the sea.”

Nearby, a group of students was crafting a chandelier. Some shook different colors of paint in clear plastic water bottles, while others cut the completed pieces into swirls. Kyla Donahue, had started the project and other students were inspired to join in.

“Like this, Kyla?” asked Keegan Reis as he started cutting the bottles.

Lynn’s third-grade class had three girls and two boys practicing running stitches before they could head into the sewing studio to work on pillows and quilts.

Over at collage, Taylor Williams and Devon Robinson were working with different patterns of wallpaper pieces.

“You get inspiration and do what you feel,” Taylor said.

Devon said he had been thinking about a song about a dog as he glued pieces onto his collage to make the dog’s ears.

“It’s like a dream come true,” he said.