Portrait of a middle school transformed through arts learning
Oaklea Middle School & Lane Arts Council
Student starburst books
On a blustery spring day in 2019, at the entrance to the Oaklea Middle School art studio, a petite sixth grader in a snappy black suit greets a handful of community members as they arrive for the sixth grade ArtCore Jam—a presentation of student starburst books. She has practiced her welcome and introductions and shakes each person’s hand with nervous excitement. She guides the guests to tables in the art studio, each occupied by several sixth graders who fidget anxiously in their chairs, starburst books in hand. The studio is brimming with art and art supplies. Reminders of the Studio Habits of Mind—a key framework for arts learning at Oaklea—are present in multiple formats, and student art is visible on every available surface.
Once the guests settle in, they are asked to introduce themselves and speak about their connection to the arts. One guest is a teaching artist at a nearby school (“Ooooh, a real artist,” says a student at one table), and another is a nurse and the teacher’s parent. The school superintendent is also participating as a guest, demonstrating her commitment to supporting the arts at Oaklea. Each guest briefly highlights the varied perspectives in the room and gives students glimpses of potential futures: what it might be like to be an adult who uses the arts and creative thinking in their everyday lives.
Then it’s time for students to present their work in the form of interviews. Students have prepared a long list of questions they want the guests to ask about their starburst books, a project they have worked on for several weeks with the theme “Who am I?”
Each starburst book unfurls to reveal a color wheel illustrating the Studio Habits of Mind, and illustrations or collages that reflect students’ identities—one focused on images and the other on words. The books are covered in illustrations and additional collages; students have worked hard on the details and design of their books, and each is different from the next.
These interviews are designed to help students feel seen, to honor their creativity and insights, and to give them practice engaging in conversation about their art with adults.
These students are worth seeing, but they don’t always know that.
—Betsy Wolfston, teaching artist
Their questions invite students to consider not just what they wanted to portray through their starburst books, but also to reflect on the process of creating them:
- What is the story behind this picture?
- How does this image reflect your own life?
- How does this make you feel?
- Did you get any inspiration? If so, from where?
- What is something you want others to learn about you from this project?
- Did you learn anything about yourself?
The additional question “How did you work through your mistakes?” invites students to describe what didn’t work the way they intended while introducing mistakes as a normal part of the creative process. It reveals student insights like “It will turn out the way it was meant to be, not necessarily the way you envisioned it would be” and “You don’t have to start over; you can make what you did work.”
Students draw their own connections to the Studio Habits of Mind while responding to questions, demonstrating their fluency in the concepts. They talk about how they persisted despite challenges and how the process of developing their books helped them to reflect on and express themselves. One student notes that she had purposely omitted sports from her project because she knew that others already saw her as an athlete, and she wanted to delve into and portray other parts of herself.
Another student notes that when she was having trouble coming up with words to describe herself, her friends offered ideas that surprised her: She didn’t think of herself as awesome, cool or funny in the ways they did. Students also share the ways that art helps them process their feelings, such as calming their anxiety.
The starburst books and ArtCore Jam support student reflection on their art, giving them ways to analyze what they’ve made and the process of creating it, and encouraging them to reflect on their learning. Through the Studio Habits of Mind, students connect their creative skills, abilities and learning across subject areas and to other parts of their lives like sports, volunteering and family,). This helps to link their learning and accomplishments, activating creative thinking and building a sense of personal success.
How did Oaklea Middle School get to a place where the Studio Habits of Mind were so ingrained and natural to students’ understanding of themselves and their school? Through more than four years of dedication on the part of teaching artists, teachers, school administrators and students, with a strong foundation of partnership between Lane Arts Council and Oaklea Middle School.
Junction City lies at a literal junction, though not the one for which it was originally named. After a massive flood changed the Willamette River’s course by a half-mile in 1861, Junction City was identified as a potential site for a new railroad junction; it had enough flat land for storage facilities and worker housing and was only about a day’s travel from Portland by rail. Though the railroad junction was eventually built in Eugene instead, the community of Junction City grew into a valuable agricultural hub. Later, it became the place where the highways we now know as 99W and 99E meet, both major transportation routes until Interstate 5 was built in the 1960s.1
Junction City sits within the traditional homelands of the Kalapuya and Chelamela peoples, many of whom were displaced by settlers and forced onto the Siletz and Grand Ronde reservations during the 1800s. Some of their descendants are now members of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and other tribal groups.2
Currently inhabited by about 6,000 residents, Junction City is a small town with an interesting combination of old and new neighborhoods. Some families work locally, while others make the trek to Eugene or other nearby towns, giving the town a bedroom community feel.
Though it has weathered changes to transportation and the economy over the years, Junction City continues to have a strong agricultural base. A nearby farm and dairy is a major employer,3 and several large family-owned farms surround the town, producing grains, Christmas trees, hazelnuts, fruits and vegetables. Junction City’s location in the lush southern end of the Willamette Valley provides residents with lots of nearby opportunities for recreation, including biking and water sports. Each spring, one of the main roads into town is lined with miles of daffodils as part of its spring celebration.
Junction City also has long and interesting history of supporting arts and culture. Despite its small size in the 1880s (around 600 residents at the time), Junction City was home to an opera house, which was later lost in a large fire. The town is still home to the Scandinavian Festival, which was established in the 1960s to help draw tourism after Interstate 5 shifted traffic out of town. Junction City School District has also been able to maintain music programming for students despite budget cuts elsewhere in similar districts and schools in Oregon.
There are about 1,670 students in Junction City’s two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.4 Oaklea Middle School has about 500 students in fifth through eighth grade. In terms of demographics, approximately 45% of Oaklea students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, 17% of students have disabilities, and 13% are Latino/x.5 Oaklea student achievement is improving after worrisome declines, particularly in the early 2010s and in math and English language arts assessment scores. As of 2018-2019, 91% of students regularly attend school (“regular attendance” is defined as attending more than 90% of enrolled school days). Though only 54% of students meet grade-level expectations in English language arts, and only 37% meet grade-level expectations in math, this represents an improvement from the previous school year.
Expanding arts learning through ArtCore using the Studio Habits of Mind
The ArtCore project was a collaboration between Oaklea Middle School and Lane Arts Council, which is based in nearby Eugene and serves the entire county. Lane Arts Council leaders, program coordinators and teaching artists (called “art weavers”) worked with school leaders, teachers, staff and students to develop and implement ArtCore. Team membership evolved as staffing at Lane Arts Council and Oaklea changed over the course of the project. Additional teaching artists were also engaged through short-term residencies.
This project was a notable deepening of the partner organizations’ prior work together, in which Lane Arts Council provided after-school arts programming at Oaklea as part of a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant. ArtCore at Oaklea was also part of a larger effort by Lane Arts Council, which was also implementing ArtCore at several other Lane County schools through a National Endowment for the Arts grant.The ArtCore team expanded and strengthened arts learning at Oaklea Middle School through arts integration in service of learning in other subjects (e.g., science); building knowledge, skills and abilities in visual arts; and cultivating use of the arts in self-expression, creative and critical thinking, and development of other social and emotional learning skills.
To do this, the team used a deep and robust framework for learning through and in the arts: the Studio Habits of Mind developed through Harvard’s Project Zero, a research-to-practice-focused arm of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The team worked with students to develop definitions and an essential ArtCore question for each Habit:
- Develop Craft: To share your imagination and ideas, what medium or tools do you use best?
- Engage & Persist: What was one of your best mistakes in life/work?
- Envision: When do you feel most alive and when do you lose track of time?
- Express: How do you give back to the world?
- Observe: What kinds of questions do you ask when you are most curious?
- Reflect: How do you know you’re satisfied with your work—what do you think about, look, listen, smell, or feel for?
- Stretch & Explore: What motivates you to try something new?
- Understand Art Worlds: What is your ArtCore?
The ArtCore Studio Habits of Mind and essential questions were woven into every arts learning opportunity for students, including:
- Arts-integrated lessons in various subjects in fifth through eighth grade classrooms, with intensive focus on one grade level at a time (e.g., sixth grade in year 2). Lessons used creative strategies to teach core subjects while also building teachers’ capacity to teach the Studio Habits of Mind and support student exploration and expression. These central learning opportunities helped students clarify and communicate their thinking, regardless of subject. Over time, teachers were increasingly able to lead lessons on their own. By year 5, teaching artists were able to focus on supporting new teachers and planning for sustainability.
- Arts electives—including not only visual arts but also dance, media arts, and ceramics—were led by teaching artists and other community artists-in-residence. These electives were made possible through creative scheduling that freed up the last period of the day for the arts beginning in the 2016-2017 school year. (Note: Oaklea also has a continuing, strong music program).
- Short-term residencies and workshops with community teaching artists include Tableaux with Nate Beard, West African Drum and Dance with West African Cultural Arts Institute, poetry with Kemy Joseph, digital storytelling with Olive Del Sol, and ceramics with Samuel Becerra.
- ArtSquad, an after-school arts club that evolved into a school leadership group. ArtSquad students led the ideation and creation of murals depicting the characteristics of an Oaklea graduate, and also led a school walkout in response to gun violence.
The Studio Habits of Mind and essential questions also had broad influence within Oaklea. They were integrated into a wide range of school events and other initiatives, from the development of a “portrait of an Oaklea graduate” as part of school transformation effort, to a year-long fifth grade service learning project that culminated in an student-run carnival and fundraiser for FOOD for Lane County (netting over $18,000 in donations).
The ArtCore team consistently centered student perspectives, supported students’ ownership of their creative journeys, and encouraged student leadership in their education. Students were appreciated as whole people with important and useful ideas, capable of fully expressing themselves creatively and in helping one another to do so. For example, in both ArtSquad and eighth grade classes, students took turns teaching one another arts skills, developing plans for teaching, demonstrating the art skill, and supporting student reflection. Teachers quickly noticed that students were most focused and engaged during these student-led sessions.
All of this provided new, different kinds of learning opportunities for students—opportunities to experiment and play as well as tools for them to understand themselves better.
For some students, they love art because it's one of the only places that they can't be wrong.
—Arts organization leader
Reclaiming the art studio
Educational budget cuts in 2003 resulted in the loss of about a third of the teaching staff at Oaklea Middle School, devastating arts programming and many other educational experiences for students. For over 10 years, the large art classroom sat largely unused. Over time, the space filled with piles of old textbooks and classroom odds and ends, rendering it not only messy but unusable as a learning space.
All the while and unnoticed lay tons of art supplies in each and every cupboard.
—Arts organization leader
The first thing the ArtCore team did at Oaklea was reclaim the room, transforming it back into a functioning art studio. The team worked together over long, hot, dusty hours to reorganize, inventory and clean, turning it into a lively studio space.
Student art quickly filled the walls, and the space was put into regular use by teachers rotating in and out of sessions with teaching artists. By years 4 and 5, the studio was in almost constant use, often by teachers leading their own arts-integrated lessons. This presented a new challenge for the team, as the formerly unused space was now in need of careful coordination. In response, and in an effort to sustain arts learning beyond Studio to School, an instructional assistant was hired to help staff and coordinate scheduling of the art studio. The position was funded by the school district and the ArtCore team (especially Betsy Wolfston, the primary artist-in-residence, who helped orient the instructional assistant to ensure that ArtCore work could continue in the studio space and beyond).
A shared vision for Oaklea graduates
Early in the ArtCore project, the team developed a strong mutual understanding and commitment grounded in what everyone wanted for students, teachers and the school community. This shared sense of vision and purpose culminated in the work done with consultant Michelle Swanson to develop the Portrait of an Oaklea graduate. The Portrait describes the characteristics teachers, students and school leaders want students to embody by the time they leave Oaklea at the end of eighth grade. These characteristics were scaffolded into more specific traits to support in each grade. This broader school work integrated the Studio Habits of Mind with what the team was learning through ArtCore.
I’d say we have a clarity on our vision around arts education because of Studio to School. We were struggling with wanting school improvement, but the key [was] establishing a Portrait of an Oaklea Graduate using Studio Habits of Mind through ArtCore to define skills, character traits and development we want for students.
I don’t think we knew we were going to do school design work when we started to ask those bigger, schoolwide questions.
—Arts organization leader
After the schoolwide engagement to define this vision for Oaklea graduates in 2016-2017, the ArtSquad worked with muralist Bayne Gardner (with support from local business Imagination International Inc.) to create a series of murals throughout the building—one for each grade—describing key developmental skills and characteristics. Bayne gathered student input about what the murals should look like and traced outlines for each. Then, students were given free rein to create. Each grade level worked on their own mural, united by a shared color scheme and concept. Every mural prominently featured tigers, Oaklea’s mascot.
The project generated a sense of accomplishment, pride and excitement about the arts for students and teachers. As one seventh grader put it, “In life, people are doing these cool things, but I didn’t think I would be doing it myself.”
This schoolwide creative project laid a foundation for teachers and staff to think of their goals for students in relationship to the Studio Habits of Mind, and it was a key element of building a school culture that centered students as artist and showcased arts learning as valuable.
Equipping teachers as arts educators
ArtCore at Oaklea wasn’t just about supporting the Studio Habits of Mind for students. Teachers too had the opportunity to engage in professional development in the visual arts and arts integration, and they also collaborated with teaching artists to develop, implement and adapt curricula that infused the arts into other subjects.
Each teacher brings their own unique style of teaching into ArtCore. They help me understand how to open up this project to the teaching, the linking and the challenge of what they do day in and day out on so many amazing levels.
—Betsy Wolfston, teaching artist
The ArtCore team focused on developing and implementing arts integration with each teacher cohort, meeting different learning goals and working in support of the Portrait of an Oaklea graduate characteristics for each grade. The team recognized that building teachers' comfort with arts integration would take time and trust-building, as well as training in arts integration and arts techniques to build teacher capacity. During the first year, the team focused on introducing ArtCore and the Studio Habits of Mind, working throughout the school in various ways and building connections. In year 2, the team focused on the sixth grade team, followed by the seventh grade in year 3. In year 4, the addition of a second art weaver allowed the team to work with both the fifth and eighth grade. This progression meant that after supporting each grade intensively for a year, the team was able to provide much lighter support as the teachers continued implementing and adapting lessons as needed.
What I love is they're looking at the project and realizing, What if we did it this way? What if we change that part? The more you own it, and the more you keep redesigning to fit your needs—that's where the sustainability is going to come.
—Betsy Wolfston, teaching artist
Each grade and cohort of teachers focused on different aspects of the Portrait of an Oaklea graduate and approached the Studio Habits of Mind in developmentally appropriate ways. By year 4, a solid routine was established: the fifth grade cohort focused on the service learning project, sixth graders on exploring and understanding the Studio Habits of Mind, and seventh and eighth graders on subject-specific curricula and high school readiness. This structure and the grade-level foci deeply influenced the creative strategies employed through ArtCore while also catering to teacher, class and student needs where possible. Every cohort had completed a year of working with a teaching artist, and teachers had begun to approach teaching artists with their own ideas about how to integrate the arts into their classrooms.
Several teachers became particularly strong champions of ArtCore, including Darbi Haffner, a sixth grade teacher who was skeptical at first, but quickly found that the Studio Habits of Mind and arts learning were transformational for her students and classroom.
[Initially I thought], I can’t do this art thing. I need to work on my lessons and curriculum. But that first year when Betsy was doing the teaching, I saw the changes in the kids. It is hard to explain, but it felt like a calmness. I got the sense that they had an outlet somewhere else that then made it easier to focus. I got more out of them on the other four days because they’d had that release.
—Darbi Haffner, sixth grade teacher
Similarly, Randi Doggett, a special education teacher working across multiple grade levels (early in the project she focused on fifth and sixth graders), appreciated the design and learning cycle embedded in the Studio Habits of Mind and understood how arts leveled the playing field for students across the abilities spectrum. Randi was quick to integrate the Studio Habits of Mind into her teaching and helped the team ensure that lessons were accessible to all students.
Randi has that art courage gene, where she is willing to try and learn and experiment with new things herself and bring new projects to her students. She remained open and curious about how to incorporate art into any lesson plan.
—Betsy Wolfston, teaching artist
As a result of their attention to accessibility, the team noticed that as art introduced new challenges in classrooms, students who thrived were suddenly in a position to learn from students for whom the ordinary classroom environment was challenging. Students who were often caused to feel like failures were suddenly experts, and many of the students Randi supported through special education were able to shine, sometimes for the first time in their academic journey. For example, a student who struggled with written and spoken communication excelled when given the opportunity to illustrate their learning visually. The assumption was that the student was not able to understand the concepts being taught; the arts showed that this student did understand but had previously lacked an accessible method to communicate this.
This also underscored a lesson the ArtCore team learned in the first couple of years: They would have the most success by working with teachers who wanted to engage in arts integration, and by meeting teachers where they were in terms of their needs and goals. The team found that when a few enthusiastic teachers built initial buy-in and understanding, it paved the way for other teachers to become more deeply involved. Darbi became a leader and torch-bearer for arts learning among teachers, continually looking for ways to bring the arts into her classroom and advocating for it within the school, and Randi attended every ArtCore institute held by Lane Arts Council over the course of Studio to School.
Yet another example is Jen Henry, an eighth grade teacher. In year 4, art weaver Katie Schuessler worked with Jen to integrate the arts into her science class. Jen had become an enthusiastic ArtCore supporter after attending the ArtCore Summer Institute for teachers that year. Together, they developed a curriculum that wove arts learning about the principles of design with science learning about chemical bonds.6
Our goal was to see students demonstrate an understanding of the physical representation of chemical bonds and the principles of design through a sculpture and written reflection. Furthermore, by participating in a classroom-wide critique, we wanted to see students engaged in meaningful, respectful dialogue about their processes and what they learned.
—Katie Schuessler, teaching artist
Using recycled materials, students created sculptures that illustrated how the principles of design (e.g., balance, contrast) were represented through chemical bonds. The students then reflected on their work individually and as a class following a gallery walk in which they used the critique prompts I see… I think… I wonder..., which helped them build communication and collaboration skills. The sculptures were later featured in a display case at the front of the school.
I really enjoyed seeing how creative the students got in recycling the materials and repurposing them into some quality sculptures. There were so many moments that I was blown away in how they used "junk" in creative and purposeful ways. To me, the most successful part of the lesson was that the students were able to point out how their sculptures represented their chemical bonds and were able to form creative associations between unobservable chemistry concepts and their experiences and understanding.
—Jen Henry, eighth grade teacher
These trends continued to build momentum in year 5. Teaching artists started to set up art bins—supplies that could more easily travel into classrooms—and encouraged teachers to take responsibility for specific supplies based on their interests and experiences. One sixth grade teacher happily took on a set of Copic markers, and another, oil pastels.
The power of strong art weavers
Betsy Wolfston, a ceramic and visual artist, was the project’s first and primary long-term teaching artist—or art weaver—and continued in that key role for all five years. As a long-term teaching artist-in-residence at Oaklea, Betsy was able to fully integrate into the school community. The team, teachers and students benefited in many ways from having a strong, stable arts education leader in Betsy, who approached her work with compassion and heart.
Betsy led the reclamation of the art studio, launched the ArtSquad, taught elective courses, helped onboard an instructional assistant, coordinated and supported other artists-in-residence, and developed many hours of ArtCore curriculum with each grade-level cohort of teachers, based on schoolwide and classroom learning priorities. She integrated the arts into anything and everything she could, enhancing student learning and love for the arts throughout the school.
In addition to creating strong connections with Oaklea students, Betsy also formed authentic and meaningful relationships with teachers. Early teacher planning and professional development at Betsy’s personal art studio helped teachers to see themselves as creative, artistic educators—to experience the power of learning and thinking through the arts firsthand before bringing it to students. Their time together also helped teachers to see Betsy as a valuable support for their teaching practice. These first visits eventually grew into monthly teacher dinners at Betsy’s studio, which were important opportunities for teachers to talk about shared goals, explore ideas and talk about their challenges and successes. The personal relationships and trust between Betsy and Oaklea teachers made working together not only easier but more rewarding.
In year 4, Katie Schuessler joined the team as a second art weaver, working with the eighth grade while Betsy focused on the fifth grade. Having an additional teaching artist moved the team toward their goal of sustaining arts programming in the school without art weavers present. Betsy and Katie worked together to coordinate use of the art studio, and to continue encouraging teachers to take on increasing responsibility for arts integration in their classrooms. Katie added weekly yoga sessions, providing a opportunities for teachers to decompress and work on mindfulness.
School administrator champions
School and district leaders actively supported ArtCore throughout the project. They championed arts learning and demonstrated an understanding of the value of learning in and through the arts. Both Brian Young, principal from 2014-2017, and Justin Corey, who was vice principal until 2017 and took over as principal when Brian moved to the high school, were ardent supporters of the arts and even expressed themselves creatively as well.
They also made the necessary administrative changes to encourage arts learning at Oaklea. They adjusted the school schedule to make more room for arts electives, an experimental move in the second year of the project that stuck (though it had to be adapted slightly to balance other school needs, such as teacher planning and professional development). When budget cuts didn’t allow the school to fund an arts specialist position as they had hoped, the principal and superintendent ensured that funding for an instructional assistant would still be available.
Like most other Studio to School teams, the ArtCore team navigated changes in school leadership during their project. As school priorities shifted, the team was able to pivot alongside school leaders. For example, when new Vice Principal and later Co-Principal Joy O’Renick launched new professional learning communities with teachers as part of a school improvement and professional development strategy, the ArtCore team was able to collaborate and integrate arts learning into that work.
An arts-infused school culture
By years 4 and 5, art covered nearly every corner of Oaklea. Several sets of vibrant and engaging murals graced the school’s cinderblock walls, mobiles hung in windows, and display cases and bulletin boards outside classrooms were filled with examples of students using the arts as thinking tools. Teachers’ artwork appeared alongside student art surrounding the center interior library.
This plethora of creativity wasn’t the only indicator that Oaklea was imbued with art; the team built a strong arts learning culture that was reflected in leadership and teaching practices. Teachers took ownership of arts supplies, an instructional assistant was in place to coordinate and support use of the art studio, and more importantly, teaching itself was transformed in many classrooms. Teachers used the curriculum they developed with Betsy with the certainty of their own experience that it worked for their students, and they proactively reached out for help implementing their own ideas for incorporating the arts into their classrooms.
The arts and the Studio Habits of Mind were integrated into school events and seen as a supportive—if not transformative—tool for just about everything that happened within the school. ArtCore’s holistic approach meant that creativity and the Studio Habits of Mind extended far beyond individual classrooms or school years. This is evident in grade-level service learning projects like the fifth grade student-led fundraiser for FOOD for Lane County; in life skills classes where art became an important communication and self-expression tool across grade levels; and in the collaborative effort to develop and realize the Portrait of an Oaklea Graduate. Even the school’s receipt of a large federal grant to revitalize a workout room adjacent to the art studio is due in part to the confidence teachers and students gained in the arts: Betsy helped the physical education teachers develop a grant application that included a creative video that centered student voices, because she and the teachers saw the value in supporting the school and its students as holistically as possible and saw the arts as an important vehicle for doing so.
By the end of the project, art was everywhere at Oaklea—valued for its own incredible benefits as well as for the ways it supports other priorities. Art was a vital, living part of the Oaklea student experience, reflected not only in the way that students and teachers engaged in the arts but in the priorities of the school and district as well.
- Tri-County Chamber of Commerce. (n.d.). Local history. http://www.tri-countychamber.com/communities/local-history/
- Native-Land.ca (n.d.) Homepage. https://native-land.ca/; Native Languages of the Americas. (n.d.). Chelamela Indian tribe. http://www.native-languages.org/chelamela.htm
- Tri-County Chamber of Commerce. (2020, February). Information guide to Junction City, Oregon. http://www.tri-countychamber.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Information-Guide-Junction-City-1.pdf
- Oregon Department of Education. (n.d.). Oregon at-a-glance district profile 2018-2019: Junction City SD 69. Accessed July 24, 2021, from https://www.ode.state.or.us/data/reportcard/reports.aspx
- Oregon Department of Education. (n.d.). Oregon at-a-glance school profile 2018-2019: Oaklea Middle School. Accessed July 24, 2021, from https://www.ode.state.or.us/data/reportcard/reports.aspx
- Much of this story lives on the ArtCore blog as well: http://www.artcorelearning.org/blog/2018/3/13/where-science-and-art-meet-a-week-at-oaklea-middle-school