Shedding Light on Visual Literacy

Duluth Schools: Assessment Practices within the Visual Arts


In late 2015, I was invited to facilitate and consult on a district-wide literacy project with the Duluth Public Schools. Duluth Schools is ranked as the 20th largest school district in Minnesota, serving 8,646 students. It is comprised of two high schools, two middle schools, and nine elementary schools. Collaborating with Duluth Schools is something that I have been doing since I accepted my position with the Perpich Center for Arts Education over seven years ago. So we have developed a strong professional trust and working relationship. As Duluth Schools began a focus on literacy, they quickly realized the power of the arts to redefine the 21st century definitions of literacies. After having me present on arts literacy to their school board, and building capacity to support the arts in the emerging model of multi-literacies, which describe the vast variety of literacies needed to be successful in 21st century learning, this district invited me to collaborate in developing practical guides and assessment practices which integrated arts literacies for the district. In February of 2016, we did initial work in visual literacies that were grounded in the district wide focus of close reading. On May 6th, 2016 we started with focused work in developing literacy-based assessment rubrics aligned to the National Core Arts Standards in Visual Arts. It is important to note that both myself and Deb Hannu, Duluth Schools Curriculum Specialist, were authors of these national standards and are seeking to align this work with state and national standards in visual and media arts. This coming June these rubrics will guide the arts assessment writing teams. These writing teams will seek to write the assessments that will go into effect in the fall of 2016 and will drive the focus of their standards-based report card practices as well as the work of their continual teacher growth and development within their Professional Learning Communities (PLCs).


Overall Strategy:

Our overall strategy is built from the fact that there is a great deal of professional trust amongst the K-12 visual arts team, the administrative team, and my work across Minnesota. Furthermore, the school board has been supportive in recognizing the arts in this endeavor. So the strategy is a multi-pronged approach that is ensured by a great deal of curricular and administrative support. It is built by collaboration using a variety of expertise from all and utilizes the implementation science throughout the process.


-School board receives and embraces a multi-literacies approach that honors the arts.

-Initial training is done with K-12 arts teachers that communicates the district vision regarding MN ELA and Common Core Standards, that highlights the skills of close reading from the Common Core and the "closely reading" art images. Teachers then learned about how to utilize the critical response protocol and the visual thinking strategies to lead students through the process of "reading" works of art. We also included time to envision ways to assess this type of work and created a plan to address this at the next professional development time.

-Unpacking and mapping curriculum, with the focus on responding and connecting national standards processes was done a the recent May 6th professional development meeting. We started with the current identified curriculum that already exists in the Duluth Schools which they felt had potential to serve these two process areas. Later we will address future development of further curriculum and the arts areas of create and present. Draft rubrics were created for each respond and connect standard as guidance to the next level of work in June 2016.


-This summer, we will taking the unpacking and mapping information and the draft rubrics created by the elementary art team and using that information to construct final assessments for respond and connect arts processes. We will eventually circle back and do the same for create and present. This work will put into the place the common assessment practices that the entire elementary art team uses this coming fall on their standards-based report card. Additionally, there will recommendations made as to the next steps in development, most likely the creation of create and present rubrics and assessments as well as future curriculum development.

-In order to achieve this in depth work, the K-5 art team will need ongoing support for curriculum and assessment development that fosters their next generation of cutting edge curriculum and the associated tools to enact it. This will require an ongoing, multi-year process of support to fully develop the curriculum and assessment system that reaches across K-12.


STEP 1: District Arts Literacy Presentation to the Duluth Board of Education

After working with UMD and the Duluth Public Schools regarding arts-based literacies, I had the opportunity to meet with Director of Curriculum, Dr. ___ Cary. Following this meeting I had the opportunity to spend time espousing the importance of a 21st century arts curriculum that had the power to positively advance student learning and through the arts. Key to these educational advancements was arts literacy. The entire board had great enthusiasm and support for the content and asked really intelligent questions that validated the need for strong arts programs that were teaching these skills and allowed for the necessary cognitive shifts needed to motivate arts-based learning across their district.


STEP 2: February 29th, 2016 Arts Literacy: Close Reading Connections

On February 29th, 2016 I collaborated with Deb Hannu, District Visual Arts Specialist, and Gina Kleive, Principal of Ordean East Middle School in providing leadership on arts literacy for the K-12 visual arts department. All teachers across the district were doing focused professional development in close reading. This work was in service to meeting the needs of the MN Academic Standards in English Language Arts (ELA) and the Common Core State Standards highlighting the parallels of close reading from these standards with those of responding and connecting artistic processes as outlined by the National Core Arts Standards.

Collaboratively, we addressed the following goals:

1) Develop an introductory understanding of core arts instruction strategies for unpacking artworks, facilitating art history and inquiry-based arts education processes.

-The main point here was to give focused attention to " close reading" works of art through the "close observation" via the Critical Response Protocol and Visual Thinking Strategies.

-We also sought to make it more evident that when we closely observe, we attune our ability to decode images. Decoding is fundamental to the reading process.

-We talked about how we could leverage these decoding experiences into how we then write/communicate/create works art. We made the connection that writing closes the literacy loop and also is how artists convey their own novel messages through the artwork they create. In this context, art is the text.

2) Develop fluency in using state and/or National Core Arts Standards for the purposes of utilizing them within creation of art curriculum and assessments.

3) Develop teacher efficacy around multi-literacies.

-One of the positive attributes of the Common Core State Standards is that they expand the definition of literacy to be more inclusive of the arts. The Common Core and inquiry-based processes used to read visual art works seek to support similar skill development in close observation, that once are keenly understood by students, can then be leveraged into how to more sophisticated create works of art that communicate novel ideas. This would be akin to writing an original work.

4) Develop teacher capacity around responding and connecting artistic processes.

5) Create a general plan that utilizes these key arts literacies within future curriculum and assessment work, PLCs, teacher development and evaluation processes, and other reporting practices.

You can see the entire first day process outlined in the link below.


STEP 3: Standards-based Report Card & Rubric Development Aligned to National Visual Arts Standards

One of the district-wide initiatives that will be integrating this work in artistic literacy, is that of the newly adopted use of standards-based report cards and grading practices of the district. This has been a large shift in practice for some arts educators, but they have a great deal of flexibility about how they are going to shape this work for themselves in order to fit the constraints of their work loads. In Duluth, students receive art ever eight days. Most of the teachers teach as many as six different class preps per day and some of them have nearly 1000 students that they teach in the eight day cycle. This creates a scenario where teachers need to have create as valid and reliable assessment practices as possible under some great challenges. Assessments need to be quick, often low tech in nature, and specific.
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STEP 4: Summer Writing Time for Assessment and Standards-based Report Card Development



STEP 5: Curriculum Development to Meet and Assess All K-12 Standards



STEP 6: Extend this Work across the K-12 System



STEP 7: Continued Multi-tiered Levels of Support