STELLAR in Second Life

OWP Featured in Arts in Education Quarterly Newsletter

STELLAR is honored to be featured in the fall quarterly newsletter of Arts in Education. Check the link here, or read the full text below!

Every other Wednesday evening, teachers from across Oregon get together to learn new skills, plan lessons, and break into small groups for discussions and presentations, and provide each other with feedback, and they can do all this in their pajamas. No, Oregon schools haven’t dropped their dress codes; instead, these teachers are participants in the STELLAR project, a 2014 PDAE grant. Teachers from grades K-12 meet and interact through their personal avatars in Second Life, an immersive virtual reality environment. According to Dr. Lynne Anderson, project director, using this technology has helped make professional development more accessible, especially for teachers working in remote school districts. “The Second Life platform has been instrumental to the success of our project,” reported Anderson. “Teachers are busy professionals, and it’s particularly challenging for teachers in rural areas to get together for ongoing professional development with their peers. Second Life creates such an immersive, all-encompassing experience that teachers feel like they are in the same room with each other, even though they may be hundreds of miles apart. The same technology allows us to provide professional development to teachers from multiple rural districts at the same time, and bring in guest speakers from all over the world.”

A main focus of these virtual sessions is providing instruction on Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a student-centered approach to visual arts education. Through VTS, students are asked to interpret a piece of art, and then support their interpretations using evidence from the artwork itself; you can read more about VTS in our feature article. In the STELLAR Project teachers are taught how to use three very specific questions to engage students in the process of orally responding to specific works of art: (a) What’s going on in this picture?; (b) What do you see that makes you say that?; and (c) What more can you find? “The goal of VTS is to get students thinking,” explained Anderson. “And we are finding that VTS is an excellent way to integrate visual arts with writing because both involve making a claim, and then learning how to back up that claim in a thoughtful, reasoned way.” For many marginalized students, such as English language learners or those with learning disabilities, writing can be intimidating, but responding to a work of art orally is nonthreatening and more engaging. “Students respond to art in different ways, and they want to share that reactions with others. VTS helps students channel this impulse in a way that mirrors the process for argument writing – a form of academic writing that is foundational to success in school.” A teacher echoed this point in a written reflection on her experience when she observed that “during VTS, students of all abilities show an increase in confidence; all students show an eagerness to share their viewpoint.”

The STELLAR Project’s professional development model is designed to help teachers learn how to use VTS to encourage students’ enthusiasm for art and draw connections between art criticism and other forms of expressive thought. The project begins with an in-person, two-day kickoff workshop, during which teachers are introduced to VTS’ approach for teaching students how to interpret visual art. The kick-off workshop also introduces teachers to Second Life, where they meet virtually every other Wednesday evening at 8 PM for the remainder of the 9-month program. “The follow up session in Second Life offer teachers the chance to learn new instructional skills, construct VTS lessons together, and engage in small group discussions to share successes or solve challenges they are experiencing in their classrooms,” said Anderson. “Everything you can do during a face-to-face professional development session, we can do in Second Life; what’s more, we can schedule these sessions on weekday evenings, which works better for most teachers’ schedules.” In addition to their semi-weekly virtual sessions, teachers get feedback from in-person classroom observations two times per year. In their reflections, several teachers commented that the combination of virtual meetings and in-person visits helped them integrate VTS in their teaching practice. For example, one teacher observed “It was the regular reminders throughout the year at our online meetings, hearing other teachers’ experiences, and seeing VTS implemented in different ways that made it a way of practice for me.“

The STELLAR project also provides for teachers to bring their students to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA) located on the campus of the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. During the field trip, students have an opportunity to engage with art work up close. “For many of the students, the trip to JSMA is the first time they have interacted with art in a museum setting. It makes the experience come alive for them,” said Anderson. The field trip is also an opportunity for teachers to get a new perspective on VTS. “We do teacher observations at the museum, so teachers get feedback on their use of VTS in a new and authentic context.”

To date, two cohorts of teachers have participated in the STELLAR Project, and results from the project evaluation are promising. According to Anderson, the project developed the STELLAR Test of Visual Literacy to measure changes in teachers’ visual literacy before and after participation in the project’s professional development. The test consists of 20 open-ended questions, all aligned with one of five anchor standards of the National Core Arts Standards for Visual Arts. Results showed statistically significant gains on all tested anchor standards in the visual arts. In addition, teachers’ responses on the STELLAR Survey of Critical Thinking and Argument Writing revealed significant increases in teachers’ knowledge of how to teach critical thinking and argument writing.