Much More Than Recess with Crayons

By Melissa Purtee, posted on Mar 12, 2024

Have you ever heard TAB referred to as “recess with crayons”? The idea that TAB is a free-for-all or lacks educational value doesn’t represent the learning and engagement in the thousands of classrooms around the country that share this pedagogy. Organization, scaffolding, and planning are essential components of every TAB classroom, though how they are implemented varies. In my high-school classroom, I facilitate student choice by teaching students about different types of learning activities as options for studio work and how to set personal goals that support the direction of the work they choose to pursue.

Kiwi painting and lemon painting on gum wrappers, SchoolArts magazine, April 2024.
Sophie, detailed kiwi and lemon paintings in gouache on metallic gum wrappers.
Collage with hands holding a rose from the article, Choice Sketchbooks.
Left: Molly, mixed-media work with pieces of a shattered CD. Right: Frankie, portrait of brother in acrylic.

Categories of Studio Work

In my classroom, there are five main categories of work: Learning, Exploring, Personal Style, Collaboration, and Formal Artwork. Students can choose from any of the five options, and making that choice helps them understand their learning as they create.

The Learning category involves absorbing new information related to art-making skills, materials, techniques, or processes and then practicing. It’s like the skill-building section of a project or lesson, except that students choose what to learn from the digital content I’ve developed for them or their own research.

The next category, Exploring, involves students using familiar materials to experiment and try new things, drawing on their prior knowledge of art-making.

Personal Style is an option for learners with an established style or those who would like to use class time to develop one. They typically work in a series with materials that they excel at manipulating to create a body of work.

Collaboration is for students who want to work with a partner or group to create something bigger than they could independently.

Formal Artwork, the final of the five categories, is much like a project or unit in a more traditional class, except that students design the process and the final project themselves. For this option, students plan their own adventure to create a polished and original work of art. To get there, they select planning activities from a list of options, then create when they are ready.


Once students know about these five categories, they can effectively decide how they would like to spend their time in the studio. To help them manage their time with growing independence, I ask students to set specific goals and reflect on their progress in weekly digital portfolio entries. These goals, and the evidence that students collect as they work toward achieving them, paint a picture of students learning and increasing their skills in art-making, as well as directing their own learning. To illustrate this, I’d like to share the work of a student from my class.

A Student’s Artistic Growth

Sophie, a senior, began the year by completing a Learning activity focused on gouache. She then experimented with creating a surface with metallic gum wrappers she had been collecting and was inspired to use for art-making. She eventually decided to turn this into a Formal Artwork by adding a painting of a lemon in gouache.

Next, she spent most of October working on pen drawings as part of Inktober. Then she decided to create a second painting in the style of her lemon. She wrote this goal midway through the process:

This week, I would like to continue my formal project that I started last week. My goal for the week is to work on painting a kiwi in gouache and get it painted onto the background I made last week. I would like to improve on painting shadows and small details with gouache.

In her kiwi painting, she achieved heightened contrast and increased detail after practicing with a very small brush I found for her. You can see her artistic growth, achieved by the goals that she set and worked toward.

Focused Learning

While Sophie was working on her painting, the rest of the class was focused on their own projects. Alexis was creating a complicated patterned design on her iPad as part of a series she had been working on for most of the course.

Molly was exploring reflective surfaces in her mixed-media work and was gluing pieces of a shattered CD to a mirror on her current piece.

Across the room, Landon and Jacob were both drawing with pen. Landon was working in the Learning category by finishing up a pen exploration, while Jacob was drawing a figure as part of his goal of developing a personal style.

Frankie was adding finishing touches to an acrylic portrait of her brother, with plans to use it in her portfolio for her RISD application.

TAB is much more than recess with crayons—it’s focused learning based on the goals students are empowered to set for themselves as partners in their own learning.

Melissa Purtee is an art teacher at Apex High School in Apex, North Carolina, and the co-author of The Open Art Room and Making Artists, both available from Davis Publications.;

National Standard

Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.

View this article in the digital edition.