“Sparking” and “Curating” as Student Engagement Techniques


In a recent post on my favourite blog, Art History Teaching Resources, Elena FitzPatrick Sifford discusses Interactivity and Communication in the Art History Classroom. She explains that her recent survey  courses had interactive components:

In the lecture course students chose a subject from the course calendar and were assigned to a group. They were tasked with putting together a presentation on that topic during one fifty-minute class session. They were asked to lecture and to ask the class questions in order to foster classroom involvement. The class met three times a week, so there was still plenty of time for me to fill in the gaps as needed. In fact, I would often treat the student presentation as an introduction to the topic, which I would then fill in in more depth during the next one or two class sessions. There was no paper component to this assignment, but I found that students had to do a fair amount of research, particularly for some of the lesser-published topics. Many of them were nervous about public speaking, but they rose to the occasion, and there were even some good classroom discussions generated from these presentations. Overall, I think it was successful in having students generate some of the content of the course and getting away from the authoritative talking head model of so many lecture style courses.

Her seminar courses incorporated “sparking” and “curating,” two approaches that I would argue constitute student engagement techniques.

With “sparking” (a term that she borrows from her graduate school professor, Dr. Katherine Manthorne)  a team of two students were tasked with starting a conversation about the readings, by  briefly introducing the authors and the main argument of the paper, then asking a series of questions that would lead the class in a conversation about the works. She describes, “After the exchange, I would impress on them the importance of questions that test critical thinking, and they would come back with broader more discussion-oriented inquiries.”

“Curating”  was largely inspired by an assignment written by her colleague Dr. Ananda Cohen Suarez. In this project students curate an exhibition by presenting a title, series of works, location, and researched wall texts. Reflecting on the activity, Sifford noted “when I try this again, I will aim for more interactive moments during the semester for groups to share their progress and for me to respond and provide feedback before the final due date and exhibition “opening.” I’ve found that the most successful interactive assignments require multiple points of critical feedback so that students are getting more out of the process, interacting with their classmates and professor, and ultimately ending up with sharper finished products.”

“Sparking” and “Curating” are both excellent examples of student engagement techniques idea for art history classrooms. I am excited to try both! Elena FitzPatrick Sifford has inspired me. What perfect examples of the Marva Collins, wise words that motivate my teaching. “The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious, to have one idea spark another.”

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