On Being an ‘Artful Dodger’ and ‘Stealing’ the Right Way

Share this Article

  • Email

March 24, 2020

This is the seventh in a series of guest blogs by the 2019-20 Michigan Regional Teachers of the Year. Doug Duncan is an art teacher at Prairie Ridge and Indian Prairie Elementary Schools in Kalamazoo Public Schools.

As kids, we are all taught that stealing is wrong. However, depending on the context, the verb takes on positive connotations. For example, a baseball player steals a base and the crowd cheers, a few extra moments stolen with your kids is time well spent, and we say, “What a steal,” when you get a bargain on those shoes you’ve been looking at.

Like many professions, teaching is an art, and successful teachers are “artful thieves.” We don’t come out of teacher prep programs fully formed, and most have to adapt in order to become successful educators. Teachers steal from each other all of the time; not paper clips or lunches from the school fridge, but best practices only learned in the “school of hard knocks.”  

This hidden cycle has worked well to perpetuate learning from veteran teachers to new teachers. Often the learning is informal, thus earning the “stealing” moniker. Other learning is formalized. Either way, our teaching is improved with the transmission of the tried and true tools of the profession.

During my 18 years of teaching, I have consistently benefitted from stealing and refining best practices. In a way, I was forced to do so. As a second career teacher, I went back to school when I was 40 years old to earn my master’s degree in education and to get initial certification. I learned how to be an elementary classroom teacher, teaching math, ELA, science, etc. But because my B.A. degree was in art, I was hired as an art teacher. I had only taken one basic class on teaching art to elementary students, so I was feeling a little underprepared and desperate.

Desperation can make anyone feel a little bit like the Artful Dodger from Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” Other art teachers in my district willingly helped me, but I found that it was imperative to capture ideas from whenever and wherever I could.

Among one of my many successful heists was the “Sketchbook Caper.” In 2005, I visited an art classroom that was using sketchbooks with each student. I loved this idea and saw how it helped with basic drawing skills and how it was an effective classroom management tool, aiding in smooth transition periods through a set of well-practiced expectations; therefore, I stole it. Over the years, I have augmented that basic observational drawing format to include:
  1. Guided drawing as a way to let all achieve success.
  2. Using sketchbooks for pre-test/post-test evidence. This helped fulfill the formal assessment requirement as required by the state, and using sketchbooks helps make a pre-test feel less like a test.
  3. Using brainstorming and problem-solving practice sketches before an art project helps students to practice and take risks before the final composition.
  4. Comparing and contrasting works of art using writing and drawing helps bring literacy into the art room.
  5. Having students critique other’s sketches promotes art vocabulary and how to be kind, considerate and respectful to others.
My sketching program is dear to me and exemplifies how a teacher “nabs” a basic idea learned from a colleague and expands upon it to help fit the needs of their students. By improving on the idea, teachers help strengthen the profession. For instance, I now present the modifications I’ve made to my sketchbook program at state art conferences in an attempt to let others steal and improve upon these ideas. Every teacher incorporates best practices at some point using the “Artful Dodger” method. It’s not a crime if the idea is fine, so get out there and beg, borrow and STEAL. Just make sure to give back afterwards.
Questions & Feedback