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April 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 7

Art in Action

A middle-school art project invites students to examine how their work affects others.

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One day last spring, art teachers Victoria Sciotto and Patricia Daly gathered their 7th and 8th grade accelerated art students in our school's cafeteria. The students had been working on plans for chalk art mandalas for several weeks, and in a few days they were going to install their projects on the walkway leading to the school's main entrance.
As assistant principal, I had watched the growth of this project with interest. Now I asked the students, "Have you thought about the effect your art will have on the people who see it?" The students admitted that they had not given it much thought. They had been too busy thinking about their designs, the color palettes, and the due dates for each stage of the project.
As aware as middle schoolers can be of their peers' reactions, we were surprised that they had not thought about the audience for their work. Their teachers and I realized that this project had great potential to help students develop an appreciation for the value of their work—for its capacity to contribute to our school community and as an avenue for personal fulfillment. Further, the mandala project offered us the opportunity to engage the students in the kind of collaborative, active learning experience that is characteristic of a successful middle school education.

The Project's Beginnings

About one year earlier, Mrs. Daly had stopped by my office to describe a project she and Mrs. Sciotto had in mind. She had read an article about Via Colori, a street-painting festival during which participants purchase a square on the ground to display their art; the artwork is washed away after the festival. The art teachers' idea was to have their students each decorate a square on our front walkway. Although our art department regularly displays student work in the showcases in our hallways, this project would allow the students to share their art with a wider audience and teach students that art doesn't have to be permanent.
Mrs. Sciotto and Mrs. Daly chose to have their students create mandalas in the squares. Mandalas are symbolic geometric patterns with the design emanating from a center point. The basic form of most mandalas is a circle divided into four symmetrical sections, a structure representative of patterns found in nature, including the structure of our cells (Art Therapy, 2015). Logistically speaking, the bright, bold designs would be eye-catching. Plus, using chalk as the medium would enable quick cleanup as the designs would wash away with the first rainfall.
To check the viability of the project, Mrs. Sciotto and Mrs. Daly created their own mandalas on the walkway. The reactions of staff members who noticed the colorful designs—and my own growing excitement about the project—got me thinking about the project's potential for an action research project. If a few passersby were enthusiastic about the artwork, wouldn't others be, too? Would there be a way to measure the reaction to the students' work?
As we asked ourselves these questions, we began to imagine that adding an action research component to this project could provide students with a new perspective about their artwork, its potential impact on others, and an opportunity to be reflective.
When the teachers launched the project, they introduced mandalas to the students, focusing on the significance and symmetry of the designs. To get a sense of the impermanence of their project, the students watched a video of monks creating a sand mandala—and then destroying it by blowing it away as soon as they were finished.
The students drafted their creations on paper and later created chalk designs on squares of gray paper to simulate the cement background. Soon our artists were ready for the installation.

The Research Component

When we met with the students in the cafeteria shortly before the installation, we wanted to elicit their ideas about what might happen after the mandalas were complete. Before the meeting, the students had read "Why We Love—and Need—Public Art" (Laneri, 2010). They worked in small groups during our meeting to find passages in the text that described the impact of public art, including art's ability to "build morale" and "lift up humanity and challenge the individual who encounters it to think differently about the world." As the students began to realize that their project could have a ripple effect beyond their personal experiences, we suggested that this project was an opportunity for them to engage in action research.
Working with Sager's (2000) definition of action research—"a disciplined process of inquiry conducted by and for those taking the action"—we explained that looking at the project through the lens of researcher could expand students' understanding of why and how they create art. We outlined the steps of an action research project: select a focus, clarify theories, identify research questions, collect data, analyze data, report results, and take informed action.
Because we already had a focus and had learned about theories of public art from the article, we asked students to develop a research question about the impact of the mandala project. The students decided that they wanted to know whether the mandalas would make people happy; they hypothesized that they would.
Next, students brainstormed how we might collect data to measure happiness. It's not an easy task, but the students came up with several ideas: observe and/or photograph students, take a survey, and ask others how the art made them feel. We explained the difference between qualitative and quantitative data and agreed that both types would be helpful for our research.
Before our meeting, we received a donation of a Happy-or-Not machine for the purpose of capturing reactions to the art. These machines display a question and ask respondents to choose from four choices—ranging from a green happy face to a red frown. As simple as it may sound, businesses have set up these machines to collect data about customers' feelings at the point of experience, including travelers passing through security lines at international airports and patients receiving care at medical facilities.
Our students decided that we would place the machine in the main lobby with the question "How do you feel today?" so their peers could register their feelings immediately after seeing the art. We would introduce the machine on Monday—two days before the installation—to get a baseline reading, and then compare the baseline with data from the day the art was installed. We talked about variables that might affect our results, such as how certain days of the week could influence students' moods.

Debut of the Mandalas

On the morning of the installation, the students arrived at 8 a.m. and worked for most of the day. When they finished, the students took a good long look at the decorated squares and reflected on their work. Then, with the help of the custodians, we covered the designs with plastic so they would not be seen until the big reveal the following morning.
At our school, the students gather on the front walkway in the morning before we admit them into the building, which created the perfect scenario for viewing the mandalas. Our principal, Lauren Moreno, arranged to have partition ropes set up to prevent people from walking on the art, giving the walkway the feel of an art gallery. When students arrived that morning, many were drawn to the designs, some pointing and commenting, others taking pictures on their phones. Upon entering the building, students hit the button on the Happy-or-Not machine to indicate how they were feeling, just as they had done the previous two days. Would viewing the artwork result in a spike in "very good" responses? According to 6th grader Thomas, of course it would. "How could you see that artwork and not hit 'very good'!" he enthused.

Analyzing the Data

A few days later, we reconvened to take a look at the data. First, we shared qualitative data that we had collected by speaking with members of the school community. One of the teacher aides said, "I got goosebumps and had tears in my eyes. Twice it happened!" Students said that reactions from their classmates weren't as expressive but were overwhelmingly positive, including comments like "gorgeous" and "really cool to look at."
The feedback carried over to social media. Students informed me that they had seen the mandalas on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. For better or worse, our students live in the world of social media. That this project crossed over from the realm of school to Instagram told us that it was relevant to our middle schoolers. Mrs. Daly and Mrs. Sciotto also set up a Padlet where they posted the students' work and invited members of the school community to post their feedback. The comments were unanimously complimentary.
Additionally, we received daily data reports from the Happy-or-Not machine and shared Monday and Wednesday's results with the students (see Figure 1 (PDF)). The students noticed that although there had been fewer responses on Wednesday, a larger percentage of people were either happy or very happy and a smaller percentage of people were feeling bad or very bad.

Figure 1. Daily Reports from Monday and Wednesday

This figure is an online accompaniment to Kelleher, J. (2016). Art in action. Educational Leadership,73(7), 74–77.
Students noted a flaw in the data collection process, reporting that some students hit the frown face repeatedly or all of the buttons several times in succession. The students suggested that more teacher oversight would produce more reliable results. But on balance, taking into account both the qualitative and quantitative data, the students concluded that they had answered their research question—their project did indeed make people happy.

Taking Action

The final step of the action research process is to take informed action. We hoped that when our students saw themselves as valuable contributors to their community, they would feel empowered and discover other opportunities to fulfill this role. "This project definitely changed the way I think about myself as an artist," said Cathryn, a 7th grader. "I realized that if people enjoyed viewing my art and I enjoyed making it, then I should keep doing it."
Overall, we felt that this art-meets-action-research project was a success. It served as an example of the positive effects of active learning and collaboration between teachers and students. The mandala installation also provided a new avenue for not only looking at—but also reacting to—student work. And in the tradition of public art projects, it caused us to stop and look around, bolstered the morale of our community, and if only for a few short weeks, improved the quality of our lives.

Art Therapy. Healing with mandala art therapy—a multi-cultural idea worth exploring. Retrieved from

Laneri, R. (2009, May). Why we love—and need—public art. Forbes. Retrieved from

Sager, R. (2000). Guiding school improvement with action research. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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