Book Review: Professional Learning through Reflective Artmaking

For many arts educators, it’s tricky to strike a balance between artmaking and teaching. But what if artmaking can be leveraged to strengthen pedagogy? This is the crux of Wendy Milne’s Professional Learning through Reflective Artmaking: A Pedagogical Portfolio. By combining reflective pedagogy with drawing, collage, and more, Milne opens doors not only to more effective teaching, but to collaboration and self-discovery.

The preface details a struggle that will be familiar to many arts educators: “my teaching schedule,” Milne shares, “left little time to think about my pedagogical decisions and actions,” leading to “a sense that something was missing in my teaching” (8). This struggle gives way to deeper contemplation of various aspects of Milne’s teaching process. The book also heavily features Milne’s relationship with her student teacher Heide, who is an enthusiastic partner in Milne’s journey of reflection.

The book’s format is likely to appeal to visual arts teachers – each chapter is anchored by works of art from Milne’s portfolio and centered on a different theme. Like trails that loop off from the main road and wind their way back again, the Portfolio Themes guide the reader as Milne explores different facets of her teaching practice. The artworks serve as blazes along the way, giving the reader concrete visual metaphors for themes such as Balancing Creative Control and Creative Freedom or A Posture of Listening. Ample citations from academic texts lace through the book, which began as Milne’s doctoral dissertation, giving each theme both personal and scholastic depth.

Whether it’s examining the unintended effects of a dismissive gesture (29) or reexamining collaboration after an early career defined by individualism (100), one of the main draws to this text is that it lays bare the everyday struggles of a teacher. Milne is bravely willing to examine her own assumptions and give the reader a peek behind the curtain. Professional Learning through Reflective Artmaking is not just a narrative of self-discovery, but also a map for teachers to use as they explore their own practice.

“Reflective artmaking,” Milne writes, “brings an aesthetic sense of order to the pedagogical event(s) being examined, thus allowing the visually inclined reflector to more easily communicate to self and others the thinking, insights, and perspectives surrounding teaching practice” (22). Importantly, the “others” here also include students. Milne offers a number of anecdotes about better relating to students. One particularly poignant moment comes toward the end of the book, when a student notices Milne’s reflective practice in the form of her sketchbook:

A tall, slim fifth grade girl quietly came up to me at the end of class and asked if I had any more drawings in my sketchbook. I think I actually turned red with embarrassment when I told her, “No, I don’t have any new drawings.” My embarrassment grew when she said she had completely filled her sketchbook and was asking for a new one for Christmas. (112)

Although it is situated mostly in the early 2000’s, Professional Learning through Reflective Artmaking was published earlier this year and concludes with an open-ended musing on the struggles of educators in the age of COVID. Milne acknowledges the challenge of our age, where we “stand at a crossroads”—“I can succumb to the stresses of a world beyond my control,” she writes, “or I can find ways to manage the stress and continue to strive for a personally and professionally meaningful life” (134). This is indeed the challenge we all face, and her invitation to make the most of our time on lockdown feels, in 2021, like a call to action.

Professional Learning through Reflective Artmaking: A Pedagogical Portfolio is a quick, enjoyable read. As Milne’s school year progresses, we see her learn, struggle, push through challenges, and grow. Among many other things, the book is a very personal object lesson in slowing down and using introspection to push oneself further. In this age of struggle and isolation, the book is an honest, hopeful window into one teacher’s journey of lifelong learning, and Arts Ed Collaborative is grateful for the invitation to slow down and cultivate creativity.

Professional Learning through Reflective Artmaking: A Pedagogical Portfolio was published March 2021 by Learning Moments Press and is available for purchase through Bookshop and elsewhere.