This Legend and Legacy interview was conducted by Fatemah Khawaji, a doctoral student in the Department of Art Education at Virginia Commonwealth University on February 21, 2018.
Robin Goble is a Harrisonburg native. She has been an elementary art teacher at Rockingham County for more than 20 years. She has her BFA in Art Education from Virginia Commonwealth University (1981) and her MA in Art Education from James Madison University (2007).
FK (Fatemah Khawaji): I would love to hear all about your experience as an art educator in Virginia. I have five questions for you. Could you tell me a bit about yourself, your childhood, and early experience, especially with art, early influences from your experience, family or teachers, your education from school to university, and beyond. That is the first question.
RG (Robin Goble): That is a big question. I grew up here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, which is where I live now. I always liked to draw and build things and go outside and make things with whatever I could find outside when I was little. My grandparents and my parents always made sure that I had watercolors and markers and whatever I wanted to make things with.
My first big influence was my third grade teacher. She was an artist, she did oil paintings and she always had us doing art things in class. I got picked to paint the picture of the Liberty Bell and they picked another boy from the third grade and we got to sit in the back of the room at an easel and paint the Liberty Bell, which was really cool. That was probably my very first time when I was like, wow, I think I really want to do this.
FK: That's awesome.
RG: It is. I just kept drawing and doing things. My sixth grade teacher always encouraged me to draw and she would have me do bulletin boards and things like that for her in the classroom because I liked to do things like that.
When I got to middle school, you got to take art like one time during the year for six weeks, I didn't particularly like the art teacher I had so I really wasn't interested in taking more art in middle school. Most of my friends sang in the choir so I ended up singing and taking music and not more. I didn't take anymore art until I was a senior in high school.
FK: So, you did not have art until senior in high school?
RG: I didn't take any art. I played basketball and I sang in groups, singing groups and things, but I didn't do any art.
RG: Then, I went to college, this little college in North Carolina, and I took a painting class with an artist in residence and she was like, "Wow, you're really good. You should think about going to art school."
So I applied to VCU for the next year and I picked craft to go into since I didn't have any background in drawing or anything and I had to call my high school art teacher who literally had me for one year and ask her if she remembered me and if she could write me a recommendation to get into VCU.
FK: You had to get a recommendation to go to art school in VCU?
RG: You also had to do the Virginia State portfolio which consisted of ten different drawings and they sent that to you and you had to complete that and submit it and based on that, the portfolio you completed for them, and your recommendation from your high school art teacher, that's how you got into VCU Art school back then. I guess I must have had some natural talent to be able to get in.
FK: That's really cool. You got to work with an artist resident too.
RG: Yeah. I'm not sure how VCU has it set up now, but when I went to VCU back in the late 1970s, you took foundation and everybody took the same classes. I don't know if it's still set up like that.
FK: I think it's still like that because I know there's still foundation classes.
RG: You take that and you met at the end of the year with your advisor and your professors and talked about what department you wanted to go into and my painting professor. His name was Jewett Campbell, he was really old then, and he wanted me to go into painting and print making. I wanted to be an art teacher. I want to teach little kids and back then apparently you only went into art education if you weren't good enough to do anything else. They tried to talk me out of going to the art education department of VCU back then.
I guess I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.
FK: You decided to go into art education instead?
RG: Yes, to take art education. Back then it was art education, that was my degree so you didn't pick something else and then pick up a teaching license.
FK: You decided to be an art educator even though you had a possibility to be a fine artist.
RG: Yes, I did. I picked art education over painting and printmaking because I wanted to be a teacher. I always wanted to be a teacher, some kind of teacher.
FK: Art was your medium?
RG. It was my first choice, yes.
RG: I got a really bad grade from the high school teacher with whom I student taught. She told me I would never be an art teacher and I should find something else to do with my life. It was really bad but VCU stuck up for me and told me that I was really good at what I did and not to listen to her just because I wouldn't do things the way she wanted them done.
I left VCU thinking I was never going to teach. I worked at a summer camp for ten years. I was the art director.
FK: What summer camp is that?
RG: It was Camp Overlook in Keezletown, Virginia.
FK: How was your experience there?
RG: It was good. Every week there were new kids and I was given a budget and I could pick and choose what I want. We actually got to start a fine arts camp. For one week every summer it was fine arts camp and the kids would come and it would be more like fine arts than the crafty kind of stuff that you do at summer camp. That was fun and it made me realize that I really did want to teach and I really did want to be around kids.
Then, Rockingham County, Virginia decided to open up an elementary art program which they never had before. There was a couple hundred people applied and they interviewed thirty people and out of the thirty people they hired three and I was one of the three people that they hired.
FK: Could you tell us about your experience there as a teacher and how long you've been there?
RG: I've been here for twenty-three years. When we first started the elementary program, there were three teachers and we each taught at four schools and you went to a school and you stayed there x number of weeks based on the population of that school and so you taught classes and you were like an artist in residence so they could use you for a resource. Then, when your time was up you packed up all your stuff and went to your next school which was kind of bad because you never went back to that school until the next school year so, it was fun though, being one of the first people help get art in the county.
So, what happened, the three of us who were the elementary teachers, we all decided to go to graduate school because we decided that no one was going to help us and prove the point, so we were all going to go get our masters so we could improve the program ourselves. I got my masters in art education from JMU and one of the other ones also got a master in art education and the third one got a master in administration. Out of the three of us, I'm the only one that's still here.
Also, I was the only one with a master’s degree in art education.
But, it's changed. They hired a few more people and then we went to three schools each and instead of only staying a couple weeks each, we would stay a whole semester. Finally, two or three years ago, everyone went to two schools each and the kids had art all year long so, it took twenty years to get to a place where the kids have art all year long, or once a week.
RG: Change was slow because every time there's budget cuts, we're the ones they cut out the new art teachers out of the budget which is bad. To watch the kids grow and to learn. I had two of my students have won the Virginia School Board Art Show and have their artwork hang in Richmond. I had two kids do that in twenty years, which I think is pretty good.
And, I have several of my students who have chosen to pursue careers in art. A lot of them have been art teachers; some of them went into art history. I have a few that have gone into digital design. It makes me feel good.
FK: I heard you've been teaching special needs, could you tell us also about this experience? Can you remember an experience that stands out to you throughout the years you've been teaching?
RG: I have kids with physical needs, and I also have the emotionally disturbed children. I have taught for several years so, I really feel I have a special place in my heart for the kids with special needs, especially the emotionally disturbed kids and stuff. I always offer art time to them if they're having a good day or, even if they're having a bad day they'll come in. I've had, actually I'm sitting here looking at a poster on my wall that says I'm the best teacher he ever had, and that's from one of my little kids who actually got removed from public schools and put into a residential home because of his emotional problems.
I've had them ask to come down here and be with me and we just do art and we talk and it's kind of what we do. Nothing really special but I guess to them it's special, I don't know.
I remember one little boy who got removed from school. I was his favorite teacher. He would come in here every day at the end of the day and sit and talk to me and tell me how his day went. I would help him with his drawings, things like that. I don't know, is that what you want or you want more?
FK: It's actually up to you. I want to hear about your achievement and accomplishment in doing throughout your twenty-three years. I've understand that you did a really good thing to improve the art program in the classroom and around the schools.
RG: I've done presentations at school board meetings, and I've had kids help me do presentations like, have them write letters and do drawings to show people that the art is important. I always try to emphasize to the kids that it's more than just making something. You have to understand why we're doing it and what it means to you and you have to be able to talk about it and write about so, we do writing which, I don't think a lot of art teachers do that at the elementary level but I always try to do that.
My thesis project was about an environmental concern here in the Valley. There were fish dying off in the rivers, so the kids and I did research about why they were dying. Then the kids created art work to help people learn about the problems in the rivers which was really neat. We actually published pamphlets that contained their artwork with some of their things that they had to say about it and we passed them out to people in the public.
I'm showing them how to use their artwork to change things in a good way; it wasn't just something that you hang up on the wall to look at.
FK: That's also interesting that you use it to inform people about what's going on around the world, around you actually, your environment.
RG: Yes, I definitely think you can use art. I know Hannah Sions and I have talked about it. I think Hannah's doing her doctorate about how to try and understand other cultures through their artwork. I always hate it when they make dream catchers out of paper plates because a dream catcher is supposed to make of things we find out in nature. That's part of it.
I would try to have the kids understand why somebody does something in their culture and why their art looks the way it does. I think that's really important cause it helps you understand the world.
FK: Looking back on your career, what did you consider your goals and accomplishments as an art educator, as an advocate for art education and as an artist? What changes or contributions have you made to art education, either in the individual or larger picture, how have you go about it, how have you change it?
RG: I think that one thing I'm very proud of is my master’s thesis. It dealt with the criticism part of art education. I wanted it to be child friendly at the elementary level. I did not enjoy critiques when I was at VCU. I felt that so many of my colleagues were doing critiques at the elementary level and pointing out things that they thought are not right in the children’s art work, so my thesis was about how to talk to children about art in a positive way that would make them willing to take interest in art work and to not be put down by having someone point out things that were wrong.
I often saw people letting other kids talk about children's art work and saying this wasn't very good or they could have done that better. I just felt that was not a good thing to do at the elementary level. You should instill a love of art at this level and teach them that it's okay to draw and do what you can do the way you do it and when you get older and you're serious about your art, that's the time when you can sit down with someone and let them point out things that you can improve on. Does that make sense?
FK: Yes, that totally makes sense.
RG: Every time we go somewhere and teachers lay the artwork out and then let people point to things that could they have done better, it makes me cringe. I think that's fine at the high school level and the college level but not when you're seven or eight years old.
FK: I agree with you on that.
RG: Actually, when I was collecting research about critiquing and criticism at the elementary level for my thesis, I even went as far as doing a state-wide survey at one of the VAEA conferences gather information about how it was handled at the elementary level. I found out actually that there really wasn't anything out there in print to tell you how to do it at the elementary level. I would hope that you could check my thesis out but I would hope that someday people would actually take time to look at it and maybe use some of the things I suggested. I think that would be my biggest contribution: to improve the way kids talk about art and look at art at the elementary level.
FK: In regards to that, you really have a good recommendation; do you remember some of those recommendations to share with us here?
RG: A lot of it was self reflection because at that time, having people reflect back on their own work was a very new idea. People were reluctant to do it because they thought that the kids couldn't do that, that they weren't mature enough to do it. We did a lot of self-reflecting. I would put the camera up, have them stand in front of the camera, talk about their art work and explain what they did and why they did it.
I always have a chance to say, “If you could go back to do it again, would you change anything?” Then they could bring in if they wanted to improve something or not. But, this was the early 2004/2003. There were not a lot of video cameras, and no video cameras in the classroom. I think we were on the cutting edge for having a video camera in the back of the room where the kids would just go and cut it on and stand and talk about their artwork and then we would share it together as a class and talk about things that way.
I am glad that has become more of the norm. I hope it is anyway. We always did notebooks too. We did art notebooks and journals
RG: The kids would write or draw things about what they had did, their projects and things, and we always did a little mini copy of their project and it would go in their notebooks so there would be a visual thing there to remind them too of it. I still do that to this day. We start them in second day and keep them all the way through sixth grade. It's so rewarding because they can take them home, but when I hand them out at the end of sixth grade they just sit there and they go through them and they talk about all the things they did from the time they were started school and art. It's amazing, and they'll talk to each other like, "Hey, do you remember when we did this back in second grade?" or "Oh my gosh, look at how I did that, if I was going to do that again I don't think I would do it that way." Some of them would be like, "Oh wow, I was really good back then!"
RG: Starting a portfolio, I guess that's what it is basically, a portfolio, a journal, and a diary. Something that shows them that they have grown as an artist.
FK: Could you talk about your contribution to art education that you've made in the Virginia?
RG: When I think about all the special education classes that I taught throughout the years, it was just amazing what I had done.
Kathy Schwartz, the head of art and art history at James Madison University, was the one who actually wrote the recommendation letter. They put me in this school one year, they transferred me to this other school and they told me,"You need to go fix the art program at this school." I just looked at them and said, “What do you mean and how am I supposed to fix it? They said, "Just go and do what you do the way you do it," and I said, “ Okay!”
FK: How did you fix a program and run it successfully? Could you talk about the struggle you got through and how you actually worked it out?
RG: The first thing I found out when I got there, there were no drying racks. I asked, “Okay, what do you guys do?” I asked the teachers and apparently, the person that was there before me did not allow anything to stay in the room to dry--it was sent home that day it was made. It didn't matter if it was glue or paint or clay or whatever. It would be all messed up by the time it got home.
The first thing is we need to learn to have respect for what we create and to understand that what we create has value and worth to it. It's not just something you shove down into your book bag that day when it's still wet. I still can't believe they did that but that's what they did.
The person before me was very concerned with the room being cleaned to the point where that was the main thing--you had to keep the room clean. Cleaning is important but it shouldn't get in the way of teaching art and creating art, so we had to work through that believe it or not. I talked to the kids and I asked them what they wanted to do. I said, “This is your program and I'm here to help you. What would you like to learn?” They said no one had ever asked them that before.
FK: So, one of the ways you actually conduct your classes or your practice is by asking the students what they want to do and what they want to learn?
RG: Right, I let them have the initiative. We're partners in it. It's not just me standing up there and talking to you and you doing what I try to do which is what I found was a lot of what was going on. There were a lot of examples put up on the board of what it should look like when you're done and that's not right. See, my thing was, I'm going to tell you what you need to do and what I want you to include but what it looks like in the end is totally up to you. As long as you can show me where you used the color red, for example, or something like that. I'm very open ended I guess and to let the child make their own art.
FK: How would you describe the results and how you approach the classes.
RG: I think it benefits them because it gives them ownership of it. I think they care more about it if they invest part of themselves into it and they're allowed to make some of the choices. Some of the time, though, I find there are children who don't know how to be responsible because they've never been allowed to be responsible for their own learning. Those are the kids I find have trouble with the freedom and responsibility because they very much want you to tell them exactly what you want them to do. I guess they have learned to please the teacher, to do what the teacher wants done and what will give them the best grade. That is something I don't want. This is not about making me happy; it's about you taking information I give you and using it-
I have a lot of kids who have that, who want to be perfect and they want to make it perfect for me. Those kids struggle in my class because I don't give them the step-by-step instructions of what it needs to look like in the end.
FK: Do you think with time they develop the idea?
RG: I think my fifth graders know that they are allowed to make a lot of choices. They are able to make a lot of choices about their art work. I notice that some kids who transfer in from other schools may be very hesitant and want me to direct them because that's what they're used too.
The kids, definitely by fifth grade, know they have ownership and they can make choices within the limits of what we're doing.
FK: That's a really good thing to learn.
RG: Actually, what I'm doing this year in fifth grade, we're doing paper mache. I noticed several kids who do not like the paper mache. So last week, we sat down and we talked about their goals between now and the end of the school year. They could write that their goal was to complete a paper mache project or they could come up with their own project if they didn't want to do paper mache. Out of about ninety kids, I have about twelve kids who are doing a different project right now instead of paper mache.
FK: So you give them a flexible opportunity to actually try something they're comfortable with if they got frustrated with the current project?
RG: Right. I thought there were problems when we first started using the glue. I thought maybe part of that was because they don't want to do it and it frustrated them, so I decided I would give them the option then. There have been some years when I have given kids a blank lesson plan, I tell them the concept or the objective is “free realism,” for example. I give them the definition of “free realism” and then they have to design their own lesson plans and do the project. I think kind of scares some teachers to turn over that much control to the kids.
FK: How'd that go?
RG: It went really well. My principal was very impressed. He said that I was able to turn that much control over to the kids. I think it went really well and they ended up with a lot of different projects. They all interpreted it a little differently and it turned out better than I think it would have. I think maybe, too, that's why the special need kids make art because I let them pick something that they feel comfortable with and they can succeed at.
FK: You actually develop a safe place for special needs kids to be able to explore and be comfortable with themselves and their ability?
FK: That's a cool approach.
RG: It is. A lot of my colleagues, people that I teach with right now, think, “I can't do that. I can't turn that much freedom over to the children. I can't have twenty kids all doing something different.” It's really not them all doing something different. They're all working on the same art idea; they're just approaching it in twenty different ways. And they're all different, all twenty different personalities, so why not let them approach it in a way that makes sense to them.
FK: I agree with you.
RG: Yes. As I get older I think I just have a different mindset. I think of how I approach it all and they say, “You should have sinners and you should have creativity and you should let them have options.” I've had that all my life, for the last forty-five years. I've had sinners and stuff sitting out and letting people go and pick what they want to incorporate.
FK: Thank you Robin, I really enjoyed the interview with you. Would you want to add a last comment?
RG: I think that art is the most important thing you can give to the kids. Through art, they can accomplish so much as they get older.
FK: I just wanted to tell you, you are truly a great teacher and I enjoyed interviewing you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk to you.