Category: Arts Education

Using Minecraft as a Tool to Assess Students’ Understanding of Symmetry

Symmetry is a concept that is important in the elementary art room, in engineering and design, and in math. There are many kinds of symmetry. In my Minecraft station, Sarah VL’s Symmetry Station, students learn about two kinds of symmetry: reflection (or mirror) symmetry and rotational (or turn) symmetry.

This video shows a walk-through of my assessment station:

The Assessment Process

For each of the two kinds of symmetry, students will view two examples of symmetrical designs. After they view symmetrical designs, they will complete a symmetrical design by placing the appropriate Minecraft blocks as directed. After completing two designs, students will create a third symmetrical design that they have complete control over.

An example of reflection symmetry

After they make their design, students will take a screenshot and share it with me in Seesaw. I will formatively assess their understanding of symmetry. If they created a symmetrical design, I will give them feedback telling them that, also through Seesaw. If they did not create a symmetrical design, I will use the drawing tool in Seesaw to identify blocks that are not symmetrical and ask them to redo that portion of the assessment. Based on the results of the formative assessment, I will reteach them as necessary. Because of the ease of working in Minecraft, students will be able to redo portions of the assessment as needed.

To help students know where to build, I placed build allow blocks. Students will learn to identify these blocks. When they are finished with the assessment, I will ask them to dig up their design so other students can return and build there, too. To ensure that they do not accidentally dig up blocks that are meant to stay, I placed build disallow blocks.

Advantages of Using Minecraft

There are other ways that a teacher could assess a student’s understanding of symmetry, including using physical blocks, making a paper sculpture, or coloring a picture. Minecraft has some advantages over those assessment methods.

An example of rotational symmetry

First, Minecraft is engaging for students. Even if they are challenged at first, they will eventually get comfortable in the Minecraft environment and will enjoy working there. My own personal experience was that I went from completely frustrating to not being able to stop working because it was so much fun.

Second, building in Minecraft is building with digital blocks. Although students could demonstrate their understanding of symmetry using manipulatives like pattern blocks or even plastic bricks, the availability of the technology in the classroom means that physical blocks are not necessary.

Third, if a student does not successfully make a symmetrical design the first time, Minecraft allows students to easily rebuild their design. By contrast, if they colored or painted or sculpted their design with paper and glue, it would be much more difficult to redo their work.

After completing a formative assessment in Minecraft and demonstrating an understanding of symmetry, students will be ready to create a paper sculpture or do some other summative assessment.

Rubric 4.0

During CEP 813, I developed a rubric by which to assess other assessments. You can view Rubric 4.0 or read about it in an earlier blog post if you want to know more. My Minecraft assessment meets some of those criteria but not all. Here are two criteria from Rubric 4.0 and how they are met (or not) by my Minecraft assessment.

7: Assessment requires transfer of knowledge to demonstrate understanding

When students complete a symmetrical design or create their own symmetrical design in Minecraft, they are applying what they have learned through a performance task. This allows them to demonstrate that they have truly learned the content and to begin constructing new knowledge around what they already know (Trumbull and Lash, 2013).

10: Assessment provides multiple means of action and expression

This Minecraft assessment limits students to a single means of action and expression. This does not line up with Universal Design for Learning (Meyer, Rose, & Gordon, 2014), by which teachers make assessments accessible for all learners. However, it would be possible to make an accommodation for a student who was unable to access Minecraft for some reason. This could be done using grid paper or pattern blocks, as previously mentioned.


Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST.

Trumbull, E. & Lash, A. (2013). Understanding formative assessment: Insights from learning theory and measurement theory. San Francisco: WestEd. Retrieved from


All screenshots and videos in this blog post were created by Sarah Van Loo.

A Critical Review of Art Projects as an Assessment Genre

When I was a visual arts educator, a staple of art class was the art project: the kind that gets hung in the hallways and displayed at district-wide art shows. Typically, each unit included a culminating art project. They may have been 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional, digital or physical, and comprised of any of a variety of materials.

I used this assessment genre for all my classes, kindergarten through high school. Even when I was a student in visual arts education classes, I made artwork for the same reason: so that my teachers could assess my understanding of the concepts we had been learning in class through my creation of artwork.

Because of the importance of this assessment genre to art education, I decided to do a critical review of the art project genre for my latest assessment assignment.

Assessing My Own Assessment

Assessment is an important topic in education, with teachers, administrators, parents, students, and policymakers all staking a claim to the results of various types of assessments (NWEA, 2015).

Assessment can be used to inform teaching and provide feedback to students. When used effectively, it can “support and enhance learning” (Shepard, 2000, p. 4).

Testing is just one form of assessment. Drawing by Sarah Van Loo, 2017.

In an effort to improve my assessment practices, I critically examined one of my own assessments. First, I chose three elements that “make it possible for assessment to be used as part of the learning process” (Shepard, 2000, p. 10).  Then I began drafting a rubric with which to assess other assessments, Rubric 1.0. As the name implies, this rubric is a work-in-progress.

Rubric for an Art Project

The word assessment can refer to both the instrument and the process (MAEA, n.d.). The assessment tool that I chose to examine is a rubric for a comic strip. The last time I used this assessment tool was a few years ago. Nevertheless, I created it using a format that I often use for middle school art rubrics, so I think it is useful to examine it.
The assessment process was a project, the creation of a comic strip by each student in my middle school art class. The purpose of this assessment was to evaluate students’ understanding of craft, character development, story, and the basic elements of a comic strip, through their creation of a comic strip.

When I created this assessment tool, I made the assumption that my students were able to read and interpret each of the criteria and descriptions. I also made the assumption that my students understood the vocabulary used in the assessment tool.

Examination of My Comic Strip Rubric

Assessment doesn’t have to be a monster. Drawing by Sarah Van Loo, 2017.

In examining my rubric, I assessed whether it met the three criteria I used to create Rubric 1.0: feedback to students is direct and specific, learning targets are transparent, and it includes a component of self-assessment by the student.

Feedback to Students is Direct and Specific

According to Black and Wiliam (1998), feedback to students should be direct and specific, giving advice to students so they know what can be improved. This helps students recognize their own ability to improve.

In my experience, students sometimes view themselves as “talented” or “not talented.” With specific feedback about their own performance, they develop a growth mindset and learn that they can improve regardless of where they started.

The comments section of my assessment tool provides a space to provide specific feedback to students. If the teacher does not use the comments section but only circles the pre-written descriptions, students may view this feedback as vague.

Learning Targets are Transparent

Students should have access to the criteria by which they will be graded, providing them with the opportunity to strive for excellence and the ability to see the “overarching rationale” of classroom teaching (Black & Wiliam, 1998, p. 143).

I have noticed that when students have clear expectations laid out for them, it prevents a lot of questions from being asked. Students do not need to ask or guess what quality work looks like because clear guidelines have already been established.

The comic strip rubric sets forth clear expectations for quality of work, quantity of work, and use of time in class. It is possible that more elements of a good comic strip could be added, but this rubric sets forth standards for excellent work, as well as work that could be improved.

Includes a Component of Self-Assessment by The Student

When students assess their own work, the criteria of the assignment and feedback from others becomes more important than the grade alone. Students who assess their own work usually become very honest about it and are prepared to defend their work with evidence (Shepard, 2000).

Students who assess their own work are prepared to defend their work with evidence.

When students assess their own work, they use what they discover to improve their own work. I have noticed that they iterate on their projects and make improvements, without prompting.

The comic strip rubric allows for student self-assessment, providing one bonus point for doing it. In my experience, this provides an incentive for some students. Other students do not see the inherent value and therefore pass on assessing themselves. Rather than making it an optional bonus point, it could be a required element of the rubric.


At this point, the comic strip rubric does include the elements of Rubric 1.0. As I revise Rubric 1.0, though, I expect to discover ways to improve my comic strip rubric.


Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139-144.

MAEA. (n.d.). CEP 813 module 1.1 introduction. Retrieved from

NWEA. (2015). Assessment purpose. Retrieved from

Shepard, L. (2000). The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher, 29(7), 4-14.

Curiosity Never Grows Old

Since I was little, I have loved to draw. I enjoyed everything about it. I wanted to learn how to make animated movies but never did. Now as an art teacher and technology teacher, I have access to great technologies that can help me. In fact, I spent last year teaching K-5 students coding in ScratchJr, Hopscotch, and Tynker.

This summer I decided to take what I already know about coding from those applications and do what I’ve always wanted to do: make an animated movie. I created this animation using Scratch.

I drew all the sprites, customized the background, and did it. It’s only one minute long, but I am so proud of myself and I’m thrilled with the result. I am delighted to share that movie here:


All images and videos in this blog post were created by Sarah Van Loo.

STEAM Power for the 21st-Century

Today’s workforce requires graduates with 21st-century skills of collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking, as well as entrepreneurship and innovation. These skills are needed in both the private and public sectors, but many of today’s graduates don’t have them (Jolly, 2016).

Today’s graduates are not qualified to fill many tech positions in the public and private sectors.

Hoping to solve this problem, a new movement focuses on educating students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Yet even with continuing unemployment, many tech companies are still unable to find graduates with the 21-century skills they need (Jolly, 2016).


STEAM: Today’s Answer to STEM?

We need innovators and creative thinkers to help transform our economy. In the 20th-century, that transformation came about through science and technology. In this century it’s art and design that are poised to help facilitate that change (“STEM to STEAM”, n.d.).

This understanding has fostered the STEAM education movement, which adds art, design, and the humanities to the four STEM subjects (Johnson Becker, Estrada, & Freeman, 2015).


Hierarchy of Education Subjects, Based on Robinson, 2006

Teachers and administrators face increasing pressure from policymakers to meet benchmarks in proficiency and growth. The result is more time spent practicing test taking skills and less time spent in student-centered, inquiry-driven lessons. This narrow-minded focus on testing leads to narrow-minded thinking. The result? “Young Americans are being educated out of creativity” (Pomeroy, 2012).

We need creative students, though. Creativity is closely related to divergent thinking, the kind of right-brained thinking that leads to fresh ideas and new perspectives (Connor, Karmokar, & Whittington, 2015). When coupled with convergent thinking, the partnership produces the kind of innovation we are seeking (Maeda, 2012).

Creativity, “the process of coming up with original ideas that have value,” is now “as important in education as literacy” (Robinson, 2006). Unfortunately, the hierarchy in education places math and languages in a position of importance above the arts. This hierarchy denies the importance of the disciplines coming together. Yet where the different disciplines come together, like in STEAM education, is where creativity flourishes (Robinson, 2006).

Where Is STEAM’s Place if We’re Prepping for the Test?

Research shows that students who have a background in arts do better on standardized tests (Johnson et al., 2015). They are also leaders in entrepreneurship and inventing. Michigan State University researchers studied a group of MSU Honors College graduates. Those with arts exposure were more likely graduate from a STEM program and to own businesses or patents (Lawton, Schweitzer, LaMore, Roraback, & Root-Bernstein, 2013).

Artistic endeavors while young helped foster the kind of innovation that creates jobs and invigorates business. “So we better think about how we support artistic capacity, as well as science and math activity, so that we have these outcomes” (Lawton et al., 2013).

My Own Experience as a STEM / STEAM Educator

My current position is that of a K-5 STEM educator. In my role, I teach Project Lead The Way, a national curriculum with the aim of helping students learn 21st-century skills.

Last year, my kindergarteners learned about pushes and pulls. Their final project was to design and build a model that would move some blocks up a ramp. When I taught this unit at my first school during the first half of the year my students were successful. They all met the design challenge.

Before I taught at my second school, though, I had some time for reflection. I made a few simple additions to my supplies for building day. I brought along some feathers, pipe cleaners, pom poms, and cutoffs from cardboard tubes. I did not tell the students what they were to be used for and the design criteria remained the same: they were to build a model that could push or pull the blocks up the ramp.

The results were fantastic! Yes, they all moved their blocks up the ramp but they became inventors in the process. One student added a “monster sprayer” to her model. A second told me, “And this is a purse; you can carry it.” One of my young engineers told me, “It has a camera, and a hand for picking up rocks, and a hammer for smashing rocks.”

Looking Forward

I feel privileged to be at the beautiful intersection of two STEAM disciplines. Trained as a Visual Arts Educator and earning a master’s in educational technology, I am in a position to infuse art into any STEM lesson that I can. If I am ever back in an art room, my goal will be to put technology into the hands of my art students. Either way, I look forward to educating tomorrow’s creative world changers.


Connor, A. M., Karmokar, S., & Whittington, C. (2015). From STEM to STEAM: Strategies for enhancing engineering & technology education. International Journal of Engineering Pedagogy (iJEP), 5(2), 37-47. doi:10.3991/ijep.v5i2.4458

Johnson, L., Becker, S. A., Estrada, V., & Freeman, A. (2015). NMC horizon report: 2015 K-12 edition. Austin, TX: The New Media Consortium.

Jolly, A. (2016, April 29). STEM vs. STEAM: Do the Arts Belong? Retrieved from

Lawton, J., Schweitzer, J., LaMore, R., Roraback, E., & Root-Bernstein, R. (2013, October 22). A young Picasso or Beethoven could be the next Edison. Retrieved from

Maeda, J. (2012, October 02). STEM to STEAM: Art in K-12 Is Key to Building a Strong Economy. Retrieved from

Pomeroy, S. R. (2012, August 22). From STEM to STEAM: Science and Art Go Hand-in-Hand. Retrieved from

Robinson, K. (2006, February). Retrieved from

STEM to STEAM. (n.d.). Retrieved from


All images and videos in this blog post were created by Sarah Van Loo.

Looking at Self-Portraits Through New Lenses

One foundational project in middle school art class is the creation of self-portraits. Through the creation of self-portraits, students develop several important artistic skills. They practice the skill of portrait drawing, and they practice making aesthetic choices to communicate meaning.

Digital Self-Portrait, by the Author

Unfortunately, some students are self-conscious about drawing or about spending time looking in the mirror. They may be intimidated by the prospect of creating a pencil and paper drawing over the course of many days. They may be nervous about having to add shading and other details.

The good news is that we don’t have to give in to the pressure from some of our students not to do self-portraits at all. In fact, we can keep both the art content and our pedagogy intact. Instead of having students create their self-portraits with paper and pencil, we can have them create using a digital tool like Autodesk SketchBook for the iPad.

Why Use New Technology for an Old Art Problem?

We can find a sweet spot in teaching when we combine our content knowledge (CK), our pedagogical knowledge (PK), and our technological knowledge (TK), referred to as The TPACK Framework (Mishra & Koehler, 2009). In this case, our content knowledge is the knowledge of how to create a self-portrait. Our pedagogical knowledge involves when to model drawing and when to give time for inquiry and exploration.

This work, “TPACK Framework in Digital Self-Portraits”, is a derivative of TPACK by Koehler (2012), used under CC0 1.0. “TPACK Framework in Digital Self-Portraits” is licensed under CC0 1.0 by Sarah Van Loo.

When we add the technological knowledge of a drawing application on the iPad, we find the sweet spot in teaching self-portraiture. By using the iPad instead of a pencil and paper, this assignment may be less intimidating to some students. As a result, they are more willing to explore and investigate. Further, using digital drawing tools, students may:

  • easily create multiple iterations of their self-portrait
  • digitally manipulate the portrait, including tiling, rotating, or flipping it
  • create multiple final versions of a drawing, including using different colors
Looking at My Own Example

In my digital self-portrait example above, I took a different approach to creating a self-portrait than I normally would have. Typically, I would have started by making a line drawing with charcoal or a pencil. I probably would have added some shading, and then I would have been finished.

In my digital self-portrait, instead of focusing on drawing lines, I focused on adding colors, shadows, and highlights. I also used a variety of digital tools, including the airbrush, technical pen, pencil, and watercolor. Having these tools available digitally meant that they were readily available and easy to access; by contrast, using all of these tools in a traditional setting would be cumbersome and time-consuming.

When students are given the opportunity to create digitally, those who may have been hesitant to start drawing will feel like they are at play because of the freedom provided by a wider range of tools. When students enjoy what they are doing, they are more likely to become lifelong artists.

If you would like to try this out in your classroom, here is a link to my plan:


Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. (May 2009). Too cool for school? No way! ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education), 14-18.


Featured image: DevilsApricot (Artist). (2016).  Art Supplies, Brushes, Rulers [Digital Image]. Retrieved from Pixabay website: Licensed by CC0 1.0.

Digital self-portrait was created by Sarah Van Loo.

Koehler, M. (Artist). (2012). Derivative of TPACK [Digital Image]. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons website: Licensed by CC0 1.0. “TPACK Framework in Digital Self-Portraits” is licensed under CC0 1.0 by Sarah Van Loo.