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How to Positively Lift Spirits with One Note at a Time

It can be a great joy to surprise others. Think about the look of delight on someone’s face as they consider the thoughtfulness that went into the moment of surprise. This could be a party, an unexpected email, the moment a friend arrives on your front porch right when you need it most, and most certainly works of art.

a surprising note in a plant

Well-hidden works of art can be a delight to discover, as in tiny art shows or street art nestled into unexpected spaces. For a moment, we marvel at the placement, the thought that went into the creation, and how only the most aware may take notice. There are countless ways to engage students at all levels with artmaking that involves an element of surprise. So, why not consider visual notes of positive affirmation?

Here is a model that works.

Start with a unifying line design. Add bright color, a positive, inspirational message, and voila! A hidden artistic surprise just awaiting discovery!

A few years ago, I spoke to future teachers who are still in high school. I prompted the students to consider how small actions can impact others in ways we can’t comprehend. Each student received a printout of a panther, the university’s mascot, where the talk was being held. I prompted students to turn this simple line drawing into a positive affirmation to be hidden throughout the campus and discovered by college students upon their return from the break.

a note of affirmation hidden in a plant

Armed with markers, students created bright and bold panthers with short inspiring quotes. They cut out their colorful forms and laughed as they ran around campus, placing the panthers on bulletin boards, in potted plants, or behind giant pull-down maps. They were joyful as they considered how and when returning college students would find these panthers. And that’s it. Students walked away with the knowledge that their work may be the surprise someone else needed.

Make it work for you.

Since that day, I have done the same activity with elementary students, college students, families, and adults. With each group, there is a different unifying line design for individuals to bring to life with color and quotes and then hide for others to find.

It is truly that simple, but some considerations can lead to a meaningful experience for all.

artist creating a note of affirmation

  1. Unifying Design: An initial unifying design prompts the intended audience to seek out the hidden works and connect to something bigger. Think about the cows of Chicago and the large sculptures that have taken over other cities. People hunt for these works among the noise of their surroundings.
  2. Consider a Symbol: What mascot, logo, or symbol unifies your group? At my school, our mascot is a lark. Yup, as in the small songbird, it is fierce. Imagine a flock of larks hanging from the ceiling in unexpected spaces! Starting with a symbolic design can bring everyone together.
  3. Student-Centered: A simple outline provides the opportunity for limitless potential. But this outline does not have to be drawn by the art teacher. Maybe students submit their own renditions of the school logo or mascot. Choose one or a small handful of their designs to transform and copy for other students to complete.
  4. Guide the Affirmations: Filling the line art with colors and designs is great, but it is essential to consider how finding these small artworks can be inspiring, even for a moment. Spend time brainstorming with your artists some phrases to inspire and encourage others. Or, share a list of affirming quotes as a starting point to spark ideas.
  5. Design Time: Who will do the decorating? You may pick a single class or grade level. Early finishers can do this work, or it might become a station for students to select. Decorating your symbol could be an art club activity. A group of teachers could even create these surprise affirmation notes for their students or one another.
  6. Share the Joy: The individuals who made the affirmation art may find great joy in also doing the hiding. And yet, they may love the joy of locating their work if someone else hid it for them. There are unique situations in every educational context; just be sure to think through this step, so the images actually get used, and you are not the one doing all of the taping.

surprising note of affirmation in the form of a bird

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Regardless of how involved this project becomes, at its core, the element of surprise is a bright moment in a cloudy day or an unexpected reminder that small actions can make a significant impact on someone else. Gather a group of students or colleagues to create a hidden surprise that brings a little more joy into the world!

When were you last delighted by a thoughtful surprise?

What symbol or mascot could be easily transformed into a reproducible image for decorating?

Who would benefit most from creating surprising notes of affirmation?

Jonathan Juravich is an elementary art educator in Columbus, OH. A self-described Social Emotional Learning enthusiast, he explores this essential concept with his students and with fellow art educators via the podcast The Art of SEL.

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