Art Room Branding: Projects That Define Your Program (Ep. 003)

Andrew takes his first turn in the host chair for a discussion with Tim on the biggest things we do–the projects that define our programs. Andrew discusses inspiration, collaboration, curriculum (2:45), with maybe a mention of zombies thrown in. Tim talks about his underwater photo shoot (7:00), trying not to get fired after throwing things at his students (9:00), and why we need to always continue to push the envelope (11:30). Listen for Andrew’s thoughts on how serendipity can lead to great projects, but only if you’re ready to dive in! (26:00) Full Episode Transcript Below

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Andrew: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host Andrew McCormick.

Today we’re going to dive into the projects that define your Art Ed program. Tim Bogatz, he of the kookie underwater drawing fame, and I are going to talk about some projects that help our classes create an identity and even recruit students and build up a visible and viable art program.

In this episode, we’re going to get into the bigger ideas of how teachers come up with those signature projects. Why you’d want to develop some of these heavy hitters if you don’t happen to have any? Even some possible consequences, positive or negative, and having such monumental blue-chip art projects.

Let’s talk about these program defining projects. I think it’s important to delineate between those rockstar projects, the ones that kids have come to expect and ask for. Whether or not you’re really has into teaching them as you were, say, four years ago when you first started, and then your overall teaching style. Those are two different things.

I know that I have an overall style that skews more nerdy, sci-fi, fantasy, comic book, scary, gory, maybe even fake fantasy violence and zombies, maybe a little edgy. I know that’s a lot of adjectives there.

My kids have outed me on this and brought it up to me that every project I do is really about distortion, and media images, and monsters, and skulls, and tattoos, and they’re not wrong. Some of that is because it’s genuinely what I’m interested in and into. Its equal part is what I think my students are into and I see that that pop culture, visual culture curriculum connecting so much better with students than a more traditional art curriculum that focuses on principles and elements, and the cannons of art set forward by a bunch of old, dead, white European dudes. That sounds like it might be a good episode for a future podcast there.

The big ones, your big ticket projects. Where do those come from? That’s something I’m interested in. For me, and I think I’ll wait to get into a few more specifics when I talk to Tim on this. It’s a matter of serendipity.

Just as artists often pinpoint that they can’t pinpoint the exact idea or inspiration or deeper meaning of their work and just flows through them. I think that good teaching is an art form and sometimes those killer projects, they just manifest themselves. You got to be in the right time, at the right place and pay attention.

Another strategy I think that’s really, really important to coming up with these program defining art projects that are just awesome that gets everyone excited is collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. My brain and thoughts will never produce the amount of great ideas that a couple other like-minded teachers will produce. Be them real teachers in my PLC or people handpicked digitally from my PLN, my Professional Learning Network.

Reach out, gather ideas from other people. Beg, barge, cheat and steal. If it’s a great idea, it’s worth taking and bringing it onboard and doing it in your classroom.

I’d also get my ideas from students. I think your students are a great untapped resource for collaborating and brainstorming and coming up with really good, fun, interesting projects.

The last way that I collaborate is with student teachers and field experienced students. I think some of my best cookiest, craziest, most fun projects that kids really want to do year after year and really recruit kids have all come from me collaborating with field experience students and student teacher, because you have to, like I said, put your brains together and come up with something that’s really great.

I think teaching art is a double edged sword when it comes to curriculum. Pretty much no one is telling us what we have to do. Some people love this freedom and some people just want to be told what they have to teach and when. I think you listeners who have been listening to Tim and I from way back in the AOE live era, know where I fall in this spectrum.

If you don’t feel like you have some real crowd favorites, some projects, you might want to think about developing some. You have that license to do that. They’re a total no brainer and that they’re a great advocacy piece. They’re great to showoff to your administrators, all the great stuff that you’re doing in the classroom. It also serves to recruit kids.

I think this is especially important for secondary art teachers, those of you who are out there, because the real truth is we have to recruit students because kids don’t have to take art anymore. They are choosing to.

Ask yourself if students are more excited to take a class with some really unusually memorable zany projects that sparks everyone’s creativity and curiosity, or would they be more excited to take a class that caters to the art students that are already good at art? I think we know that the answer is very clear, not all kids are going to go into the arts or be designers. They want that outlet for creativity and problem solving. Get zany with your projects.

Now, here’s the real cliffhanger. Can having a pervasive teaching style or some really big rockstar art projects actually have some unintended consequences? I think that this is the question and few others that I want to bring to my really good friend, high school art teaching extraordinaire and world class synchronized underwater bread-butterer, Tim Bogatz.

First, I want to say that if you’re really into curriculum development, which is a real passion of mine in Art Ed, and you want to take the next step in developing your own art projects. Check out AOEs online course, Designing Your Art Curriculum.

If you’re in need of some grad credits, some continuing ed units or some professional development hours and you enjoy this episode, definitely consider taking this class. At the end of this rigorous hands-on class, you will have your own individualized toolkit that’s ready to roll with a new curriculum that’s tailored to fit your own teaching style and your student’s needs and styles.

This class is three credits and runs for five weeks and the class starts on the first of every month. Learn more by going to the and clicking on classes.

Now, back to the show.

All right Tim, welcome to the show. We are talking big zany art projets that can define your art program. I know that you just got done sharing your cookie underwater drawing lesson at the AEO Winner Conference. For those of us who aren’t able to attend or watch it, why don’t you fill us in on that crazy project?

Tim: All right, we’ll do. Thanks for having me by the way. My underwater photo shoot was a good time. We’ll start it with that. Basically, I had a student teacher in the fall and she and I were coming up with all sorts of crazy ideas because we’re just looking for something to do with figure drawing that was new, exciting. Somehow we got to talking about doing an underwater photo shoot. Honestly, I don’t even remember the conversation that started it. We’re, “Yes! We need to do this.”

I convinced my assistant principal who’s in charge of the budget that I needed a little bit of money to buy an underwater camera and I needed him to let me have the pool for an afternoon. Somehow he agreed to that. We went in with the art club one afternoon and we had done a ton of planning for it with different props, different ideas of what we’re going to do, whether we’re jumping off the board or whether doing things with props in the shallow end. We spent almost two hours in the pool of just coming up with all these crazy shots.

I had a toaster underneath there. We had another girl brushing her hair with a hair dryer in there. We had a tea party. We had somebody dressed up in a Spider-Man suit. It was just some crazy things, but they are really, really unique. It was quite a bit of fun to do.

Some of the kids are just using the photos as the finished product. Other kids are doing some drawings based on that. Like I said, that extend the figure drawing. Just something new and exciting that we’re always looking for in our classroom. That one definitely fit the bill.

Andrew: Yeah, I think you nailed it on the head there. Something new and exciting. Not always doing the exact same thing. Now, I know this isn’t a one hit wonder for you even though it is new and exciting. I know that it’s not your first foray into doing some cookie and unusual stuff. Let’s hear some of the other big, elaborate nuts projects that you’ve been up to.

Tim: Okay. I think the biggest one that I’ve done most often and where it all started for me is the project where I get to throw things at my students which is quite a bit of fun. I remember reading an interview with Robert Longo. The artist who did these huge Men in the Cities drawings with just people dressed up in formal wear in these really crazy poses. Everybody is trying to guess how he had done those with people dancing or people looking like they’re getting shot.

He talked about how he took people up to his apartment rooftop in New York City and would throw things at them. He would hire models and then just like shot baseballs at them. I was, “I need to do that with my students.”

It was a little bit scary at first, “I’m going to get fired for throwing things at my students.” That was part of what I talked about at the AOE conference was just not being too afraid to try those new things. We got our nerf balls and our dodge balls and had everybody dress up and just started chucking things at each other and we’re taking pictures while we did that.

Again, that was just a big extension for us of our figure drawing unit. We would come up with these crazy poses and then do these huge drawings of them. We got some really, really get results. It’s something that I’ve kept doing ever since then.

Andrew: We’re talking about projects that really come to define your program and give it a sense of style or identity or a brand. I think something that we probably have in common is we’ve stumbled across these cookie crazy ideas that the kids then come to look forward to. It sounds like your experience is similar to mine and that it did grow out of a pretty straight laced traditional project. It’s just taking it to maybe the next level, maybe a logical next level, maybe an illogical next level. It grew out of a place that you are already doing.

How many years ago was that? I just want to get the chronology of how many year you’ve been doing that and it’s defined your program?

Tim: I think it was probably seven or eight years ago when I started. Actually, I am going to say eight years because I think the first really good drawing we got out of there was 2008.

Yeah, the cool thing about that though is not necessarily just one project itself is I guess making a name for your program or whatever. It’s more of that concept or the idea of always trying something new, always pushing those boundaries.

Again, going back to the AOE conference, I was talking about getting outside your comfort zone. When you do that, all of a sudden, being outside of your comfort zone is your new normal, and then you can continue to press on and continue to try even bigger, even weirder things I guess.

It’s not necessarily the project that defines your program, but more of the concept or the idea of always pushing those boundaries, always looking for something new, always looking for something different.

Andrew: Man! That’s really good. You and I, we’ve known each other for some time now. I didn’t know that that’s what you’re going to come up with and say. I thought you were going to list, “Okay. Here’s the five cookiest projects I do.” and ding-ding-ding-ding-ding. I think you’re right on the money. It’s not the show food in my mouth and dress up like my little pony or whatever the heck it is. It’s that overall approach to new, fresh, zany, daring, nuts that is what the kids come to look forward to and expect. That’s really interesting.

Tim: Hey, just so we’re clear. I’ve never done that lesson dressing up like my little pony.

Andrew: Well, not yet you haven’t, but you’re welcome to steal that idea. I just threw it out there.

Tim: The food in your food in your face thing. That does speak to a little bit of bigger issue because I’ve done that forever, the eating portrait. I have the palatable portrait’s lesson on the AOE page. Just kids shoving food in their face, or little kids eating spaghetti, or whatever you can come up with. It’s just a different take on a really traditional subject.

Instead of doing really boring portraits, we do portraits where we smash our face against the window or shove Doritos in our mouth, or whatever it may be. Just taking that different approach reinforces that idea that art class is something unique, something different, something fun and kids really respond to that.

Andrew: I think you’ve already talked about this, because I worry sometimes about an outsider looking in at some of these and just thinking, “What on earth are these idiots doing in here?” It’s got to be more than just simple buffoonery and silliness and pandering to students, “Hey! Come sign up for this crazy class. We do da-da-da-da-da.”

Put yourself in your student’s perspective. What do you think your students get out of having a teacher who has this approach to the big, the uncanny, the crazy projects that can define a program.

Tim: Yeah, I think the big thing they get out of it is just not being able to be comfortable. You know what I mean? We get comfortable being uncomfortable. If that makes sense.

Andrew: Oh yeah! Totally.

Tim: I think they get the idea or they understand that concept that we always need to be looking for something different. We’ve seen how many hundreds of years, thousands of years of self-portraits, “Can we do something different with those now?” There’s nothing wrong with tried and true ideas, but if you can come up with a new twist or a new way to approach that, you show your kids that there are different ways to think about things and there are different opportunities out there if you can think differently. I think that’s the approach that I want to take, and that’s the idea that I want my students to take from my class.

Andrew: You’re bringing so many good ideas. One of my biggest … The question I’m most interested to hear you talk about is one I want to save at the end as a cliffhanger, because we’re talking about these projects and I want you in a second here, not yet to speak about maybe some, if there’s unintended consequences for doing this.

One of the things I want to ask first, get back to, you said you had a student teacher and then you did this project where, honestly, you don’t know where the idea came from. Where do these ideas come from? I wonder, let’s say that there’s a teacher out there who, they’re thinking about their own personal style of how they teach. They’re thinking about big, crazy projects that define their program. Maybe they don’t have any. Where do they get those ideas from? What’s your experience with that?

Tim: Okay. I think I’m going to answer this in two parts.

Andrew: It was a rambling question. It was a five part question. Take your time.

Tim: Hey, I’m used to talking to you. That’s how you roll.

Andrew: I know.

Tim: Let me answer first how I do it and then I guess, maybe, the advice part secondly. For me, a lot of it just comes by change. I guess serendipity might be the word that I use where you’re just coming up with ideas, spitballing things, coming up with different ways to push things. You just run into ideas like that.

My Smash Faces portrait. I was just looking at Anna Mendieta’s work one day and I was, “Oh! This would be perfect for drawings.” You have these set of self-portrait photographs where she smashed her face against glass. I was, “What if we tried that for drawing?” It worked out really, really well.

A lot of times, they just come to you by chance I guess. Other times … This seems weird. With my plan period, I will just sit and think for 10 or 15 minutes. Just try and get rid of distractions and just think about, “Hey, if I were going to try this, what might be some ideas?”

Like I said, it seems weird to waste time thinking, but a lot of times I get some great ideas if I can just shut things out and just come up with some different concepts. I don’t know, I guess you can’t force it I guess. They just come to you.

As far as teachers who don’t have the signature project or want one. I would say you can’t really force it I guess. I think if you’re trying too hard, it’s not going to happen the way you want it to happen.

Whether you just start by taking other people’s ideas, which, no shame in that. I’m always happy to share ideas. I actually take ideas from other people and just put my own twist on it. Maybe that’s the place to start where you see some ideas from your PLN or wherever and see how you can take back to your classroom. How you can change them to make them work for you? That may develop into something new and something great for you. You may try it once and say, “That’s not quite it.” Eventually, you will find something.

It’s about continuing to push those boundaries, continuing to try new things. Eventually, you’ll latch on to something that really does resonate with you and with your students.

Andrew: I think I would look at it the same way. For someone who feels, “Boy, I don’t have one of those big assignments that are the big ticket. Everyone wants to go to the show and every kid wants to take my class because they know they’re going to be this project.” If you don’t have one of those, I think there’s two methods I immediately come up with and neither one of them are good. That’s on purpose.

It’s, “Okay. See what’s out there on Pinterest and on the interwebs, you’re going to find some cool projects.” If it’s not you, it’s not going to resonate. Kids are going to see that it’s not authentic. The same with stealing. You can look at something that you’ve done. I’ve stolen some ideas from you or from Ian Sands or Melissa Purtee at Apex High. It may not be yours, but then once you’ve done it once, you make it your own. There really is no quick solution. It’s try some things out and then I think, what you said, be in the moment.

Tim: Have that serendipitous moment where you are paying attention and you know it’s going to work. It’s like capturing lightning in a bottle. It’s, “All right! Here is this crazy cool idea. Not really sure where it came from, but it’s been brewing for a while. It’s been under the surface a little bit.”

Andrew: Hey, this is weird to talk all loosey-goosey, “Let’s all meditate during our prep period and these ideas will come to us.” I want to ask you a very hard question now which is what percent of your curriculum do you think you maybe scratched or changed and evolved every year based on your approach of always being comfortable with being uncomfortable? Do you have maybe a number?

Tim: Let’s go with 100%. I change this every single year. No, I don’t think it’s fair to say 100 because I do certain projects each year. The eating portraits work really well with my drawing 2 class. My seniors always do the dodge ball, Robert Longo project.

For the most part, I continually change things up just because I get bored honestly, teaching the same thing over and over again. I’m always looking for new ideas. Even when I do find something that sticks and something that I really like, then I’ll do it for a couple semesters. Maybe a couple of years even. Then I get bored with it honestly. I don’t know. I guess I’m just always on the lookout for new things. Whether that’d be a more teacher directed lesson or a different theme that I give to my kids to allow them to think about different things.

I am constantly changing things up. I realized, not every art teacher has that opportunity. Not everybody has that autonomy with their curriculum. It it something that I have the opportunity to do and I take advantage of that. I change things up quite a bit.

Andrew: That leads into my big question which is I’ve done … I would say, I’m probably at about 80%. I feel there’s always … There’s one or two project that either I really want to do, or here’s the real kicker. Maybe I’m disinterested in a project that I’ve done two years in a row, four semesters and it’s just … Maybe the juice and the energy isn’t there anymore, but I’ll have kids ask for that one, “Hey, I want to do the one that my brother did two years ago.” It’s like you got to give the people what they want. That’s my big question. Do you think there are some unintended consequences for having these rockstar projects?

Tim: Yeah, I think there are. You mentioned one of them. I’m doing batik right now. I’m doing it because kids ask for it. It’s weird because … I don’t want to have the smell of melted wax in my room for weeks. I don’t want to mix all those dyes. It’s a really cool thing for kids to do. They learn a lot. They get good results. Begrudgingly, I’m, “Yeah. All right. We’ll get that set up.”

Andrew: You know that you just turned off our entire elementary art demographic now. They’re just, “How can you not like batik Tim?” I’m going to let you fall on the sword on that one man. I love batik. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Tim: I guess the other unintended consequence is I feel a lot of pressure to continue to come up with new ideas.

Andrew: Yeah. I never thought of that one. Yeah.

Tim: Honestly, how am I going to top an underwater photo shoot? Where do yo go from there? I don’t know. I don’t think you do top that right now.

Andrew: No. You got to go full on, “Okay. Go.” and get a zero gravity plane and take your kids up in the outer space and then you retire. There’s no coming back.

Tim: Yeah. Just leave after that one. No. Like we’ve said earlier, it’s not about the particular lessons. It’s about that mindset of continuing to look for new things. Maybe we’ll find something just as good and maybe we won’t. You can still instill that culture and instill those ideas with your kids as far as pushing boundaries and being comfortable being uncomfortable and all of those things that we talked about.

Those are dependent on projects themselves. They’re dependent on a style of teaching and a style of learning. If we can foster that in our classroom, that’s really what we’re looking for.

Andrew: That ties into the thing, my big concern when you do have one or two rockstar projects per every class and kids come to expect that as a teacher, it would be really easy to rest on your laurels and say, “Oh, I got this project.” I always tell people, be weary of the laminated art project. If you think it’s so great that you laminate it. Man, you’re in trouble, because you’re not going to revamp it. You’re not going to retool it. You’re not going to be critical of it.

That’s where I’m just, “It’s great. This project did its purpose, two, three years. Kids were jazzed. Maybe it’s time to retire it. I’ve even retired a project for a year and then brought it back because it can get a little bit stale. Maybe you put it on the shelf, do something different, and new, and exciting, and then maybe you go back to that other one with the fresh set of eyes.

Tim: Yeah. That can always help as well. As long as, like I said, you have those ideas that you’re getting across to your kids, no matter the project, then you’re in good shape.

Andrew: Yeah. Hey man, I think we got this pretty well covered. I will caution our audience out there. Do not just blindly follow Tim’s lessons. I did the throw objects are your students and I let students throw objects at me, and I got beamed in the face so many times. You did not warn me about that Tim.

Tim: Those are the things you need to figure out for yourself Andrew.

Andrew: That’s right. All right man, I’ll catch you on another episode.

Tim: All right. Thank you.

Andrew: All right. Yeah, bye.

Funny how closely my ideas and thoughts line up with Tim’s. It’s almost like we’ve co-hosted a podcast together before or something.

Big takeaways are always when we line up in our thinking. Serendipity, or more accurately put, be in the moment, so that you can capitalize on a good idea when it manifests itself. Collaborate with others. Other teachers, your students, and especially those pre-service teachers out there. Those relationships are win-win-win. They’re good for you, they’re good for the pre-service teacher, and they’re good for your students.

Get out there and don’t be afraid to unleash your zany side on a big program defining art project. Dream big and don’t talk yourself down from the ledge. Don’t worry about what the powers that B might say. The worst that they can say is no. Better yet, do what I do and just go for it. It’s always easier to claim ignorance and plead for forgiveness.

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