Relationship Building

Creating a Welcoming Environment (Ep. 250)

Today, Tim welcomes the always popular Jenn Russell back to the show to talk about her upcoming presentation at the NOW Conference. Listen as they explore how to create a welcoming environment in your classroom, including discussion on student surveys, playlists, and how motivation can lead to better outcomes with students’ art.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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

As we come into a new semester, teachers everywhere are finding entirely new sets of challenges. Whether you are continuing to teach online or you’re teaching in person for the first time now, what you’ve been in person all year, you are being forced to navigate all kinds of difficult circumstances.

Jenn Russell is going to be back on the show today to discuss some of those circumstances. She’ll talk with me about how she has started her year, how she starts new semesters and above all, how she is always trying to create an environment where kids can feel comfortable. They can feel like they’re part of something. And most importantly, they feel like they can be themselves.

Honestly, that’s one of Jenn’s superpowers, creating a space where kids want to be. And I think it’s going to be really good to be able to talk to her about that. Also, in just about two and a half weeks, Jenn will be the first presenter. She’ll be kicking off the 2021 Winter NOW Conference talking about a lot of these ideas, how she creates that environment for students and how that can help them throughout the school year. And that will just be the beginning of what’s going to be a great day of professional development.

If you’re already signed up, you might’ve received your swag box in the mail, a lot of amazing supplies in there. And you may have just seen a couple days ago that we announced our feature presenter, Kevin Honeycutt. Kevin is an amazing speaker. He is a former art teacher who now does professional development and motivational speaking across the country. And can you imagine that, like an art teacher leading PD for your whole school? How incredible would that be?

But he will be at the conference on February 6th. And if that’s not enough, he will be on the podcast next week. So your job, listening to this right now, your job is twofold. First, make sure you’re signed up for the NOW Conference. If you’re not, go to the AOEU website. Check out all the info that is there and get yourself registered. And secondly, check your podcast feed next Tuesday and make sure you give a listen to Kevin Honeycutt. And what I’m sure is going to be an entertaining and an inspiring interview.

Now, just one last thought before I bring Jenn on. I think pre-pandemic, a lot of these ideas about the environment, about the situation you want in your art room, were good for kids, but also good for creating better artwork, higher quality work. Kids are motivated because they’re part of something. They want to invest themselves. They want to invest their time. They want to push each other, encourage each other, make everyone better. And that’s wonderful.

But right now that’s not the main concern for any of us. Creating an environment that kids want to be a part of is far more important right now for their social and their emotional learning. Kids are missing that connection that they have with their teacher. They are missing that connection that they have with their other students. It’s not the same and they need those connections.

And that’s something, I think, we all realize. That’s something we all know, and maybe kind of keep that in the back of your mind as we run through this interview today. But Jen is here, Jenn is ready to go. So let’s bring her on and talk about exactly how we’re going to do that. Jenn Russell is back on the show joining me again. Jen, how are you?

Jenn: Good. Thanks for having me.

Tim: Yeah, thanks for coming on once again. So I guess let’s just start by talking about the crazy year that we’ve had. First question is, did you survive the end of the first semester? And then secondly, what is the start of second semester … How are things going for you? What’s happening right now with your teaching?

Jenn: Surprisingly, I didn’t feel great going in into the year at all whatsoever. I was trying my hardest. I was like, “You know what? I’m going to do it. It’s going to be great.” And then it magically was okay. I was like, it was good. We rocked and rolled. I sent out the end of the class survey because we switched out at the semester. And so, my virtual kids were like, “This is great. Thanks so much for all your flexibility and all the things. And it was a fun class,” which was the end goal.

But it took a little bit to get into the groove of things with assignments and projects and all that stuff. But once we got rolling, it was great. Second semester, which I am … What is this, day five? Day six? Teachers had a Workday on January 6th and then the kids came back the 7th and the 8th, which was Thursday and Friday. For what, I’m not sure why we started on Thursday, I don’t know.

But it’s been a bit of a struggle, I guess, this semester. I have in-person kiddos plus the virtual class and I’m just not in teaching shape. And I think we all know what that means, like my feet are throbbing constantly. I tried to look nice because I’d been in leggings and-

Tim: I know! You have to get dressed. You have to wear real clothes.

Jenn: I have to wear pants, which was I don’t know how everyone else is doing, but my pants were a questionable fit. I don’t know where that came from. I’m just kidding. So I’m like, “Man, I have to get back in teaching shape.” I made the mistake of wearing, not even heels, just heeled shoes like platform shoes, like rubber soles. And my feet just haven’t recovered since day one, which was seven days ago. But I just think that we just have to find that groove again.

And it’s been a year since I’ve had a full load of art in person. And so, definitely, the adjustment period, I think is longer for them. And I think right now what we’re seeing is they’re not fully here yet mentally. They’re not present. They are concerned. And I have high schoolers, so they access Twitter, which is crazy because a lot of them get their news from Twitter. I’m like, “Please find credible sources.” But they are fully aware of what’s going on nationally and socially, and there’s just a lot.

So they’re not fully present yet. And I’m not going to lie, I’m not either. And so, we’re doing that together and we’re trying to figure out how do we dive back into art. So our adjustment period has been a little bit longer this time around for this semester.

Tim: Yeah, for sure. And that actually brings me to the next thing I wanted to ask you about is, just sort of creating the environment that you want at not even the beginning of the semester, Just any point with your kids. I know you’re going to talk about this at the winter conference here in a couple of weeks. But I guess the question for you is, how do you set up the environment that you want? Why do you think it’s important to create a welcoming environment? And how does setting up that environment help your students?

Jenn: Well, so part of what I love about and when I try … And I know, you guys, if you’re constant podcast listeners, or have done the webinars, or anything that you … Thank you for listening to me, by the way. I feel like I say the same thing constantly. But I feel art in art room should be the catch-all dish. If you know what that is, it’s just where you throw everything in. And it’s like all the little knickknacks and things that don’t have a home go in the catch-all dish.

Your keys are important, but also I lost an earring, so the other one is going to go in the catch-all dish. I don’t know where to put it, but it belongs somewhere. Your art room should be a place where all of the kids belong and they might not have any other place except for your room. And I, if anything … Look, content this year is not priority.

My priority is for my kids to have a place to hide if they need to hide, to just breathe if they need to breathe to be just to be. And so, if they make cool art, awesome. I’m not really trying to grill them on technique, but part of building that welcoming environment and that catch-all dish is you have to be accepting of all of your kids.

And for me, it starts with like attendance and them getting into the room. And the first thing that I do or try to do, because again, the adjustment period was a little rough this semester, but I send them a survey and it’s just like an About You survey. And it literally is like, tell me about yourself. And I do first and last name. And then I do preferred name right after your first name or I do last name, first name and then preferred name.

And the reason I will not take attendance, I do not call out attendance anymore.

Tim: So not out loud at all?

Jenn: No, I do not do attendance out loud anymore. And this is also a cute little side effect of me not having in-person for a year, where I constantly have to clear my throat now because I’m talking so much more.

Tim: I know I was hearing that in your voice or it’s like, I feel bad for you. It’s very scratchy.

Jenn: It’s a cute side effect. It’s awesome. I promise I am not ill of any sort. It’s a cool fun time. But yeah, I will not take attendance out loud anymore. If we do mobile attendance, it shows you the student’s picture. And I just go from that, and I wait until my survey comes back in, in full because this just happens to me. And it happens to me a lot, but it just happened in my class.

I have a trans student and sometimes my trans students will be like, “I’m trans, I need to do this.” And they’ll be great advocates for themselves, but sometimes they’re not out yet. And they’re entrusting you with their life literally. And so I had a student and he said, he put in his dead name and then his preferred name. And I also asked for pronouns because I need to know how to address my students.

And he had already written his dead name on his paper, because he just assumed. And I said, and I saw the survey like in class, once I get it back, I read it in class live as it comes in so that I know and that I’m aware. And I saw it, and I saw that it was different from the name that he had written on his paper. And I said, “Hey, you need to change that. That’s not your name.” And he was like, “What?” And I was like, “You need to change it. That’s not your name.”

And he said, “No one has ever let me do that.” And I was like, “What do you mean no one has ever let you do that?” And also if you can’t hear me or whatever, I’m pretty loud, which is sometimes detrimental to myself. But I was like, “What do you mean no one has let you do that?” And he’s like, “Well, no one’s ever asked me my preferred name or my pronouns or anything about myself. I just sit in class.” I’m like, “What?”

I just couldn’t understand, and I had to take a second and go to my snack closet, which is actually my storage closet, but I eat snacks in there. So I call it my snack closet. And just like, because it just broke my heart. It made me cry in class, which is tough to do because I pride myself on not having a lot of feelings, but I have all the feelings. I’m an eight on the Enneagram if you know that. So I say that I have no feelings, but I have all the feelings inside.

And it just broke my heart that no one had ever let him be himself. And I said, “Well, welcome to 11-10. You are now who you want to be. And then that’s it. There’s no more of this you pretending you have to be this person or calling you your dead name. That’s hurtful to you. I’m not doing it.” And he was like, “No one’s ever let me do that.”

And this kid is 16. He’s a sophomore. And granted we’re on a main campus, which means that we have sophomores and above, but what if he had been a senior and this had been his whole entire life, and no one had ever asked him who he is. That blows my mind to me. And so that’s a big thing coming into my classroom. I want to know you. And then in turn, you have to know me. So I let my kids grill me for the first day of class. We don’t do anything except we sit there.

And I get interesting questions and I’m like, I reserve the right to not answer ridiculous questions, but also three questions, three strikes and we’re out. So I get random questions. Like what is the most uncommon food combination that you eat? And that struck up a whole conversation in a class. Then they talk to each other and we just get in this whole conversation. I constantly have to defend ranch. I don’t know if it’s like a southern thing.

Tim: No, no. I think your kids are … Well, I’m not ranch fan. I don’t like condiments, which is a whole another discussion. But my wife is such a huge ranch fan and a lot of my friends just love ranch so much. So I think in the majority, your kids are probably wrong on that. I think you’re on the right track with ranch.

Jenn: I know. I know I am. I have to defend to my children though. I’m like, “You guys.” And then that starts a whole thing. And then they have a little inside joke with me for forever now? And they’re like, “Well, Russ over here eats like hot Cheetos and ranch.” And I’m like, “Oh, my God. Okay. Yes, I do do that.” But now we have this banter going back and forth. It lets them know that I too, like them, am a weirdo apparently. Ranch does not made me weird, you all, just PS aside.

But it just creates just this, you are on their level. You are not on a pedestal. And especially right now, and I can’t even say this year anymore because I don’t know how long we’re in this for. I have to let that go. I have to let the idea of “it’s just for this year” go because right now it’s not looking like that.

And so once you’ve been in 11-10, you are now part of the club. You’re part of this group, this gang, a squad, whatever you call it, however you want to call it. But they will forever know you. And I always tell my kids, I’m like, “You can now come to me with whatever you want. I am now here, you have a home beacon.” And it just starts with the survey and then them grilling with some interesting questions. But that’s day one for me.

So that is really how, and I just think it’s just the utmost of importance. And it doesn’t cost anything. It’s time. And it’s just a Google form for me that I sent them virtually because I can’t take in any and they can’t turn in anything to me anymore. So, they just scan a QR code. I throw it up on the board, on the screen and then I’m like, “Hey, do the QR code, fill out the Google form, the survey.” And I’m watching it come in live. And that was just so shocking to me that I was like, “Oh, my gosh, your papers has a different name.” And he was like, “Yeah, well, that’s just …”

And I’m like, “No, it’s not just.” And so that sets up a good precedence for your class. And they’re super quiet. But he can now feel comfortable in my class. And I think that that’s the most importance.

Tim: Yeah, I agree. And I think just being approachable, being available, just being real is such a big thing to help connect with your kids. So you mentioned ideas that may last beyond this year, and I wanted to chat a little bit about that, especially since you did the entire first semester virtually. What kinds of things worked for you when you were teaching virtually? Maybe they’ll come with you, maybe they won’t in the future. But just for people who are still teaching online, still teaching virtually, what advice do you have for them? What kinds of things would you tell them worked for you?

Jenn: Right. And I’m basing this solely off of the responses that I got back from my … And of course, survey. Our district, we do have like a learning platform and then there’s … So they purchase an entire curriculum thing and then we still have Canvas. And so we’re on Canvas and some people are on Google Classroom. We used to be on Google classroom. Then we swapped over to Canvas, which I was really grumpy about. And then I got forced to be on Canvas because the world blew up and now I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, Canvas,” magical, right? So I am full send, all in Canvas now.

And so whatever your learning module is, just use it. I mean, we have no option. But I have to use it. But some people use Zoom. We use WebEx and there’s, “Okay, I’m going to date myself,” but I don’t really care. There’s like an IM, what I’m going to call instant message feature, very reminiscent to AIM and AOL. I know people will draw boundaries and you do you boo, you boundary wherever you want to boundary. But for me, it’s important that if they have a question that they can answer it. And so we just have a class chat and they just throw their questions in the class chat.

There’s a feature where you can make announcements only, so only the teacher can type. I don’t have that on. Some teachers do, I don’t because I’m like, if another student can answer their question, then-

Tim: That saves you time.

Jenn: Right. I’m like that’s part of the goal. They should be helping each other out. They can also … I encourage them to post their progress of their posters in there, or their projects. And so they’re constantly critiquing each other nonstop, but it’s never like, “That sucks. It’s ugly.” It’s always like, “That’s awesome. Keep going. You can do it,” do all the things.

And so, yeah, so that has been, if your communication system does that, that is awesome. But for me project-wise, what has worked the best is 100% choice. So we got together, secondary teachers in our district, that were teaching like subjects. And we got to write a few of the courses that were going to go on Canvas. And the first nine weeks normally in-person, and I try to keep it as close as possible but then I realized that it’s not. I can’t keep doing that.

But the first few weeks, I tried to do what I normally do in class, which is like, “Okay, we’re going to go through the elements of art and principles of design. And we’re going to do drill and kill. And we’re going to do value scales and all the things and look at the still life.” And it just like almost killed my kids. They were like, “I hate this class.” And I was like, “Ah, no, that’s not what I want.”

And so, I let it go pretty quickly because I was like, “This is boring.” It’s boring for me to grade and look at, and if it’s boring for me, then I know it’s boring you. And so, I just started doing projects that I would do towards the end once they had all the skills. I just trusted that they could do it. And I said, “Here are your two options of two projects. You can do A or B.” And it was like giving them a menu and I would just get a grab bag of stuff. But I’m like, “If they’re creating, okay, great.”

So choice in projects for me was the savior of my class. And so for virtual, especially because sometimes you think a project is great, but it’s not great for all of your kids. It’s only great for like the 10 that can do it. I don’t know about anybody else, but like my virtual classes were pushing like 55, 60. My virtual class right now has 65.

Tim: Oh, my god.

Jenn: I know it’s a whole thing. It’s fine. I’m smiling and nodding, I’m going to do what I do, right? And so, whatever floats your boat, whatever makes you happiest at this point, whatever you feel most comfortable with that you can do within these two choices, then do it. I don’t care what you pick. You do you, and they’re more likely to do it. And what I got was so much better than if I had walked them through the project themselves.

So I would teach on Mondays and then Wednesdays, I would be live to answer questions and so that they can show me what they were doing if they needed to. And then their projects were due on Friday. And I would leave them open until the following Sunday. So they could still turn it in late, but they could still turn it in because late to me has never been a thing in my classroom anyway. So I’m like, I don’t know what on time is. I personally don’t know what on time is, so-

Tim: I was going to say if I can’t be on time myself, I don’t know why I’m expecting my students to do it.

Jenn: Right. And so, there are things that we have to learn to let go, and that was just one of them. I’m like on time, I had to let go, not that I was super stringent on it before. But giving them a choice menu was the best thing that I could have done. And I did that like week four or five onward and it worked for my 18-week class. And they all wrote that too. They were like, we loved that we got to pick my projects because sometimes, I didn’t like doing the value scales and drawing the cups and the fruit. And I was like, “I know.”

Tim: Nobody likes that.

Jenn: Yeah. So choice was the savior for my class.

Tim: Let me ask you this then, is that something that you’re going to take forward, now that you’re in person again? Are you still going to offer those choices? Are you trying to go back to what you had before? Or are you kind of adapting and moving along just how things come up, how they go? What’s your approach to things now that you’re back in person?

Jenn: I took it. I took it directly from my virtual class and I am … So the first day, we just all got to know each other and just kind of hang out and talk because again, we came back on Thursday. Again, I don’t know what the jam was there, but I was like, “Okay.” classroom procedures is only going to get me like five minutes like, “Hey, classroom procedures, you can’t leave your desk because we’re in a pandemic.” So don’t go get them. Don’t touch anything because we’re in a pandemic. I’m so glad we went through classroom procedures.

But, yeah, so I took it from my virtual class and I said, “This is what Drawing 3 did virtually.” I’m like, “I would love to hear what you guys want to do in class. Let’s build our own list of projects.” And so, now we have a project bank and we’re going through it. We’re just like, “Okay, what do we want to do this week?” And I let the class pick what they want to do that week. And they can do whatever they want within that scope of … Like this week, they’re doing a massive project. And then next week, they’re going to do a 9 x 9 because we have to do a gallery show. And it’s like a 10 x 10 [inaudible 00:25:02].

But what they put on that paper is up to them and it’s always going to be up to them in my class. And it was to an extent before, but now I’m like, “You all have free reign. I just need to be here to make sure that we are all alive and okay, and you do not get out of your seat and touch other people and sneeze on people,” and all the things. But I’m like, “I want you to go back to the days where you used to get a blank sheet of paper in elementary school and grab the box of crayons and go for it,” because it’s always sad when I give them a blank sheet paper and they’re like-

Tim: I don’t know what to do. What do you want me to do?

Jenn: What do you want me to do? No, no. What do you want to do? I know but like what’s going to get me a good grade? That stresses me out.

So yeah, we’re moving forward and there’s a list on my board. There’s a little heart. The heart is what I donated to the list because I want to do a Valentine’s Day project. I don’t know what it is yet, but if anything, I love themes and I love holidays. In this Valentine’s Day holiday, I don’t know. It’s random, but we’re going to do all the things and celebrate all the things in my class because it’s going to make us happier.

Tim: Can I just interrupt you really quickly because I like to share my Valentine’s Day idea because you always have kids who are way into Valentine’s Day and then you always have kids who could not care less or more like actively despise it. And so I went with the polarization thing and I was just like, “Okay, we have a Valentine’s Day sketchbook assignment and you can either do the most romantic Valentine that you can think of or you can do the scariest Valentine that you can think of.” And so all the kids that really hated Valentine’s Day can do these like creepy, weird, like horror-themed ones. And they really seemed to respond to that.

Jenn: I love that. Last year, we’ve done take what you need, give what you can. And art just did a bunch of little Valentines and we put them on a bulletin board out in the hallway and people like loved it and took it. But again, pandemic, and so what a problem. But then another year, I had them draw a heart however they wanted to. I was like, “Why does the symbol of a heart look like that?” And I’m like, “What if you were to give your heart to somebody? What would it look like?” And so my super gory kids, they would just go through this gory, bleeding heart. And I was like, “That, I want that. That is what I want.”

So, I love that. I’m going to write that down, best and worst Valentine. Yeah, I definitely love that. But I love that they get to have choice and they get to have ownership of their stuff. So that’s what I’m-

Tim: I got you. Before we actually go, I wanted to just ask you to share one more time, idea you’ve talked about before, I think in the webinar with the Spotify playlist. Are you still doing the playlist? And can you explain to people kind of how that works and why it’s so good for your classroom?

Jenn: So again, part of my survey, I’m very intrusive in these questions, you all. It’s important. So I always ask, last name, first name, preferred name, pronouns, a little fun fact about themselves. And I always tell them that my native language is Spanish. So just in case I have Spanish speakers who try to like say things to my class, I’m like, “Ah, I know what you’re saying. Don’t say that about other people or me.”

And then the last question is like, “Hey, if you could listen to three songs forever, what would they be?” And I had to up it to three songs because our in-person cap is a lot smaller. So I used to have like 32, 33 kids in a class. Now, I’m down to like 20. And so I need to fill an hour and a half’s worth of music. So three songs that you could listen to forever, your top three favorite songs of all time forever. No other music exists except for these three songs, because I always get like, “Okay, like top three per genre or like …” I’m like, “No top three, forever, period, end of story.”

And so what I do is then I build a playlist on Spotify. And on Spotify, if you’ve never used it or if you’re just like, “I just like the playlist that they have.” But you can build your own playlist and then you can hide it or you can make it public. And so I hide my personal ones because there’s just like random ones, like Trap Nation or whatever. When I run, the few times when I run or when I work out, I like to have some hardcore stuff playing. And then I make a playlist. I’m like, “Okay, this is fourth period Drawing 3, Spring Semester ’21.” And then I send them the link and then I play it in class.

And so that is what I play. And then I’ll add my own on there too. And so everyone is represented musically because while Jen Russell is not into like country other than like the seven songs she knows, some of my kids are. But I don’t want to exclude them just because I don’t like it or because I didn’t grow up with it or just because like I’m a die-hard Selena forever fan, not Selena Gomez. You heard me, Selena, just Selena.

Tim: The real Selena, yes.

Jenn: The real Selena, doesn’t mean that all my kids want to listen to it forever or alt-J forever or Muse forever. They don’t want to listen to only what I like.

And it stops me from the question like, “Hey, can I get aux?” “No, you can’t get aux. I brought aux up on your phone. That’s weird. Do not ask me again for aux. I hate it. I hate the word aux.” Anyway. So, it just creates kind of like a squad playlist and then they can choose to add it to their playlist or not, but they have the link to it. And it’s also my Bitmoji Classroom under a little speaker. When they click on a speaker, it takes them to my Spotify and they can also listen to other classrooms, jams and playlist. And I also let them name the playlist.

Sometimes it’s like my … Yey, we love that sound. Someone just sent a message in my WebEx chat, by the way, if you’re wondering what that was.

My AP named it Hippy Dippy. And I was like, “Okay. Wow, you’re there. Okay, cool.” And one of my kids was like, “Well, where are your AP?” And look at everybody, we all look different. We’re just like vibing here. I was like, “Okay, you all. Go ahead. Sure.” And I’m just like no profanity. And just to make sure that it’s clean, and that they get to have themselves represented musically in my class and then we play it in class. And obviously when it’s seasonal, we play seasonal things like Halloween jams and whatever.

Tim: The important stuff.

Jenn: Right. Yeah. So I definitely just like for them to be represented as much as possible in my class and feel included.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s really cool. All right. Well Jen, thank you so much for the fun conversation. It’s always good to talk to you. And we’ll look forward to seeing you at the conference in a couple of weeks.

Jenn: Yeah, I’m so excited!

Tim: Now, a lot of those ideas that Jen mentioned, it’s not too late to get those things started. Even if you’re a couple of weeks into your semester, those are still worthwhile activities. You can still talk to your kids about their interests, about their activities, about the songs they love to listen to, or whatever topic seems most relevant to you in whatever way you think you can make any connection with your students. You can still let them ask you questions and let them get to know you a little bit better.

Now, of course, that comes with the caveat that you do that to the level with which you’re comfortable. As Jen said, you do you. Not everyone wants to share that much about themselves and that’s fine. But I would encourage you to find some way to connect with your students, some way to let them open up and express themselves, to feel comfortable, to want to be a part of the art room community that you are creating.

But we can talk more about this in about two and a half weeks at the NOW Conference. I am really looking forward to hearing from Jenn again. And I’m hoping we will see you there on February 6th.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening. And we will be back with Kevin Honeycutt next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.