Relationship Building

Dealing with Unkind and Unimaginative Students (Ep. 092)

Stubborn kids can be difficult, and far too often they fall into the mindset where their first idea is their only idea. Andrew is always looking for new ideas to get past this mindset, and today he goes to former AOE writer Melissa Purtee for advice. Melissa talks about her experiences and the differences she sees between teaching elementary and secondary (4:45), what happens in your room when kids start to “get it” (9:00), and how to get kids past their fears and coming into art with an open mind (13:30). Full episode transcript below.


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

A few weeks ago Tim and I did an episode about finding our biases as teachers, and one of the things that I mentioned was that I struggle to connect and work with students that are simply unmotivated, unwilling to try anything and just really have a bad outlook. Now, this is a behavior thing, and we can chip away at this, but it did get me thinking about another type of student who we as art teachers can struggle with.

This isn’t the apathetic student or the unmotivated student. It’s similar, that’s a similar type of student that I’m thinking of, but it is a little bit different, and that is the unimaginative students, students that can’t seem to ever think of anything to do, they can never come up with ideas, or maybe they just always seem to settle on the most basic, simple, obvious idea that they came up with.

We all know these students, “Can’t you just tell me exactly what you want me to do? And tell me, preferably, so that I can get an A, that’s what I want.” Those students can be really frustrating, so I thought about teachers out there who can eloquently talk to how they deal with students who don’t seem to have an imaginative fiber in their body. Or, put it another way, it was probably drummed out of them by education at some point, so who are teachers that can speak to how we rekindle that imaginative spirit in our students, and I instantly thought of Melissa Purtee.

When I think of motivating and reaching an uninspired or unimaginative student, I know that choice-based approach is probably a no-brainer. It just makes sense. Open it up, find some of your students’ interests and passion, and if they don’t have any, think about ways to reignite and cultivate that lust for life, that creativity. When I think about people out there killing it in the choice-based art education world, Melissa and her partner in crime, Ian Sands, are at the forefront.

Not sure if you knew this, but they recently wrote a book, The Open Art Room, by Davis Publications. It’s a great book to add to your arsenal of choice. There’s tons of practical tips and really big-picture ideas to get your students out of their unimaginative rut that they might be in.

While you’re heading online to check out Melissa and Ian’s book, make sure you head on over to and check out AOE’s course, Choice-Based Art Education. It’s a three-credit course, and it begins at the first of every month. It is chock full of resources, ideas, strategies, and you get to learn alongside other inspiring art teachers and AOE instructors. Head on over to and check out this course and all the other great classes under the courses tab.

Let’s get Melissa on here to see if she can help me make some progress with some of the unimaginative and creatively timid students that I have.

Hey, Melissa. Thanks for coming on to chat.

Melissa: Great to be here, Andrew.

Andrew: Tim and I had kind of a weird conversation a few weeks ago about biases, and I can’t let that one go. We talked about certain kids that were alb tougher to teach, maybe some kids that we struggle to reach because of our own hangups and issues. I actually wanted to give you a shout out and set the stage here a little bit.

This idea actually started last summer when I was chatting with you at some point, and I was telling this story about I once had a student call me out on my own biases towards science fiction and fantasy with a lot of the projects and ideas that I do, and she said, “I just don’t like science fiction and fantasy.” I was blown away by that. I said jokingly in this story, I’m like, “I’m kind of biased against kids that don’t have any room in their hearts for fantasy and science fiction and make believe and imagination.”

You chimed in, and you were being pretty serious because I was kind of joking. You said that unimaginative students can be a real challenge to teach, and it made me pause a little bit. I wanted to invite you on, and I wanted you to describe to me a student that you think fits this mold, someone that’s not very imaginative, and how do they look in your classroom or a typical classroom?

Melissa: For me, for about half a year it kind of felt like all my students. I started out teaching in elementary school, and I had a choice-based tab, teaching for artistic behavior program, up and running for three years. That was amazing. It was a joy to go to work every day. I decided to take a job at the high school, and I really thought it would be like my elementary classroom but better, like the kids would come in and they’d be like, “Hello, Mrs. Purtee. I have this amazing idea. Thank you for facilitating the space for me to make it.” I really thought that it was going to be like that.

Teaching high school was a pretty rude awakening for me. The imagination and the soul of my classroom was gone. So when you said that, it really resonated with me. It was hard. It took me a while to figure out how to tap in to the imagination that high schoolers still have but I feel like have suppressed.

Andrew: That’s really interesting. I didn’t know at the time that this kind of was right around the time when you moved from elementary to high school. Do you think that some of that is just the nature of secondary students coming up through the system, K-12, without an art education program that feeds and keeps alive that imagination?

Melissa: No. I think most of these kids had had … They don’t have art consecutively. I’m sure that that would help, but I think it’s a product of our testing culture in our public school systems. Kids are taught to quickly identify the right answer and bubble it in on a scan trend sheet to pass the test with the right grade. That’s kind of our mentality.

Teachers have to, and certainly in the general education classroom, have to do some teaching to the test, and a lot of that is telling kids what the correct answer is. I feel like there’s a lack of comfort in exploring in older students that I found just really shockingly different than elementary kids.

Andrew: I don’t know how I want you to answer this next one, because you could make me feel really great or really bad, but if you make me feel really great then maybe I’m actually still kind of sad. Did you fix it right away or did it take, I mean, a really long time? If fixed it right away, then I’m going to feel horrible that I haven’t been able to do that. I hope you do because I like you a lot.

Melissa: It took me a while, and I think I’m still working at it. I hope I always continue to work at it and get better because kids evolve and change and so does teaching, but I figured out some stuff that works pretty well for my high school students.

In terms of being unimaginative, I feel like a lot of it is fear of now knowing what to do and a lack of comfort with ambiguity. A lot of what I do in my classroom is teach them how to make decisions, and I use something called an artistic thinking process, and it’s based on the design process. I start with the inspiration stage and introduce them to different ideas.

Eventually I’d like them to come up with their own, but I start out by giving them those, and then I teach them how to develop those ideas in a number of different ways, by maybe researching or sketching or just doing some listing, finding resource images, doing different things to develop their ideas with the goal of being ready to make something, and then making their work and reflecting on it. What I’ve found is that teaching students different techniques, especially for developing ideas, really supports creativity, so instead of feeling lost, they have a plan.

Andrew: That’s really interesting. That’s really a great process to build that. When you first dove in and you had all these kids, and I’ve had that moment where it’s like, “Whoa, this is a real rude awakening or disconnect,” did some kids take to it right away and some have just taken a lot longer? Or, did they move en masse, like they all slowly started to get it? Or, did you have some that were like, “Oh, I’ve been waiting for this. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity to be expressive and creative and imaginative, and I just never had been given the license to do that yet.”

Melissa: You definitely, I feel like, always as a teacher have kids that are really natural art kids that draw on their own and are deeply passionate about it, and those kids, I think, are going to be fine regardless, often. Once the idea of the artistic thinking process was up and running and introduced slowly, it’s gone pretty well for the most part.

Actually, this year, though, I’ve had some students who have been kind of reluctant, and I had to go back to the drawing board a little bit. What I realized was that it was a little bit too much information the way I was breaking it down for them, and I ended up making a planning sheet for them to have at their table that they could circle each of the stages of the artistic thinking process that they were using, and that really helped support them. Then me, I conference with all my kids daily. That made a big difference.

Andrew: I’m really intrigued by conferencing with your students every day. Can you talk about what that looks like? The speed it takes, how much time you give each student? I try to do that, and I think I really fail with it. I feel like for me, because I’m still a little bit more traditional and less choice, I have a list at the beginning of every class period, like, “Okay, I want to talk to these eight kids because they’re really struggling.”

Oftentimes, I wish I could change this, but oftentimes what’s struggling is an inability to turn stuff in, like, “Holy cow, you’ve just really not been accountable over the last four weeks and I haven’t seen much from you. What’s going on?” And of those eight kids that I want to talk to, I maybe get to like four because there’s unscripted or unplanned things that pop up. How do you get to all those kids that quickly who need that help?

Melissa: My classroom is pretty highly student directed, and kids are normally working with some type of theme or challenge or big idea, but they pick the media to use. If you have a kid doing photography, and another kid doing painting, and another kid making something out of cardboard, they’re all going to take different lengths of time.

In a more traditional classroom, I don’t have that like, “Today’s the day that we’re all moving on to the next stage,” kind of thing. I feel like there are lots of busy parts where everyone’s maybe cleaning up at the same time or getting the same sort of supplies or needing the same thing at the same time and, am I kinda right there? That doesn’t happen as much or really at all in my classroom. It’s a lot more of people are just doing their own thing. They aren’t all needing … there aren’t really busy times where everyone needs the same thing.

On most days, it just works, and there’s some kids that I can talk to or just check in with really quickly and say, “Oh, I see that you’re continuing with the drawing you told me about yesterday. Do you have any questions for me?” There are other kids that might need a longer time to talk with me, but I also have 90 minute classes, which helps.

Andrew: Last year I taught more traditional classes, like drawing, paintings, ceramics, but it was all just called ninth grade art and then eighth grade art, but we did everything. We had some blocked days. We were experimenting, and I loved block scheduling, and now I’m doing exclusively digital stuff, and I actually find that a block schedule for digital, it’s a bit much. My students are like, “I have brain drain and eye strain.” They get a little squirrel-y at the end. That’s my own bag of stuff I need to work on.

I want to circle back to something I thought you said was really interesting about how fear is kind of the underlying cause of this, because I think that’s a really interesting and great point for people to hear, is that no one probably wakes up in the morning and is like, “I want to be really closed-minded today. I’m going to choose that as a mindset.” Do you think fear is the main thing, or is it safety, or do we even start to get into stubbornness? Where does that play into it?

I have some students who … I wouldn’t say they’re afraid, but it’s more like they’re un-coachable and they don’t want to have any sort of feedback, and I find that that sort of stubborn and un-coachable also feeds into the, “First idea’s the best idea. I’m going to just muster through it and not be reflective,” sort of outlook. Can you maybe talk about that a little bit?

Melissa: When I say fear, probably more specifically it’s kind of like discomfort with ambiguity, because oftentimes, kids are trying to figure out what the teacher wants, and instead, I want my kids to figure out what they want and help them do it. That’s really different for them, so there’s that. But then you also have, I feel like, students who fall into a couple of different categories. One is stuck, they don’t know what to do.

Andrew: I feel like I deal with fewer students that are stuck and more students who are just like, “I don’t want to put in all of thought in work that you want me to, Mr. or Mrs. Teacher Man or Woman. I got this idea. It’s simple, it’s easy, and I’m going to get it done.” That’s not really stuck, but it’s kind of like going through the world with blinders on and also headphones in and just not receptive to any feedback.

I’m kind of going off on a tangent here, but I actually think being open and receptive to feedback is a huge part of the creative process. I know that I have some students that that is tough for them because they see feedback as, “I’m doing it wrong. I’m doing it horribly. I’m going to get a bad grade.” That’s the beginning and end of the conversation. I don’t know if maybe that was another idea or another thing that you see in your students.

Melissa: Yeah, definitely occasionally. I had a student this year who really pops out in my head, I have him this year, who wouldn’t talk to me when I asked him questions or give him feedback. I feel like that’s always sort of a call for help in kids or a big warning sign, like something else is going on besides whatever’s happening in my class.

I, over time by talking to him and asking him questions every day and just being nice and saying hi to him, developed a relationships with him, after building some trust got him to the point where he is more receptive of my feedback. He was making some artwork to show an optical illusion, and he had it. It was an anamorphic illusion. It had to be folded to look like a ladder, a piece of paper. He had reversed where the rungs would be in the image. It was like, he had been working on it and struggling, it was like 95% of the way there. I said, “Hey, it looks really good, but I noticed something. Can I tell you?” He just shut down.

The next class I talked to him and showed him a photo I’d taken of it and was able to point it out, and he was receptive. But in getting to know him better, he’s been sleeping on the floor of a room in his house since he moved in the summer, I realized this week. He’s exhausted and doesn’t have a bed. I feel like a lot of times when kids aren’t receptive to things, they might have some other big thing going on in their life.

Andrew: Yeah, I agree with that. Like I said, no one wakes up in the morning saying, “I want to be closed-minded today.” No one wakes up and says, “I want to be stubborn today,” or, “I want to be defiant today.” Especially, I think, with young people, with teenagers or elementary kids, they haven’t had enough experiences and trials and tribulations to know how to deal with things, so when things do come up and things are tough, it’s crisis mode for a lot of our kids.

The funny thing is, as teachers, we see this stuff happen, and then we hear about these underlying causes. It’s like to pause a little bit and think, “Gosh, could I be making artwork now? Could I be receptive to a stranger giving me feedback if I had all of these other circumstances going on?” I think for most of us, it would be hard for us, too. Yeah, I do think that there’s probably any number of underlying reasons why students aren’t being imaginative or communicative or receptive to feedback.

One of the things I think about with an art class and where I think we’ve got some space and some leeway to engage those unimaginative students, and maybe you can, Melissa, talk about some other strategies past the design thinking thing, which I think is awesome, is art class is a class where you do have a ton of license to be creative. I would say most students want to be there, so there is leeway for that.

We’ve got to make them feel free and entitled to do that, so is it just a matter that it takes time? No one would choose to take a class and then completely not be engaged with it, right? We’ve got to just figure out the secret buttons and the code. Is it just time, or what else can we do to make that intentional and get those kids over the hump a little bit?

Melissa: One thing that I really find works is open-ended themes that kids can insert their own passions and interests in. I feel like that can make a big difference, and then really diverse examples of how contemporary artists interpret those themes. One that I really like is personal symbols, how artists work symbolically, which can be taken in so many different directions.

Also, I’ve done work around the theme of current events or social commentary, which I find really resonates with my teenagers, and the theme of identity. Things like that that are really open-ended and about things that teenagers are going through and processing anyway I feel like help them be engaged and think creatively, especially when you give them lots of examples of diverse ways to interpret those themes.

Andrew: Yeah, I really like that idea, giving them contemporary artwork and then also just a lot of diverse ways. I know it sounds a little silly, but whether you’re working with elementary kids or secondary kids, they need to hear it and they need to believe it that there really is no wrong way to make art. To art teachers, that’s kind of like, “Can’t we just assume that our students know that?” I don’t know if we can assume that they know that.

Melissa: No, I don’t think we can.

Andrew: I think it’s awesome to make that very deliberate and intentional and just keep showing them as many different ways as you can that that’s the case.

Melissa, thank you so much for coming on. I really appreciate it. It’s kind of a difficult subject to talk about because some of those kids, they require all the tips and tricks that we have at our repertoire to work with them, so I appreciate it.

Melissa: Good to talk to you.

Andrew: All right, thanks, Melissa. Bye.

Melissa: Bye.

Andrew: As I was chatting with Melissa, it hit me. It shouldn’t have. I should know this by now. We can’t assume that all students know how to think creatively. We can’t assume that all students want to think and work outside the box. This skill and this drive for some students has to be taught. It has to be modeled, ramped up, revisited. We have to make it intentional for these students.

I’ve been having this realization or thought run through my head a lot this year as we’re nearing halfway through. No one wants to do badly at anything. We all have to assume everyone’s best intentions, best intent. My students don’t wake up in the morning and think, “I want to be really uninspired and uninspiring today.” There’s a reason why they’re not giving me and us as much in the way of creative output. Our job as teachers is to try to figure out the right code and the right supports to get those students back on track and thinking creatively.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by The Art of Education, with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. I just realized you all only have a few more days to head on over to to get some awesome early-bird pricing for the upcoming winter 2018 Art Ed Now Conference. If you hustle up and register by November 26th, you can save some dough, and everybody loves that. Every year, the folks at AOE find a way to top themselves with their awesome conferences. I don’t know how they do it, but they keep finding a way.

For folks who have hit up the conferences before, you know what I’m talking about. For new folks, you’ve got to check this out. It is ridiculously relevant art education PD from the comfort of your own home, from your own PJs. You get this awesome content, videos, handouts, any time you want it for a full year after the conference, which is awesome. I could go on and on about the merits of this great conference, its eight PD credits, the swag box. If you haven’t attended one of these Art Ed Now conferences, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

I know a lot of us are heading into a little Thanksgiving break here, and if you’re listening to this on the day it comes out, enjoy it. You’ve earned it. Recharge, rejuvenate, sleep in a little bit, eat a bunch of pie, and remember, the job that you guys are doing is critically important. Instilling creativity and a passion for the arts, it’s such an important job. I don’t mean to be too cheesy here, but I’m incredibly thankful that I found a job that I love and a job that gives me purpose. I’m thankful to all you amazing folks out there for listening to this podcast and for doing this amazing work that is art teaching.

As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio are released every Tuesday, and additional content can be found under the podcast tab on All right, thanks for listening.



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.