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What exactly can you get away with in your art room? Tim and Andrew dish about the dangerous things they’ve done in their classroom, and why taking risks can lead to better learning and even more artistic results. The guys discuss safety, supervision, and the importance of pre-teaching when you use some of the more dangerous materials (7:45). They also address when to take risks and when to play it safe (12:00), as well as balancing the benefits of dangerous artworks vs. the drawbacks that come with risk-taking (14:00). Full episode transcript below.
Welcome to Art Ed Radio. The podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.
One of my all time favorite quotes is from Andy Warhol who said,”Art is what you can get away with.” For our kids that is true a lot of the time, they love that feeling of getting away with something or doing something they aren’t suppose to be doing and that’s why they love it when they work with clay or when you go outside to draw or when you do print making or when you’re sculpting using strange materials. They love it all just because it is so so different from what they do during their normal school day. Art let’s them think that they’re actually getting away with something. A lot of times the most exciting and most intriguing of those experiences come when there’s little bit of an element of danger involved. When the teacher feels like they’re getting away with something. When I was teaching I was always trying to push the limits of what we were doing, both conceptually with the ideas of our projects, but also in the process and the day to day work of art making.
For me it started when I was looking for something to push our figure drawing to the next level. I was looking at an artist named Robert Longo and he’s famous for these huge charcoal or graphite realistic drawings called ‘Men in the Cities’, and it’s these people dressed up, both men and women, in formal wear in these really awkward poses. So I started to think of how we could do that and just researching him a little bit more and I ran across this interview where Robert Longo talked about how he would get his figure drawing models in front of him and then he would just start throwing stuff at them. Just start chucking, literally baseballs and things like that, at them. So I had the brilliant idea of, oh hey I need to start throwing stuff at my students. I was like, okay let’s give this a try. I was a little scared, I was a little nervous because it was kind of dangerous but kids were super excited about it.
We go outside and we just start chucking things at people and as we’re trying to dodge that then we’re taking pictures of them to use in our figure drawings. Lo and behold if the first time I try this, my principal doesn’t drive by to see us throwing things and me just throwing nerve balls right at my students. So I’m just thinking, oh man I am gonna get fired, but luckily he was pretty supportive. I was able to explain what we were doing and I was able to get away with something dangerous and from there we got some great drawings. The kids loved doing this, they came up with some great results and me taking that risk, me doing something dangerous led to some really really interesting stuff and it worked out really really well for me. I’m just gonna tell you, don’t be afraid to step into something that’s maybe a little outside your comfort zone, something that may be a little bit dangerous, because what that goes to show you is that risk taking really can pay off and so doing some things that, like I said, maybe a little bit dangerous.
Those projects, if you do them right can really lead to a lot of benefits, not only for you but for your students as well. I’m gonna bring on Andrew right now too and talk to him about a few dangerous things that he does, some other dangerous work that has gone up on the AOE site recently and talk about managing all of those things and how to turn these dangerous projects into good experiences for our kids. Let’s bring on Andrew right now.
Now to join me, my favorite dangerous art teacher, Mr. Andrew McCormick, how are you?
Andrew: I’m good. I want that as an iron on badge though, like on a jacket. My most favorite dangerous art teacher, that’s awesome. Thank you.
Tim: I like it. It can be your bad boy reputation.
Andrew: Yeah, there we go.
Tim: Before we get started I want to do a quick shout out to Luke Nielsen who was the inspiration for this episode. He’s been doing a bunch of videos on AOE and one of his most popular ones was all about painting with fire and he does some really really cool things. I’m gonna recommend you all check those out. Andrew, I need to ask you because I know you love fire in general and especially blow torches. Can you talk a little bit about some of the things you do in your classroom that may or may not run the risk of burning your school to the ground?
Andrew: Yeah, totally. I’ve never been worried about burning the building down, I’ve always been a little bit worried about setting off the fire alarms but, yeah I love blow torches. They are way fun and I don’t know, maybe it’s even just the name, but when you tell the kids like, all right we’re gonna get out the blow torches for this. They’re like, oh man it is on. They’re super excited like, yeah blow torches. They don’t realize that they can just go to Walmart and buy a little propane torch. To them they hear blow torches and they think it’s super dangerous. I had a sculpture class where we had a bunch of stuff just laying around and I was trying to come up with ideas for projects to come up with and with these really big giant Styrofoam block and I said, that’d be fun to do a reductive carving and I had a couple of electrical hot knives and we were cutting through them and I was talking one day about the science of polystyrene and what happens.
I said, you know if you accidentally put some hairspray on polystyrene it will melt a little bit and dissolve and you can’t really control is and it looks really cool and it was like, oh let’s see. I was like, okay, all right, I told you it does it so I better show it to you and then it’s like, And if you take a blow torch to it a little bit it’ll start to melt right before your eyes but not totally burn up. Oh that sounds awesome. I showed it to them and then the whole rest of that semester that class should have just be renamed ‘fun with fire’, because everything that they could find an excuse like, hey can we use the blow torches for this? It’s like, okay sure. I’ve done melted Styrofoam, I’ve done shaped plastic where we take plastic spoons and bend them into shape and fuse them together. There’s been some projects where we’ve melted PVC pipes and bent them into place. Every year, every semester I always have students who wanna make a drawing look old so they’ll say, can we burn the edges. It’s like, of course you can.
I’ve never been too worried about blow torches, never once had an accident or anything with them or even anything remotely scary or dangerous, but my saving grace has been that I had a door that lead right out to a courtyard. Right connected to my room.
Tim: That’s awesome.
Andrew: Yeah, and it was just like, let’s quick head outside and then we don’t have any issues with fumes, we’ve got proper ventilation and it was a big glass door so I could actually be outside and watch kids with blow torches and still see my kids inside or vice versa. I was able to watch both groups of kids and make sure that everyone was being safe even to we were using blow torches.
Tim: The other big safety issue is the one that always use to give me fits is just dealing with those sharp things like linoleum carving tools, Exacto knives, even the paper cutter. What do you do with those sort of issues and where do you draw the line with things that kids should and should be using?
Andrew: Well, I never let kids use the paper cutter and not because I think it’s that dangerous, although I’ve heard some horror stories from students or from teachers and first year of teaching they’d let a kid use it and they chop a bit of a thumb off or something.
Andrew: It’s like, oh my God.
Tim: You’re making all of our listeners cringe right now.
Andrew: I’m sorry, I just heard that a couple of days ago from someone and I was like, oh my God. I don’t let kids use the paper cutter because I don’t trust their cutting abilities. It’s like, hey I want you to cut this in half and make it be 11 by 18 and it just comes back horrible, crooked. I don’t let them use it just because I don’t trust their cutting abilities. Talking about linoleum blades and Exacto knives, I just teach them up. I coach the kids up and we do a little bit more front loading at the beginning of the project and I say, if you do this wrong you will jab this into your hand and you will be bleeding in my classroom. You will be in pain. I say it not to scare them but I just say, there’s a wrong and a right way to use these tools and if I see you doing it the wrong way I’m gonna let you know about it and I’m gonna chew you out a little bit because I care about your safety.
Then once those projects are rolling and I’ve really coached them up at the beginning, I’m like a hawk. I’m on the prowl, I’m looking for kids doing all sorts of dumb and dangerous things with those tools and them I’m gonna correct that behavior. For 12 years of teaching I’ve only had one pretty significant injury where a kid just really did jabbed it right into the side of his hand, but other than that … Every year I have one or two kid who … They’ll say, oh Mr. McCormick I cut myself, and they’re so worried that I’m gonna be disappointed in them and I look at it and it’s like, that’s a paper cut. You touched the tip of your linoleum cutter and you didn’t even pierce the skin. You’re fine. I did have one kid who did jab it in pretty good and … I hate to say this but he was fine he didn’t even get stitches but we took him to the nurse and I used it as a teaching moment. I didn’t want to make the kid feel bad but I looked at everyone else, I’m like, so you see?
There’s a reason why I tell you guys you cut away from your hand. You never cut towards your hand because this is what can happen when it hops out of its groove and you’re not paying attention.
Tim: Yeah. We actually just talked about it. I’m teaching the AOE print making course right now, the studio print making and we were just talking about that and I share with them my key was always saying, just hand behind. You hold with one hand, you carve with the other hand and they hand that you’re holding the linoleum with goes behind and so I just constantly walk around and every time you catch a kid just, guys hand behind, hand behind. Just that simple phrase seem to cut down on accidents so much but it is really like you said about that pre teaching or even scaffolding that knowledge on how to use the tools and then just a matter of supervision. I think that’s cool. If I can direct this to a little bit younger grades as well. What do you think about linoleum carving tools or Exacto knives or things like that at the elementary level? Do you think 5th and 6th graders can handle those sorts of things?
Andrew: Well, that one’s a little more tougher. I don’t know if I can throw out a blanket statement because it’s been a while since I’ve taught elementary school, but I did do it for four years and I’d have kids in 4th grade do a little bit but only if I felt like I could confidently trust that group and it was a small project and I could really supervise them well. I think that’s gonna probably rely on each teacher and how comfortable they feel with their students and in their knowledge of the process and watching it and coaching it up. There’s a big difference if you have a group of 5th graders and there’s 20 of them versus a group of 5th graders and there’s 34 of them.
Andrew: It’s a whole lot easier to watch and make sure everyone’s safe when there’s a smaller group, some of this, and this is kind of a insidious thing to say but it also depends on how comfortable you feel in your job. I’ve always felt really really supported that even if a kid does accidentally cut their finger on the linoleum cutter because they weren’t paying attention, my administration supports me and knows that I’m doing a good job and I’m doing my best to teach safety and teach skills. There’s some teachers out there who, they sneeze funny at a PD and they’re written up by their administrators. Those people, understandably might play it a little safer, a little closer to the vest. I think it probably depends but on the flip side of that and saying, no, no way, no how, no 6th grader should ever have a sharp tool. The consequence of that is, you have 9th graders, which I currently have, who not only have never used an Exacto knife but didn’t even know what one was. They’re like, what is this thing?
Andrew: They go, oh my God. My go to sarcastic insult of them is like, how are you ever going to survive the zombie apocalypse if you don’t know how to use an Exacto knife? They just stare at me with this dumb look on their face. I’m like, you have to … Come on, you need to have some skills. You need to know how to make stuff and be self sufficient. Then I say, you know what separates us from lesser primates is our ability to use tools. Come on. Got to be able to use an Exacto knife.
Tim: Yeah, I like that. Let’s dive into that just a little bit actually. You talk about kids not having the experience with that and some of the consequences of not having that experience, but when you are teaching, letting kids use different tools whether that be saws or screwdrivers or Exacto knives or linoleum tools. What are some of the benefits that you see to allowing your kids to use something that maybe you don’t know if they’re ready for it and do you think that those benefits and what they’ll learn outweigh the drawbacks or the risks that come along with that?
Andrew: Oh for sure. I use a ton of power tools. Drills, jigsaws, those are the main ones. I’ve used and angle grinder with students before. Cutting through steel rods and I always love seeing these students and especially … Usually it’s the more demure, shy students to whom I’m like, all right you’re gonna cut through this piece of wood with this jigsaw. They’re like, no no I’m not, no I’m not. It’s like, yes you are. I’m gonna show you how to do it, I’m gonna watch you do it a couple of time and you’re gonna feel confident. When they grab that saw and they cut through something, like, I did it, I did it. It’s almost like a proud parent or teacher moment. You’re like, see there was nothing to be afraid of with this thing. I always tell kids that they need to have a healthy respect for tools because some of the tools that we use, they’re no joke, you could actually hurt yourself with them but you have to respect them but you should never be afraid of a tool. Again, it goes to coaching them up and watching them and scaffolding that.
I’m gonna show you, then I’m gonna do it, then I’m gonna let you do it while I watch you and then eventually once I’ve seen you do it a couple of times I’m gonna trust that you can do this on your own and be safe. It’s what IT instructors have been doing forever. They teach the skill, they trust the kids to do it and then they let them do it on their own.
Tim: Exactly. Yeah, I think the confidence building is a huge part of that. Let me see how I want to phrase this. When you are letting kids do so many things and you’re trying so many new, exciting and sometimes dangerous things. Has there ever been any times where you feel like you’ve taken on too much of a risk? When you’ve been a little too dangerous with what you’re doing? If it has, how do you handle that or how do you walk that back a little bit?
Andrew: I can’t say I’ve ever had and entire class where I’m looking across the class or a project that I’m doing in multiple sections where I’ve said, oh my gosh I bit off way more than I can chew, but every once in a while I will catch a group of students. Because usually when I do these big steam projects where there’s tools and there’s stuff like that, usually they’re working in groups and I’ll just see a group who’s bitten off more than they can handle, and I’ll say, I’m gonna intervene here and help out with this group because I don’t know what you’re doing that I feel safe letting you guys do this and explore. That’s usually the group of kids on the flip side of the shy student, is very cavalier and … I’ve grown up doing … I fix cars with my dad, I know everything. It’s like, you’re being a little bit too much bravado over here.
Specifically I’m thinking of a group who were doing this mini arcade steam project and they had taken apart and old record player and they wanted to be able to slow it down with a dimmer switch. I’m working with them a little bit. I’m like, okay if you strip this wire and strip this wire and put it all together, now we have a switch and this is how electrons work and this is how a circuit work. Then when the moment came to actually plug it in and then flip the switch, I had this voice in the back of my head, it’s like, if this blows up or electrocute someone, you might wanna be the one that’s doing it. So I was the one who held the switch and there’s been a couple of moments like that where is like, okay I’m gonna help you cut this because I don’t think it’s the safest thing, but there’s only been a couple of moments of that.
One of my mantras when it comes to safety that’s really been helpful and good is, if you can do it with a hand tool, why would you do it with a power tool? If you can do it with a handheld hack saw and cut this little piece of wood, you don’t need to bust out the giant saws all reciprocating saw. That’s just overkill. We do a lot of handheld, handheld saws, some drills but a lot of handheld tools is where we start and then on a person by person or group by group basis we get into the more heavy duty stuff.
Tim: Yeah, and I think that’s a really really good approach. One last question here, let’s wrap this up. I think a lot of these issues with dangerous tools, dangerous project et cetera are coming back to a couple things. Number one, you gotta scaffold kids’ learning so they’re comfortable with the tools, they’re comfortable with the process and that’s gonna make it a lot less dangerous. Obviously you need a lot of good supervision and that’s on the teachers. Both of those things are eminently do-able. Every teacher can do that. I guess my question for you to wrap things up. For teachers that are on the fence, they have an exciting project they want to try or they have something that maybe feels a little bit risque and they’re on the fence about it. What advise would you give them? Do you think they should jump in make sure they’re doing it right or would you just sort of ease in as you feel comfortable? What advise would you give them?
Andrew: Well, for me personally I always just jumped in and I felt like it was just always easier to beg for forgiveness and plead ignorance and said, oh I didn’t realize this was gonna be a problem, or you’re offended., but I also had a very very supportive environment. I knew that my administrators and my fellow teachers saw the merit in what I was doing with these heavy, power tool usage, steam type, weird sculpture projects that I knew I was supported and if I were in an environment where I felt less supported I might be a little bit more cautious. I might run over some things first with my administrators and say, okay we’re gonna be doing this, we’re gonna be doing that. Maybe seek guidance from, like I said, the industrial tech teachers and see what is the best way to have a couple of different students working with a jigsaw or a drill. I would let your own fears completely stop you. I think, at worst, you maybe just play it a little safer and maybe ask a little bit permission first, but if you’re feeling like you can just go for it then I would just go for it.
Tim: Yeah, I think that’s really good and I think that’s a good point for us to go out. Andrew, thank you for joining me and as always, it’s been a pleasure.
Andrew: Hey, my pleasure man. Stay dangerous my friends.
Andrew: I think I can probably borrow that tagline right?
Tim: Yeah, I think that’s good. All right, we’ll talk to you later.
Andrew: All right, cool.
Tim: All right. A big thank you to my favorite dangerous art teacher Andrew McCormick and as always an awesome interview with him. Before we close up shop though I want to tell everybody about something that I think you’re probably gonna be interested in. It’s the Art Ed Now winter online conference. A lot of our listeners have done AOEs online conference before, but for those of you that haven’t it is flat out amazing. It’s a full day of presentations, specifically made for art teachers. It’s inspiring, it’s innovative and if you’re looking for new ideas, kind of like we’re talking about today, exploring new things. It’s the place to go. You can go to artednow.com to see everything about the conference and you have about three weeks left to sign up at the early bird price of $99. There are presentations already announced about sculpting with drywall, working with graffiti, taking your kids outside to paint. All of those new and exciting things that are gonna help your kids develop the skills and the confidence that we’ve talked about throughout this entire episode. There’s still over a dozen presentations that are still to be announced.
Again, go to artednow.com and check out everything about the winter online conference. I really think it’s something that’s worth your time. Just a few quick thoughts to close things out. I want everybody who listen to this to think about a couple of questions. What do you do in your classroom that inspires risk taking? What do you do that inspires adventure? You don’t need to be scared away from things that seem dangerous. You need to be aware of the issues, of the safety that goes with it and all the things that you do to make those types of projects run smooth, and so do your kids, but it’s all do-able. As Andrew and I talked about, it’s about scaffolding that knowledge, helping kids develop the skills they need and working with them throughout the entire process, because as you do those dangerous things, kids are participating in new, exciting experiences. They’re strengthening skills that they might know they had had. They’re building confidence, they’re taking chances, they’re working outside the comfort zone. All of those things that everyone what’s kids to do and that art teachers do so well. Don’t be afraid to take the chance on a dangerous project. If you teach it right and you supervise it correctly, the benefits for both you and your kids can be immeasurable. In fact, you may come to find out that doing something dangerous might be the best decision you’ve ever made.
Art Ed Radio is developed, produced and supported by the Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. You can see more from the podcast on artedradio.com. Where you can also sign up for the weekly Art Ed Radio email. Speaking of those emails, we have been getting a lot lately and we appreciate it. Email Andrew and me at email@example.com. We appreciate critiques or concerns or any kind of conversation. Feel free to shoot us a note today that shares the most dangerous thing that you’ve ever done in your classroom, because I feel like that could be and interesting discussion to get started. Our next step though will be out on Tuesday and as we always say, thank you for listening.