From the Archives: Keeping Kids Engaged Through The End of the Year

The end of the year is difficult for teachers, and possibly the most difficult part of that is keeping students engaged. In this episode from 2019, Jordan DeWilde joins Tim to talk about his ideas to keep students creating meaningful work until they are gone for the summer. Listen as they discuss collaboration, engagement, and the best lessons to help students end the year strong.  Full episode transcript below.

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

Ladies, gentlemen. It is almost the end of the school year. And I am aware, for a select few of you, that the end of school actually happened last week, and the rest of us are happy for you, and a little bit jealous. And just wondering when it will be our turn to step away.

And most importantly, how we survive until that time actually comes, because, let’s face it: the end of the year is difficult on our teachers. There is so much left to be done, so much to deal with, and maybe foremost on all of our minds, the kids are just not that interested in being there.

So, today, we’re going to talk about how you can keep your kids engaged, keep them interested, and keep them creating art through the end of the year.

My guest today is going to be Jordan DeWilde. You probably know Jordan as “Mr. DeWilde” on social media, and on his website, and as of last month, he is now a writer for the Art of Ed. We are very excited to have him, and after talking on the podcast here with Sarah Krajewski last month, and Nick Gehl just a couple of weeks ago, that completes the Trifecta of new writers that we have.

Now, Jordan has so many great ideas for just about everything he does, honestly, and I want to ask him to share a few of those. In particular, he wrote a great article a couple weeks ago that is going to be relevant to what we’re talking about, about keeping your kids engaged at the end of the year. I hope it can serve as a jumping-off point for a bigger discussion, and I hope we can dive into a variety of topics.

All right, and Jordan DeWilde is with me now. Jordan, how are you today?

Jordan: I’m doing great, how are you doing?

Tim: I am really, really well. I am excited to talk to you about some awesome articles published on the AOE site. I know people want to hear more about you, I guess. So, to start with, can you introduce yourself to all of our listeners? I know a few people know you from your website. You have a really popular Instagram account. But can you tell us about you, your job, your interests, and some of the things you’re going to be writing about for the Art of Ed?

Jordan: Sure. Well, my name is Jordan DeWilde. I teach Elementary at a school called Oregon Elementary School. It’s a small town, about 90 miles west of Chicago. I teach grades Three through Six. I have taught some of the younger grades since I’ve been there. This is my seventh year teaching Elementary, but the last few years I’ve really focused on Upper Elementary, the Third through Sixth Graders.

My main interest as far as Art Education goes is creating inclusive curriculum. So, I’m always trying to find ways to create new lessons that celebrate diversity, and provide positive representation of as many people as I can to my students. And those are some of the topics I’ve been writing a lot about for Art of Ed Magazine, as well as creating some pro packs that have some of that diversity component to them.

But I’m also sharing some other ideas about other lessons, practical tips from my experience, and some skill-based things as well.

Tim: Yeah, that all sounds really good. Like I said, people have responded really well to what they’ve seen so far. You have an article about keeping kids engaged at the end of the year, and that’s one I really wanted to talk about, because it’s so apt, it’s so important right now.

Some teachers are finishing up right now, some teachers still have a month or so to go. But no matter where we are, just about everybody is feeling overwhelmed. So, question would be for you, what kind of advice do you have for people that are finishing up the year? How do you keep your kids engaged? How do you keep them going strong?

Jordan: Yeah, it’s a really hectic time of year, stressful time of year, so I think anything you can do to make your classroom more engaging and make things easier on yourself are going to be welcome for you and your students.

Some things that I do, I like to throw students a curve ball, give them something new that they haven’t experienced before. It can be as simple as a new material, or changing up the layout of the classroom. Sometimes just those simple fixes, simple changes, can really do a lot for your classroom.

Right now, I have six tables for my students, but if I just change that into a horseshoe formation, or just three long tables instead, just that simple change changes the vibe of the classroom environment.

As far as lessons, making them engaging, giving students a new material, for example, my Sixth Graders were working on Mayan glyphs, so instead of just having them draw or design a glyph of their own on paper, I’ve given them metal tooling foil. So they get to use something that’s metallic and shiny. It’s tooling foil, which they’ve never experienced before, so essentially, they’re just drawing their symbol out, but because they’re making a repuse on that, they’re carving into the foil, they’re really into it. It’s something they haven’t done before. And they get to use Sharpie permanent markers to add color to it later, so they get really into that because it’s something they haven’t experienced.

Likewise, my Fourth Grade students were doing Gyotaku Fish Printing. Just the magic of that process of print is really engaging for them. We’re making these light-wash paper backgrounds for them, so they get to use a spray bottle full of watered-down tempera paint. So, just that simple thing of, “Oh, they get to use a spray bottle to spray paint onto paper,” they’re super into that. I think that’s great.

So, it’s stuff that they’re not expecting, stuff that they haven’t done before. The fish prints, they get to paint a rubber fish, that’s mind-blowing for them, so they’re really into that, and that helps them get excited about coming to Art. They’re more engaged, they’re more in-tune to what you’re teaching, instead of doing more of the same. They’re not doing another drawing that they’ve done before, or another painting project. It’s something completely new, completely out of their realm of previous experience, so they’re a little bit more engaged.

One other thing I would suggest doing to make things easier on yourself is, try a new project that you haven’t done before, that your students haven’t done before, but instead of sectioning that off to one grade level, maybe do it with a couple of grade levels, so that’s one less thing you have to prep, one less set of resources and materials that you have to get ready.

And I find that’s really helpful for both the end of the year, and the beginning of the year. Both can be very stressful times. If you can do a project that’s with all your grade levels, or maybe a couple here and there, it makes life a little easier on you. You get to test out new projects. You can decide whether you want to keep it later or not, and maybe select one grade level you want to do that with in the future. But for that first run, do it with as many classes as you can, save yourself some time and energy by less prep work, and hopefully engaging your students, and doing something new that is engaging for you as well.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s some really good advice. I feel like the end of the year is the perfect time to try out those new lessons. It’s a good trial run to see if it’s something that you would want to put in your permanent rotation of lessons.

Jordan: Right.

Tim: Another thing in your article that I had to ask you about here, one of your suggestions in there is to have your kids collaborate. And I have to admit, when I first read that, I was dismissive. “Now is not the time to have kids collaborating.” Because things are just so crazy. Do we really want to add that kind of chaos to our classrooms?

But you seem to feel pretty strongly that it’s worthwhile. Can you just talk a little bit about that, why you think collaboration is going to be good for kids at the end of the year, here?

Jordan: Yeah. I think it’s definitely an unpopular opinion at this time of year, to open up your classroom for that kind of chaos. But I think at this time of year, it’s kind of a, “If you can’t beat them, join them” into the chaos. They’re already wanting to talk. They’re already wanting to get out of their seat. So, how can you allow them to do that, while still structuring some learning experiences, creating opportunities, and keeping them busy, still, so that it’s not just a free-for-all?

Collaboration has worked well for me at the end of the year. It’s something that makes the kids excited coming to class, and you’re not fighting the shutdown at the end of the year that sometimes happens with students.

Letting them collaborate, I’ve done a couple projects at the end of the year that have worked well with collaboration. I did, students created a basketball court design, based on this collaboration that Chanel Admi did with the University of North Carolina. She was an artist in residence there, and then worked with college students to plan out a mural on a basketball court.

So, I had students come up with their own ideas for what they would put on a basketball court, but they have to work with a partner to combine their two ideas. So, they get to pick a partner, they’re collaborating, they’re sharing ideas, they’re talking about symbols and how the artist used symbols, and what symbols they want to use.

They’re excited that they get to work with their friends, they’re excited that they’re making this basketball court design, which is something they hadn’t thought of before. So it’s something that they’re engaged in.

A bigger collaboration project I’ve done in the past has been doing an actual larger mural based on the work of Keith Haring. So, it was the ending project that students had been leading up to with other Keith Haring-related works before, but they collaborated to create this larger mural in the back of the classroom.

And so they got to be out of their seats. Everybody had a job, so it wasn’t just like everyone was painting, and it got crazy and it was out of control. Not everyone was painting at the same time. Some of them were working on their individual projects, some of them were lead designers, and they were doing the outline of the figure on the mural, while they had a team of painters that were painting the interior.

Others were documenting the process, so I let them use cameras and a video camera to go around the room and take pictures, and video of what students were working on. I had some think of ways to reflect on the project, what they liked about Keith Haring, what they did for their individual project. We did what I called a “Social Issue” project, so they had to use Keith Haring figures to address some sort of social issue that they chose, so they could talk about that.

They could talk about what they liked about the mural, the process of all that. So, there was plenty to do. There was lots going on. Everybody had something that they could do, even if they weren’t doing the active painting on the mural, and they had something else they could be working on.

That really works for me, something that I really like doing, but then again, I am also a teacher that likes a very social classroom atmosphere, and that’s not everyone. And I think that comes from my own school experience. I had Art teachers that also liked that, and we were at lab table settings, and we talked throughout the whole class, but we were working.

And I think if that’s your style, then yes, collaboration may work for you. But if that’s not, and that’s not a wrong thing, that’s not a bad thing, everybody teaches differently, but it’s something that you might want to try.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s good advice, also. And you mentioned a couple things in that answer, that I want to ask about. I’ll try and tie them together. The first is being responsive to your kids, what they need, what they’re interested in, not only in how you run your classroom, but what you’re doing as well. The basketball court is a great example of that.

And with that, you talk a little bit in this article about making projects student-centered like that, and you discuss the court at design, and a couple other things in your article about connecting with kids who are interested in sports.

I guess the question is, tying that all together, why do you think that doing student-centered projects is so important, and what do you think kids gain from you doing that, from you designing your lessons like that?

Jordan: I think, after a while they start to realize that each project is going to be unique to them. And that’s what I want them to get from my classroom, that they are not just creating artwork that is pretty, or that follows X, Y and Z directions. They are making unique things that are about themselves.

In that article, I’m giving lots of examples of how students have approached my projects with a sports theme. But in that same project, there may have been a student in the same class that was really into animals, and just has this whole animal theme. Or it might have been a student who’s really into video games, and they put in this whole video game theme.

There are project requirements and project steps and parameters, but incorporate something about yourself within that project, so that not every project looks the same. I know there are lot of great art projects out there where students are learning some skills, and every project looks the same, and there is learning involved in that. But there’s not necessarily any creativity, and there’s definitely no personal component to that.

In my lessons, I try to always give students that encouragement to be more invested in it. If they’re a basketball fan, and they get to put basketball in their project, they’re just so much more excited about it. They’re going to maybe put a little more pride into it, because it’s something they get to choose.

And that’s something my school district has really been pushing across the board in all classes the last couple years. Having students be involved in their learning, and have them take ownership of what they are learning. Yes, we have standards to address, and to meet, but how can we make students see that those apply to them personally, not just to their grade, but to themselves uniquely?

Tim: Yeah, that’s awesome. And I love that your district is trying to bring that over, because I think it is so valuable, and it’s something that we can do really, really well in the Art room.

Jordan: Yeah. I think Art definitely lends itself well to where it can be more open-ended than maybe some other classrooms. I know a lot of teachers in my district are struggling with that, how do we get students to be involved in their learning, and to make their own choices in other classes, it still may be a little bit more difficult.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. That’s somewhere where we can 100% lead the way, and I think Art teachers in that case have something to offer the rest of the teachers in building. For sure, for sure, it’s something we do well.

I also wanted to ask you, you’ve obviously been super-busy with AOE stuff. You had a learning pack come out at the beginning of this month that’s all about celebrating diversity through contemporary art. You touched on this briefly at the very beginning, but can you tell us a little bit more about why you’re passionate about that topic, and also a little more about the learning pack, what kind of ideas teachers can get when they’re watching you in that pack?

Jordan: Sure. Inclusive curriculum, celebrating diversity, that has been the core of my teaching philosophy, even before I started teaching, or before I knew I wanted to be a teacher. That was just some of the topics that I really enjoyed most in school.

I had teachers that sparked that interest, and I remember learning about the Harlem Renaissance, and World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, in my Language Arts classes, or in my History classes. Or even in my Art classes, too. And those figures, those stories from those units specifically were ones that stuck with me long after I was done with school. So, when I decided to become an Art teacher, I think that was just a natural progression. I could incorporate some of those things.

Jordan: And once I went into school, to go into Broadcasting, and then I decided no, I should have been an Art teacher. So, I went to Grad School, and I was really concerned about becoming a teacher, and also being a gay man, and how that might be a difficult career choice for me. And there were several people, including even some of my professors, who made comments that, “LGBTQ plus educators should either be in the closet and remain silent about their identity, or should choose a new profession.”

And that was a little bit difficult for me, and I struggled with that. But I had a professor who encouraged me to not only be authentic with my life, and to become a teacher, but research these concerns. So I started researching all these issues in Art Education, and AEA has an LGBT Issues Caucus, and there’s lots of information out there, but as I was doing this research on LGBT educators, I naturally started finding more information about why these issues needed to be advocated for young students, and to show them inclusive classrooms, safe spaces, and those types of topics.

And so, my research started to shift, and really seeing that multicultural education, some of those same reasons for including race and ethnicity diversity in your curriculum, could apply to sexual orientation and gender identity. So, I really took those learning experiences from my own school, where I was really interested in these different cases of overcoming adversity, and resilience from different cultural groups, and what I wanted to do for LGBTQ-plus students.

And that’s just been a big part of my curriculum since then, making it as inclusive as possible, whether it’s race, whether it’s ethnicity, cultural groups, different countries, sexual orientation, gender identity, I try to incorporate as many people, many artists, many issues as I can within my curriculum, so that my students have positive representation of everyone.

And that’s a big part of what the Pro Pack is about, and Contemporary Art is a great place where you can find lots of those issues, and lots of representation from different groups. I think a lot of people sometimes see diversity as something that is not as accessible to Elementary students, but I show a lot of practical approaches of ways that you can share that with Elementary students that I actually have done with my students.

So, I have student artwork examples, how I’ve approached some of those different groups, and how I’ve included them in the curriculum.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really good. And I think that’ll be perfect for everybody who wants to explore those issues a little bit more, figure out how to bring some of those ideas in your classroom. So, thank you for sharing all of that.

But, we are right up against it as far as time goes, so we’ll go ahead and wrap it up. But Jordan, can you just, before we go, just tell everybody where they can find you as far as your website, Instagram, anything else you want to share?

Jordan: Sure. They can find me, pretty much “Mr. DeWilde Art” is my name across the board, so, Instagram and Twitter, @mrdewildeart. My website is mrdewildeart.com. “Mr. DeWilde Art” on Facebook. So, there’s plenty of places to find me and find examples of my lessons and stuff that kids are working on.

Tim: Perfect. That’ll be great. All right, Jordan, thank you so much for coming on, and hopefully we can get you back on again soon.

Jordan: Sounds good. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Tim: As I said, Jordan has so many interesting things to say about so many different topics, and I really appreciate him coming on and talking about all of his ideas, and all of his philosophies with me.

Now, if you want to hear more from Jordan, definitely check out his articles. He’s written a lot of great stuff already, and honestly, we’re only about a half-dozen articles in. And to be fair, to be truthful, I cannot recommend his Pro Learning Pack highly enough.

There was one that was just released the beginning of May called “Celebrating Diversity Through Contemporary Art”. It is amazing, and it is a great resource, because he talks specifically about incorporating current artists, how you can do that in an age-appropriate manner, and I think he shows five or six different lessons that are all amazing.

So, no matter what level you teach, there is something you can take away from his Contemporary Art pack, and it’s called “Celebrating Diversity Through Contemporary Art”. A lot of his best ideas are shared there. And if you liked what you heard on the podcast today, I would definitely recommend searching that out, and hearing from Jordan just a little bit more.

Anyway, long story short, Mr. DeWilde has some incredible ideas, and I’m thankful he was able to come on the podcast and share them with everyone. So, I hope you have an idea or two that you picked up from hearing him that you can take back to your classroom, and hopefully, fingers crossed, might help you survive the end of the year.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University, with Audio Engineering from Michael Crocker.

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.