Helping Students Find Their Voice (Ep. 079)

One of the most difficult things to do as an artist is to find your voice and to find your style. Even more difficult is to help our students do the same. Tim invites Michael Bell on the show to discuss how we can build up our students and, in turn, build up our art programs. Listen for their discussion on balancing your art and your teaching (6:15), how to support and help develop your artists (9:00), and why visual journaling is so important to helping students find their voice (14:15). Full episode transcript below.

Resources and Links:

Michael’s book was published in June. It is called Dual Lives: From the Streets to the Studio
Visit Michael’s website.
And his TED talk can be found here.





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 the most difficult things for us to do as artists is to find our voice and find our personal style. Even more difficult than that, however, is to help students do the same. My guest today, Michael Bell, is going to help me dive into the topic. Michael works a lot with visual journaling and has his students do a lot of visual journaling as well. One thing I really like about his practices and his ideas is that they allow us as artists and as teachers to make art work with real meaning. If you’ve ever heard Michael speak, he usually says that you need to draw a line from your art to your life that is straight and clear.

If you’re looking to learn a little bit more about how you can create that line, how you can make those connections, I’m going to recommend Michael’s new book. It’s called Dual Lives From the Streets to the Studio. He talks a lot about both building his own art career and building an art program at the school where he teaches. I talked a little bit about the book at the Art Ed Now conference earlier this month where Michael presented. It’s an inspirational book. It’s a great read, and it’s awesome to have that type of inspiration that comes from someone who’s doing the work of an art teacher day after day in the classroom and knows everything that’s involved in what we do.

I want to ask him about all of that and how our lives influence our art, how are we putting our voice and our lives into our art, and how do we get kids to do the same? We’ll chat about building a program and building artists that create great work, artists that speak with a personal voice and develop a personal style and how all of us as art teachers can at least take steps toward doing the same. I have a lot that I want to ask him about. I’m excited for this talk, so let me bring on Michael Bell.

All right, Michael. Thanks for joining me today. How are you?

Michael: I’m fantastic. Just flew back in from Ohio last night.

Tim: All right.

Michael: Ready to roll.

Tim: All right, sounds good. I know people are familiar with you in a lot of different areas. You’re an artist, a teacher, an author now. Do any one of those roles stand out as being more important to you, or is this one of those things, is one of those areas something you’re more passionate about, or is it a case where you see them as part of the same package where I guess what you do in each area informs what you do as a whole?

Michael: I believe, for me, it’s always been this dichotomy which is really where the whole dual lives concept came from, because I’ve spent my whole entire career living both these lives at the same time being an artist and an educator. So I consider myself an artist in education. Those two roles they just constantly feed off of one another. They’re definitely a package.
The author, that just came. That’s new to the equation. I’m enjoying that as well. Being an artist, first and foremost, has always been my thing. I won my first art show at the age of five and never looked back. Teaching and trying to help kids has also been an incredible passion of mine.

Tim: All right, that’s really cool. I do want to talk about that dichotomy. First, I want to chat with you a little bit about the book. I’ve read it over the past month or so, and it’s been awesome. There’s a lot there and a lot I want to dive into. First of all, I’m curious how long it took you to write it, and then I guess more importantly can you talk about what inspired you or what influenced you when you decided to write it?

Michael: Sure absolutely. I can give you an exact date. I started writing it on July 14, 2015. It was the date that my family and I, we received our son’s official autism diagnosis, and it was a week before I went off to Philadelphia to be with a dear friend who I was his best man at his wedding, grew up around, for his 11-year-old daughter, who tragically lost her battle with cancer over the course of 10 days. It was this powerful storm of events that really prompted me to get everything out. Prior to that, I had always thought about writing a book, and it was something that a lot of my kids had even talked about in school, in classes, because I started to realize that around that same time frame that we had all done something, and I as an educator had done something that I started to recognize it was unprecedented as I started to travel around the country doing keynotes and talks. Not only the string of national awards that myself and my students had won, even that scholarships alone that they receiving and the levels of success, 10 million in scholarships in just a few short years.
I knew I needed to document it, and I knew that something special had happened. This was my way of getting it out there, and I knew the time was now to do it.

Tim: That’s cool. I like that. If I can take you back a little bit, just talking about your dual lives, I really like the narrative in your book that talks about how you’re trying to build both an art career on your own and an art program on the teaching side of things at the same time. Can you talk a little bit about that process, how you find time, or how you make time to do both art and teaching, and maybe what advice you’d have for teachers who are trying to do the same thing?

Michael: Absolutely. For me, I always had to make it on my own. Everything I do for kids, I’m trying to do everything for them that wasn’t done for me. That’s my whole why behind why I do what I do. I want to catch kids before they fall. I want to be able to propel them into the status they deserve to be propelled into. Now as far as timewise, starting out early in my career, my wife has been very supportive. I’ve always gone. I think that’s the most important message for anybody starting out. Whenever there’s an opportunity, I went, whether it was we had to fly out to LA, we had this to do in Chicago, whatever it was, I always went, and I always felt it was so important to be that artist for the kids so they see you in that way.
I mean I had a conversation with a student of mine even when I was writing my book, and we were talking about some things. They said they got back a certain paper for one of their classes, and I thought the poem they wrote was beautiful, but it got torn apart. I said let me ask you this, whoever tore it apart, what have they written? What have they published? They said nothing as far as I know. Then I said how do you know they’re right.
For me, it’s always been you got to be authentic. If I’m going to be preaching to kids, I really want you to try to get that solo gallery exhibition, try to do this, I have to be doing it first. I have to show them a solid road map of how to even do that. To me, it was so important to try to make it as an artist while I was making it as a teacher. They went along for the ride, and it’s this journey we’ve all carried together, which it’s been amazing.
Timewise, I will say this. Yeah, it’s tough. I squeeze every ounce out of every day. I’m definitely a multi-tasker. I’m definitely wearing many hats at once. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think it’s exciting. I think it’s an exciting life being an artist in that capacity.

Tim: Yeah, I think so. Like you said, it’s tough to find the time, but it’s important to do that if you really do want it to inform your teaching. I do want to ask you about one specific thing that caught my eye in your book. In chapter 25, you had a line about your first art school kid, first kid from your program to go on to art school. I think it was Parsons, if I remember, right, but you talked a little bit about how it always starts with one. I remember that same feeling when I was doing the same thing. I was trying to build my program. That first kid, like you said, gives you a roadmap as a teacher and shows also other kids what it takes to be successful.
My question for you is why do you think that is and how can teachers built on those successes to keep their programs growing or keep their programs moving forward?

Michael: I’m a firm believer in once you have that first, whatever that first might be. Maybe it’s your first great AP score, maybe it’s the first kid you get into college, maybe it’s your first big scholarship, maybe it’s your first scholastic or regional award winner, then it’s your first national award winner. Whatever it is, I always make sure that I document and save everything and share it out so that I’m not reinventing the wheel every year. We’re building off of the momentum of prior years. I remember the girl that you’re talking about, Seton Hurston, I had no idea how to even get a kid into art school because I myself didn’t have anybody get me into art school. I was not an art school graduate. I had no idea. Since then, I’ve gotten hundreds of kids into art schools. With that first one, like you said, it provided that road map where I knew that procedure, I knew where to go, and years later, I had one of my first national award winners, she got accepted to art school that she really wanted to go to, and they were giving her $100,000, they came back with. I was like wow, this is amazing.

Tim: Yeah.

Michael: She comes back in the next morning, and I thought she would be running up to me to give me a big giant hug and be so ecstatic, and she was in tears. She was crying because it wasn’t enough. Then I had to learn a whole new process. How do I reach back out to those people at the college, and listen this girl really wants to go here, we need to bring it up a level, what else can we apply for, what else can we do? You learn trial by fire, but she was able to get it up to around 120,000, and Mom was able to send her there. It’s really important to have that first. Scholastic art, we had our first winner in 2011, and then we had six the year after that. Then we had 13. Then it exploded once word started to spread, and I kept promoting, kept promoting, and we went to 67 in 2014 with our first five national medalists. Then it went to 84 the next year. Then 115 after that. This is the kind of stats that I share with the kids, the exciting, the visuals of all these works that these kids do.

Tim: Yeah. That’s really cool. I know that’s always effective for kids. If I can ask you just one thing along with that, are those stats that you share with teachers, with administrators as well as trying to promote your program?

Michael: Well promotion I think is so important as an artist in general. You have to be your own best PR person because nobody out there is going to do it for you, especially not the administration or frankly your district. I’ve developed and cultivated some incredible media contracts over the years. Two me, that’s become very important. Whenever we have something incredible happen in the studio, there’s already buzz going on in the community, and they want to come out and see it. Sure. Come on out and see it, and they’ll cover a lot of these things. While I do share those stats and the visuals of the artwork, which is the most powerful thing with the kids, that’s the stuff that’s truly immeasurable, that work when they see it, they’re like I want to top that.

Tim: Yeah.

Michael: As far as the community, we put it out there so they can see it, and we’re in the media all the time. Tons of stuff, even with my book, I was in USA Today internationally and national all over the country. They know we have that kind of power, and it’s really made our program not expendable because of that because the community knows what we do for kids because we make sure they’re invited out to all the big shows for the kids, and we tout those stats to the community and all these amazing scholarships and the millions that our kids get each year. We put them on a pedestal. We treat them like rock stars, literally like the athletes in most high schools are, in my school it’s the artists.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool. I like that a lot. If I can shift gears for a little bit though, I want to ask you a little bit about visual journals because you presented at the Art Ed Now conference beginning of August on visual journals, the power of the prompt, and I know that all of those things are just vitally important to you as an artist and to your students as they move through your program. I guess can you explain why journals, the visual journals are so interesting to you, why they’re so important and what role they play in developing your voice as an artist.

Michael: Sure. Absolutely. Visual journaling has been something that I’ve been passionate about for so many years. I think it was maybe over 10 years ago I purchased, a domain, because I knew it was something this was going to become a movement. This was going to be something big. It’s something that’s existed throughout history as this reflective thinking process, from Da Vinci to Edward Munch to even Eric Fishl’s glascine works, which are very non-traditional journals, to artists like Dan Eldon, who did some amazing photography visual journals. Sabrina Ward Harrison, Candy Jernigan who is an evidence collector.
For kids, there’s so many different styles of visual journaling. I throw all these different artists at them, and I share all these different ways of working in visual journaling. But for me, it’s always been a process that’s led to bigger works, that’s led to uncovering my own unique style. Kids are always asking me, and I’m not sure if you’ve run into this at all. They always want how come I have my style, I want to know how do I find it.

Tim: Yes.

Michael: You have your style, how do I find mine? For me, the visual journaling process, and there’s many ways to go about it, they’re producing so much work in that visual journal, they can finally recognize the sea they’re swimming in. They can finally recognize things they’re doing naturally that’s unprompted by a teacher’s guide, that’s just something they’re doing naturally. Maybe they are an evidence collector. Maybe they’re somebody who turns it into a visual diary, and they’re constantly writing. They’re are some that love to collage. There’s other kids that love to create these observational drawings and things of that nature, mixed media.
Visual journal processing, for my students, especially, not only do colleges want to see that when they’re applying for colleges, they want to see that evidence of their thought process that they can think like an artist, but for me, most of the students that I’ve had that have gone onto big national awards, they’ve usually blown through anywhere from six to nine visual journals in maybe two short years with me. They hand make a lot of them in different styles, different ways, but it’s so essential, the visual journaling process, to engage with it, in a world that’s evolved in continuous change. It can become their everything. They poor everything into it. It just becomes this intense record of everything that’s going on in their life around them. Does that make sense?

Tim: Yeah, that’s awesome. I love, I guess the passion you have for describing that and just talking about everything that can go into it because I think people just realized they think that sketchbooks need to be sketchbooks and they don’t think about how much more they can be out there. I guess my last question to follow up on that. How would you suggest teachers get started with those visual journals if they haven’t done them before, their kids haven’t done them before, or if they dipped their toes in the water, and they explored it a little bit in their classroom, or in personal work even, but how do people take it to the next level with visual journaling?

Michael: I would say expose the students to as many artists that have engaged in this visual journaling process over the course of time because there’s so many of them, like I said from Da Vinci to Munch to Frida Kahlo to Eric Fishl, to Candy Jernigan, all these great people over time. I would also … There’s an easy formula to even get kids started. I call it 10, 10, and 10. They can dive into 10 pages of text. It could be combined with imagery that reveals their thought process. The text could be diary entries. It could be screenshot captures of text messages. It could be different forms of text. They could do 10 pages of observational journalings, 10 pages of collage, mixed media, manipulating things. But don’t do that 10, 10, and 10 like in sections. Mix it all together, so the book becomes this big everything book. It becomes chockfull of lots of information, lots of ideas, lots of experimentation.

I really encourage a visual journal for everybody. It should look and feel like you. If you’re a guy that listens to rap music, I want to look at that visual journal and know that. I don’t want to look at it and say wait a minute, this is a classical musical score. It should look and feel like you. I think that’s important, that personalizing. Once they start engaging with it like that, anything’s possible.

I think it’s important that we walk the walk as well as talk the talk. I think if we’re doing it alongside our kids, just like I say in my book, it’s all about walking that walk with them. I create personal work right alongside the kids while they’re creating personal work. I’m working in my visual journal as they’re working in their visual journals. We always share, and we always have this constant conversation so they understand what it is to be an artist. This is what it’s about. It’s about being a creative inspiration out there in the world.

Tim: Yeah, that’s a really really good point. I think a really good quote to end it on. So we’ll wrap it up there. Michael, thank you so much for joining me. It’s been great talking to you.

Michael: It’s been great talking to you, Tim. Thank you again for having me.

Tim: One thing that caught my attention from that interview was when he talked about finding his way as a teacher. Everything he needed to learn to make his students and his program successful. I think that development is what we can take away from this episode. The steps we need to go through to build our students up as artists, to help them find their voice, and how that helps us build our program. I want to talk about that just a little bit more in a second. But that thought leads me into my chance to talk to you about Art Ed Pro.

If you’re the type of teacher that wants to constantly be improving and working toward that success and that program that you really want, Pro is absolutely essential. It has everything that you need and it has it whenever you need it. It’s on demand professional development. If you’re interested in developing your program, building on what you do with your kids, helping them find their voice, you need to check it out. There are learning packs on how you can improve how you’re teaching drawing or painting or working with sketchbooks. How to put together a curriculum. How to improve your existing curriculum.

I even recorded a learning pack on how you can help kids create a successful portfolio and put it all together. It’s all there. It is the essential knowledge that will help you consistently improve as an educator. You can check it all out at Please go see what it has to offer.

Now, as I close the show, I want to look one more time on the idea of helping your kids, building them up, helping them find their voice and in turn, building your program. On thing that Michael said that I think I’ll definitely take away from this is I want to do everything for my kids that was never done for me. That’s a really powerful statement. But I think that every teacher can do that. We can help kids find themselves. We can help them develop a style. We can help them speak in their own voice through their art. When you can accomplish that, you help that kid find success, and with enough individual successes, you can and you will build the art program that you want.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Remember that you can sign up for our email list at We always love to hear from you, so send us your questions, anything else you want to share at Don’t forget to check out AOE’s newest podcast Everyday Art Room, which has new episodes coming out every Thursday. Don’t miss it.

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.