How to Bring NFTs Into Your Classroom (Ep. 229)

Following his presentation about NFTs at the NOW Conference, Candido uses this episode to dive a little deeper into the topic and how we can teach about NFTs in the art room. Fellow art teacher John Hansen joins him today to talk about how we can explain NFTs easily, the research we should do as teachers, and a great lesson that can show your students what they need to know. Full episode transcript below.

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Candido: During the Winter NOW Conference, I presented on NFTs. During the presentation, I covered a lot of terminology and the significance of the digital art market on education. Most importantly, I want the teachers to know about new opportunities, and ensure we aren’t leaving our students and future artists in the dark. I also mentioned that the NFT process is one that can be an excellent lesson, maybe even a unit. A friend of mine, John Hanson, has created and taught a terrific NFT lesson. He’s also been in the crypto art scene a little bit over a year now, so I asked him to join us and help expand our understanding of this recent phenomenon.

This is Everyday Art Room, and I’m your host, Candido Crespo. My friend, John, welcome. Welcome. Welcome.

John: Hey, thank you. Thanks for having me.

Candido: I’m so glad that we were able to connect. Before we start jumping into the considered the good stuff, I would love for the audience to know a little bit about you. So where do you teach, and what grade levels are you currently teaching?

John: I’m in the small cowtown of Mendon and Upton, Massachusetts, not known for very much other than a drive-in movie theater. I teach at the middle school level. I teach seventh and eighth grade, and this is my 18th year teaching, and my 14th year at the middle school level. I taught four years at Nipmuc High School to start my career.

Candido: All right. Excellent, man. 18 years, huh?

John: 18 years. I can’t believe it, man. It went so fast already.

Candido: I was just about to ask you, do you feel like it went fast? Did you always have, or did you always plan to be in the classroom for this long? When you entered the field of education, did you always want to be in the classroom, or did you ever want to leave to go to a different position?

John: No. No. No. Definitely not an admin person at all. I’m like type B or C personality, but I felt like I had a vocation to do this. In my early 20s, I was doing some really dumb jobs. I was actually an animal tech for Harvard Medical School. Taking care of monkeys, that was my job before middle schoolers, so pretty similar career path, and then a couple of computer, I don’t know, just some dumb data checking jobs. I was like, “I need a career, not just another job.” I didn’t know I was going to become a teacher when I was in college.

Candido: Right.

John: I graduated with a fine arts degree, and I was like… I have this idea of huge ambitions of being a painter, and being in galleries, and being on Newbury Street in Boston. That’s the high end gallery scene, and then it didn’t happen.

Candido: Sure.

John: Life throws you some twists and turns. I went back to school, and started that career. I think I started teaching at 27 years old, so a little bit late in the game, but definitely my chosen path. I’m not going anywhere at this point.

Candido: All right, excellent. Excellent. I guess it’ll come up later in our conversation, and I was about to ask, well, are you still creating? But the answers to that question is yes, and we’ll get back into how and why in a moment. All right, so you presented on NFTs for MAEA. I presented on NFTs for the Winter NOW Conference for the Art of Education. What I thought would be pretty cool is to just merge our two presentations in a way that helps explain, and really sets a… I guess, opens the door a little bit for more teachers to consider it, and I guess in both their personal lives as an opportunity to be creative and also a way to tie in into the classroom.

John: Sure.

Candido: Maybe we’ll be dissecting both of our presentations in this way.

John: Sounds good.

Candido: All right, so we have to start from the absolute bottom. It’s the only way. We can’t go anywhere else.

John: The big question here

Candido: The big question, yeah. I do like the way you explained it. So when somebody asks you, anyone, teacher, we’ll call them a regular civilian, ask you, “What is an NFT?” How do you answer them?

John: It stands for non-fungible token first of all, and it’s essentially a digital certificate on what’s called the blockchain, which is a giant ledger of any digital transaction, be it art, or music, or videos, or poetry. NFTs couldn’t be all of these things, and that’s what’s super exciting about this is that not only is there a way to buy digital art, but there’s a way to sell digital art or resell things that you’ve purchased. There’s this transaction that exists online, and it’s like saying, “I have a JPEG of a Mona Lisa.”

You don’t own the actual Mona Lisa. Everybody knows you don’t have it. It’s on your phone. You can show everybody. cool. All right, now, try to resell that. Can you do that? No.

Candido: Right.

John: Because everybody knows that’s not the original, so the original one is of any artwork or anything, any of these NFTs, is when you mint it, which is a term of saying listing it for sale, then it becomes this tangible thing that people can then purchase. I don’t know. Can you add anything to that?

Candido: No, I don’t want to add anything to that, because I think you covered exactly what’s important. Sometimes, I think I find myself in conversations where people over explain it, and then it was already confusing, then you got it, and then, “Oh, I lose it this again.”

John: Then you get the geeky Uber nerdy terms, and you’re like, “No. No. No, take all that back.”

Candido: We’ll leave it as that. That’s great. Now, so I’m a firm believer of creating with my students, right? So in class, if we’re working on a project, I love working on these projects with my students. So in this particular case, before I even considered bringing this into the classroom, I really wanted to make sure that I had a grasp and understanding of this. But the only way for me to do that wasn’t to just research and read, I had to jump into it. I had to go ahead and buy cryptocurrencies so that I can mint my own work, and I can market it and find out what that process was like, applying to these platforms that serve as, well, the equivalent as galleries, right?

They’re curating our work, so I wanted to go through all that. I want to know a little bit about your experience, because you have a really interesting experience, and I would love for you to talk to me about how you jumped in, because if I’m not mistaken, you jumped in before you considered bringing it into the classroom as well.

John: Definitely. Same thing as you, just doing the real-life research of it, and living it for a little bit before I even considered imagining this as a lesson for kids. I guess it was almost a year ago, I saw a video interview about people, Mike Winkelmann, who most people probably still don’t know who that is. He is the top third most famous living artists. He sold an NFT that was 5,000 everyday drawings, I think, as some huge conglomerate grid of his artwork. He sold it for a top bid of, I think, $69 million. That’s when it came in.

There’s a recording of him reacting to these bids coming in, and it’s like 25 million, and he’s blown away. It’s him and his wife, and his parents, and his North Carolina home, and just reacting to these million-dollar bids in increments. Obviously, you see that as an artist, and maybe if you’re a struggling artist, and you do art yourself, and you go to craft shows, and maybe you make a couple hundred bucks, and you’re like, “Huh, maybe there’s a better way, or maybe I can add something, or be part of the space in some unique way, put my spin on it.”

That’s what really got me going. I was like, “Man, this guy, he was already a great artist anyway, and he has giant clients like Nike and all these big name celebrities.” He’s already broken that barrier, but just the NFT space has been to some degree really welcoming to anybody that wants to do stuff. Everything’s active on Twitter. You have to be on Twitter if you’re going to be an empty artist, and just showcasing what you do. Man, the first bid I got or the first purchase of one of my pixel game boys that I made, it just blew me away.

I’m like, “Somebody paid $40 for this little pixel animation I did on my iPad.” I’m using the same software that my students use, and 40 bucks. I was like, “Somebody bought…” I ran over to my wife, and I’m like, “Somebody bought this for 40. This, somebody bought this for $40.” It was just mind blowing that you can sell something digital for crypto, and then that’s a whole nother conversation of what’s crypto, and how does that relate, and can you deposit that into your bank account?

Candido: I know.

John: That was my entry. People interview, and then I just researched for two weeks on YouTube, just looking up, “What’s an NFT? What’s crypto? What’s crypto art? How do you… What the heck’s a wallet?” So, just doing a lot of that research, and then figuring out my first series. That was my pixel. I did 100 GameBoys pixelated Game Boy animations. That took me two, three months just to do these, and create them, and then list them for sale.

Candido: You launched them as a collection, or were you releasing them as you created?

John: I released them as I created. There are some people that dropped a whole collection of 1,000 or 10,000 things, and they get… The crypto space, they get these big waves, and everybody’s like, “Oh my gosh, this next thing, let’s all get it, and hope we get rich from it.” Then they’re like, “Okay, now I have art, and I can’t resell it,” but that’s also the point that I always make is that the artwork is the asset. It’s not just the monetary value.

Candido: Sure. Right.

John: So, yeah.

Candido: All right. So for me, my story was a little bit different, because prior to seeing people’s sale, I had a couple of friends who were deep into cryptocurrency, and then jumped into the NFT space, and they had been mentioning to me all along, but I am a skeptic. I was 100% like-

I didn’t follow you on the first half when you jumped into cryptocurrency, and of course it worked out for you. It was a little bit hard for me to say, “Okay, I’m not going to listen at all on the second one,” but I was like, “Let me do my own research for a bit.” I was intrigued by a few of the elements. One was a less amount of gatekeepers, right? I’m not going to eliminate them from the conversation because there’s some in some capacity as well, but a much more open playground essentially where you can come in, and like you said, it’s practically open to everyone.

That intrigued me. I wanted to explore that a little bit. All right. So we have these experiences that we have both gained since we’ve jumped into the field, and we start to think about the difference that we’ve experienced in the two different art markets, the traditional art market, which I think everybody has that opportunity to have gotten burned at some point from it. Then now, we have this digital art market where it’s so young that for you to say you got burned was probably just you made a mistake as opposed to really saying that you failed, because to fail in less than a year is not really trying.

All right, so we start considering these things as teachers that our students, some of them will eventually want to move on to be creators themselves. You mentioned that it could be a poet. It could be a musician. It could be a visual artist. We want to prepare them for these things, or at least some people would like to make sure that they’re providing the students with an understanding of what’s out there for them. At what point did you decide, “I should bring this into the classroom?”

John: It was the summer. I did a few different series. I did the GameBoy series. I started that on a site called Rarible. This is where the gas fees, where I really learned about gas fees, where you have to… Essentially, when you mint something where you list it for sale, you have to pay a certain amount of crypto for the computers to do their thing, and the miners, and all this thing. To cover those costs to be able to list this on Rarible, they charge you these gas fees every single time you upload an image. I was like, “Oh, I can’t afford this.”

It was like $20, $40, and then I don’t even get that much back. Then I switched that series to OpenSea, which is you pay the first two gas fees, I think, of 20 bucks, and then you can upload an unlimited amount of stuff. I did the GameBoy series. I did this Googly eyes celebrity series that taught me about copyright infringement, which I also have the conversation with my students because I’ve had this experience now. I’m like, “Okay, let’s do some Harry Potter characters. Let’s do these Matrix characters, whatever movie stuff. This will be funny.”

I redraw them, and then put Googly eyes on them. That was my thing. Then a couple people brought up like, “Hey, I don’t feel comfortable owning this anymore,” and they send them back to me. I was like, “Oh, maybe I should think about this.” I had people that purchased it send them back. I scrubbed that whole series. I turned them into something called Plain White Squares. It’s like instead of burning the NFTs, I just upload a different picture of a plain white square. Now, you can buy it, so learning experience there. Then I jumped into this facial hair club, which I’m doing now.

It’s, sorry, 1,000 hand-drawn characters. I’m doing this on my iPad in sketchbook, and it’s all different themes. I’m doing wrestlers and astronauts and samurai and cowboy, all these different themes, but the common denominator is they have facial hair of some kind. When I was doing that over the summer, I was like, “Oh man, I think kids would really love this. They could be able to draw whatever character they can think of.” This is when I started planning this lesson, and I did a Google slideshow for this. I just got hyped like, “Man, these kids, this is the huge playground now for them,” where it’s like you have this end goal of…

For me, it was nine character series, so it’s not a huge amount for kids to do. It probably took them three to four, maybe five tops 50-minute classes to do. They had to pick one character like head and shoulders kind of viewpoint, looking in a certain direction. That was the main character of all.

Candido: The repetition effect.

John: Yeah. Then they would create different attributes, and different accessories, and backgrounds, and whatever they wanted to go along with each character for their nine-character set. At the time of the summer, profile picture series were huge, and everybody wanted to change their Twitter avatar to something like a bored ape or a cool cat, and so I showcased this to the kids, and then I got so much amazing feedback from them of how fun it is.

Candido: Oh, great.

John: I do end-of-the term feedback Google form in all… 90% of the kids were like, “This is my favorite project we did this year, this half of the year.”

Candido: Wow.

John: They loved it. They absolutely loved it. I would encourage anybody… You don’t even have to talk about NFTs if you don’t want to, but this kind of thing of generating a bunch of characters that have different characteristics, but they’re part of a series.

Candido: Sure.

John: You can’t talk about Monet’s haystacks as a series, as a reference point anymore. You know what I mean?

Candido: Right.

John: There’s a certain point like, “Let’s cut this off.” There’s new artists. There’s contemporary artists. There’s living artists. Let’s talk about them instead of referencing the past masters, I guess. That’s where I’m at.

Candido: All right, so the thing that comes to mind is that some people are so comfortable in their existing curriculum and their lessons that they don’t want to deviate from that, right? But what you’re teaching is essentially… You can correct me if I’m wrong, but when somebody teaches Warhols, Soup Cans, or the Marilyn Monroe series, and they have their students recreate something in four squares using different colors in the four squares, which is such a… The lesson has happened for years.

This is not different than that. This is actually challenging the students to go beyond that and saying like, “Yeah, they can use different colors in the squares, in the nine squares. But also, what can we add to them that’ll alter the image so that there’s additional drawing component to it?” Right?

John: Yep. They can give them different skills if they want to do it digital. You can have this on paper and pencil and marker if you wanted to.

Candido: Sure.

John: It’s tapping into the same ideas, but different mediums, right?

Candido: Right. Yes. You mentioned it already. I want to build a little bit on it. I’m always interested in what the student feedback is. We are at the point in our profession where collaboration with the students is significant. It’s important, right?

John: Sure.

Candido: Because if we’re trying to build these relationships with the students, and keep them interested in what we’re doing, and not allowing them to surpass us in what their knowledge is. I introduced… I just refer to his helmet so that we can do a national helmet project, but I had him… I had the character on the smartboard at the time, just because it was interesting to look at. I had three of my students between third grade and fourth grade that just said, “Oh, is that an NFT?” I was like, “Hmm, that’s interesting.”

John: Oh wow.

Candido: That can happen, right? You can find yourself in a situation where your students know more than you, and then it’s up to you to play catch-up. What we’re trying to do right now, to everyone who’s listening, we’re trying to give you pieces of information that you can build on in order to beat that, because the last thing you want is to find yourself in a situation where you are totally behind.

John: Exactly.

Candido: Not that there’s anything wrong with not knowing, because that’s beautiful when your students bring new information to you, but you also don’t want to be the person who dismissed it, and then the student brought it up.

John: I think that’s the attitude, unfortunately, of the population at large is like, “Oh, NFTs, that’s a fad. That’s stupid. That’s whatever.” It’s not… It’s here. It’s not going anywhere. People are making millions of dollars selling their art. Why wouldn’t you even consider looking at it? Hopefully, this conversation will lean some people that way of, “Oh, all right, let me get it on YouTube, and click a couple links and figure this out, or ask a friend or?”

Candido: Right. I hope so as well. So your student response, what’s it been like?

John: Kids were very disappointed that I was not actively selling them as NFTs. I think that was the biggest one. Mr. Hanson, are you going to list these on OpenSea? I’m like, “No, no, no. No, we’re making them like NFTs, but this is just staying on your iPad, and I’ll put it on Instagram for you,” but that was… Then you’re like, “How do I… I’d have to set up an entire different wallet,” and then you’re making money off of a kid’s artwork. But if it goes back to the school, somehow, if they got parental consent, there’s that whole craziness, which you could totally do as a teacher.

Candido: Sure.

John: If you want to do this as a fundraiser or something, this is a possibility.

Candido: Correct. Right.

John: I personally haven’t converted my crypto to U.S. dollars in a bank account, so I don’t know that whole thing. It’s just there. That was one thing. I had a couple of kids. I had a lot of kids doing animals, which was encouraged. I think that’s an easy starting point, especially at the middle school level, so eighth-graders were doing this project for me, so a lot of dolphins and giraffes and monkeys. I had one kid that wanted to do World War I soldiers.

Candido: Oh wow.

John: I was like, “All right, let’s see what that looks like.” They had different uniforms and backgrounds and scenes, so that was a really unique take on that. Dragons, just a lot of really popular stuff. So if you wanted to go in depth with this, and you want to tie this into, I don’t know, something historical or something with a little bit more depth, you certainly could with this character series, which at the high school levels, I would think maybe it would become something a little bit more.

For my kids, I just wanted them to mainly get some skills like layers, and color swaps, and things like that using the software that we have on our iPads. That was my kind of base level.

Candido: Before we go any further, this lesson exists, so I think it’s important that I just share that this lesson is available for anybody who’s listening to purchase from your Teachers Pay Teachers. We’ll link that into show notes, because it’ll go in-depth, and you’ll have some concrete examples as to how to get this project done, because like we’re both saying, it’s fun either way. Even if you don’t feel like teaching NFTs per se, the project is really cool. It’s just a fun challenge. Looking through the examples, the references is also just fun too, because some of these series, they’re so silly, and it’s just enjoyable art, especially for the grades that you teach.

But also, if I wanted to introduce this at the elementary level, there’s projects out there that are decent, and they’re friendly, and they’re family oriented in a way that you just have to do a little bit research, and make sure that you’re showing, but no different than having to teach art history, and having to look through that stuff as well.

John: I’m more than welcome to answer any questions via email too, or hit me up on Instagram or something like that, because you and I know this is new, new. Even though it’s a year old, we’re still on the brink. I think it’s going to take three or four more years for more people to catch up on this.

Candido: I think so as well. Now, you mentioned that some of the students were concerned about not being able to sell their work. I think what’s interesting is… The students, if they so chose to, or their parents decided to say reach out to you as a teacher and say, “Hey, I would be interested in doing this,” I think that’s really cool because then neither parents can take over the project, but you can assist with the process.

John: Yes.

Candido: That’s something to take into consideration as well, because we do want to see our students succeed if the opportunity is there, and the opportunity is there.

John: It’s there right now.

Candido: Oh my gosh. I mean, there’s projects. There are so many projects, but I think the first one that I always look back to is the Nyla Collection, the long neck ladies, 12-year-old young lady, and she’s producing this work that people love. They adore everything about the project. They adore her. They enjoy the amount of empowerment that the project is pushing out there, and there’s that element to this scene as well where that can happen, that these communities are building around these really positive messages. Nyla’s 12. You have other examples of like…

John: No. I looked her up just for some quick reference. Long Neckie Collection is on OpenSea.

Candido: Right.

John: She has, right now, 3,300 different drawings. She has made 1,600 Ethereum, which translates to $417,000 she has made. That’s U.S. dollars at 12 years old. Who has this opportunity? We never had this. Are you kidding me?

Candido: No. At best, I was making money for doing custom yearbooks on the back.

John: Yeah, man. No way this existed. At 12 years old, right? There’s another 12-year-old, Ben Ahmed. He made this pixel series of weird whales. He made 3,400 whales, and he has made 1,800 Ethereum.

Candido: Wow.

John: That translates to 468,000 U.S. dollars, so half a million dollars at 12 years old, and he… I think one of his siblings came up with some algorithm that paired these little pixel whales with different hats and accessories and things like that. The computer put these things together, so he didn’t have to do all the physical handmade stuff, just like the base level stuff, and then the computer put these things together.

Candido: Incredible.

John: Using these technologies to our advantage is also an important conversation, not just the artwork behind it. Then, of course, I don’t know, 12-year-olds shouldn’t be thinking about having to promote yourself as an artist yet, but there’s that level that, especially at the high school level, you got to talk about this with kids. Like, “If you really want to be an artist, how are you going to get your name out there? So you want to sell your work on Etsy?” That’s a conversation. I’ve done that. I can certainly have that conversation, but not all teachers have been able to do that.

I don’t think all teachers are artists either, like working artists or living artists. That’s super sad to me, that teaching is… As an art teacher, teaching’s, first and foremost, great, awesome. Do that, but I hope that some people are still creating out there. Some art teachers are still doing stuff, and following that passion, and doing their art for themselves because that’s super important, and that’s what you’re also showing kids. I think that’s what I try to get across in and out of the classroom of like, “No, I’m doing art. I’m not just here in this room teaching you, and I live here. I go home. I go home, I’m out in the world, and I’m part of this bigger community.”

Candido: There is so much more that you and I can go into.

John: Totally.

Candido: I think what we’ll do is we’ll gauge this episode. So for any of listeners who are listening, reach out to us if you want to hear a part two to this conversation. I’m sure that I could get John to join us again. But you mentioned this idea of keeping teachers creative. I think I want to make an open invitation to a project that you and I have going on.

John: Cool. Yes.

Candido: We just had our second annual, and basically, what we’re doing is we have teachers join themselves. Well, you made a reference on Instagram to Monster Squad, the movie. I thought it was really… I thought it would be really cool if we made a teacher monster squad, and so it’s really an open collaboration where teachers can create self portraits of themselves as monsters. We send them over to you.

John: During Halloween.

Candido: Right, during Halloween. We send them over to you. We turn into one huge collage. It’s just a really cool opportunity to connect with a bunch of teachers across the nation, because it’s not a closed invitation. If you see this, if you see one of our posts, and you want to jump in, jump in.

John: Awesome.

Candido: Be on the lookout for that one. We’ll start promoting that by September.

John: September.

Candido: Something to build the hype on that. All right, John, thank you.

John: Hey, thank you. This is a pleasure.

Candido: There’s a saying in the NFT community, we all gonna make it. It’s the kind of phrase you’d hope to hear more of in the education circles. It’s rooted in the uplifting of the community as a whole. I’m not completely sure where to go with that in its relation to education, but consider it food for thought. If interdisciplinary lessons or steam is your thing, I highly recommend checking out this lesson that we’ve discussed during the episode. You can find it in the show notes.

Ultimately embracing and incorporating NFTs in your curriculum requires some learning, and as Jessica Balsley wrote, you’ve probably entered the field of education, in part, because you love to learn. You can check out the rest of her article titled What It Means to Be A Lifelong Learner on the AUEU website. Remember, we’re early. The whole thing is brand new, and so we’re still growing together. Thanks for listening to Everyday Art Room. I hope you’ve learned enough to want to know more. Catch you 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.