Media & Techniques

How to Build Student Confidence (Ep. 147)

In this episode, Ryan Loeppky returns to the show to explore more ideas about teaching with Tim (as the two usually do). They talk about how to build student confidence and help kids find their artistic voice. Listen as they discuss skill building, encouraging the creation of original work, and why we need to work alongside kids rather than handing down ideas from above.  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 and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Today’s episode I want to talk about building confidence in our kids and encouraging them to have the confidence to come up with and execute on the ideas that they have. My guest is going to be Ryan Loeppky who has been on the show a few times before. Everybody seems to love him. And he and I always like to hash out a lot of our ideas together.

Now, I was thinking about the topic of confidence for a couple of reasons. Number one, Nina Rodriguez is going to be back at the Art Ed Now Winter Conference talking about helping students find their artistic voice. I’m really excited about that idea. Along with that, I just sat down with a class of AP students, and we had a really good conversation last week about their portfolios. In particular, the concentration side of their portfolios. Where kids are exploring an idea or a theme in a really in-depth way. A big part of that discussion is we need to make sure that kids are able to speak clearly about what interests them as they develop those ideas or develop those themes. They need to stand up with that artistic voice and they need to, I guess, convey their artistic ideas with some amount of confidence.

Those ideas fit in with things that Ryan and I have been going back and forth with via email. How do we push kids to do new things? How do we get them to explore new ideas without shattering their confidence? Without taking away that confidence that’s been built up? Today we’re going to continue that discussion. To be honest, I don’t know exactly where the conversation will go, but it’s always a fun one with Ryan. I think it’s time to check in, see what he’s been thinking about and what he’s doing in his classroom these days. So, let me get him on the line and we will see where this discussion goes.

All right. And Ryan Loeppky is back on the podcast with me now. Ryan, how are you tonight?

Ryan: I’m doing all right, how are you?

Tim: I’m doing really well. I’m excited to talk to you because I feel like we always have really fun conversations. Not to put any pressure on you, but we usually come up with some really deep thoughts that I think are super helpful. I’m not saying that you need to do that tonight, but you should do all right. Last time you’re on the show we talked about your idea of the artful human. Just that idea that everyone has, I guess I want to say creative contributions to make, that artistic voice to speak with.

But thinking about that, I feel like just a big majority of our kids don’t come to us with that artistic voice developed just yet. So, my question for you is, when you’re thinking about this in your classroom, what are some of the ways that we can help kids start to be confident in their voice and start to be confident in what they have to say?

Ryan: Oh, yeah, that is like all kinds of different levels of interesting stuff going on there. But to start off with, I think that if you allow for voice in your class, you’re opening it up to having to … And I love using analogies because my students get it and I had a really great talk with some great twelves today. In fact, just talking about what it’s like to be a teacher where you do open that up. I give each student their own finish line, their own starting point in their own endpoint. When you allow voice in your class, what you’re really doing is you’ve got, let’s see, you 24 kids in your classroom, you’ve got 24 different voices, 24 walks of life, 24 just total perspectives going on, and they’re like balloons. And trying to keep 24 balloons up in the air all the time is really really hard.

When you allow for voice to happen in your class, you’re really opening it up to all of this individuality. And to allow for that voice to come through it really comes down to maybe teaching some basic skills to them. Teaching the foundational skills of drawing and painting and sculpting and art history as a way to get them just dipping their toe into the great big giant world that is art, and showing a wide variety of people’s art as well. Showing them works of art from all over the world is really important for them to see that not only do all these people around the world have this voice that comes out in a visual way, but they have a voice and they have an individual voice. It’s not my voice that should be coming through 24 kids. I should be the conductor of this energy. I should be the conduit that takes all this energy, focuses it so that every kid has a voice in class.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s really good. I like the idea of facilitating all of those voices. As you said, you want to help kids, you want to facilitate their voice coming out. You don’t want your voice, you don’t want your ideas coming through. In there, you mentioned just working with skills. I want to dive into that idea because I’ve always found that a lot of kids are in art class because they really want to draw, they want to learn how to draw. It’s tough to get them to realize like, oh, we have so much more to do. But that’s a good starting point.

So, I want to ask you, just in your opinion, how important are those basic skills, those foundational skills? Like you said, when it comes to building our kids’ confidence, do you think it should start there should it start with those skills?

Ryan: Yeah, you know what, to build a little bit of confidence in them. To let them know, hey, you could be really killer artists already doing copying other people’s drawings or copying a picture, something like that. But we can all build those skills. Again, I’m going back to analogies man, I’m sorry, but I tell the students that these skills, the more skill you learn in the drawing, the more proficiency you get in things like drawing and painting and whatever else, it’s like the letters of the alphabet. It’s really hard writing a love letter with just the letters R, T, and L. Really hard.

So you need all these letters. Those letters are all the different skills that you might need to express, to start that journey of expression. For myself, I say it’s much like linseed oil is the vehicle that carries the pigment. So, the skills are the linseed oil, and the ideas are the pigments. So, these skills are going to carry that message forward. They’re going to get those things out into the world and onto canvas.

This idea of our mind and our hearts having something to say, and then these skills being able to transfer it from our head through our hands onto amazing and incredible works of art, hopefully.

Tim: These are some good … I have to say this is the first time we’ve had a linseed oil analogy. But I think it’s a good one.

Ryan: Man, when you’re a classically trained oil painter, and you live, breathe and die oil paint, then you got to use those analogies man.

Tim: All right. That’s cool. We’ll allow it. I do want to ask you though, we talked about that as a starting point. After kids have these skills, we need to move on. We need to develop that voice. We need to encourage them to start to make this original work and speak with that voice. But it seems to me, and I don’t know if this is your experience as well. But this seems like some kids have so much difficulty just coming up with an idea that’s their own, that’s something original.

Ryan: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Tim: They always seem to fall back on what’s comfortable, on something that they can do with confidence? I guess my question for you is, how can we push them to do more original work without upsetting their confidence?

Ryan: Oh, man, and I had this talk with my grade twelves today. They hit me with like a mack truck comment that I had to really take in, and I had to sit with for a really long time. And I’m still sitting with it, so I’m going to share it with the world now, I guess. But they said one person said to me, one of their opinions and I took it in and took it seriously was sometimes I feel like I am … Oh, how do they put it? That my ideas, that if I have an idea, the expectations are that I have this idea but Mr. Loeppky has a certain idea of how creativity should be expressed, or how an idea should be expressed.

I went, whoa, okay. I got to make sure that I’m keeping that voice open, that I’m making sure that they have a place a safe place, to show or to express themselves. It’s tricky man. You’ve got 24, 30 or 18 individual voices. It’s like walking on eggshells with every single person. Are they having a good day today? Are they having a bad day today? Are they coming in just saying, “You know what, leave me alone. Let me do my copying for today and I’ll start working on something tomorrow.”

I haven’t always navigated that properly. I know I have failed many, many times. I failed many students in that regard with talking to them. I am daily, I am learning how to navigate that idea that I want to encourage them to express their own voice. I try to put it very gently that when we copy works of art, it is like copying a book. It’s where is your voice in somebody else’s work?

That’s one of the questions I ask them if they’re in the right place to do so. So, what works for me in the class may not work for everyone. There may be other people out there that have a better way of saying, “Hey, you’ve got to have some original ideas here. You can’t just be copying stuff from Pinterest.” Yeah, it’s hard to navigate.

Tim: Yeah, it definitely is. I don’t want to harp on the failures that you talked about. But I do want to ask you-

Ryan: Do it.

Tim: No, I just want to get your idea on what kinds of things work and what kinds of things don’t when we’re trying to get our kids to go beyond copying. I’ll ask you this, and I’ll let you think about it for just a second, I’ll tell you a couple things that I like to do. But, what are some concrete strategies that people can use to encourage their kids and to push their kids?

Ryan: Okay.

Tim: For me, I like to tell them that I don’t allow copying in the room. We’re not taking projects from Pinterest, we’re not taking projects from whatever else they may be finding. We talk about the reasons behind that as you said. If they’re in love with it, then go ahead and do it in your sketchbook. But I like to tell them, I hope with the collaborative effort that we put together in this room, we can guide each other to some new ideas, we can push our brainstorming. We can work with each other to come up with more original ideas.

I think just having those conversations and being able to guide kids into how can you make this your own? How can you change this? How can you bring in your own voice? Just showing them how it’s done I think is big, just working through the process with them over and over until they get it has been successful for me. but I’d love to hear just any ideas you have about what has worked or even what hasn’t worked for you.

Ryan: One of the things that … When my students are copying other works of art or they’re … they’re painters and museum that go in and they go in and they copy masterworks of arts. I guess it’s just put yourself in the artist’s shoes a little bit. What I tell my students is you are welcome to go and copy a work of art if that is going to help you build some skill. But that’s as far as it’s going to go. We are looking for creativity, part of your mark is a creative mark. So, don’t expect to get big shiny fireworks in the air marks for creativity for something that you’re copying. But you can definitely reflect on it with skill building and stuff like that, no problem, but let’s push that creativity.

That’s how I talk to them about when they copy art. To encourage original thoughts and ideas, what I try to do with my students is I really try to empower them from the beginning all the way to the end. By empowering them, I mean they have their own online portfolio where they show me their learning, they show me their process. Because the process is so important in my class. I also want them to be empowered with how they create, or how they come up with creative ideas. I call it the list, and the is in capital letters.

What I try to do is give them a list of challenges. I don’t like to use the word assignments, I try to stay away from it just because it’s in a lot of the other classes, and I want to be different on the art class, on the art things. So, let’s do things differently.

I have a bunch of different challenges. This is something that every teacher can make. They could also find challenges potentially online. I start really direct with some of my challenges. Some of the really direct challenges that I would have would be, oh, man things like doing a media challenge. So, taking a certain art media that you haven’t worked with before and just starting to work with it. Make something out of recycled material. Go grab the wire, go font down some old pieces of electronics and put something together there. We do things like media challenges then I might do a problem challenge. Like, make something old, new. Deconstruct the constructed.

One of my favorites and it takes a little bit of encouragement and working through. But things like what’s really inside? That could mean anything. What’s really inside a tap? Are there little people with little buckets chucking water? You can have all kinds of great little ideas. What you do is you empower the student to take it to the next level. They could take it really surface level. So, dissect emotion. I’m sad, do a bunch of sad frowny faces or something like that. But then they could really dissect emotion and start to look at all of its complexities. How being angry is really a form of being sad or hurt or something like that, and then dissecting that even further, and what kind of images and stuff would I use for that?

What I try to do is give them a lot of prompts and a lot of challenges. Yeah, I’ve come up with some pretty big lists and some really weird looking list to help them out with that.

Tim: Now I think that’s always good because we talk all the time about giving our kids constraints with our their creativity, and I think that’s a great way to do that. But what I really want to ask you about though, is how we keep that momentum going? We have all of these ideas, all of these prompts for them to get creative, to embrace that and build their confidence in that way. I guess the question is, how do we reinforce that? How do we reinforce the creativity that’s happening? How do we keep kids on course as we’re helping them find their creativity and find their voice?

Ryan: I’m going to go back to the empowerment thing. I think it’s really important to empower students to take control of their own learning. That doesn’t mean that I’m not there, but I’m not pulling them to a certain target. I am walking beside them to that target. At least I tried to as much as possible. I try to empower my students to start to think about what they’re creating.

When we have expectations that we have rubrics and we have stuff like that, I feel like it’s very top down. So, what I did was I created a little document for my students called making a MESS in art. And mess is M-E-S-S, and it’s an acronym. Teachers love acronyms. Not so many students, but whatever. What it is, is MESS is mind energy, skill, and success. What I did instead of putting points in and instead of directing it to where you’ve done this, and you’ve done that, or other stuff. What I’ve done is I’ve just asked them questions. What that does is it forces them to respond to themselves, to answer those questions for themselves.

When we talk about creativity, that goes under the mind sort of thing. Where the concept of the piece begins and where it’s born. Some of the questions I ask are like, what inspires me? Am I taking risks and embracing the outcome? Is this a fresh and new idea? Or is this subject I’m looking at genuinely interesting to me? Am I finding sources to help enhance my art? Trying new ways and materials or looking at other works of art as inspiration, not replication. That’s a big one for me.

These are the questions I put forward to the students and I say ask these questions, answer them honestly. When you do those personality tests, I know you really want to be like this person that’s out killing, but really you’re kind of shy. So, don’t answer these like you know the personality questions, answer them really honestly. What that does is it really keeps them accountable and gently pushes them toward taking initiative for their learning and for their artistic journey.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really well said. I think you’ve given me a lot to think about here. I appreciate that. We need to wrap it up. But I feel like as we’ve done every time you come on this podcast, we’re going to just think about these ideas for a while, email back and forth, and then in like three months, we’ll just have you back on the show again.

Ryan: So I can apologize for rambling.

Tim: No, it’s good. Like I said, a lot to think about. So, cool. Ryan, thank you so much. We’ll go ahead and wrap it up there. But I appreciate you giving me some time, and given us all a little bit more to think about.

Ryan: Oh, absolutely. My pleasure, my honor, and a huge hello to all the art teachers out there, keeping all those balloons up in the air.

Tim: Love it. Love it. All right. We’ll talk to you later.

Ryan: Take care.

Tim: Okay, I think it is time for me to wrap this up and do it fairly quickly. This always happens with Ryan and me. We end up talking for way too long. Before we go, I just want to encourage you to take a look at this year’s Art Ed Now online Conference. It’s taking place on February 2nd, this year, the first Saturday in February. We will have hands-on art-making opportunities, ideas for new lessons, brain breaks, visual journals, and just a huge variety of other topics. It is an awesome day of professional development. You can see all of the presentations we’ve released, and see what the conference is all about at Make sure you check it out soon.

Now, I appreciate you all listening, and I would love to hear from me if you have the time. Shoot me an email about confidence, about artistic voice, about what you’re doing to help develop your kids’ strengths and develop their confidence. Because they have that type of discussion that we can have, that type of exploration, that type of back and forth is what really helps us develop as art teachers.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education, audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening. As always, we have just one more episode until we take some time off for the holidays, but we will make sure the last one is a good one. We’ll talk to you then.

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.