Relationship Building

Inspired By Our Students (Ep. 118)

As art teachers, we sometimes have the tendency to fall back in our own interests–and our own aesthetics–when we design our lessons. But how can things change if we design lessons around what will interest our students? In today’s episode, listen to Nic’s ideas about engagement, building a classroom community, and always keeping students’ interests in mind. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: When I started developing lesson plans as an art teacher or educator, I based everything I did on my style, my taste, as well as the things that I was being told were important such as art history, mediums, different things, different cultures and all of them are extremely important to include into your lesson plans. But the one thing that I was missing at the time was student interest. I remember the very first lesson that I created that was inspired by a student in my class, I will tell you that story in just a moment. It wasn’t necessarily successful but it was interesting to start looking around myself and just thinking, “What would that student want or what would that group of kids want to make? What would they want to do? What activities would engage them more?” Today we’re going to talk about how to engage your students by creating activities and lessons that are based on their interests. This is Nic Hahn and this is Everyday Art Room.

I know exactly how long ago this story began because the kiddo that I am going to talk about recently graduated from high school. We’re talking 12, 13 years ago. I decided that I was not reaching this one individual. He was the… not even the last, he was maybe the fourth or fifth kid from the same family that was coming into my classroom and all the other kids that I had from this family I connected with art was their favorite class. They just loved coming to art. Then Jacob came into my classroom and Jacob was very sweet, sweet little kindergartener but he was not interested in art at all. I tried some different things, just making small talk with him. He’d have nice conversation but art just wasn’t going to be his thing. He told me that. He said, “I’m going to be a farmer when I grow up and that’s what I’m going to be.”

I truly believe that this kiddo will be a farmer and knew that from the day he was born. It is wonderful that he knew his path in life. However, art was not in his path or not part of his path. I decided since he was so interested in farming that I would create a kindergarten landscape, get this, it was going to have cows in it. I knew that Jacob’s family was a cow farming family. I decided to put some cows, one in the foreground, one in the background and I was so proud of myself. I drew up this cow in the background. It was teeny by the horizon line with not a lot of details. And then the one in the foreground was big and close to the bottom of the page and had tons of details like spots.

This is where I was going to snag Jacob and get him to love my class forever. I said, “Does anyone know what kind of cow this is?” I looked around the room, many hands were up, Jacob’s still was not. Then he did finally raise his hand. I said, “Jacob. What kind of cow is this?” He said, “Ms. Hahn, I’m going to have to say that’s a bull because I don’t see any teats.”

I was not expecting that answer. I quickly then said, “It also has spots on it and that’s what makes it a Holstein cow. You can put spots on your cow as well.” It didn’t work. I mean Jacob was not in love with this particular lesson plan but I felt good about trying to engage him in a way, trying to meet him in a way that would work for him. If nothing else, we did make a connection and I have a treasured story from this experience. It was the first of many activities and lesson plans that I have created because of individual students or pop culture that is going on in my school and I can’t wait to go over some of them that I’ve done in the past, some that I’ve seen on Instagram and Twitter and some that I want to do.

There’s even some future lessons here. Let’s get going with some of the ideas that you might be able to use in your classroom as well. Around the same time that I was teaching Jacob that amazing lesson about the cows, the Holstein cows by the way. There was a new fad going on in the school. It was called Silly Bandz. Silly Bandz are jelly bracelets that when you take them off from your hands, they form a shape so they may be in a shape of a cow. I have cows on the brain obviously or a boat or a house, some shape and then when you would collect them, you’d try to get all the different shapes and wear them on your hand and the more you’d collect, the better it was and so on and so forth. You know how this goes.

Anytime that there is a new fad in school, it becomes an obsession for the kids and therefore teachers want to ban it. I’m going to highly encourage you to look at that thing, that thing that is the new trend, and look at how you can use it in your classroom rather than being in it and getting rid of it. With the Silly Bandz, what we ended up doing was we took some modeling clay and we would roll it into a ball and then we’d put a Silly Band down on our table and then press the modeling clay onto the band. Then we’d carefully remove the band, take our modeling clay that had the shape now indented into it, press it into some ink and we would use it to print. This was so engaging for my students. They absolutely loved it. Not only did they get to bring in their collection of art but, or I’m sorry, of Silly Bandz but they also got to use them to create something in their art class.

It was a win-win situation and maybe it wasn’t the most popular amongst the other teachers but that’s okay. It was definitely engaging for the students. Another one was kendamas. They were a huge trend a couple of years ago as well. They’re… it’s like a peg that you hold onto with some string off from it and at the bottom is a ball and you try to balance the ball, like kind of throw the ball on the string up into the air and catch it on your peg that you’re holding onto as a handle. Again, this was super annoying to a lot of teachers but I noticed that a lot of the kendamas were really, really interesting in design and shape. That becomes a still life. We bring it in and use this new obsession that everybody wants to talk about and have and we put it in the middle of the table and everybody gets to look at it and draw it.

One thing that I would recommend, is look at the trends in your school, especially the ones that are becoming a little taboo and see how you can work that into your curriculum in your classroom. Another thought that I have is what’s good for me is good for them. I think about the things that I really enjoyed when I was their age. Let’s start with our kindergarten, our youngest students. One of the things that I was obsessed with when I was about six, seven years old was Plato. I wanted to play with it all the time and I wanted to mix the colors. If it was of high interest for me when I was about that age, guess what? This mass amount of kids that you have every year at exactly that same age is developmentally ready and engaged for that activity. Plato is one thing that I do use for my younger students as they get a little bit older.

I started thinking, “I know that my own children at home love to build forts.” They use blankets and pillows and they put it all together and they create these forts that feel so special when you’re in them because it blocks off the rest of the world. It’s something that you can create on your own. When we were talking about architecture in second grade, I brought in all the old sheets that I could find around my house and one of the options they had to explore architecture was to work as a group using the chairs and tables and sheets and clothespins and they created their own forts. That was super engaging, so engaging that I had to offer it two weeks in a row because it was so much fun. What was really special about that actually was that the forts became more developed from week to week.

Another thing that I thought of as I was going through things that I was interested in once upon a time and what to bring into that particular age group is friendship bracelets. When I was in… I guess probably fifth or sixth grade, I loved making friendship bracelets. I would go to camp every summer. I’d learn some new knots and some new techniques of creating friendship bracelets and therefore I’d have all these bracelets to hand out in the fall, the beginning of the school year. They were a lot of fun and they were a way to show someone you cared about them. I too brought in friendship bracelets into my curriculum. Just that hand-eye coordination and that patience is really important skills. I know that is a little bit more of a craft but I really do bring craft into my classroom because I feel it’s so important to encourage those fine motors.

You don’t see those activities being done very often by majority of students outside of the classroom because it’s just not where our culture is right now. If you can bring craft in something that they can do on their own, you’re going to encourage them to be using their hands and be makers in the future. As I just mentioned, craft is not as popular for the youth of today but we all know technology is definitely an engaging part of our youth life right now. Use it to your advantage. It doesn’t have to be used technology in your classroom. Think of what they’re doing in their life that you could bring into your classroom. For example, many, many years ago when Twitter was just coming onto the scene, I decided to make a tweet board for my students. This became a way for students to maybe brainstorm what’s going on for the day or do exit ticket.

They would go up and write a tweet about a prompt that I gave them. They’d just go up to the board. I had little pieces of paper that were laminated and what they in…and they all wrote their name on these pieces of paper that were hanging on the board. I would put the prompt up, they would use a dry erase marker and they’d go write their tweet and then hashtag it whatever. Maybe it was the prompt, hashtag it drawing, hashtag it shadow, whatever the prompt was or they’d hashtag it something of interest to them or maybe the main idea of what they were getting at. I use technology without having technology in the hands of the students. Another way that I did that was I often take and record my messages to my students using Snapchat filters. What I’ll do is… I do have a Snapchat.

I do not use it the way it is intended. I don’t snap anyone. I think that’s what it’s called but I do click through and choose different filters for my face and then I record myself saying different messages to my students. These are usually only shared within my classroom but it might be something like, “sixth graders. I’m so proud of how you cleaned up yesterday. It was so amazing. You pushed in the chairs, you cleaned up the trays I… and you put all the artwork exactly where it was supposed to go.” Instead of just having my face telling them that, I have a filter over my face that makes me look like a pig or a teddy bear or whatever filter I’m using for the day. It is engaging to students to just see their teacher using technology that they are using at the time.

I don’t know how much longer I have on Snapchat but I don’t know. The elementary kids still like it pretty much. Then I would use those filters as well. Again, still not putting technology in the hands of my students but I’m using that technology to take pictures of them using those filters from Snapchat. Then I would print that out and have the students draw their self-portraits but instead of just their normal face, they would have a Snapchat filter. I’ve seen this quite often out there in Instagram world where teachers are using these same ways to engage their students in their classroom. Another way to engage your students is to look around to see what is hot and trending right now. I’m actually not a huge pop culture person. I’m the last one to know about a new meme or a viral video.

I just, I don’t spend a lot of time looking at that information in this world but I do watch what students mimic and I find myself asking more about it. I’ll say, “I see that you’re doing this a lot. Tell me why you’re doing that?” That’s because of this. I saw it on the internet. Yeah, I did too.” And then I understand. Okay, that’s something to look into. Maybe check out and see if it’s appropriate or not. That’s always my first go to but then when I get the, “Okay.” Again, how can I use it in my classroom? Sometimes it’s as little as doing a little dance. For example, my husband Tim is six-five he is a Tech Ed teacher and for a period of time he spent… he would give his amazing lesson to his middle school students and then end his lesson with a dab.

Thought that was hilarious because it was exactly what his students were doing at the time constantly. But here it was this dorky teacher in the front of the room, dabbing. Every time you get done with a lesson, it made me laugh. I’m sure it made some of his students laugh and the other ones just thought he was a total dork, which was also an okay thing. Another thing that my staff recently did was the Git Up dance. You’ll have to look it up if you are not as cool as me and full of pop culture. I remember I just told you I’m not but the Git Up Challenge was a dance and so my whole staff recorded… we recorded ourselves getting up and doing something. First of all we did the dance as a group. It’s line dance and then we recorded ourselves in each of our areas.

Getting up and reading, getting up and playing, getting up and cleaning up, getting up and cleaning up. That should be the one that we do most often. But looking at what’s happening in pop culture, bringing it into your classroom. The Mannequin Challenge was one of my favorite things that happened. The Mannequin Challenge was when the room would continue to move and just be active. So like if there was something, I’m trying to think, like a clock in the background that’s still moving or something that… a swing on the playground that’s still swinging back and forth but all the people in the video that you’re taking held a pause and they try not to blink and they tried to hold this pose and the camera would walk around. All of the mannequins that were frozen.

That one was so fun. And we ended up doing that right before Christmas break several years ago. I went around and I did it for every single class in the school. It was a blast and a really fun thing to share with parents and students rewatch that and rewatch that over and over on YouTube. It was fun to share with our families of Hassan elementary.

This recommendation is for your hardest groups, the ones that you are just like, “it’s fourth hour. I really, those kids are going to come back again. I don’t want this to happen.” Here’s the deal. If students don’t like you, they won’t learn from you. If you don’t create a relationship with those students, they are going to be a little buggers for you. You are not going to be able to reach them and teach them the amazing things that you want to teach them. Take a few minutes or a few days or few weeks, who knows how long it’s going to take to work on your relationship before you start teaching them art. One thing that I did in middle school is just relationship-based anyways. You need to have their buy-in before you can have them create for you in your classroom. What we did was, made paper footballs and this is way back in my high school years.

We used to make these paper footballs and play football. It was a game that we would play table football. It was also the way that we communicated to each other in note form on a piece of paper, sending it to our friends. Anyways, you would fold up this piece of paper at the end of writing your amazing note in this triangle. Then a lot of times we would use those triangles to play a game called football and there’s rules to it. I decided to show my sixth graders this game. We learned how to make footballs and every day at the end of the hour, once they were cleaned up, we would play a round of football and we did it tournament style. The first couple of times we just played amongst ourselves, learning the rules. Then we started this tournament style. After a week or so, we were down to two people who were playing the tournament.

The entire class was cheering them on, keeping score for them. I would keep a timer, so it was only taking about five minutes out of my class time. But what that did was it created a camaraderie amongst the students who were all new to each other as well in the sixth-grade environment. It made me bond with them in a different way as well. We had this fun time together and it really did help them buy into what I was about to teach them. Think about what you have done as team-building, possibly within your staff or within your experiences in life and see what you can do to bring that into your classroom to engage with them, to be inspired by them so that they can be inspired by you.

There are lots of art educators out there who have been inspired by their students and create lesson plans based on that. One of the best places that you can get inspiration of art teachers who have done this, is by attending the Art of Education universities, online conference, which is called Art Ed Now. It is a global online conference for art teachers. The next available one is going to be in the winter of 2020 on February 1st. It is not too early or too late to sign up for this amazing professional development to experience. Just to give you some examples of ideas that I’ve witnessed on this conference, I’ve witnessed Abby Schukei I talking about using 3-D printing pens to create some very engaging cookie cutters. I’ve witnessed Tim Bogatz who was being inspired by his students and instead of just drawing a self-portrait, he actually set up a photo shoot where they took photographs of the students underwater and then drew that.

So cool. Or Ian Sands, he talked about using Skittles to pixelate an image and he had these giant, huge finished pieces from his students of pixelated Skittles creating an artwork. Those are just some examples. Those are blasts from the past. What’s happening now and current is going to be at this next Art Ed Now global conference that is coming up February 1st as always, it was a joy talking to you today. Be inspired by your students and share how you have been inspired by your students in your classroom. In the comments with this podcast, we’ll chat with you again 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.