Making Rules or Making Art on Day One? (Ep. 025)

What do you do on the first day of class with your students? Why not start creating? Rules, procedures, and expectations are undoubtedly important, but so is making art! Janine Campbell, one of the best middle school teachers around, joins Tim to talk about the ins and outs of starting your year the right way. They talk about why Janine breaks out clay on the first day of school (5:00), why we need to avoid the “sit and get” syllabus (9:30), and why it’s always important to try something new (16:30). Full episode transcript below.

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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.

Don’t look now, but it’s time for another school year. Some of my art teacher friends are back to work already which is crazy to me, but whether you like it or not it’s coming soon for all of us. That’s what I want to talk about. How do you start off your school year? Janine Campbell, middle school teacher who is absolutely one of the best out there, will join me and talk about why she has her kids working with clay on the first day and what benefits that has for a classroom and for her students. We’ll talk today, what are you doing at the beginning of the year? Are you making art, are you making rules on day number one?

I used to be a by the book guy: rules, regulations, expectations on the first day. I always thought that if I didn’t do that my class would fall apart and I’d be fighting battles the rest of the year with my kids, but eventually I came to two realizations. First, that’s a terrible way to start off the year with your kids, and secondly, we can so much better on the first day.

Let’s talk about both of those. Why is it such a terrible way to start the year? I think about it this way. You need to put yourself in the shoes of your kids. They’ve been bored all summer, they’re excited to come back to school, – whether they act like it or not – and they’re looking to you for some excitement and something cool. Art might be the seventh and final class of the day, and each of their first six classes they’ve gone over rules, gone over expectations, read through the syllabus. Do you really want to force them to do that a seventh time? Do you really want to be the same as every other class? Or, do you want to flip the script, get out paint or get out clay, and show them how amazing art class can be? I’m telling you, let them start making, start working, start creating on that first day, because when you do that you show your kids what your class is really like and you set the tone for an entire semester.

Art is better than every other class. Art is more exciting than every other class, and you are setting yourself up for a successful and engaging semester where your kids are buying into what you’re selling from the very first day. That’s my challenge to you. This year I want you to do something new the first week of school. If you like that idea of what I’m talking about, Janine will be on in just a second to talk about the logistics of how she does this and why she thinks it’s important.

Now, if you don’t think you can do this, if you can’t pull yourself away from getting your class set up and going over procedures and expectations, getting everything just the way you need it, that’s fine. No judgment here. But I’m still going to challenge you to try something new this year. In fact, the Art of Ed is dedicating this entire week on the website to new ideas, new ways of doing things, and we’re hoping to inspire you to try something different this year. Check out TheArtofEd.com every day this week to see what might be there for you. We want you to try something new this school year. We want you to challenge your students, challenge yourself. Find a new idea and implement it. I guarantee you you will be glad you did.

Let’s talk about easy it can be to bring in those ideas. Janine is here and I’m going to ask her about her first day of school, how she challenges her students, and why it’s important for all of us to get outside our comfort zone and try something new. Let’s bring her on.

Janine Campbell is joining me now. Janine, thanks and how are you?

Janine: I’m doing pretty good, how are you doing?

Tim: I’m really well, thank you. I’m excited to talk about all these new things that we like to do at the beginning of the school year. Let’s go ahead and jump right in with the question that we asked in the title of the show. In your classroom, are you making rules/are you making art on day one?

Janine: For me, I think it’s not a choice from one to the other, I think it’s about doing both. When my students walk into my classroom they’re definitely greeted with a smile and a welcoming atmosphere. We go over the expectations, but we make art in the process. When I first decided to do this I was a bit nervous about what material am I going to engage with them on day one. About five years ago, I decided to break out the clay which for some we wait until the end of the term or end of the year to do because it is a messy material, but I decided I’m going to go with my best foot forward and break out the clay on day one. We use that clay material, but while we’re doing it we do go over the rules and expectations, too.

Tim: Okay, that’s cool. That’s a really good combination. I like that a lot because I know a lot of teachers are very scared that if they don’t go over the rules on day one that their class is just going to descend into chaos. We can talk about that a little bit later, but I guess what was the impetus behind you deciding to go with clay? What made you think, “Oh, I need to do something more hands on, I need to do something more engaging or more exciting on the first day”? What got you started with that.

Janine: I think it’s important to know where you are now is where have you been, what’s gotten to you to that point. For me, when I first started out in teaching I really took to heart what I had learned in my undergraduate classes about classroom management and making sure that you are tough and strong so the kids will respect you. I spent probably my first two or three years really trying to be that tough, strong person which I’m not saying that I’m not that person but I was sort of being a falsehood of myself trying to really be this stern, authoritative type. In doing so, I began to lose myself and lose the real reason why I went into being an art teacher in the first place and that’s making art.

For my students, art is a choice. They don’t have to be there, they elect to be there, and I wasn’t feeling like I was really maximizing the time. Again, I don’t see the kids for the full year. I’m a middle school teacher so I see them everyday for half of the school year, which is great, that’s a lot of time, but it still is never enough. I thought, “How can I maximize my time with my students?” and to me it became just so crystal clear that I need to start with an engaging activity starting on day one. Not only because it’s good for my students, but it was really what was best for me, too. I think when you find that intersection of what’s keeping your students at the forefront and the center of it, you’ll find that in the end it ends up being good for you, too. That’s what really got me decided to be hands on in that way.

In terms of deciding clay, we had been doing an Empty Bowls project and it was always a little bit tricky to figure out when in the year to fit that in. I kept thinking about – it was just hard for me to organize my curriculum so that it fit in naturally. Because Empty Bowls is all about service learning and putting art into action for a positive cause, I thought, “You know, that’s the message I really want to start my school year with. That’s what made me want to become an art teacher because I believe art in action is powerful.” It was what was modeled to me by my art teachers that got me passionate, and that’s really the lasting impact I want to have on my students. That’s why I decided to start out that way.

Tim: I really – well, I like a lot of the things that you said there, but I think it is important to be authentic and, like you said, put your best foot forward when you’re first showing kids, “This is a great class, we have a really cool environment here,” and then yeah, if you can work in more of those ideas and more of those passions. That’s awesome to be able to get to that on the first day because it really gets kids aware of how different and how cool art class can be. I like that, but do you see other benefits to that? Do you think that’s the most important part is just getting kids involved in art? What’s the best benefit with getting started with the hands on stuff immediately as soon as they come into the room?

Janine: I think the best benefit is that it’s usually going to be something different than what’s happening in all of the other classes throughout the day. What’s been really interesting for me is over time I’ve seen more and more teachers and just other people out there adapting this idea that the sit-and-get syllabus is not necessarily what the kids want to come back to after a summer off. They had their fun time in the summer, but there are a lot of times, too, where I’m sure that they were sitting at home thinking, “This is kind of boring, I wish I had something to occupy my time.” Going back to school for a lot of kids is exciting and often times, and I know I did this my first few years of teaching, I dropped the ball on that excitement by just having them sit in their neat rows and talk at them for the first sixty minutes that I’m talking to them for the school year.

I just find that it’s benefited me as a teacher, it’s established a lot of trust with my students. It’s great when before the school year started and I have students that I haven’t had yet as students, but I will, and they come up to me and they tell me, “I heard a rumor that we’re going to do clay on the first day?” That to me is great. You want those good rumors to be spreading.

Tim: Yeah, I love that. I love that that has reached beyond your classroom. You have that reputation as doing something exciting on the first day. That’s really cool, and like you said, that establishes that fact that art class is a little bit different. It’s a little more exciting, it’s a little more engaging, and yeah, I like that you’re taking advantage of that.

As convincing as you are with all of these things, I know a lot of our listeners are still going to themselves, “Oh, I can’t do this on the first day. My kids are going to go crazy if we just break out clay or break out paint on the first day.” Can you calm those fears? You get around to the rules and the procedures and the expectations eventually. You talked about how you do that in your class while the clay’s out there, and your kids aren’t going crazy in between the time that you start this clay and you eventually get to the syllabus. Can you talk a little bit about the process and what that looks like as far as introducing expectations, how you combine that with clay, and how you get to that eventually within the first week or so?

Janine: Oh, yes. Really we get to it on day one, and it seems like a lot to get to but we really do. One thing that’s an interesting situation with my classroom as well is that we are one to one school district, so all of my students are coming to my classroom on that first day also with their computers. Then you add that to the element of we’re going to use clay but they also have their computers. We go over, so that we can get this messy material out, what do we do with our computers when we’re going to be painting or using clay, and I have a numbered system. Each student’s assigned a number and we go through that procedure so that they know where to put their computer when they have a messy material out.

Then we talk about Empty Bowls and art in action and how we can all act as productive citizens in our community using the talents and the gifts and the ideas that we have. We get out the clay, and as the kids are working with clay I talk about what we’re going to be doing for the school year, not just with this project but with other field trips and competition opportunities and all kinds of different exciting things that are planned. What I find is especially on that first day none of my students want to be the kid that gets sent to the principal’s office. It’s the first day, you couldn’t make it through?

My principal is super supportive of what I do in my classroom. He knows that we do clay on the first day and I think over the last eight years, five to eight years, that I’ve been doing these engaging activities on the first day I’ve had only really one incident about two years ago where I had some students who made some poor choices, but what’s so teachable about that moment is that the students see that Mrs. Campbell’s no joke, and if you do misbehave she’s going to do what she says she’s going to do and there will be consequences.

I’ve been very fortunate that I’m in a district where my students understand that what we say we’re going to do we’re going to do, and that I have the support of my administration to follow through when things like that happen.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really good. That support is a big piece to, I guess, that whole puzzle. I want to talk a little bit, and this is a different question for you, but with engaging kids right away, have you noticed that artwork at the beginning of the year – like the stuff that you’re getting from the kids – are you starting off at a little bit higher level because they’re engaged because they’re involved from that first day? Because a lot of times there’s a feeling out process when you’re traditionally introducing materials, introducing lessons. Have you noticed that things are a little bit different because you’re jumping right in?

Janine: I think the biggest difference that I’ve noticed is the ability of students to see themselves as risk takers in that avenue. It’s risky for me as a teacher, and I talked about, I’m truthful with them about this that other teachers out there think I’m a little bit wacky for giving them clay on the first day, but I really dig home deep that I trust them. I think by starting out with that level of trust my students are more willing to take risks with their artwork and risks with materials. That fosters, to me, not just better art but more courageous art. I think in that – that’s my ultimate goal. I want my students to be courageous, I want them to be inquisitive, I want them to try things out. I think they feel that because I trust them with this messy material on the first day that I’m also going to trust them with out there ideas and creative conquests and really pursuing the passions that they experience and really uncover throughout the semester that they’re with me.

Tim: I like that a lot. I want to follow up on that, too, and how it applies to teachers. One last big question for you. If we’re taking that bigger picture view of things – we love getting kids out of their comfort zone, we love having them explore, we love having them try new things – but my question for you is why do you think it’s important for teachers to be willing to try those new things as well? We always talk about the benefits for the kids, but why should teachers embrace that mindset as well?

Janine: I can only speak to my own experience and I feel like over the course of – I’m going to be going into my thirteenth year of teaching – and over the course of these thirteen years I have changed so much in my approach to education. That has only happened because I’ve opened myself up to new ideas and have been willing to learn from others and see what has been successful from them and being able to adapt it in my own way in my classroom. I think that’s really the key. It’s not about seeing what someone else does and try to be them. It’s about what can you learn from them and then make it apply to you. I think as long as you are going to each experience with that mindset, I think that you will find success, you’ll find that you’ll grow, and you’ll find that in the end your students benefit.

When I look back to my students years ago, I was doing the best that I can but I know now from what I’ve learned through both success and failure that the students I have this year, this will be my best year teaching. I think to have that forward-looking attitude is so important, not just for your students’ benefit but for your own benefit, to be optimistic that there’s always a way to do something better.

Tim: Yeah, I really like that. That is some really, really good advice and I think that’s probably a good time for us to go out. Thank you very much for joining me, Janine, and thank you for all the awesome advice. We appreciate it.

Janine: Thank you.

Tim: All right, we’ll talk to you soon.

Janine: Have a good school year.

Tim: Thanks, bye. That’ll do it for Janine. I thank her for coming on and I hope you all took some good ideas from her because there was a lot there. One of the biggest things she talked about, which I think is important for us to note, is that a lot of other teachers, not just in art, are adopting these ideas. We need to move beyond the traditional, “Here’s the syllabus, here’s what we’re going to do this year, maybe if you’re lucky you’ll learn a little bit about me today.” It’s not enough for our kids. You can make rules and you can make art on day one and still be successful.

It’s time to get past the, “Here are my rules, here are my expectations, here’s how we’re going to do things.” Let’s actually do things. Like I said, rules and art can go together on day one. Janine proved it, and you can make that work. If you decide to go past that, if you think your rules can wait until the third day and maybe your syllabus can wait until next week, that’s fine. I guarantee you your classroom is not going to fall apart in the meantime. Like I said, she talked about how simple it is to make this work and how that simple change can have so many benefits.

You’re probably thinking right now, “Do I really want to do this? Do I really want to get out clay on the first day?” The answer is yes. Yes, you do. I think and I hope that you’re excited to come back to school, and I hope that you’re excited to challenge yourself, and I hope you’re excited to try something new. Give yourself that challenge, give your students that challenge, and give them an experience that they’re going to appreciate, that they’re going to remember. That first day can set the tone for your entire semester or your entire year. Take the opportunity to do it right. Kids are excited to come back to school, and you don’t want to waste it.

Art Ed radio was produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. New episodes are released every Tuesday so we hope that you will check us out then, and again, please visit TheArtofEd.com this week for all kinds of inspiring, innovative, and new ideas that we want you to give a try this year. Good luck.

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.