Instructional Strategies

Schoolwide Collaboration (Ep. 042)

Schoolwide collaborative art projects are a great way to promote community in your art room and throughout the school. Cassie tells the story of her field day project she undertook this week (7:00), why collaborative projects are great for the beginning of the year (9:00), and the projects her students work on to build positivity and community in her building (11:45). Full episode transcript below.


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When I was in elementary school, I remember every afternoon I would rush home from school, go straight to my babysitter’s house and bust out my homework. I was determined, before I did anything else, even before I had my afternoon snack, that I had to get my homework done. I don’t know where this motivation came from, it was just there, and it was kind of weird. So weird, in fact, that I remember my babysitter’s teenage son used to give me the hardest time about it, calling me a nerd and such a dork. Why are you doing your homework? I don’t know where that work ethic came from and I, honestly, have no idea where it went because now I am the complete opposite. I will do anything … I’m talking like dishes and clean a house, before I do what I would consider “homework,” lesson planning. Anything unfun, I will find a way to put it off until the very last minute, which sometimes works for my benefit.

For example, today was … I’m so silly I can’t even remember what day it is … today was our school-wide field day. I have known since Friday that there was a 90% chance of rain and, therefore, my outdoor activities were going to be scrapped. Did I spend any time figuring out all day Saturday and all day Sunday what my students were going to do for the art portion of field day? No. I decided to set my alarm for 5:00 a.m. this morning, get to school by 6:00 a.m. this morning to get my life together. And, proud to say, it actually worked for me.

Today, I’m going to share with you not only what we decided to do for our field day activity for the art portion, but also I’m going to talk to you about collaboratives, school-wide projects that really leave a powerful mark on your school, about your program, and the amazing things that you and your students are doing in your art room. I’m Cassie Stevens, and this is Everyday Art Room.

Alright. So, unless you follow me on social media and you already know what our little collaborative project ended up being, actually, it wasn’t so little, for our field day activity, I’m just going to back it up a little bit and I want to chat with you about why I love school-wide collaboratives or sometimes I call them scholabs, for short, why I love them so stinking much. Usually, I think of them as being a beginning of the school year activity because I feel like they can really set the tone for the school year, can help you establish your art room credo, maybe what you want to focus on for this school year. But, right now that I’m thinking about it and I’ve done this project today with my students, I’m really thinking that scholabs also can really be highly impactful at the end of the year too.

So here’s why I think they work both at the beginning and at the end of year. Scholabs keep the kids engaged. I have noticed that at my school, you know, things are starting wind down, which means the kids are doing a little bit less in their classrooms but yet they still have a lot of energy. Maybe even more so because they know the end is near. Why not channel that energy with a school-wide collaborative? I also feel like scholabs are perfect at making your school look amazing and it really can put a spotlight on your program. Because they go a little bit beyond the typical bulletin board display, they can really shine a bright light to parents, to any visitors in the school about how amazing your art program is and all the amazing things that you’re doing. And, like I was saying earlier, a scholab can really help you create a credo for your art room or even for the school.

We’ve done scholabs on kindness, on love in the art room. So I feel like they’re a great way to establish a credo not only at the beginning of the year but also to wrap up the end of the year. Okay, so I probably didn’t start doing school-wide collaboratives until maybe five or seven years ago. And the reason I hesitated was because the notion of doing the project with every kid in the school really was overwhelming to me. So, why not just take a deep breath, back up a little bit, and just know that, when I say school-wide collaborative, it doesn’t have to be the whole school. You could do a grade level collaborative as opposed to an entire school-wide one, especially those guys of you that have upwards of eight to a thousand students. I mean, that’s a tall order.

And I also feel like sometimes I was overwhelmed by the idea of doing a permanent display. So why not just start with a temporary collaborative. And, when I’m thinking of collaboratives, that’s kind of how I divide them up. Grade level versus entire school. Permanent versus temporary. And today, I’m going to share with you some of my favorites that fall into all of those categories.

So, now that I’ve share with you all why I love scholabs so, and how I feel like they’re a great way to not only kick off the beginning of the school year, which, if you’re crazy like me, even though we’re approaching the end you’re already thinking about how to kick off the new school year, what things you’re excited about might change up and do a little differently. But I also feel like they’re an awesome way to end the year.

So I want to share with you some of my top ten school collaborative projects. Not necessarily school-wide, but school collaborative ones. And these are normally ones that I would do at the start of the school but, I’m thinking that they might really be awesome to do now and have ready for the start of the school year. And that brings me to what we did today for our field day.

So, on Friday, I knew we had a 90% chance of rain and it was a coming. The forecast was looking bleak. So I knew, that whatever I was planning on doing outside was going to have to come inside. What I was actually planning on doing was wearing a white ensemble and having the kids paint it. Yeah, that’s about as far as I got with that thought process and, since it was going to rain, that got scrapped, which was probably for the best.

So I got to school around 6:00 this morning and I rolled out two 18-foot banners of bulletin board paper, white bulletin board paper. And, with my handy-dandy trusty bingo dauber filled with slightly diluted India ink, I went to town drawing art supplies, school supplies, great big pencils with happy faces, clouds and rainbows, ice-cream cones, pizza slices. You name it, I drew it out cartoon-style on this huge piece of paper with words like “think” and “grow” and “wonder” and “create” all over it. So, if you can imagine a large … extra large 18-foot large banner, like a giant coloring sheet. Then I also got out trays of paint and I set it up as like a paint-athon is what I refer to it as.

Now, when my students painted it, I didn’t give them any instruction except to remind them to wash their paintbrush in between changing color. My plan is, now that this banner is finished and is very colorful and wild and crazy, my plan is to keep that until August and hang it up as a welcome back banner. The halls are always so blank, boring and empty at the start of the school year. What better way to greet my students. So, with that in mind, I’m now kind of rethinking some of those scholabs that I would normally save at the start of the school year to kind of perhaps put them at the end of the year and have them ready for the start.

For example, I know a lot of us do Dot Day. We celebrate Dot Day. But, the problem with Dot Day is that it’s at the beginning of September. So why not talk to your students about Dot Day, which is based on Peter H. Reynold’s book The Dot. Read that book to them now. Use up what’s left of your paint now to create one giant Dot Day mural with your kids. Then, when you come back to school, that’ll all be ready for them and you can dive into more Dot Day projects or not. You can just simply revisit the book, now that the students have participated in this beautiful mural that you’ve created with them.

Another project that I did with my students, and this one was a … this was a school-wide collaborative. And, by the way, these projects that I’m mentioning and sharing, you can find them on my blog and my YouTube channel usually. If you just search school-wide collaboratives, you’ll find all of these that I’m mentioning today on my blog so you can have a visual with them. So the Village of Kindness was one that we did several years ago and my students created 3D houses where, out of milk cartons that were saved, cleaned out, thank you very much Mr. Beckett in the cafeteria. And my students each got a milk carton that they decorated. The key was, that the milk carton house had to have a door … just simply a folded piece of paper that, when somebody opened the door, words of kindness were written there. Something like, “You are kind. I love you. Thank you for being you,” those kinds of things.

We had read the book, The Big Orange Splat, by Daniel Pinkwater, which is a great book to read any old time in the art room, and that’s what inspired us to create a house that was unique, and then we made a little village out of those houses, which was a lot of fun to display at our end-of-the-year art show. But, you could display that anytime. Think about how fun it would be for friends or students to walk by and just open that little door and have such a sweet reminder of kindness.

Another project that we’ve done in the past that we actually just revisited recently, was the Gallery of Gratitude. This was another school-wide collaborative. So everybody created something. This was a temporary display as was the Village of Kindness and the Dot Day. So for this display, each one of my students in fourth grade, created a portrait of somebody who works in our building. That person could be a teacher, a staff member, a custodian. They were to create that portrait but when we did it a couple of years ago, they learned how to draw portraits and they drew them. This year we revisited it and we created portraits with modeling clay, and then they had to write a letter of gratitude or even just a paragraph about why they appreciated that person. That’s what the fourth graders did. The third graders, for the Gallery of Gratitude, they created the frames. My younger students, we printed their hands and they talked about who they would give a high five to and why in our school.

This year when we did it, I simply had my fourth graders create the modeling clay portraits and write a little bit about that person and why they appreciated them. That was a great way to really give a shout out to everybody in the building who we love and appreciate for helping us every day.

Now, let’s talk about some more permanent displays. So this is another school-wide collaborative and this one is still hanging in our office, and it is a beast of a masterpiece. It is called Our School Has Heart, and each one of my students was to create with a different media a three by three inch heart. So, for kindergarten, that was a wax resist with oil pastel and watercolor heart. For my first graders, they created … oh, my word … I’m blanking. I’ll come back to first grade.

For my second graders, they used pipe cleaners and they yarn bombed a heart that they had created out of pipe cleaners. My third graders, they stitched a heart. And my fourth graders, they needle felted a heart. I cannot remember for the life of me what my first graders did, but you can see this giant heart mural on my blog. And it’s beautiful and I keep asking my secretary friend who works in the office and has to stare at it every day if she’s ready for it to come down, and she refuses to let it go. So it really is the first thing that everybody sees when they walk in the office and it sends such a wonderful message to anybody visiting our school.

Ah, I remember first graders, they painted on felt, which is a really wild and crazy. If you have never had the kids … or, if you have never tried having the kids paint on felt before, it’s really cool. I think it kind of gives the effect of … kind of a velvet Elvis painting, which I’m not mad about. And then they outlined the heart with puffy paint.

Now, another permanent display in our school, which this one I absolutely love, and this was the biggest one that we’ve done to-date, was the Johnson Elementary clay mural. Each one of my students … now this was not an entire school collaborative. This was the efforts of my first, second, and third graders. Each one of them created a small clay relief piece that was added to a large mural that I framed and then we had hung in our school. And it features a tiger that was created by me, that is our school mascot. My first graders created clay flowers. My second graders created butterflies. My third graders created birds.

And the reason I only did it with first and third was because last year, when we created it, my fourth graders were still in the middle of their project and my kindergarteners were still in the middle of their clay project. So, we were in the middle of clay week. I wanted to make sure to use up all the clay and ensure that all of my students were working with clay during those two weeks of clay. So that’s why my first, second and third graders worked on that masterpiece. And it was a beast to put together and hang. But it is so gorgeous in our school, and I’m really excited that I did it. I would love to do another mosaic. I just need more of a break to circle back to doing one again.

Another favorite piece of mine that we did in our school, this one I know is really popular, you can find it al over Pinterest. In fact, I’m positive that’s where I got the idea but I’m sad that I don’t know where the original source came from. But this is a great one to do at both the beginning and the end of the school year as the Faces of Your School, and you can do that with monochromatic markers and color pencils. And, when you hang them, you hang them up in rainbow order. So essentially, your students create small, very small, like three by three or four by four inch self-portraits. Draw them with pencil, trace with Sharpie, color them with monochromatic colors, meaning only all reds or only all oranges. Hang them up in rainbow order and they are a show stopper. It’s a great school-wide collaborative but temporary.

If you wanted to go the extra step and make it permanent, you could always do them on tiles, which would be amazing. That’s like a dream of mine. So that you can definitely find, that lesson in video form on my YouTube channel, if you’re interested.

So one display that is also up that’s super popular that I know a lot of you all have done, and I can’t bear to take ours down just yet, is inspired by the street artist, Kelsey Montague, where she always paints wings on the sides of buildings. And so, we each created a feather to be a part of a wing, to be a part of the giant wings and that now still hangs in our school. And it was a lot of fun when we did it because all of my students had their portrait made in front of the wings, which we printed off and hung for our end-of-the-year art show and also had as a slide show display for the end-of-the-year art show.

Another artist I love to reference when we’re doing collaboratives is Romero Britto. You can find, I believe, two collaborative projects on my blog that are inspired by him. And I actually use a lot of collaborative projects as my sub plans. So they’re easy enough for a sub to walk your students through.

And, I know I’ve share this before, but this one is easily one of my favorites, is the second grade ceiling tile project. So let’s talk about a legacy for just a moment. My students know what a legacy piece is because my second graders, they create legacy ceiling tiles and my fourth graders know that every year they’re going to create some sort of legacy piece for the school. So a legacy they know is a mark that they leave behind, something that we can remember them by. So the ceiling tile kind of started out as the same way as our giant painting that happened today. We were going to go outside and do a sidewalk chalk drawing. Unfortunately, rain was in the forecast and so we had to find an alternative.

For some reason, ceiling tiles seemed like a great idea to me and using the back side of a ceiling tile, which has almost the exact texture of a sidewalk, we each created a butterfly because in their classrooms the students were learning about butterflies. Those butterflies are still in the ceiling of our school and that was five years ago. Each year my second graders get their very own ceiling tile and, using chalk pastels, I lead them … all of them, all at once in the gym in a great big guided drawing project. And that gets permanently installed in our school. It’s a project that everybody in our school from faculty all the way down to the kiddos get excited about to see what they’re going to create. And, in fact, it’s so exciting that our custodian shows up early at my room the next morning to hang all of them up because he is the best thing ever.

And for the fourth graders, I like to change it up every year. So one year they made a giant paint collaborative painting that’s still hangs at the entrance of our school, which simply says Johnson Elementary. They’ve made many other pieces throughout the school so many I can’t quite remember what they are, but they know and look forward to working together and creating something that, as they move onto fifth grade, will be there whenever they come back to visit. Ooh.

So, I just want to like put a little thought in your mind, whether that be an end-of-the-year project, like something as simple as rolling out a large sheet paper and making it into a giant paint-athon project. Or, just start to think about what you could do at the start of the year to kind of bring everybody together, to showcase art right from the start and establish the kind of credo, a message you want to send from your art room with your students throughout the school. So think about it. School-wide collaboratives. Scholabs. It’s where it’s at you all. Thank you guys so much for letting me share all the collaboratives that we’ve done. It’s got me thinking about more and I’m so excited.

Tim Bogatz: Hello. This is Tim Bogatz, the host of Art Ed Radio. Thank you, as always, for tuning into Everyday Art Room. Now, as we’re thinking about summer and getting toward the end of the school year, it makes sense for us to talk about graduate courses. So many teachers are looking for PD hours, or looking to move over on the pay scale, and AOE’s courses are the perfect opportunity for you to find what you need. Make sure you check out under the courses tab.

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Cassie: All right. Let’s take a dip into the mailbag. And, speaking of collaboratives, I actually have a question about it. This question comes from Amy. Sorry about that Amy. I had to scroll through the email to find it. This question comes from Amy and she is asking about that mosaic project. “I’m doing a collaborative project with my seventh graders, and it’s ceramic based, much like your flower, butterfly and bird piece that you made. My question is, why did you choose Gorilla glue? What made that the best choice for you?”

So, if you take a look at that project on my blog, it’s a piece of wood, a large piece of wood that I glued each one of those pieces to. I decided not to grout the pieces, just because, after gluing all those clay pieces in, with the weight of that and the wood and the frame, it was up to seventy pounds, and I just knew it would be difficult to hang that piece in general, let alone with the added weight of the grout.

I don’t remember exactly why I went with Gorilla glue, but I’m pretty sure I had a long chat with anybody at the hardware store, anybody who’ll listen to me, and that was what was recommended to me. There are a lot of different Gorilla glues to choose from. I used the original formula, and I definitely gave it a little bit of a test drive, which I would recommend simply because Gorilla glue is an expanding foam glue. The first time I gave it a test drive, I put a lot of glue on the back only to come back the next day and have it look like the clay project was sitting on a giant marshmallow. The stuff really goes crazy with expansion. So, when you’re using the glue, the great thing is you don’t have to use a lot. Just a little dot will actually work great. And this stuff does not budge. And I believe, that’s why I went with it. Hey, Amy. Look at you. Tying in perfectly with my questions.

Now I have another question. This one comes from Becky. Becky says, “I see over 900 students.” Bless you my child. I mean, you have three times what I have. Bless you. “One of my biggest pet peeves is apathy for art class. I can usually hook them into participating, but mostly half-heartedly. How do you handle students throwing away art projects as they leave the room?”

Well, I teach the littles. I don’t see that nearly … I don’t see that. My students don’t throw away their artwork unless it’s just like a free draw that they’re just not that interested in, in which case I usually will ask them not to throw it away, and I tell them I would like to keep it. I hang onto it for a little while and recycle it, but I just don’t want them to get the idea that it’s okay to throw away artwork. So we have a No Throwing Away Policy in my room.

However, if you have older students, and you see this happening, I can only give you suggestions, as I’ve never been in your shoes. My first thought is to find out why? And I would say that, give them, maybe … I’m thinking like a ticket, or a piece of paper, just something that’s already pre-made that they have to fill out, that asks them, why am I throwing this away? Why did I not like this project? Explain to me in three sentences what you didn’t like about this creation that you made. Explain to me in three sentences what you would’ve done differently. Get them thinking about what they made and why they’re not happy with it.

And it will also be a great thing for you to read back through and see, is it lack of interest in the project? Was it something that they feel like they need to work more on? And does that help you kind of steer the projects in a different direction? Don’t ever beat yourself up when you see students doing that. I feel like it’s not about you, it’s about that age, it’s about that mentality. But, don’t be afraid to do a little digging and find out why.

Also, having a No Throwing Away Policy. Maybe having a basket that just says, “If you do not want your masterpiece, I would like to have it. Please place it here. But, if you place it here you must fill out this form.” I don’t know. I would just try to get to the bottom of it. But, again, don’t take it personally.

Great questions you guys. Thank you so much. If you have a question for me, you all should totally send them my way. You can find me at the everydayartroom@

Now, I don’t know how it works in your building but, if you are thinking about doing a school-wide collaborative, and you should. Just give it some thought. Kick it around, especially if you’ve never done one. I would strongly suggest not asking permission. I don’t know, I’m kind of against it. Because, you know, when you run an idea by somebody, particularly admin, they aren’t always the most artistic, which means they aren’t usually the most open-minded in thinking.

So sometimes it’s best to just kind of say, “Hey, we made this really cool thing. We plan on hanging it here. What do you say?” Now, of course, you know your admin better than me, but me knowing mine, I feel like it’s always better to ask forgiveness. It’s the Southern way, instead of asking permission. Just all that to say, you should go for it. Worse comes to worse, it just ends up hanging in your room, and then you get to admire it all the time.

You all, have a great rest of your week and I will have you know that this is my last week of teaching. Don’t hate. I started you all on August 1st. So, if this is also your last week of teaching, hats off, high five. And the rest of you guys who go into the late June, we will be thinking of you while sipping our fruity drinks next to the pool. Have a great week you guys.

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.