Small Concept in a Big Way (Ep. 103)

One of elementary art teachers’ biggest struggles is the lack of time. If you don’t have the time you need, how do you make learning stick? In this episode, Nic talks about how we can get information to our kids in a memorable way. Listen as she talks about how to approach this idea in your classroom, how to take the concept across classes, and how to make it fun.  Full episode transcript below.

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Nic: I love having fun with my students in my classroom. It makes my day more fun and the kids like coming to your classroom when it’s a fun environment. One way that I’ve done this in the past is we did a little study on art history throughout the whole school year using something called bito bios that I created, and that meant that we learned about a new artist every time that they came in. As we did that, one of the artists of course was Ms. Frieda Kahlo and we learned about her. Then on the way out of class, if the students wanted to, they could come on up and I would draw some eyebrows on them. Mostly it was for my own entertainment and I did take a few photographs, but the purpose of me taking and putting some eyebrows on my students was to make sure that they never forgot Frida Kahlo. I wanted to do something that was going to really stick this concept in their brain. Sometimes that’s in an event like drawing eyebrows on the child’s forehead or sometimes it is in repetition, and celebration, and fun.

Today we’re going to talk about taking a small concept that you need to cover in your classroom or you find very important and making it really big through the year, kind of a theme for your classroom. This is Nic Hahn and this is Everyday Art Room.

One of the biggest struggles that I hear from elementary art teachers is that there’s just not enough time, and I completely concur. I think when I see my students, I have them for an hour. Last year, we saw them on a digital rotation of six days. Every six days, they would come back to art. That meant that I saw my 800 students, they each had art 24 times in the year. That means 24 hours, they were scheduled to have art. That is, if they didn’t have field trips, or there wasn’t a snow day, or whatever. What that causes is you to really look at time in such a precious way, in such a valuable way.

When you’re thinking of your classroom and how you’re going to get all of that information in, sometimes you have to take little concepts that are really important to you and make them big in your classroom in a small way. I said small, big, small. Yes, that’s exactly what you do.

What I would encourage you to do is figure out the one thing that your students are not getting and you don’t understand it. You’ve kind of hit on it here and there, but you don’t really understand why they’re not getting it. It’s because you’re not hitting on it enough. Think of that concept.

For me in this example today, I’m going to be using the word medium. I want all of my students to know what the word medium means. That’s my small concept and I’m going to make it a big deal in my classroom, but in a very small way. This is the deal. What I spent one summer a couple of years ago is I decided to make monsters. I went to the Goodwill and picked up a bunch of frames, picked up a bunch of just wall hanging supplies that were nice and cheap or free, and I got to work.

I got some spray paint. I sprayed all of them turquoise or a variety of colors between turquoise and dark blues, and I got to work. Every monster that I created was made out of a different medium. I had a monster out of graphite, a monster out of ink, oil pastels, fibers, you name it. I really tried to expand what I was doing with each monster and the mediums that I was using.

Then before my students came that year, I hung each of the monsters on my wall. Beside each of these monsters, I had a little plate, like you would see in a art museum or an art gallery. Underneath that plate, it had the artist’s name, which was Mrs. Hahn, it had the title of the monster, which was the name of the monster, it had the medium. I wanted students to not only be able to put this idea of the word medium into their vocabulary, but also be able to be intelligent when they go into … or educated when they go into a art gallery or an art museum by being able to read the label amongst the artwork properly. We’re practicing, on a very low level, some gallery skills as well.

As the students came in the first week, I would even say during parent introduction, the whole school, it’s an open house, people are coming into my classroom, the monsters were a hit. Everybody immediately went over to go check out the monsters and see what they’re all about, and they just thought it was decoration. But everything on my wall is pretty intentional, including this wall of monsters.

As the students progress throughout the year, they started to learn why the monsters are on the wall. When students came into my classroom, I most often invite them onto the carpet and then we do some sort of a welcome. I wait until they’re all settled down. I say my welcome. “Hey, how’s it going? Man, the weather looks bad today, but we’re going to have fun in here.” Whatever it is. Just have that few moments of welcome, and this is a safe place, and now it’s time to learn about art. Then I typically pushed play on my computer. What that did was it brought up a new monster. I made a Google slide of all the monsters, so I took pictures of each of them, and then I made a biography for each monster.

Now with this biography, let’s say I had Cray was one of the monsters. He was a made out of crayons. That was his medium. I took and wrote his biography all about him. It might have something to do with, I don’t know if this is true as Cray goes, but I might say, oh, “Cray is 14 years old and he is a big fan of basketball. He loves playing basketball. He has problems holding still in class, but his teacher always lets him stand up in the back of the classroom. Cray is a monster who loves to eat pickles on the weekends.” Whatever. His biography was absolutely bizarre, but something that the kids would love to learn about. They learned fun facts about the monster. I did this in two ways.

The first year that I did this with one school, I read the biography of the bio of each of the monsters to every single class, every single hour. The second time that I presented this, I got a little smarter. What I did was I recorded. There is something called ChatterPix. It’s an app where you can take a photograph and make a line on their mouth and then use words, and it makes the mouth look like it’s moving. I would take the ChatterPix and I’d play it and it looked like the monster was actually explaining his bio. That was a lot of fun for the kids.

They’d come in, they’d listen to the bio, and then I let them, I’d say, “Hey, talk to your neighbors. Whisper what medium you think Cray is made out of.” They all start whispering. At the beginning, I’ll tell you, they didn’t really understand what I was talking about. They’re like, “Uh, medium? What do you mean?” Even after I gave the definition, they really didn’t understand. But once we practiced this two, three, four, or five times, and for the rest of the year, they really understood what the word medium was. They’d start guessing. If the monster looked like … If it looked hairy, but it was made out of crayons, if the medium was crayons, my kindergartners would obviously say, “Yeah, I think the medium is fur and hair.” Well, okay, they’re not getting it yet. Later on in the year, all of a sudden they’re going, “Yeah, I think the medium is marker.” The next door neighbor would say, “No, no. I think it’s colored pencil,” because they started understanding the whole idea of what the word medium meant.

They’d have these great conversations with each other. Then I’d say, “The medium is,” and all of them would scream out their guess at the same time. Then I’d hit the next slid and it would reveal the answer. Everybody would celebrate. I was right, I was wrong, and then we quickly would move into our lesson for the day.

It did not have anything to do with the monster. The lesson was a completely different thing. The idea of this monster medium was to set up routine, to give students have a welcome routine when they came in, they knew that they were going to learn about a new monster every time that they came to visit me, to review that small concept in a big way because it was throughout the entire year. It was super successful for my students. The kids were having a blast with this throughout the school year. They couldn’t wait to meet, let’s call it, one of the monsters on the wall. They’d talk about it. It would be like a topic of conversation every single time that they came in. They’d bring their parents in at conference time to show them the monsters on the wall and tell them about the stories of each of the monsters. It was really fun to watch.

But I only had about, oh, I don’t know, 15, 15 maybe, monsters on the wall. We got started on the monster mediums maybe third class of the year, and then we went through the 15. That brought us into roughly January, February, is what we were looking at when we had covered all of the monsters.

I brought a couple of the monsters to another level, at least one. One way that I did that was DJ Mix was one of the monsters and he was made out of mixed medium and he did not have a bio. What I did, I think it was over Christmas break, is I challenged my older kids, my third, fourth, and fifth grade that they could write a story for DJ Mix. Then I provided a Google form. I created a Google form and shared it with them on Schoology. If you don’t have these things, you just use the resources you have available to you. But we’re a Schoology school and therefore I used that tool. I made a Google form because we’re also a Google school and students could write their name, and their class, and write a story for DJ Mix.

Then when they came to class the next time or right after the holiday break, I was able to read the handful of students that actually did it. No, it wasn’t a huge number. I probably provided the opportunity for about 300, 400 kids, and maybe got 10 kids to write. But guys, these are the writers of our school. These are the people who are looking for creative outlets and this was an opportunity for them. They were published, per se, on my blog, and then they also had their stories shared within the classroom. That was a lot of fun.

Another way that we increased this activity of the monster mediums is we used it for mARTch Madness. Roughly towards the end of February, I had the whole monster mediums, photographs of them, on a Google site again. What we would do is, it was like brackets, like for mARTch Madness and I called it mARTch, M, A, big A, big R, big T, C, H. I know how to spell a little bit better than that, but yeah, I emphasized the art in mARTch Madness. Then we voted for our favorite monsters.

If it was my younger kids, so kindergarten, first grade, sometimes second grade, depending on the group, I would have them vote between two monsters as a whole group. Then I’d put their vote down. If it was the older kids, again, I made a Google form and I had them choose one monster over the other, and they did that throughout the hour. They’d go up to an iPad, quickly vote, and go back to work. That was a lot of fun because they felt like they had power over who is being voted. What’s great about Google forms is that it gives automatic data at the end of … It’s live. It happens right away. At the end of the class period, if we had a few minutes, I would pull up the data and it’d show a pie chart of who was winning thus far. It was really cool. It was almost like the politicians and when people are being voted in and whatever. It’s like those little updates along the way. Anyways, it was really fun for the students and then the next time they could come in and see who won. That brings us down to the next bracket until there’s two monsters left.

You would have thought that they were cheering for the Packers versus the Vikings. Okay, I’m talking to in Minnesota terms, but like their most passionate sports team. They fought over who was going to win in mARTch Madness.

Now again, where the students still learning about mediums? Yeah, sort of, a little bit, because sometimes they were voting because that was their favorite medium. Sometimes they were voting on the personality of the monsters. But nonetheless, because we have spent so much time working a monster mediums and the title of the concept is monster mediums, these kids still that were presented this concept in kindergarten, used that term correctly in fifth grade. That’s a powerful lesson.

Maybe as I was talking today, you thought of the perfect concept to bring into your classroom in this sort of way. One small idea that you’re going to bring to your students in a big, big way. Maybe it is monster mediums or something like it. Maybe it’s the process of something. Maybe it’s art history in some way, shape or form. Or maybe it’s a medium.

Let’s talk about an actual, just one single medium. Maybe this wouldn’t be the entire year, but maybe for the next eight weeks we’re going to learn a new technique for watercolors. Now, if you’re looking for ideas of different techniques to use for watercolors, you can go to Art Ed, the Art of Education webpage, and go to their magazine. When you type in watercolors, you’re going to come up with all sorts of articles on liquid watercolors, different techniques, how to use watercolors at different levels, as well as some printable resources all for free.

If you want to dig a little deeper into how to use watercolor in your classroom or to learn new techniques, go ahead and check out Art Ed Pro. There’s a few pro packs and that is always growing, so I’m sure there’ll be some more on watercolors. And the Art of Education University offers a watercolor studio course as one of their offerings. You can actually gain credits while learning your concept. This would be a really fun way to not only create your homework for your course, but then create usable homework that you can use in your classroom and for your students right away.

Good luck deciding on ways to bring small concepts to your students in a very big way.

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.