Starting an Art Program from Scratch (Ep. 064)

How do you build a school culture that values the arts?
Tim interviews Shannon Bell about concrete ideas to help you build a program from scratch. They discuss exactly what you’re walking into and where you begin when you’re starting a program (6:45), whether you should start with engagement or curriculum (10:30), and specific strategies to help get your colleagues and administration to buy in to your program (12:45). Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, a podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

We talked last week about those department killers, the teachers who drag their program down. Sometimes they do it unwittingly, sometimes they do it deliberately and while the conversation between Andrew and I didn’t take a negative turn, per se, I do want to talk a little bit on the more positive side, what you can do to help build your art program. Today, you’re going to hear a conversation between Shannon Bell and me. Shannon is an awesome senior instructor here at The Art of Ed and she has built an art program from scratch in three different places.

Before you hear from Shannon though I want to share a little bit of my own story, what my program looked like when I took over, what I did to try to improve the situation and grow the art department. It’s just one story, one example, but I hope it can inform some of your thinking and maybe help you out a little bit if you find yourself in a similar situation.

After two years of traveling as an elementary art teacher I was fortunate enough to take over one of the high school jobs in my district and, let me tell you, I had no idea what I was walking in to. I don’t want to turn this into a sob story but suffice it to say a lot of years of apathy have left me with a program and an art room that was, frankly, a disaster. I had to decide who to deal with it because in essence I was starting a program from scratch. I made the decision to pour almost all of my energy into the sophomores and freshman who were in intro courses, drawing I courses and making sure that they had a great experience, learned a lot and eventually signed up for more classes. In short, those were the kids that I wanted to build my program around.

Eventually, we did exactly that. Those kids loved their art experience and a lot of the kids who weren’t sure at first came around to see who I was and what I was trying to do. But, that’s not the case with everyone because when you’re taking over a program there are going to be basically three reactions from the students. This is especially true at the high school level. First, you have those kids who are excited to see the change. You also have kids who are not happy at all. Third, you have those who are on the fence.

Sometimes the key to getting kids to buy in is convincing those kids who are still on the fence to actually cash out. I hate to say this but I let some kids go. I gave them the option to drop the class and in some cases actually push them to try and get them to drop the class. Honestly, once your program is established I really despise that action, as we talked about last week, and I still regret doing it myself but as a young teacher who needed to get those kids out of there it couldn’t have been a better option for me because, like I said, I focused my attention on developing a good curriculum, establishing standards for work ethic and quality and building relationships with those kids who wanted to be there. I couldn’t have those kids who didn’t want to be there undermining relationships, undermining standards and expectations and undermining the community I’m trying to build in my classroom because in the end you need those in your program to want to be a part of what you’re doing.

That’s something I want to talk to Shannon about. You know, when you are starting a program from scratch how do you get people to want to be a part of that? How do you get administrators and colleagues and families and kids onboard with what you’re doing? She has a lot of great ideas. Even though most of the interview focuses on the big picture I do want to recommend something that can help you with the day to day logistics as well.

If you’re taking over a new program next year or even if you’re just looking to revamp some of what you’re doing currently you need to spend some time this summer in AOE’s Designing Your Art Curriculum Course. Not only do you learn about the how but you’ll more importantly learn about the why of designing your curriculum. It’s absolutely my favorite course to teach. You have a chance to work with a group of other art teachers, share your ideas, develop lessons and put together some amazing plans for your next school year. Designing Your Art Curriculum is a three credit hour course that runs over five weeks and there new sections starting in June, July and August. Go to the to check it out and see if that is the course you need.

Finally, one last note before we get to the interview, this is a pre-recorded talk that took place when Shannon and I were in New York City so like the episode with Matt Christenson from a few weeks ago, you’ll hear some background noise and some static but again, I love that sound and I hope it adds a little bit to the conversation. Let’s go ahead and get it started right now.

Tim: All right, so I am here recording live at the NAEA Convention with Shannon Bell. Shannon, I’ll just start how I start every show, how are you?

Shannon: I’m great.

Tim: Good, glad to hear it. We are going to be talking about building a program and all the things that go into it but can you just tell us a little bit about you, where you’re from, your teaching experience before we dive into the interview?

Shannon: Absolutely, I am from Trenton, New Jersey. I taught in New Jersey for nine and a half … Nine years, K-12. I worked three years in a special education school, an alternative school setting and then I taught five years in a K-5 school. Then, I moved to Indianapolis and I taught for a semester in the Indianapolis Public Schools and now I am a graduate instructor for the Art of Education.

Tim: All right, cool. One of the reasons I want to talk to you is because you have this big variety of experience. You were telling me that everywhere you’ve been you’ve had to sort of build a program. Can you just, I guess, summarize really quickly like what do you mean by building a program? What are you trying to do when you come in to a new school and kind of take over a department or a program?

Shannon: Yeah, for sure so my first two jobs in New Jersey I literally walked into districts that just didn’t have an art program at all. My first job never had an art program and then my second job didn’t have one for several years and so I kind of came in and rebuilt that one.

Tim: Okay and so, I guess, when you come in you’re building a program from scratch, like where do you even begin? Like, do you start with your curriculum, your lessons? Are you trying to figure out just what supplies you have? What does it look like when you’re starting something from scratch?

Shannon: I think the first thing it comes to is like what the budget actually looks like because that drives the whole curriculum. I really started with like a basic supply list, like what do I need to get a couple of projects off the ground at the beginning of a school year. I think it starts out super basic. I mean I’m going to start with elements and principles and drawing and painting. Then, we kind of go from there. It’s building lessons and then starting to fit it into a curriculum. It’s working kind of from smaller picture to bigger picture, I guess.

Tim: Yeah, I like that and I think that’s an important way to look at things. Has that process sort of worked for you each time that you moved and each time that you’ve built stuff up? Is there, I guess, a common thread to what you see at schools when you’re taking them over and what you try and do once you get in there?

Shannon: I don’t know if there’s really a common thread between the three districts. Each one was really different in terms of kind of demographic and socioeconomic status but, you know, maybe the common thread is sort of the end goal. What I’m looking for at the end is students who find at least one experience through the year that they’re really excited about, who they find one medium that really kind of … They hit their groove with and you’re kind of looking to sort of build the school culture. Maybe that was my common thread is, you know, building a school culture that values the arts.

Tim: Yeah, I like that and I actually want to dive in there. I want to talk to you … You mentioned the excitement for kids and kind of getting them, you know, those memorable experiences. I guess, can you describe, kind of, what the mindset is of kids who haven’t had art in awhile or haven’t had art before, what you’re trying to get them to do or get them excited about? I guess, what kind of a mindset do you want to develop in them as you go throughout the year?

Shannon: I think it’s really dependent on the age group so when you’re building a program with elementary school students their buy in is pretty easy. Generally, they’re excited to have a class where, you know, they can play with something messy and make a mess and it’s not that big of a deal. My more challenging experiences are trying to build that program with maybe like 5th grade and beyond. Introducing a 16 year old kid to art for the first time is crazy because there’s no background, there’s no confidence so you’re really kind of taking very basic art ideas but not allowing them to feel like it’s getting dumbed down for them. It’s like, how do I teach these super basic things in a more complex and engaging way?

Tim: Yeah, do you think that engagement is the biggest thing that you’re going for? Like, I guess, I’m thinking for you as a teacher is it more important to get your curriculum across and teach kids, you know, what artists do or are you just trying to get them excited about the experience and learning to love art?

Shannon: Oh, I think when you’re building a program you need that engagement first especially with your older kids. They’re not going to buy into your curriculum. They’re not going to buy into art history connections or any of that if they’re not engaged from the beginning. That’s why I think it’s kind of almost like working backwards. You can’t look at your whole entire year’s goals, your first goal is kind of building a relationship and getting them comfortable in an art room before they can really dive into, you know, kind of bigger art principles and design aspects.

Tim: Okay, that’s really cool. Yeah, just a lot of good thoughts there. I kind of want to move on a little bit to, I guess, what you do with your colleagues like your administration, people that you are working with. When you come into a school that hasn’t had art in awhile or hasn’t had art ever, how do you get the staff, how do you get your admins to realize that this is important, this is something we need to support.

Shannon: That, I think, is maybe my favorite part of it. At the beginning it always feels like an uphill battle. You might come in to an administrator that kind of, you know, makes little comments that might devalue your program or other teachers who, you know, they ask you to make birthday cards during art class. It can feel kind of defeating at the beginning but I think once you get the kids on board and once you start showing them that like we are learning big stuff in here and we’re making some awesome things it gains so much momentum and it just spreads throughout the school. I think the first couple of months of that are really, really challenging but then once you get a little bit of buy in, you know, and collaborating with other teachers, I think, really helps with that. So, gaining buy in from staff and admin is a process. It’s slow at the beginning and then once you start getting people on board it’s just going to flourish.

Tim: Okay, so I guess my question to follow up on that would be then what are some strategies, what would you suggest people do to help with that buy in? You mention collaboration but what are some of the other things that you can do to really get staff on board? Like, if you’re giving people advice what are the concrete steps that they need to do to get their staff more involved with art or seeing what’s happening in the art room?

Shannon: So, a few things that I’ve done is, you know, you want to show other staff members that you’re committed to what they’re doing as well. Then, it will start to become a two way street. If somebody says, oh you know we’re looking for volunteers to help with family literacy night it’s like awesome, I would love to be a part of that, here’s an art and literacy connection station that I want to run. Or, I ran a few like after school art classes with the staff in my school like hey, do you want to learn how to make a pinch pot and a pencil holder? Come to the art room at the end of the school day and we’ll work on that. That was kind of a cool way to get to know the staff outside of the actually school day.

I think it’s also really valuable to reach out and say, you know, what are you guys working on in your classroom? I want to piggy back on your idea. If they’re studying polar animals like great, we are also going to study polar animals and their habitats and we’re going to look at non-fiction texts and draw from that. Or, something that’s going to show them that their curriculum is important to you and we can link up so that the school isn’t running in individual pieces it’s running like a well oiled machine.

Tim: Yeah, I like that. That’s some really good advice. Then, do you ever feel like you’re in danger of losing what you want to do as an art teacher? If you are giving up art for art’s sake in order to do these collaborations is that a balancing act for you? Does it concern you at all?

Shannon: I think it’s certainly a balancing act. What I’ve found is there’s so many ways to kind of integrate the arts into other things and it doesn’t have to be a full arts integration where you’re giving up your entire art curriculum to teach other subjects. If you can kind of pull bits and pieces in and show that, you know, we really are teaching a whole brain, we’re not teaching art and then we’re teaching math and then we’re taking science, everything is kind of working together because that’s how it’s going to go in their life anyway. I think it is a balancing act. I’m certainly teaching a lot of art content within those lessons but I don’t feel like I’m all the way, you know, giving up what’s really important to me and what I’m passionate about as well.

Tim: That’s really well said. I like that. I guess the next place I want to go is what happens when we start to move like outside the classroom because I know, for me, whenever I’m trying to build my program, trying to get more attention for what we do a huge thing for me is how to advocate outside of school whether that be with families, with businesses, with whatever. How do you get parents to buy in? How do you get people outside the school to buy in and why do you think that’s so important?

Shannon: I love this. I feel like parent buy in is probably the second biggest thing next to student engagement. It depends on the district that I’m working in that kind of affects the way that I’m trying to contact the families. I’m a big fan of social media so I have a classroom Instagram and what I found is the students will follow it. The parents will then follow it. If your school has a hashtag you can kind of jump in on that. I even post something right outside my classroom that says, hey follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Even if it’s just taking a picture of like the dirty paint tray at the end of the day and saying like, wow we had a crazy day in art today #creativity. You’re just kind of showing that like we did something today and you’re reminding people that art is happening every single day. I found social media to be awesome.

I also am a huge fan of Artsonia and I think a digital portfolio is a really cool way for parents to see what the kids are doing. Everybody has that conversation like what happened in school today and 99 out of 100 kids are going to say nothing but if the parents are getting that email with a piece of art work or maybe you uploaded their artist statement, it gives them something to talk about. I’ve had parents email me and say we talked about art at the dinner table last night. That’s your great moment of like yes, we are doing something and people care. That’s, I think, what really gets your program to take off.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool. I like those strategies a lot. Just one of other kind of thing with that, do you invite parents, like physically, into your room too? Is that something that you want to show what’s going on or do you actually want them in the room? Do you think that helps with buy in?

Shannon: I’m sure it does. I’m not a big parent volunteer person. I’ll bring in volunteers for big, big projects. One year I decided to tie-dye T-shirts for 550 students in one week. That week I brought in some parent volunteers and then they did all the laundry and for hanging an art show and stuff. I did try to have parent volunteers to upload Artsonia work but I kind of found that it was better to sort of teach my older students how to do that so they’re really taking that ownership in the classroom. Personally, I don’t use a whole lot of parent volunteers but that’s just my prerogative, my choice.

Tim: Cool, I was just curious because I know so many people have different ideas on that. One last question, though, before we get you out of here. Once you’ve built your program to a really good level and you’re happy with where you are can you sort of describe what that looks like? What does your program look like on a day to day basis when kids are involved, staff is involved, parents are buying in, like what should be shooting for?

Shannon: That’s a great question. Man, I think it’s going to really come down to like little moments in the classroom where kids will say oh I was watching TV and I noticed this was happening or I saw a famous artwork that we’ve talked about. I taught my little sister that color mixing happens this way. I think it’s when the students are really, kind of, taking what you’ve taught them and then applying it outside of the art room. It’s pretty easy to get kids to make art and think art in an art classroom but when they’re making connections outside of your room and outside of your program I think that’s when it gets really exciting. You know, they’re showing you what they made at home. They’re going to art camps. They’re asking if you know anybody who teaches painting. It’s showing that you’ve kind of planted a seed and they’re ready to take it to the next level and I think that’s really the sign of a art program that’s thriving.

Tim: That’s awesome. Very well said. Shannon, thank you very much for joining us. It’s been great talking to you.

Shannon: Hey, my pleasure.

Tim: I hope that you enjoyed hearing about things from both perspectives, Shannon’s ideas on elementary and mine on secondary. The common theme, I think, that both she and I talked about is getting buy in. In high school that’s predominantly going to be the kids in your classes. In elementary Shannon talked about both the school community and the larger community. She gave a lot of ideas that hopefully can help you if you find yourself in a situation where you are starting a program from scratch.

But, before we get out of here today I want to give a shout out to my partner in crime, Mr. Andrew McCormick because I know he’s too humble to do it himself. If you listen regularly you know he moved to a new school this year and it’s been a pretty rough time for him. If only he had listened to this podcast last summer maybe we could have helped him but as bad as he makes it sound sometimes he is having some success. Andrew is being recognized at his school for doing an incredible job of connecting the students, helping them feel welcome and creating a classroom environment that helps kids learn, helps kids belong and leads to an amazing amount of learning. Kudos to him for that recognition.

But, I don’t want him to get too big of a head so we’re going to talk about it next week and see if what he’s doing is really that important. Okay, spoiler alert it is but we should talk about why so make sure you give us a listen next week when we discuss whether or not we should care what our students think about us. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a good one.

Tim: Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Remember that you can sign up for our email list at Also, I want to remind you that you can always email Andrew and me at, we love hearing your feedback both positive and negative and it always helps us improve the show. Thank you for listening.

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.