The First Days of School (Ep. 054)

It is back to school time, and after 20 years, Cassie might finally have all the answers. Okay, probably not. But she does share some of her best practices for the beginning of the year, the first routines she teaches (4:45), why she uses video to reinforce some of the most important ideas (9:15), and how she establishes a collaborative culture in her art room (15:00). Full episode transcript below.


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Tomorrow begins my 20th year teaching art. 20 years you guys, that’s insane. I mean, you think, number one, they would have found somebody way more suited for the job, or, number two, I would be a lot better at this job. After 20 years, I should have this figured out, and I’m here to tell you I absolutely positively don’t. In fact, usually, this time of the school year, I have my normal back-to-school nightmare. My back-to-school nightmare, which I have found most teachers have them, they are all a little different, mine looks like this.

I have my classroom, which happens to be extremely large in my dream, and it is kind of my reality. I’m not going to lie, it’s a big room. But anyway, in my dream, it’s even bigger and louder, and it’s filled to the brim with kids. And these kids are losing their ever loving mind, and they don’t give a flippity flap about me or what I’m saying. It is just me surrounded by all of these kids, all different ages, and I am at my wits’ end trying to get their attention. I can feel myself losing my temper, getting to that point where I’m about to start yelling.

It’s then that my principle walks in and she’s decided that it’s the perfect time for an evaluation. Remember this? I think we were talking about that just last week. Yeah, well, that’s my usual nightmare, and I haven’t had it yet, and tomorrow, I start my 20th year. So, maybe that’s the point when you stop having that nightmare. Maybe this is the year that I actually get it all figured out, “I actually know what I’m doing.” Not putting any money on it. Let’s talk about the first days back to school.

I’m Cassie Stephens, and this is Everyday Art Room.

Let me profess this little chat today by saying that my classes, kindergarten all the way up to second, they come to art for 30 minutes twice a week. So, when I kind of break down what I do on my first days of school, I’m going to break it down in 30-minute increments. Now, my older kiddos, my third and my fourth grade kids, I have them for an hour. My third graders in order to get that hour, I have doubled up classes. That’s kind of like the lesser of two evils.

I’d rather have my kids for an hour, if that means I have to have two classes at once, well, so be it. At least they’re having an hour of art. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today, I just want to let you know that just so you could kind of get a feel as to why I break my first days back to school up in little bite-sized bits, because, let’s be honest, 30 minutes is hardly any time at all.

So, my first days of art. I actually have my little chichi here, it’s a loose leaf piece of paper, I’ve been using the same sheet of paper for years. It’s got coffee stains and paint stains, it’s wrinkled, it’s stuck with sticky notes, but it is my basic … it’s almost like my security blanket. I don’t even look at it after that first class, but it’s just a good reminder for me of everything that I always want to cover on the very first days. So, here’s what I do.

When my second grade kiddos, who are the first ones that are going to come to me bright and early tomorrow morning … Oh my gosh, that just made my hands sweat. When they come to me, they’re either coming to me from their teacher dropping them off, or they escort themselves from PE. My kids have PE every single day, which is amazing. So they’re either leaving me and going to PE, or coming from, and smelling quite ripe, let me be honest with you. So, I greet them in the hallway, and that’s important because I can’t always be out there to greet them in the hallway. I might have another class, there is a 99.9% chance I’m late, and they are going to have to stand out there on their own for just a moment or so. And so, I need for them to really understand how I want them to be in the hall. Our school rule is, is that they’re supposed to be quiet in the hallways, but that usually doesn’t last too long, I’m going to be honest with you.

So about a month in the school, that rule goes out of the window. However, I want to maintain that rule when they are waiting outside of my room. So I greet them right outside of my door, and we talk about the appropriate way to walk down the hall to my room. Meaning, they should walk, and how they should be standing. So, it’s really important for me just to spend like 30 seconds to a minute to remind them, “If I’m not out here, I expect you to be standing on that white line.” I have a little taped line right outside of my room at level zero, which for me means silently.

Now, I have a drinking fountain right outside of my room. You guys may or may not have one of those things, but I tell you, I hate that drinking fountain. Because they’re coming from PE, well, they’re thirsty, and I get it, but I have 30 minutes. I don’t have time to water all these people. They’re not plants, I don’t do that. The good thing about my drinking fountain is that, the water kind of comes out warm. What the kids don’t know is that if they actually hold it for just maybe 30-ish seconds, it will actually turn to cold water. Do you think I’m going to tell them that? No, I don’t have time for that. So, we do go through getting a drink of water, but we talk about how you only have to do that if our PE teachers have said we need to get a drink of water.

And we have a little routine for that, because as you guys know, you have to have a routine for everything. That’s why it may seem silly to talk to them about, how we walk down the hallway. How we do it quietly. How we make sure to walk. How we stand on this line. How we get a drink of water. It’s going to make you want to smoosh your head up against the wall, but I’m telling you, it’s all of those things, going through them baby step-ish-ness, whatever, that’s really going to make a difference as the school year progresses. That’s why these first days of art, it seems so redundant and slow because it is, but it so vital to what you need to talk to the kids about.

Now, I greet my students at the door. I know I’ve shared that with you before, and I love to greet them for a couple of reasons: it kicks off our class in a fun way. It also prevents the kids from raising their hand and asking you 20 questions, “What are we doing today? I lost a tooth. Have you seen my brother today? Did my sister have art? What are we doing today,” back to that again. So, as soon as they walk up to my door, I will say to them, “Hello my most amazing artists.” And at this point, on the first days of school, I train them to say, “Hello my most amazing art teacher.” That’s right, no shame. And then I say, “How are you today?” They say, “Ready to create.”

Now, as they’re saying, “Ready to create,” that’s when we start filing in my room. And again, there is a routine for that. I have long line of tape that they are to follow, it’s also the same line of tape where they line up to exit. They are to follow that line of tape all the way to the floor, and my students, we always start every art class gathering together on the floor. I don’t have a carpet, I just have lines of tape on the floor, so the kids know to fill up the first row first, second row second, just like you’re at Disney. Go all the way down leaving no spaces in between you and your neighbors.

Now, I have never had a kiddo complain that they’re sitting on the floor as opposed to a carpet, I much rather prefer this for the way my room is set up, so that’s just something that I do. But I do love having that gathering time, it gives us a good place to go, to sit together, to be close without the distractions of supplies, and to just talk.

So, we go through coming in and sitting down on the floor, and just like overall, how we enter the art room, we enter quietly, we enter quickly, we go all the way down, we take a seat. No lollygagging, we’ve got 30 minutes, we got stuff to do.

Now, at this point, I like to share with them my video. I created a video last year with a bunch of the people that I work with, that just shows the kids one more time how to walk down the hall, how to come in, how to get a drink of water if they need to, how to go get their supplies. The video is really fun, funny, and fast. It’s about four minutes long, and the reason I love it is because it reiterates some of the things I just said. It shows their teachers being silly and funny, which they of course love to see, and it’s a little bit more of a reminder. I’ve noticed that my kids tend to remember and retain things more if they don’t just hear me saying it, but they also watch a video, or they get up and move and they repeat after me.

So, we’re just kind of getting all of those little memories encapsulated in their brains, so hopefully will remember those routines a little bit better.

Now, at this point, they’ve been sitting for a pinch. The video was five minutes long, and they’re antsy and I’m antsy. So we always get up and do a little bit of a stretch/dance. I do this a lot with my students, I do this a lot with my kindergarten students, and I usually do it, it’s not always planned, but I feel like as a teacher, you have to be really, really good at reading your audience.

If you see that your students have the wriggles or their eyes aren’t on you, or they’re just kind of like looking off into the distance and you’ve tried to bring them back in, “Hey, eyes on me. I’m up here, pay attention,” and that is just not working, it’s not you, they just need a break. I know me personally, I can’t sit and do anything for an extended period of time. I need to get up and move as well.

So, I think it’s really important as teachers that we pay attention to that and not put it back on the kids and say, “Oh, they just weren’t listening or paying attention.” No, they hit their breaking point. You need to get them up and moving. So, it’s usually at this point that I have everybody stand up, and as you guys know, I have a call and response where I clear my throat, and then that means the kids are going to repeat after me and do anything I do.

As we’re all standing, I’ll say, “Clap your hands.” And I clap my hands, and they repeat it. “Clap your hands. Clap them just like me.” And they repeat that and do it. And then I will say, “Shake your bottom,” in which case I shake my bottom. “Shake your bottom. Shake it just like me.” And then we just do some silly-like dance moves. Do the twist, we do the mashed potato, we do the swim. You can make this little game, I guess you could call it, or I just call it the quick stretch. Go on as long as you need to, but it ends with, “Take a deep breath, let it out, relax just like me.” With your tone and your voice, you can bring the mood back down. And then I tell them to take seat. I love doing that just because it really does break up the lesson especially on these days when you’re having to cover a lot of content.

After that, I like to go through my roll call. On my roll, I have some students who are new, so I might not know how to pronounce their names. I say to them, “When I call your name, you are to say Hello Mrs. Stephens.” This really helps them remember my name, because then, if 20 kids just kept on saying, “Hello Mrs. Stephens,” hopefully they will remember that my name is Mrs. Stephens. Not always, but when I say their name, I tell them, “If I say your name incorrectly, please tell me so, and please tell me how to say your name slowly, clearly, and loudly.” I also like to let the other kids know, “This is not your job to shout out their name, let them say their name.”

You all know what I’m talking about, “It’s not Suzie, it’s Suzanne,” as the whole class shouts, and you’re like, “Oh my God.” Poor Suzanne, just sitting there staring at you like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with these people.”

Then I have a little stack of questions. So after I say, “Hello Suzanne,” she’ll say, “Hello Mrs. Stephens,” I pull a card from my stack of random questions. It will say things like, “What is your favorite food, what is your least favorite vegetable? What two colors make orange? Have you ever been out of the United States? Do you speak another language?” These questions you can find both on my Instagram, I recently posted them, and on my blog. It’s just a fun little stack of questions that I came up with just to kind of keep everybody on their toes, and they love hearing the responses. It’s like a fun, little, quick getting to know you again.

When we’re finished with that, then again I feel like it’s a great idea for us to get up and moving, and we go to our seats. Now, I do give my students assigned seats. I know my students, except for kindergarten, in which case I always just sit them boy, girl, until I do get to know them. But my other students, I look at my list before they come, and I decide who’s going to sit where based on level of chattiness, skill level. I like to place my friends who are good peer tutors and peer models next to friends who might need a little bit of assistance.

I think it’s really important to figure that out and really tell the kids that the people you’re sitting with, this is your team. These are the people you’re going to be sitting with, and working with, and helping create art with, not necessarily all year, but for right now. So, I really like to emphasize the word team so that they want to work together as a group. And that really helps later when I start to assign jobs. But jobs for me, that’s coming later. I can’t pile all the stuff on them right away.

So, how do I give assigned seats? Well, my tables are color-coded, and I have four seats per table. On those first couple of days of art, I put a color-coordinated piece of large bulletin board paper on the tables that I can write numbers on. So, one seat will have a number one in that corner of the table paper, and then there will be a number two on the other side, a three and a four across from the one and the two.

So, when the kids are on the floor, I will call their name and I’ll say, “Suzanne, you’re red number one.” I’ll tap at that spot, she’s to go over, sit down, and sit with, we call it Mona Lisa style. Sit with her hands crossed nicely, and sit up nice and straight. I do this really, really quickly, and I tell the kids, “I’m going to be calling your name and I’ll be pointing to a spot, I need you to hustle and get to your seat, and then show me Mona Lisa style of sitting.” I do this because I want them to be able to come to art right away the next art class, so that following 30 minutes, and be able to create. With 30 minutes on that first day, this time around, I’m not going to be able to squeeze that in. So, I know they’re going to be champing at the bit next art class to get creating, and I want them to.

So, that’s why I do this assigned sitting thing very, very quickly. Once everybody has got their seat, just kind of remind them when they sit, I say to them, “If you sit at the red table, please bark like a dog. If you sit at the yellow table, please moo like a cow.” Just silly little things to help them remember their teammates, where they sit, and who they sit with.

Once they’ve gotten their assigned seats, I go through my attention getter. For me, I usually ring my chime, but I’m thinking this year of doing like, “Hey artists,” and have them respond, “Hey art teacher,” or something like that. I’ve tried the Mona Lisa routine, I just can’t get it to stick. And anything that’s a little too long, like for some reason, class, class, yes, yes, those things that are a little too long or maybe too involving, not that, that is, I just can’t stick with it. It’s just too much for me to remember, I need something quick. Usually, when I want their attention, I want it right now, and I don’t have time for some cuties sayings.

That’s why I keep in my pocket, a single note chime. It’s actually from the company that my husband makes, they’re called Treeworks Chimes, just a little break right there, commercial break. Anyway, that’s what I use, and I like to introduce that on the first day so they’ll know when they hear the signal, that’s when I need their attention.

You all, at this time, it’s kind of getting close to my 30 minutes being up. So this is where we start talking about emergency procedures. We run through where to line up for a fire drill. We go through how we line up for a weather alert drill, for us, that will be a tornado drill. I don’t go any further than that until the following art classes. Once we’re lined up and we’re ready to go, I introduce the game, The Smartest Artist. If you’re not familiar with The Smartest Artist, check out my blog. Also, there is a video on AOE where I demonstrate how my students play The Smartest Artist. So that’s, for me, art class in 30 minutes.

Now, the following art class is when the making happens. My friends who have an hour-long art class tomorrow are actually going to be able to do that. This year, I’ve decided to have my students … I love to do collaboratives, this year they’re going to do a little bit of an ice-breaker game. So, I’m going to have to keep you hanging on that one. I’m going to share more details on that game in my broadcast next week. Maybe, because I don’t know if this is actually going to work. I always love to try new things, sometimes they’re amazing and sometimes they’re not. Yeah, I’m going to test-drive this one and I will circle back to you all later. So, that’s how I do my first day, I guess, in art class.

I know what you’re thinking, “Stephens, you didn’t cover rules.” So that second day, that’s when I go over rules, consequences, and diving into that first project. But like I said, you’re going to have to wait until next week. Thanks guys so much for letting me share, and letting me talk through my first day since it’s tomorrow.

Tim Bogatz: Hello, this is Tim Bogatz from Art Ed Radio. Did you know that you can sign up for a 30-day free trial of Art Ed PRO, the essential subscription service for professional art teachers. PRO members get instant access to a comprehensive on-demand library filled with hundreds of expert training, hands-on tutorials, and rich printable resources. This is the PD you need when you need it, with topics ranging from assessment to classroom management to literacy, and even first day activities. Art Ed PRO has what you need to be the best teacher you can be, and now is the perfect time to get started as we begin heading back to school. Check it out and start your free trial at theartofed.com/pro. Now, let’s get back to the show as Cassie opens up the mail.

Cassie: Hey, let’s take a little dip into the mailbag. This one is from Instagram from @Virane Tran. Why is your Instagram handle so crazy? Anyways, so, this one says yay for starting school. “I’m going into my eighth year teaching, and the schedule got shifted, and my classes are now 35 minutes.” Welcome to my world. “I have never taught such short classes, and I’m dreading it, but I know you have 30-minute classes. With lesson cleanup, how much time do your kids typically have to work? I’m thinking like especially with painting and clay.”

Oh, friend. See, I taught for five years in Metro Nashville, and there, I taught kindergarten through fourth grade, and I had everybody for an hour including kindergarten. But I didn’t know any different because that’s where I started teaching, and that’s all I knew, and it was great. But when I changed schools and moved to Franklin, and started at Johnson Elementary where I am currently, my schedule was 30 minutes, and I was like you, in severe panic mode.

I realized what I was going to have to do was get extremely efficient with my time and make every single moment count. There is no downtime, there is no, “Hic, I’ll just take a sit down for a minute, let me make a phone call. I’ve got to check my email.” Not that I was doing that, not that you do that, but there wasn’t that fast-paced, make sure to get in … we weren’t hustling I guess as much, we were a little bit more lackadaisical with the luxury of time. So, in a way, I kind of love the 30 minutes, especially with the younger kids, because there is no downtime, there is no waste of time. You’re going to get really efficient, you’re going to establish those routines; like a greeting at the door, walking in really quickly, giving those directions quickly, having call and response so they retain them, going to get supplies.

I will tell you this, if I’m very, very lucky, my kids get 17 minutes max creating time. If I’m lucky. I would say, most days it’s like 15 minutes. I mean, can you imagine trying to come up with an idea and create something in 15 minutes? It’s beautiful, I’m not going to lie. That’s why I work really hard to get an hour for my older kiddos, but you, you have that, that 35 minutes I believe to your eighth grade, and I am so sorry. But it is doable, you will get really good at it, you will get very good at breaking things down into baby bites. Meaning, if I know my kids are going to be working on a clay project, I will know how much of that clay project they will be able to accomplish in that short amount of time, and know that they’re going to have to wrap up that clay project and just wait until the following art class to continue working on it.

I know you could give the directions one day and allow more time the following day to work. I’ve never been able to make that happen with my age group of students, but with your older kids, that just might be something that works. Perhaps you give instruction, they sketch out their idea that first day, and then the following day, it’s like a work day. That might help.

But like I said, for me, the best method with me and my younger kids especially, is breaking things down into those bite-sized pieces, what I know they can accomplish in that really short amount of time. Good luck, you’ll get the hang of it, it’s definitely going to be a learning curve for you.

If you guys have a question for me, please feel free to send them my way. You can find me at the everydayartroom@theartofed.com.

Okay, so, I have to tell you because I’m so excited. They are going to be making paper sculptures, like same paper sculptures I always do with my kindergarten kids which I know sounds a little juvenile to have my older kids, my third and fourth graders making paper sculptures, but it’s a getting to know you again. I have a whole sheet of 16 different ideas, where if you have a missing tooth, make a pink zigzag on your sculpture. If you have a brother, make a green arch on your sculpture.

The idea is, when they hold up their sculpture, we’ll be able to read the code, and be able to get to know them a little bit. Like I said, I’ll keep you posted, but I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer. Thanks guys for letting me walk through my first days of art with you, and I will for sure let you know how this project goes and keep you posted on the following days in art. This is something that I really went into depth in my very first couple of episodes of Everyday Art Room, so if you want more details on that, definitely check out probably episode one through about five on Everyday Art Room.

Thank you guys. Have an awesome week.

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