The Post-Thanksgiving Mailbag (Ep. 145)

It’s time for Tim to clear out the inbox and answer some listener questions! The post-Thanksgiving mailbag includes discussion on kids stealing artwork, improving the creative process, and how to critique kids without hurting their confidence. And maybe a few words on why a TED talk on flag design may be just the thing your class needs right now. 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.

Alright. Welcome to the show. I’m flying solo today and opening up the mail bags. So we’ll see how this goes.

But before we jump into that, I hope everybody had a good Thanksgiving. I had a great few days off, but I also discovered something that was kind of disturbing. Okay, maybe not disturbing, that’s not the best word. But I found out that a pretty decent number of people don’t go to school at all Thanksgiving week. And I was a little bit shocked and to be honest, a little bit jealous. For my whole career we’ve always gone both Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving and for a long time we’ve been went Wednesday before Thanksgiving. And now I’m finding out that people get like nine days off in a row, which seems a little excessive, but that’s neither here nor there I suppose.

But if you had all of last week off, please don’t take that for granted. I think that’s what I’m trying to say. And if you worked the majority of the week last week, please know that you are not alone. But I hope everybody did enjoy their Thanksgiving, did enjoy their time off and I’m feeling kind of refreshed before our next break.

But anyway, with that time off, I decided to dig through some of my emails that I haven’t gotten around to answering. It’s been a crazy few weeks at The Art of Ed and I have not been able to get through everything. So I thought, “let’s do a mailbag episode.” So, I have a handful of questions from Art Ed Radio listeners that need, I guess, kind of an extensive response. So let me pull some of those out and we will go ahead and dive in.

The first question from Teresa in New Jersey says, “What do you do about students who try to turn in another student’s work as their own?” Now I’ve had this happen more than you might think and looking for the right word here, I’m fascinated. I’m always fascinated by why kids might try to do this. If we’re doing some kind of teacher directed work where everything’s going to look pretty similar or if I just sat at my desk and didn’t see what was going on in class, then maybe I can see where kids might think they’re going to get away with that.

But when I’m in my classroom, I’m trying to talk to kids every day. And obviously when I’m consistently moving around the room consistently talking to kids, obviously I’m seeing work progressing. I’m seeing how it develops, how they go through that. And so how do they, when kids try and turn into somebody else’s work, like how do they think they’re going to pass that off as their own? I’ve seen it develop from day one. and like I said, I’m just fascinated as to why they would try that, why they just show up with work out of nowhere. They haven’t done anything for four days, but then they turn in something else as their own.

It always involves a little bit of a talk. I’m skeptical, and we usually discuss a few things. I ask them questions and you know the old saying, give them just enough rope to hang themselves with? Usually with just a little bit of discussion you can figure out that no, this isn’t theirs. You can usually get them to admit to it after there’s three or four questions that they can’t quite answer about what’s going on in the artwork. And generally, I just go ahead and report that to my administration as plagiarism because honestly that’s the closest academic equivalent.

And I guess I would encourage that for everybody. If kids are trying to pass off work as their own, I really do think that is a form of plagiarism and I think that your school should have guidelines on how to deal with that. So I would actually, yeah, take it up the ladder a little bit, talk to your administration and just tell them the situation, ask them how they would handle it and just kind of use that guidance. And that’s generally gonna give you the best type of success.

But that also brings me to another story that I guess is a little bit relevant and that is the time that I had a kid trying to pass off other people’s work as his own on Instagram. Like he never tried to pull it in class, never tried to do it as a grade, but on his Instagram he would take pictures of other people’s artwork and then just post about how, oh, just finished this oil pastel work in class today, or how do you guys like my painting as it’s coming along and trying to just pick out the best work from the art room and pass it off on his own.

And so I was talking to a colleague about this and just asking for advice, asking how they would deal with that. And one of my kids actually overheard me and kind of joined in the discussion and she was like, oh no, we’ll take care of it. And so anyway, all the other students just started flooding this kid’s Instagram with comments about how we know you didn’t do that or this work actually belongs to this person. They’d probably be upset if you’re posting it. And that kind of overwhelming reaction to it really kind of shut things down pretty quickly.

I don’t know that I encourage that if something like that were happening, but it seemed to be really effective. The kind of peer pressure to kind of shut things down. So it was just kind of a related issue that made me think of that, just something that I kind of wanted to share.

Alright, question number two. This is from Jeff in Pennsylvania and he asks, “Do you have a good suggestion for a TED Talk either for me to watch personally or to show my class?” Alright, lots of them actually. I love TED Talks, who doesn’t love TED talks? But there are a lot out there that I think are really good. I have kind of a surprising one. I think that I want to share. But before I do that, I want to recommend an article by Jen Carlisle, a former writer for AOE. She has a great list on the AOE site. We’ll link to it in the show notes here. It’s the top 10 TED Talks every art teacher should watch.

It’s got all sorts of things that are inspiring for teachers that are incorporating art history and it’s got the usual suspects when it comes to creativity in education. Phil Hansen, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sir Ken, and all of which are great and all of which I would recommend, particularly Sir Ken Robinson because he came on the podcast a couple of years ago and I am forever going to be a fan of his.

But as far as my own selection, I’m going to go off the wall with this one and I think my TED Talk recommendation, for you first to watch it and maybe for your class, is going to be a by a guy named Roman Mars. And it’s called Why City Flags May be the Worst Design Thing You’ve Never Noticed. And I know it seems super weird to watch a talk on flag design or vexillology, if you need your big word for the day, but this talk is surprisingly captivating and it’s funny and it’s smart. Roman Mars is a podcast and radio host. He does the 99% Invisible podcast, which is amazing. But he has this great voice and kind of a flair for the dramatic.

And most importantly in his regular podcasts, but especially in this TED Talk, he talks about the importance and the beauty of good design. How when we start to pay attention to all of the little things that are well designed and that make our life easier, we start to find beauty in the most unexpected places. And so he transitioned that into talking about the rules for good design. And this is especially prevalent in his talk about flags. But I think they apply to all kinds of designs.

And the five rules are as follows. Number one, keep it simple. Number two, use meaningful symbolism. Number three, limit your color palette. Number four, no lettering or seals or unnecessary designs. And number five, be distinctive. And he shows how these apply to different flags, and how there are simple but elegant design flags that are incredible like Chicago and Amsterdam that are just things of beauty. Then he shows some terrible design as well, which makes things pretty entertaining.

Once you watch it, it can be a great jumping off point for talks on design. And honestly it could lead you into a perfect one or two day lessons, having kids do a design for your school or your city and just come up with a flag that represents something special and just think about those ideas of good design. Follow those five rules and you have a real simple design less than on her hands and a really good discussion about the importance of design.

And like I said, you’ll probably have a little bit of pushback when you hear that this is about flag design, but you really should give it a chance. And just one disclaimer, there are a couple bad words in the talk – nothing terrible, but you do need to preview that if you’re thinking about showing it to your kids and see if they can handle that.

Alright, question number three. “I’ve got a new semester coming up in January and I’ve already started worrying about a new set of kids coming in. A, how do you get to know your kids when they are new tier classroom?” Our question comes from Cindy in Alabama. I think the biggest thing that we can do is just try to hear them out, let them tell you about themselves, about their personalities, about their art class and no history, like what they’ve done in art class, what they want to do in art class. And I think a really simple way to do that is give every kid a note card when they come in on the first day. Or if you want to get really fancy and create this as a worksheet, that’s fine. But I like the note cards.

What I like to do is ask them just a few things. Most of them are related to art class just because that’s simple, it’s an easy way to break the ice and honestly it’s things that you need to know. So I just start with simple stuff. Ask them about their history and art class. I teach high school, I asked them what courses they’ve taken before, have you done an art class in middle school, in elementary school? Who was your teacher? Whatever they want to tell you, if they’ve taken classes outside of the school setting? Do they go to museums? Anything like that. Anything about their history in art class, whether they’ve been successful or whether they haven’t.

I also like to ask them about their favorite and least favorite materials and on it doesn’t necessarily influence what I’m going to demonstrate for them, the materials that I want them to use. But I like to know what they’re comfortable with, what they’re uncomfortable with and that can kinda guide demos. That can kind of lead me to particular points of discussion. Sharing things with kids and just showing how we work with different materials, but having an understanding of what they like and what they’re familiar with versus what they don’t like and what they are not familiar with can help guide your teaching just a little bit.

I ask them about their goals for art class. I ask them what they would like to learn. Do they want to learn to draw more realistically? Do they want to learn how to paint with watercolor? Do they just want to work with clay and have that experience sometimes? Just giving an idea of what they want to get out of your class and then you can discuss with them, hey, here are the things that we’re going to do. Hey, here are the things that we sort of leave for more advanced classes, but maybe we can get there in the future.

And then I like to ask them a couple more personal things. I asked them to tell me something about themselves, whether that be their learning style, whether that be something personality wise, what they think about school, who their friends are, what their interests are, whatever it could be, just anything that you can learn about their kids. And anything that you might be able to start a conversation with them about.

I also like to ask them for a recommendation. Just have them write down for me a song that they think I should listen to, a song that they love, a book that I should read, something I shouldn’t stream on Netflix. Something to watch on YouTube, whatever the case may be. And that’s a great conversation starter as well. And we’ll talk about these conversations in just a second here. But just giving a little bit of insight into what they like, what they enjoy doing can really prompt you into a lot of different discussions and it also can influence art as well. If they’re having a tough time coming up with creative ideas, coming up with things that they want to create art about, you can go back to those ideas and say oh hey, what about these things you told me about yourself? What about those recommendations you gave me? Can those influence you, can inspire you in any way? And those can be really helpful.

And then finally I like to just have kids write down one or two or three questions for me and that can be about myself. That can be about the class, that can be about anything really. I just like to open the dialogue with kids. And if I see something that a lot of kids ask, I’ll address it in front of the class. Otherwise that’s another piece that could be a good conversation starter.

And so anyway, we’ll collect all these cards with a little bit of writing that took us between five and 10 minutes to get that all done. So it’s not a huge investment of time, but you can really return back to those over and over. And I’ve talked before about trying to talk to every kid every day and it’s probably impossible, but we get close. But these cards are a great conversation starter. Like recommendation. Let’s say you listened to that song that a kid recommended for you and just tell them what you think about it. Like if it was great and were like, Oh this is great, what else should I listen to buy them? And if it’s not, then you know, just go to them in a fun way and say, man, that song was terrible. Do you listen to all kinds of terrible music like this?

Make it joking, make it fun, but it’s a conversation starter to just kind of get to know them a little bit and anything like that can work. If they tell you something about themselves, they tell you about their favorite art material, and you say yeah, we are going to be doing colored pencils in a few weeks here so just sit tight as we go through the rest of our drawing stuff and then we’ll jump into something you love. Or I saw your concern about drawing with charcoal. Not everybody loves that but I’ve got some really cool techniques that I want to show you that I think you’re going to enjoy.

And so just kind of take those tips and tricks from the card, take their interests and their passions and start to talk to them about that. And it’s a great way for you to, I guess, springboard into deeper conversations and really get to know your kid. So again, it’s just a five or 10 minute thing, give them a note card, try and learn a little bit about them and then use what they tell you to start those discussions and to talk to them more about themselves and really get to know them.

So I think that’s probably the best way that I’ve found to try and get to know your new kids as they’re coming into your classroom.

Alright. I’ve been talking a lot. So I think this might be our last one. But maybe not. We’ll see how quick this goes. Okay. “Can you give me a couple ideas on how to make my kids more creative?” And that’s from Shannon in Oregon. And as I talk about finishing up quickly, I could honestly talk for hours about how to make kids more creative. I love talking about creativity because I think it’s what we do best as art teachers, but I’ve already done that and there’s actually a learning pack in Art Ed PRO that shares a ton of my ideas. It’s called Creativity Exercises for Every Level and it includes a lot of simple projects that I use to develop creativity, ideas and resources about brainstorming, idea generation, how to like push your kids beyond their first ideas.

And it also has a lot of projects, a lot of downloads. Basically just me sharing all of my best ideas on creativity. So if you’re a PRO member, make sure you go check that out. If you’re not a PRO member, go sign up. Tell your admin to pay for it. All of the usual disclaimers I give you in the ads here. And there’s actually an article on AOE still telling about how to do that, so go check that out.

But until you are a member, there are two really good articles that Amber Kane has written recently that I think are going to be worth your time. The first is about kids uncovering their creative process, which I think is really cool because a lot of times we don’t reflect on what your ideal creative practice looks like. And I think that’s a really good discussion to get into with your kids, having them reflect on all different parts of their process. And she actually gives you a download with 10 questions to explore about what time of the day do you have the most energy? When do you feel the most creative, how do you prefer to work? How do you capture recording ideas? What kind of music do you listen to? Where do you find inspiration? And just all of these things to reflect on, to help kind of get kids in touch with their creative side and to think about how they work best, how they are most creative.

And then most importantly, once they’re paying attention to their process, you can help them connect that to their artwork. Now, Amber gives the example of kids trying to work in their sketchbook at the time when they feel most creative and if they can get their ideas down, if they can get things listed out and really kind of generate a lot of those ideas that they need, that creativity and getting it down on paper, it’s really going to influence their artwork in a positive way. And so that’s worth checking out.

The second article that I really liked from her is called Are You Giving Your Students Too Many Choices? And I think that’s a good article because it’s actually about constraints. And it emphasizes the importance of constraints because sometimes we are giving kids too many choices and when our kids and when we ourselves have too many choices, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed.

I think about that a lot and there’s a quote in the article that I think is really kind of sums up my thinking on that. It’s from Patricia Stokes, she’s the author of Creativity from Constraints, The Psychology of Breakthrough. And she says this. Paradoxically, when people are given free rein to solve a problem, they tend to be wholly uncreative, focusing on what’s worked best in the past. And such freedom can hinder solving the creativity problem, but the strategic use of constraints can promote solving the creativity problem. And here’s the important part. By using constraints, reliable responses are precluded and novel surprising ones are encouraged.

And I think that that’s the biggest thing about creativity that I noticed. If you give kids free reign to do whatever they want, a lot of times you end up with those subjects. Those cliche things that we’ve seen, that we’ve all seen enough of it to last a lifetime. But if you give your kids some challenges, give them constraints, it really does alter their thinking and it really does force them to be more creative.

So that would be my best advice. Just give kids some open ended projects that don’t have a specific outcome, but they do have some roadblocks that make your kids think a little bit differently.

Alright. I think that is going to be it. I think it is time for us to wrap things up.

I feel like I’m giving you some homework here and some extra reading you need to do with Amber’s articles and maybe go on to watch some TED Talks and checking out a PRO learning pack and all of that kind of stuff. But I only have like 20 minutes here and there’s so much more that I need to say.

But whether you were interested in creativity or design or classroom management or anything that we talked about, the important point here is that there are resources out there for you, there are things that can help you dive into these ideas a little bit deeper. So I’ll encourage you to do that. If there’s anything that I talked about today that kind of piques your interest, that you kind of want to learn more about, we’ll make sure that we link to all of those things in these show notes.

And take some time this week to check it out because no matter where your interests lie, those resources are out there for you and if you have the inclination at all to research and reflect and think about the things that interest you, that’s going to make you a better teacher in the long run.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker.

Alright. Thank you for listening this week. I hope you guys had an awesome vacation. I hope this mailbag was worthwhile for you. Next week we’ll be back with Elizabeth Peterson. She runs the Inspired Classroom website and she does a lot with social and emotional artistic learning. I don’t think we talk enough about that as art teachers and I am excited to dive in, so make sure you tune in next week and we will talk to you then. Thanks 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.