Professional Practice

Tim Opens Up the Mailbag (Ep. 334)

It has been a long while, so it is time for Tim to answer listener questions with a mailbag episode! It starts with some strange stories of things Tim has found in his art room, then moves on to advice about building community and fostering independence, cleanup routines, and the best ways to reflect on your teaching. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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

All right, welcome to the show. I am flying solo today. I’m also a little bit sick, because honestly, with a wife that is a teacher and a couple kids that are in school, is it really back-to-school season if everybody in your house is not sick with something? So anyway, I’ve tested negative for COVID, you’ll be happy to hear. But I’m really congested. And I have a bad cough. I’m sucking on multiple cough drops to try and get through this episode. So apologies in advance if I’m not sounding as great as I normally do. But today we are going to dip into the mailbag. We haven’t done just a mailbag for me in quite a while. We did one last week, actually, with Dr. Eva Norman, about physical health. Fun episode. Hopefully, informative episode. I had some pretty good feedback on that. But I’ve just been getting an inordinate amount of emails for the last few weeks, which is fantastic, by the way.

Apologies to everybody who it’s taking me so long to reply to. But if you haven’t heard back from me yet, it’s coming soon. I promise. But I just want to say I appreciate everyone that writes in. I really do. I love that people are trying to learn, trying to get better, asking for advice. I enjoy hearing feedback. I enjoy hearing praise, obviously. But I also enjoy just knowing what topics and what ideas are resonating with you, where you’re getting ideas you can actually use for your classroom. Honestly, if you are sending feedback, just one note, please be specific. I received an email, probably back in June or July, and the entirety of the email was, “That episode really missed the mark!” And that’s it. That was all that was there. I’m just like, “Wow. Which episode are we talking about? How did we miss the mark? Why are you saying…?” It’s not helpful to me if you’re just complaining about things.

So anyway, I appreciate all feedback, good and bad. Please continue to send it. If you ever want to get in touch with me, email me or just hit me up on Twitter. DMs are always open. So like I said, I love hearing from everyone.

So first question that came into the mailbag just a week or two ago, there’s a question on the AOEU Facebook page that was the strangest thing that you found in your art room. What was the strangest thing you ever found? And somebody forwarded that to me and said, “Tim, I’d love to know what the strangest thing that you found in your classroom is.” I’ve got to say, I decided just kind of scroll through AOEU’s social media and see what some of the answers were. There were a lot of good ones, a lot of poop, unfortunately. And a lot of stuff about dead animals, which is not great either. But those are definitely the strangest things.

When I first thought of this, I have three ideas that came to mind. And so you can let me know which one you think is the strangest. But the first one, it’s simple. There’s not much story behind it, but I found a bag of fingernail clippings, a Ziploc baggy just full of somebody… I think they’re clipped. They might have been chewed. But either way, it was gross. I found just this bag, Ziploc bag, probably a third full, maybe half full, with fingernail clippings, like they’ve been saving them for a while. Or they’ve been collecting them from multiple people, which I’m not sure which is worse. And so I just asked my advanced class, I’m like, “Whose is this? Where did this come from?”

And this one kid just, as though it was the most normal thing in the world, is like, “Oh, I was saving those for a sculpture.” And you know what? I didn’t even ask anymore questions. I don’t know what the plan was. I don’t know what the sculpture was. And I generally don’t put the kibosh on things that my students want to do. But at that point I was like, “You know what? Not super healthy. Also, real awkward for everybody who works around you. Let’s maybe not do a sculpture made of fingernail clippings. So anyway, that’s one of those things that you can work on at home.” That was the first one.

Second strangest thing I found in my room, this actually comes with a little bit of a story behind it. But I just showed up one day for school, and this kid, one of my advanced students, I’d had her for three years at that point, had an entire aquarium full of frogs, just sitting outside my room, just little tree frogs I think they were. I’m not a frog expert. She had an aquarium full of frogs. And she was in tears. And I unlocked the door and let her and her frogs in. This was like 7:00 AM. It was early. And I was like, “What are we doing here?” And she actually had lost her place to live and had nowhere for her frogs to go. And she was like, “My friends can’t take them. I don’t know where to put them. Can they live in the art room?” And I was like, “Not sure how I can say no to that.” So anyway, for probably four months, I had a bunch of frogs living in the art room.

And every Friday I had to drive to the pet store and luckily, it was a short drive. But I would have to buy crickets, which is gross and weird, but also fascinating to watch. You dump the crickets in and the frogs would eat, just once a week. And they would eat those little meal crickets, whatever they are. I learned a lot about frogs taking care of frogs. And then we had winter break and we needed to find somewhere for them to go, because my wife was not a fan of crickets or frogs being in our house. So another student took them home for a couple weeks over winter break. They came back as art room pets for a little bit longer until that student found a more stable place to live. And then she was able to bring her pets back and the frogs were back home with her again. But I got to say, just having an aquarium full of frogs is a strange thing to find in your art room one morning.

And then the final story is not necessarily inside my room, but… This was back when I was a traveling art teacher. I was doing elementary and I would travel to all different schools. And I did not have a room so I would push the cart around or take the caddy around to different rooms and teach. And I walked by a classroom. And they had all their bags, all their backpacks, hanging outside their room. They had their hooks outside the room. And I walk by and this backpack was moving. And I was like, “What is happening here?” And so I just go to the next class and I was like, “Hey, I’m going to be a little bit late. I need to figure out what’s going on out here.” So that teacher follows me and we step into the fourth grade room and say, “Hey, can you come out here real quick?” And we check out this bag, that’s moving. And the classroom teacher gets these real wide eyes. And she just steps in and she’s like, “Kayla, can you come out here please?”

And so Kayla comes out and she’s like, “What is in your backpack, Kayla?” And Kayla’s like, “Those are my rats!” She opens it up and there’s four rats inside her backpack moving around. And her teacher’s just dumbfounded, obviously, and was like, “Where did you get these rats?” She’s like, “Oh, they were under these steps at my trailer.” She just found these wild rats under the steps at her trailer and decided to just pack them up in her backpack and bring them to school. I don’t know what she was trying to accomplish. I don’t know what actually happened to the rats, to be honest. The classroom teacher was like, “You go. You get back to your class. Do what you need to do. I will take care of Kayla. I will take care of the rats.” And honestly, I’m not sure what happened to them, but just finding rats in a backpack is definitely going to be something very, very strange.

So anyway, I don’t know how we got nine minutes into the podcast without talking about art teaching at all, but here we are. But hopefully, a couple of those stories were worth your time, at least. Okay, next question. This comes from Liz in Albuquerque. And she says, “You talk about kids,” or, sorry, “You talk about having kids take ownership of the art room and making the art room a place that kids want to be. But how exactly do you do that?” And I will just say there are a ton of ways to do that. I think the biggest thing is just to make kids comfortable in your room, first of all. That’s the first thing that you need to accomplish. They need to be able to feel comfortable. They need to let their guard down so that they can sort of have a place that they can relax, a place they can enjoy and a place that they can belong.

And then you need to decide, how do you want kids to take ownership? How do you want them to act? How do you want them to be when they’re in the art room? And I think the first thing you can do is just set a big goal. And for me, it was always to help kids develop independently. I want them to have their voice. I want them to be able to share their personality. I want them to be able to share their story through their artwork. And like I said, kids are not going to do that until they’re comfortable. But then once they are, you can help kids build rapport with each other. You can help them care about other people, care about other people’s points of view, but still give kids a chance to express their own point of view. And so, like I said, there’s a lot of ways to do that.

So let’s start here, making kids comfortable. I think the first thing is just be excited to see them, whether you actually are excited or not, pretend that you are. And just being greeted with a smile a quick, “Hey, so excited you’re here. So happy to see you today. So glad you’re in art class today.” Things like that. You need to be authentic with it as much as you can be. And even when it’s not authentic, just try. And don’t be sarcastic. Don’t be condescending. But just tell kids and show kids that you’re happy that they’re there. And then once they are there, do some things to learn about them. Sit with your kids and make some art while they’re making art. Join conversations. Be a part of what they’re talking about, what they’re doing. Maybe start some conversations. And I think all of that again, helps them feel comfortable, helps them get to know you, helps them get to know the students around them.

And I feel like it’s tougher and tougher every year to get kids to open up, to talk to each other. It’s a much different world now than it was five years ago, even, but especially 10, 15 years ago. But there are things you can do with group projects, with some of the games I talked about a couple weeks ago, with conversations that you’re having, with critiques that you’re having. Just getting kids talking to each other, talking about their art goes a long way into making them feel comfortable. But then when you want them to kind of speak up and share their voice, you have to give them the opportunity to do that, too. So just giving them assignments that allow for choice and for voice. It can be prompts or ideas that allow them to convey their opinions, to share their opinions, to share their voice. You can have them do projects that share personal experiences, or stories, or interests and so many great conversations can come for that.

And just ask them questions. Ask students about what they’re interested in. Ask them to support their opinions. You don’t want to be the teacher that’s constantly telling them what to do if you are trying to foster a sense of independence, a sense of ownership. But if you’re giving kids the chance to speak up, to discover things, to just share what they’re thinking and what they’re doing, then all of a sudden they know this is a place where they can feel comfortable doing that. This is a place where they can feel confident in doing that. And then once they’re comfortable, once they’re confident, you really see them start to blossom, not only in their work, but in their leadership, in talking about all the things that they’re learning, sharing with other people. And then what they’re learning builds on what other people are learning. And it really can create a great sense of community. So I think that’s a wonderful thing to do.

I’m going to link to also an old episode I did with Jen Russell about creating a welcoming environment. And she does a great job of creating that environment, making kids feel comfortable, helping them interact with each other, build community. And when you have all of those things going, like I said, kids will want to be there. And kids will start to take ownership, which is exactly what you want to do when it comes to that idea.

All right, our next question, this comes from Shannon in Minnesota. All right. And Shannon says, “I am having huge problems with clean-up. Kids are refusing to clean up when it’s time. It becomes very chaotic. It runs into the next class and causes me so many different problems. What should I do?” It’s different for every teacher. I’m going to share what kind of works for me and what has worked for me in the past. And I’ve run into this issue. I think every teacher’s run into this issue. Kids love to be making art. They love to be in your room. And they don’t want to leave. So it can be really difficult to get them to clean up.

And so I guess step one would be to make sure that you have a clear routine and make sure kids can follow it. You need to clearly lay it out for them. You need to practice. And I feel weird taking juniors and seniors and saying, “This is how we clean paint brushes,” but it’s vital. It really is important to show kids everything that you need to do. If you’re drawing, you need to show them where papers go. Where do drawing materials get put away? Do we need to wipe off our table? Whatever the routine is, share that with them. Practice that with them. Make sure they’re clear on it. If you’re painting, think through everything that you need to do. Where do paints go? Where do palettes go? What do you do with your wet painting? How do you wash brushes? Where do you put brushes away? How do you put brushes away? And just kind of honestly, sit down and do it yourself.

You have a painting, you need to clean up and then make notes of every step that you do, every step that you want kids to do. And then lay it out for them. Practice it with them. But you just need to have all of that figured out first. You need to communicate it with your kids. On top of communicating the routine, you also need to communicate with them, “This is the expectation.” Remind them of the expectations of the art room. Remind them of the consequences for not following expectations. Again, that’s a different for everyone, too. I can’t tell you what the expectations need to be in your classroom, what the consequences should be. That’s different based on your personality, your student population, the environment you’re in, all of those things. So you just need to figure out and communicate it clearly.

And then once all of that is figured out, give kids some time, give them a warning. You don’t want to just get to the end of class and say, “It’s time to clean up. Go!” That’s real, real hard for kids to make that immediate transition. And so what I think works really well is just to have a warning like, “Hey, five minutes of work time left and then we’re going to start to clean up.” And then, “Two minutes of work time, then we’re going to clean up.” And you say, “Hey, one minute to go before we clean up. If you’re at a good stopping point, go ahead and start getting cleaned up. Reminder that you need to do A, B, C, and D for cleanup today.” And then finally, when you get there, you can say, “Time’s up. Here are the steps I need you to take of. Here are the things I need you to do. We’ve practiced this. You know what to do. Please follow those directions.”

And even if you do all that, it still can be tough for some kids to break away. It can be tough when they’re in that creative flow. But just remind them that they can do things over time. You’re going to see them every day, every other day, hopefully, every week. And just let kids know that things are developed over time. This is how artists work. Not everything’s going to be done in one day. And that’s, obviously, easier in high school to get that message across. But it is a good reminder for younger kids as well that they can always come back. They can always finish what they’re doing at a later date. It doesn’t have to all be done right this instant.

All right, next question. This comes from Erin. And Erin is in… She just says New England. So could be a lot of options there from Erin, but she asks, “What new ideas have you seen this year that you really like?” I’ll just go through with a quick list here of things that I’ve seen on social media that I think are kind of creative, kind of fun. Let me put a disclaimer here first. So new and fun is wonderful, but I don’t want anyone to put pressure on themselves that they always have to be new, they always have to be fun. If you have good things that work for you, go for it. You don’t have to constantly reinvent yourself. You don’t have to always be jumping on the new trends, new ideas. I always was a teacher, because that’s what interests me, is finding those new things and finding ways to keep it interesting for me. But not everybody is like that. A lot of people just like tried-and-true and there’s nothing wrong with that.

So even if you’re seeing the hype about all sorts of new, great things, if it doesn’t interest you, don’t follow it. Don’t worry about it. Just a few quick ideas that I loved. Janet Taylor, she’s on the podcast all the time, she is in the classroom doing these really cool things where she had kids draw on just a little piece of paper, a sticky note maybe, the top half of a person. And they can make them into a monster, whatever creative thing that you want to do and just do that small drawing.

And then they would stand back, match the perspective upright and then they would take a photo of the regular bottom half of the person in their jeans and sneakers. And then the top half is whatever creative drawing that they’ve done, whatever creature, or character, or monster that they created. So they have a very normal teenage bottom half, but then a very fun, creative, artistic top half that’s been drawing. So you can find that on her Twitter. It’s super fun, super creative, easy thing to do, easy one-day activity.

Jonathan Juravich does a lot of great stuff, a lot of quick draws. Prompts, he had a couple that I think were great. He had one about rainbows coming alive, which is a super fun one. Another one about lovable monsters, which is really cool. So you can see some examples he’s done and definitely worthwhile to use those. I’ve loved seeing neurographic art. Brent Green presented on that at the NOW Conference. People seem to love the idea. Very simple, very easy to get into and some really, really great work. I saw Libby Beaty did some great stuff in her classroom with those. A bunch of other teachers have done that, too. So definitely something that’s worth checking out. Easy to implement. Easy for kids to find success. So I really like that.

And then Sahirah Dean, she’s been doing some really cool pour paintings. I saw a week or two ago on Twitter where she will just have kids pour paint, I believe. And then kind of, there’s a lot of randomness into it, but have them develop some cool pictures based on that random paint that was poured, or dropped, or whatever was put together there. I need to find a little more information, find out exactly what she did, because I don’t feel like I’m doing it justice with that description. But some really cool creative thinking and some fun stuff that she’s doing there.

And then probably the last question that we have time for today, this comes from Chelsea who is in Missouri. And Chelsea asks, “A lot of times you encourage us to reflect on our teaching. What do you mean by that? What do you think we should be reflecting on?” And I’ll say, yes, I talk about that all the time on the podcast, reflecting on your teaching. And it can mean a lot of things. It can be something really, really small or it can be something really big. So let me start with a couple of small examples.

Let’s say a project that you wanted to implement really, really fell flat. And when that happens, it’s time to just kind of reflect on why did that happen? Did you have the wrong information? Did examples not catch kids’ interest? Did you not explain it well? Did you not act sufficiently excited about it in order for kids to buy in? Was your anticipatory set not great? Was the medium that you chose to use not great? And just kind of think through all of those things. And you can say, “Yes, this was fine. Yes, this was fine. No, I need to change that next time. No, I need to change that immediately.” And just kind of go back through and think about what worked, what didn’t and what you can change for next time. Just a quick reflection on things that went well or things that didn’t.

And you can do the same thing for things that were really successful. So you did a one-day project and it was a hit. And you say to yourself, “What was good about that? Why did that resonate with kids? Hey, what did I present, what did I show, what did we do that really captured their attention?” And then you can reflect on what went well and see if there are any lessons to be learned there, anything that can be implemented in other ways inside your classroom. So just some small things, just thinking back on what went well and what didn’t, I think, is always worthwhile. And that’s probably the easiest place to get started when we’re talking about reflecting on your teaching.

And then for the bigger questions, there’s a lot you can do. But for me, that just sort of hearkens back to thinking big picture. What am I teaching? Why am I teaching it? Reflect on what the lessons are, what the artists you’re showing, what kind of creative prompts are you using to help kids. And think about what are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish? And one really good example of this I saw from the anti-racist art teachers, they have a newsletter that they put out every month. And their September one, which came out just a couple weeks ago, a great thing about just a short little snippet about what’s in a name and talk about how names are an important part of your identity. And ask you to reflect on why it’s important to learn names and why it’s important to learn how to pronounce them correctly.

And so even just reflecting back on that, thinking about how you call names, should you call names? Or should you have kids introduce themselves? You can ask kids how it’s pronounced. You can phonetically write it down. And that’s a good way to remember that. And they ask you to reflect, have you ever asked your student to change their name or give them a nickname that’s easier for you? And it’s good to think about if you’ve done that, why have you done that? And also to think about how that might be not the best practice, how that can actually be hurtful for kids. So things like that can be reflective. But they also ask you to think about what you’re doing with your reflection. What are you trying to learn? What are you trying to unlearn?

And they ask you to think about the big questions about who is represented in your curriculum? How you’re presenting artists. Who holds the knowledge when it comes to your instruction? What kind of stories are being told? Going back to empowering kids, how are students able to share their thoughts, share their ideas? Are kids able to express themselves in discussions and their work? And so you can reflect on those bigger ideas of what is happening in your classroom, what you want to be happening in your classroom and what you’re trying to accomplish. And so there’s a lot of big picture reflection that can be going on as well. So a big thank you to the anti-racist art teachers for giving us kind of a template or an example of what we can do and some of the things we can be thinking about when it comes to reflecting on big picture items. So I think that’s incredibly worthwhile.

So anyway, I’ve been chatting for quite a while. My voice held up, which I’m very excited about. But I hope that these mailbag questions were helpful. I did not get through as many as I wanted to. But emails are coming to everybody who has emailed me, so I promise I’ll respond soon. So anyway, thank you for listening. I hope you found some of this helpful. And continue to send me questions, send me feedback, send me messages. I appreciate all of it. Really appreciate hearing from all of you.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening, as always. And we’ll talk to you again next week.

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.