What Do New Teachers Need To Know About Curriculum? (Ep. 299)

In the first of an upcoming series of podcasts for new teachers, Janet Taylor joins Tim to answer questions about lesson planning and curriculum. Listen as they discuss your priorities when planning, the importance of the national standards, and foolproof lessons that always seem to lead to student success. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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

Back in December at the end of a podcast, I asked for questions from new teachers. We were hoping to put together a series of episodes and maybe some other resources for new teachers. And I received a lot of questions, which overall I think is really encouraging, I’m excited that new teachers are listening to podcasts, that they’re thinking about professional development, they’re thinking about trying to get better at what they do, and I admire that. And they sent some really good questions. So today, we’re going to focus on curriculum and lesson planning as we answer some of those questions. And joining me will be Janet Taylor.

Now, like I said, we’re hoping to eventually do a few more episodes helping new teachers and AOEU has so many things for new teachers. AOEU pro packs, and resources, and even a new YouTube series coming soon, that is directed at new art teachers. So if you know any first year, any new art teachers or even pre-service teachers who are thinking about a lot of these topics that we cover, please send them our way. Now, like I said, we have some great questions in the mail bag, we are excited to dive into this conversation and we have a lot to talk about. So here we go. Janet Taylor is back on the show, joining me now. Janet, how are you?

Janet: I’m doing great. How are you?

Tim: I am doing wonderful. I think we have a lot of big ideas to talk about here, and I’m excited to, I don’t even know if we want to call this a series, but I’m excited to get this series started, helping out new teachers, giving our best advice and just seeing what we can do. Today we’re going to talk about curriculum and we have lots of good questions, when I asked for people to ask what are you worried about, what are you thinking about as a first year teacher, we had a lot on classroom management, we had a lot on curriculum, so we’re going to chat about curriculum. First question comes from Elizabeth in Massachusetts, and she says, “I want to create my curriculum with lessons I like and materials I love to use, though that seems like far too much work. But if I just use lessons from other teachers, I feel like I won’t have the passion for what I’m teaching. How do I find that balance?” So Jen, I’ll let you take that first.

Janet: That is such a good question. It’s something that comes up obviously as a new teacher, but also as a veteran teacher. Maybe you’re moving to another school or maybe your curriculum is somewhat dictated by a district or school or department or something like that. So I guess as a new teacher, I would first say that it’s going to take some time to determine what you actually value as a teacher, what’s expected of you, the outcomes of your school community, but also who your students are.

So to me, that’s half the fun of it really, it’s the journey of teaching and figuring that out. And we all know that those amazing teachers who do those incredible lessons or strategies or tips or things that happen in the classroom, and we try it in our classroom and it just falls completely flat. Man, I’ve tried that so many times, I’m like, “But it’s so good with them and how come it’s not working for me?” And it could just be because it’s not who you are and it’s not maybe who your students are, or maybe it’s just not the right timing in what it is that you’re teaching.

Tim: Yeah, yeah. And I would say, I don’t know, I fell into that comparison trap, you try that and it doesn’t work, and you’re like, “Why are those so good and why are mine so bad?” And you start getting all these negative thoughts, you start dwelling on how that’s not working for you as a teacher. And I think that can be become dangerous, you don’t want to try and make your projects just like somebody else’s projects. And so I would just say for right now, as you’re starting, collect ideas, collect things that pique your interest, or things that you think will pique the interest of your student. You don’t have to teach like somebody else, you don’t have to do other lessons, or if you see ideas, put a spin on them that makes them your own.

Because like you said, it’s about finding who you are as a teacher, and no matter what lessons you’re teaching, there are plenty of ways to be authentic and plenty of ways to share your passion. You can tell stories, you can share with your students as they get to know you, you can converse with them, you can listen and laugh and share experience with them, and that’s a big part of finding who you are. It’s not quite as much about the lessons you teach, but it’s about just getting to know your students, getting to know who you are as a teacher.

Janet: Totally.

Tim: That being said though, I know people are looking for specific advice and not me just saying be who you are and get to know your kids. So let’s talk more about lessons, do you have tips for lessons and trying to find what works for you?

Janet: Right. So like the question was asking, Elizabeth was asking, was how do you find that balance between doing things that you love or you’re excited about, or using lessons that other teachers have done, or something that’s dictated to you? So what’s worked for me in the past is first of all, using other people’s lessons, other colleagues lessons to get to know my students, kind of like you said, taking that time to converse with them and listen and laugh with them, happens when you don’t have to stress also on top of it, about how you’re managing your lesson. So if somebody else’s lesson you know works and is great, it might not be perfect for you or something you’re super excited about, it’s a great way to find out where your students are.

So what do they like about the lesson? What do they not like? What’s actually engaging to them? How are they responding to that? And then you can use that information as you build your own lessons as you go. Instead of starting from scratch, you at least have something to work from. Another thing that works for me is taking a lesson that somebody has and tweaking it to fit more of who I am as a teacher, who my students are. So you had mentioned that too in your response, kind of twisting, putting your own twist on it. And I think that one tip I would say, or one response, that is if you are a new teacher and a teacher, another colleague gives you lessons to work from and you change it up to work for you, and you’ve found that it’s really successful for you in this new way, make sure that you’re sharing back with that colleague, because that’s going to actually create that bond with your colleagues too.

So they might not use it that way or whatever, but they’re basically gifting you this lesson in the first place, so it’s really important to make sure you’re sharing back and not just saying like, “Well, your lesson didn’t work. I changed it’s so much better now.” But just, this is what I did, this is what worked for me, whatever. I think sharing, share and share alike is important. So my last tip, I guess, for this is to balance, like Elizabeth had asked, how do I balance this, well, truly it’s to balance your lessons with other people’s lessons. You get to lean on theirs for when you were really need space and time, and then you can develop something else in between. And then let’s say you do a lesson that you’re like, “I’m really excited about this, I’m going to try it out,” and it totally flops. You won’t know that unless you try it, but at the same time, you want to give your students stability and that confidence-building with something that’s tried and true and you feel comfortable with.

So again, maybe a combination of tweaking the lesson for you, using what works. The other thing I would say is that it might not be exciting for you, I’ve talked about this over and over, I think you and I both have talked about perspective and my hate for perspective, but my students always love it. They always get really excited about it and it bothers me. I’m like, “Why are they so excited about this?” But it might not be exciting for you, using these materials or this tool or technique, but it’s new for them. And so sometimes you just have to use those lessons that you know are going to work and be successful, even if it’s just not totally up your alley.

Tim: Yes. For sure, that engagement is very important. I actually want to circle back to the idea of things failing because you said that, and that set something up for me. And I would offer the advice that you can’t be afraid to fail with one of your lessons. I know especially as you’re beginning teaching, you feel like everything has to be right, you feel like you can’t do anything wrong, but don’t be afraid to fail. And that’s a lesson that we always try and impart to our kids, but it’s something that we, as teachers, are very scared to do ourselves. It’s really tough to let go, it’s really tough to be afraid that you might fail with a lesson, it might be a flop.

And so I would say just stand up there and tell your kids as you’re getting started, like, “I don’t know if this is going to work or not, but we are going to try it together.” And that creates, like I said, it goes back to the idea of creating cool experiences for them, and just you sharing that, going with them on that journey, exploring those ideas together. And maybe it works, maybe it won’t, but just giving them that heads up that, “Hey, I’m not perfect. I don’t know what I’m doing.” Maybe don’t say I don’t know what I’m doing. You can say like, “We don’t know if this is going to work,” and that’s going to take the pressure off of you as the teacher, it’s going to take the pressure off of them as the students, as the artists, and it’s going to allow everybody to explore and experience things without feeling like they have to be perfect.

Janet: Yeah. So even along that same lines, don’t also be afraid to ditch a lesson that’s not working. Sometimes you have those long lessons and you’re really excited about it, and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is not working. My students aren’t getting it or it’s not engaging anymore, or it’s just too much for them or whatever it is.” I just had this conversation with a new teacher recently and she was frustrated because the lesson, it just didn’t feel like it was going in the direction she wanted, and she felt like if she put more time into it, the kids, their engagement would wan. And so I was like, “Just stop, just stop the lesson and tell them, we’re going to try a different direction or we’re going to make this a smaller, maybe it was a portrait or something like that, where we’re just going to take pieces of our portrait instead, and we’re going to do something else with it.”

And I think sometimes it’s okay to say to our students like, “This is not aligning to what I was expecting, I think we need to shift things up.” And I think students really, when we’re authentic with them, even about our lessons and whatnot, they really respond to that, they really do.

Tim: Yeah. I remember the first time that ever happened with me, things were not going well and I just asked my kids like, “I’m not feeling this. I don’t think you were feeling this. Is anybody opposed if we just ditch this, if we just drop this lesson?” And just this palpable sense of relief washed over the room and the kid’s are like, “Yes, we are so glad to get rid of this.” But it was a light bulb moment for me, whereas it is okay and actually the kids do want to get rid of this. So just trust your gut with that, and if you need to let go of something, that’s 100% okay. Can I just put a bow on this whole question before we move on here? I would just say, thinking about lesson planning curriculum overall, whether these lessons are things that you spent hours crafting yourself or something you spent 15 minutes finding online, if it’s good, it’s good, worry less about where the lesson comes from and more about what it can do for your students.

Because ideally we would all love to design an entire semester’s curriculum based on your student’s interests and things that are going to engage them. But I would say, especially as a new teacher, you don’t have the time or the experience to put something like that together, you probably don’t have the energy to do that, nobody does. I think you’re playing the long game here and that’s something that you can shoot for a few years down the road. But like you said Janet, worry about what you can and when you need fillers to lean on, other people’s lessons at certain times, don’t be afraid to do that, don’t be feeling bad when something like that is needed. So I think that’s some good advice, but yeah, go ahead.

Janet: Sorry. I was thinking too, a piece of that is that sometimes when we’re new teachers, we’re really excited about things that we’re excited about, like materials or concepts or whatever. And sometimes we look at our colleagues and think oh, they’ve been here forever and they’re doing the same lessons and that’s not interesting or that’s not boring. And I mean, let’s be honest, I definitely came in with that point of view, like, “What are they teaching? Why are they teaching this?” And I think there’s a difference, it’s really important to lean on your colleagues because there’s a reason that they have been doing something the same way for years. And I mean, let’s be honest, maybe it is because they’re tired or they just don’t want to do anything more or they’ve figured out the balance for themselves, but they’re also doing it because typically it works.

So if you use something that another teacher has provided or has already been using for years, it can give you some structure and your students some structure, and give you that balance that you’re really looking for. So I would just remember to lean on others, you’re not just by yourself.

Tim: Yeah, excellent, excellent advice. I joked about this being a long episode, we just spent 14 minutes on the first question.

Janet: Okay, sorry.

Tim: That’s all right. We have lots to say, we have lots to share and it’s good, I like it. This next question comes from Aram in Maryland, and he says, “As I was going through undergrad, there is an incredible emphasis on the national standards. Every lesson, everything we did had to be based on create, present, respond, and connect. But now that I’m in the middle of my first year, my district says reporting standards is optional and none of the other art teachers do anything with them. So the question is how much do the standards matter, how much should I pay attention to them?” And Janet, I know this is right up your alley.

Janet: Well, I mean, that’s truly another incredible question, I’m really impressed by these questions so far. So this really, of course, varies by district, location, whatever, so there’s really no one answer that we can give here. But I would say the first thing that comes to my mind is that really everything that you teach should be aligned to the standards. And that could be national standards, like you said, or it could be state, certain states have different standards, even districts can have standards that they’re asking you to implement in your teaching.

And I understand not all district or schools are expecting you to submit unit or lesson plans, I know mine did not ever, and I think sometimes it varies by also grade level. I would say a lot of times high schoolers don’t, high school teachers don’t have to submit as much, I don’t know, but some do, some are really expecting you to, and so I would say, don’t expect, oh, well, no districts asked me to do this, so I don’t need to think about that. So that’s first.

Tim: And I would say the standards may or may not be required by your district, but they can help you’re teaching, they can give you some direction that they can point you toward what’s going to be helpful, what’s going to be good with what you plan, what you put together for your students. And I had a similar experience when I first started, where when I came into my district, nobody was doing anything with the standards. But even if that is the case, I think they are worth exploring and worth looking at, because if you connect your lessons, if you connect your teaching back to those standards, you’re going to see the results.

When I started paying attention to more of the standards, I did more with assessment, more discussions with kids, more talking about artwork and just being able to see how kids were able to connect their work to other things that we did, to art history, to contemporary artists that we were seeing, that really gave me a validating moment that my teaching was taking hold, and I don’t know that I would’ve found that had I not paid as much attention to the standards. So I think even if they’re not required, they’re worth checking out, and they’re definitely worth thinking about as you’re planning what you’re presenting to your kids.

Janet: Right. I mean, I guess since I’m a little bit older, I would say, meaning veteran, when I started teaching, I didn’t even know standards really existed to that extent. You know what I mean? We really didn’t use them, we didn’t talk about them that much. But when the new standards came into play, we spent a lot of time in our district unpacking all of that and restructuring and realigning our scope and sequence to those standards. And I think that was the first time I’m like, “Oh, this is what this is about. This is why you use them, this is how they’re even to be used, or what the purpose of them is.” And so I would say even if your district doesn’t require you to use them in your lessons and whatever, there’s a couple things that I would keep in mind.

So the first one is I would make sure that I’m looking at my standards as a guide, because like you said Tim, when we look at the standards, so I oftentimes have that at a glance or just the general standards hanging up in my space, office.

Tim: Yeah, just quick reference.

Janet: And so as I’m working through units or scope and sequence or lessons or whatever, I’m going to make sure that I’m hitting those standards because I can really find my own bias through that, truly. Like you said, you were saying about using contemporary artists or historical artists and things like that, finding ways to connect our students in a different capacity, I think it helps us find that bias and also the holes that you might not be hitting because you’re used to teaching a certain way.

You get in this cycle or whatever of teaching, and so having them there reminds us, oh, right, I’m supposed to also consider preservation materials or whatever it is, that I definitely wasn’t teaching about prior. So it just helps us zoom out a little bit. And then I would say that on top of it, the standards are also helping us align on the greater scale. So it helps us figure out what we need to teach, when we need to teach it, so that everything comes together. Whether or not you are moving from class to class or from year to year, you want to make sure that you’re preparing your students for the next step. And they also help us defend what we’re teaching, so if you are in an evaluation situation and an administrator says, “Why are you teaching this?” You could say, “Well, it’s in our standards.” I mean, that’s essential.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. So I want to talk about that alignment more in just a second, but I just wanted to also say that if you look at what you’re planning to teach, whether that’s a huge scope and sequence, or just a list of ideas on a sticky note, whatever it may be, run through the standards when you look over your units. Like you said, it can help you find some of those things that you’re missing, and some of the things that you have forgotten about. And for me, it always opens up extra avenues of exploration where you can say, “Oh, I’m doing this lesson, it’s going to transition to this, we’re going to connect them in this way.” But then you find that connection and then you go down a rabbit hole of something else you want to teach and then just opens up so many more opportunities for you, which I think is a really good thing.

But okay, let’s talk about alignment and big picture things. So I guess when you say planning for year to year, what kids are taking with them, what are the big picture questions that you ask yourself, Janet, when you are thinking about the standards?

Janet: I mean, I guess it depends on the capacity of what you’re teaching, whether you’re teaching in high school level, whether you’re teaching in grade school level or middle school, what the experience that the students are coming out with, what you’re focusing on there. But I guess my bigger question then, well, I guess I would say this, the reason why we have the standards is not to check a box, it’s not there to turn in paperwork or whatever. It’s there to help guide and structure what it is we teach, when we teach it, throughout the entirety of learning. So if you’re not going to use the standards, then what exactly are you using? If that makes sense?

Tim: No, that was exactly what I was saying. If it’s not the standards, then what exactly? Is it these are just the things I want to teach, these are the things that I think would be cool? That may work for you for a week, but that’s no way to structure your curriculum around, things I think are cool or lessons I thought would be fun.

Janet: Yeah. And art teaching isn’t in a vacuum, art education is not just our classroom and that’s it, it’s about connecting beyond that, it’s about connecting on such a bigger scale, both in school, out of school, whatever. So these standards help us, I guess remind us of that, that we’re not here to just teach whatever we want to teach, just because we think it’s fun or whatever. And I’m not saying that that’s what is happening in this person’s school or whatever, I’m not saying that, it’s more of a reflection on our own pedagogy, I guess, if that makes sense?

Tim: Yeah. Yeah. That’s fair. All right, we are going to move on to the next question. This is a very short question, but I think it’s going to have a big answer, it’s just very broad. This is from Layla in Texas and she asks, “What are your main priorities when designing a lesson? What about when you were doing whole semester or a scope and sequence?” It’s a very big question.

Janet: Yeah, it’s a bit complicated, honestly. Okay. So I guess first I have to say, when you start as a new teacher, we’re often under this impression that we step into these lessons and units that we’ve created in college. You spend time in college doing that, figuring out what lessons, how you’re going to build them, how they work together. And then you step into your classroom and you’re like, “Okay, I get to use all these lessons that I made.” And it’s not like that. I don’t know.

Tim: I learned quickly that those lessons were going to need to be adapted, to put it gently.

Janet: Yes, yes. Yeah. Definitely not. Okay. All right. So I’m just reminiscing back to my days of, I found my old binder the other day and I was like, “What was I thinking when I wrote these lessons?” It’s like my baby steps, but okay. So when you’re designing a lesson, when you’re actually sitting down to do that, I guess there’s so much to think about. My first step would be to start with my scope and sequence and hopefully your school has this, and I guess this ties into our previous question, in thinking about the standards and whatever, but what do you want your students to learn from your class? What do you want them to take away? And is this a stepping stone to that next level, like we were talking about, or is it the only art class that they’re ever going to take?

Tim: Yes. Okay. I need to interrupt because I’m excited about that idea. I want to dive of into that a little bit because if you’re teaching elementary, you don’t know what kids are going to take after that. If you’re in high school, intro to art or just an art appreciation course can look very different than advanced studio courses, right?

Janet: Right, right. Or are you even their teacher year after year? Or some schools by me, they stop taking art in elementary, they might not even have art in elementary. I don’t know, it’s crazy how it works, right?

Tim: Yeah. And so I think because every course is going to be different, every situation’s going to be different, you need to just ask yourself the big question of what do you want kids to get out of this class? What experience do you want them to have when they’re with you? Do you find yourself going along those same lines?

Janet: Yeah. Is this their respite from other classes or life challenges, or what kind of life skills do you want to include to make sure your students are coming out with? Are they learning time management? Are they learning how to work together as collaborators? Are you wanting them to be creators? I mean, not everybody’s going to come out being an artist, I mean, artist in that sense, but they’re not moving on to careers in art, let’s just say. So we want to make sure we’re also giving them abilities to be appreciators of art and what that means to create artwork. And we also want to think about what kind of successes our students need to feel in your own classroom. So, okay, those are all questions, those aren’t answers for this teacher.

Tim: Those are things that you need to think about. And it seems weird because she’s just asking like, “How do I put together a good lesson?” And we’re like, “Have you thought about these huge, big picture questions?” But at the same time, I don’t know if you can plan successful lessons without thinking about how they fit into the bigger picture.

Janet: Okay. Yeah. Okay. Thank you. I appreciate your support in that. So okay.

Tim: Yeah, that being said-

Janet: So how do you do that?

Tim: … how do you structure your lessons? How do you put those together?

Janet: Okay. So then, I guess, the next question I’m going to ask is how are you going to structure that, what’s the framework that you’re going to wrap your lessons around? So I know some people like to focus around the elements and principles or maybe specific technical skills, let’s say that’s a pretty standard wat to wrap your lessons. Or maybe you’re looking at specifically student interests or their goals, maybe how art is working in the community and what’s purposeful and meaningful to them. Maybe you’re wrapping it around artists, like you said, historical, contemporary, whatever. And maybe you’re looking at artists that look like your students. Maybe you’re looking at artists to expose students beyond their little bubble. But I guess, that’s just a framework, it’s the skeleton that you need to decide, or you and your colleagues or however you work.

It doesn’t mean you’re just doing one of those, that’s the thing that’s challenging. You figure out what’s going to be the easiest path to make your life as a teacher easier to structure each of your lessons, so that you can wrap around the big picture, wrap your head around it. And so when we can have that framework, I feel like, or when you decide on that at least for a semester or a year, let’s say, okay, this is how I’m going to structure that. I think it gives us space to wrap our heads around how to add these other pieces that are constantly needing to be implemented as well, right?

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. So if I can just share how I did this, to give a concrete example, if that’s all right?

Janet: Please do.

Tim: When I was teaching, I love to have my kids explore big themes and big questions, and that was our overarching framing. We would want to do these big themes, but like you said, that’s just one piece of it because there’s so much more than that, that’s just the framing that you put it in. And all of the other components fit in and it’s just a matter of finding where you put those components in. So let’s say we take a big theme, a big idea like identity, who you are, and ask your kids a question like what represents who you are and you turn that into a still life drawing or whatever else. What still life objects can tell who you are, what still life objects can present your identity?

And then you start thinking about what skills do we need to represent that, which historic artists focus on that same idea, which contemporary artists can we bring in and talk about? And you have that overall structure to guide what you’re trying to teach, but you need to figure out how it all fits under whichever umbrella you choose and where in your lessons can you bring in those technical skills, where in your lessons can you focus on the elements and principles, even though you’re still falling back to that big idea, that big theme, which is the way you frame that. But once you have the structure or the framing of whatever it is, however you want to teach that, you can figure out how those lessons and ideas and skills and concepts all build on each other as you move through the semester, or as you move through the year.

Janet: Right. And that, I think, leads me to the next two big pieces that I always think about when designing lessons, which is how am I going to scaffold everything so that it works to build students skills, both technically and conceptually as they develop, and also, how am I assessing my students? And I know it’s always a gross topic to bring up assessment, and it’s such another big topic that you know I love to talk about, but I think assessment helps us have those essential concepts and skills that we want to make sure our students come out with in that lesson, and that is guiding that. And I think what you were talking about, all of those pieces fitting in, it’s almost like you can create a checklist for yourself.

I want to make sure I’m always incorporating historical artists or contemporary artists. I always want to make sure that a student is learning a particular skill. I always want to make sure they’re learning how to develop conceptually, conceptual ideas and go from there. And I think when you have these things that you value, or that you’re looking and making sure that again, that they fit within the standards and you’re not missing anything, that checklist can help you develop or design your lessons and keep it consistent too, and easier for you so you’re not like, “Where do I start from,” every single time you’re developing a unit or a lesson. Does that make sense?

Tim: Yeah, that does. No, that makes a lot of sense, and I hope people can take from that just the idea that it all does fit together and there’s no one right way to structure it, but no matter how you do, you’re able to fit in a lot of things, which is the challenge that we have as art teachers. Okay, final question for the day. This is another short question, much simpler though. This is from Alex in Minnesota and she says, “Do you have a foolproof lesson you can share with me, something simple that always works?” All right, that’s a big question, Janet. I don’t know, it’s tough for me, I have a couple ideas of things automatically that I want to share, but I feel like we need to talk about the bigger picture here, when we’re just looking for simple lessons. So I assume you have some thoughts.

Janet: Well, okay, so I always think of a foolproof lesson whenever I think it’s going to be foolproof, even if I’ve done it a million times, for some reason, it’s like the jinx happens and it’s not. And so I guess I’m hesitant to say this is a foolproof lesson, because again, it might work for me, it might not work for you. I’m guessing when this teacher had asked, foolproof feels like maybe high reward, high engagement for less work on the teacher side, maybe it’s something that’s step by step or something very … I don’t know.

Tim: Yeah, I don’t know if I would say step by step, but I would just say there’s a lot of things I think of as foolproof, I guess, just anything that engages kids and maybe allows them to find some level of success, and things that, for me as a teacher, are repeatable, things that I can do year after year. Those are things that are foolproof for me, which I don’t have a ton of those because I always like trying new things, I rotate a majority of my lessons each year. Just that exploration is the experience that I want my kids to have. But I do have a hand handful of things that I do year after year, because they are successful, kids are able to feel like they’re accomplishing something, they’re putting together some good work. And I use those consistently because they do have those benefits for the kids, and I think that confidence part of it is big for me. Do you find that to be the case?

Janet: Yeah, I think I would say my foolproof lessons tend to be more of my skill building, like you said, shorter, quicker. I just really want you to learn how to mix paint, and so we’re going to do a landscape, a little collage landscape where you mix tints and shades of one color, and then on different pieces of paper, you paint those out and then tear them up and you make a layered … It’s hard to describe this on a podcast.

Tim: No, I think it’s a pretty common lesson. I used to do that with upper elementary and it works for them.

Janet: Right. So something like that. So you’re learning something, the students feel successful, you can check it quickly. Those confidence builder lessons are important, I think they’re really important, I agree with you on that.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely.

Janet: Do you have some?

Tim: Well, yeah, well, I was going to talk about the torn paper landscape, so that’s always a good one. With elementary, we used to do Keith Haring drawings, and those were always fun. Those were almost always successful because we’d get to do figure drawing, which is a lot of fun to teach and just do gesture drawing and just really quick stuff. Kids really enjoyed that, and then it’s simple to make cartoon figures with black outlines that are really colorful and almost always have successful results with that. So those are a couple simple elementary ones that I like to do.

Janet: Kind of along the same lines is line designs. I think kids love doing those doodle, zentangle, anything sgraffito, anything like that feels good. Those are always successful, right?

Tim: Absolutely. Absolutely. And then I guess at high school level, two that come to mind automatically, one is the smashing faces portrait lesson I did, where I would have kids take just a piece of Plexiglas or a window in the classroom and smash their face up against it, and then we would take a photo of that and they would use that as an intro to portrait drawing. And that was a lot of fun because A, it’s ridiculous, you get these terrible, terrible poses and it’s unflattering, but everybody looks terrible together, so it’s fine. But it takes the pressure off of kids to feel like they have to draw things perfectly because features are all smashed and distorted, and so you don’t have to have the perfect eye because it’s halfway closed and pressed up against glass and the nose is all twisted to the left with one giant nostril or whatever. You just get these weird, weird results.

And because they don’t have to be perfect, they don’t have to look like a great likeness, kids are able to relax and we usually found success with portrait drawing by doing those smashing faces. And another one that I really like, I just call it the 50 object drawing. And basically the gist of it is you just draw 50 different things on the same page and it’s just colorful, it’s busy, it’s fun. And it’s tough to go wrong with that, but it also allowed us to explore some of the ideas that we dive into deeper later in the year, to some of the processes that we would like to do, where we put together these lists and brainstorm and make selections and cull your list to figure out what objects need to go on the page.

And so we talk about what things do you love, oh, I love food, list your 10 favorite foods and which six of these are going to make it into the drawing, and do you want them to be realistic, do you want them to be cartoony, what style are you going with, what colors are you going to choose? And you do that for food and then types of transportation and things that represent your friends or things that represent the video games you love to play or whatever else. And so you start thinking about, talking about a lot of those bigger ideas, you start making lists and working through processes and making decisions, and then turning that into sketches and then turning those into an actual drawing.

And you don’t have to make it that complicated, you can just say, fill your page with cool colorful drawings, but it just allowed us to work through those processes, get kids used to brainstorming and sketching and making decisions. And like I said, you just get at a bunch of full pages with fun, enjoyable drawings that are really colorful, really cool to look at, and kids feel successful with something like that.

Janet: I think that’s a really important key too, to finding that balance. When you find a lesson, something like that that is highly successful, that you can expand on or use in different classes at different times and modify for what the outcome is needed in that, I think that’s really valuable to keep that in your toolbox.

Tim: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Janet: I also think in general, especially right now, this time of year I mean, that another thing to consider is not necessarily a foolproof lesson as in the right outcome or a successful outcome, but more about a media or technique that’s really exciting, high engagement, that maybe the outcome doesn’t really matter as much. I actually just wrote an article about this, I think it’s called the magic of the art room or something like that, mystical, modify, whatever. I love my alliteration. But it’s all about different media that we forget are really exciting for students, and it always is just a fun time in the classroom and also bridges gaps for kids.

So something like making paper is a really … it doesn’t even have to go anywhere from that, it’s just about making the paper, and maybe do a drawing on top. Or a good contour drawing is always a fun one, it’s always successful with kids. I remember the first time I did that, I often model it or demo it with a large piece of newsprint and a Sharpie and I’ll do a student, and the kids are just silently watching and you can hear a pin drop.

And then I remember the first time I did this, the students started clapping for me when I was done, and I was like, “That is so weird. Why are they doing …” I was like, “Thank you. I’m so impressed.” But I think it’s so exciting for them. And it was so funny, on that article, somebody had commented, “Shrinky Dinks.” And I was like, “Oh my God, yes.” Anything that is so fun and easy, and it doesn’t have to be super … so what if the Shrinky Dinks didn’t turn out, but turning that into something else, a lesson about maybe functional art or something, and make it into jewelry or something. If it can fit into your curriculum, it’s bonus.

Tim: Yeah. Well, no, and I think you raise a much bigger point, is that we have this mindset of we have to have these lessons that look successful, but that’s not the case. You can take a good couple days of engagement and count that as your win, even if the result is not out there. And so, yeah, I would encourage people that are in that mindset of I need something that looks great, I need something that I know is going to turn out and always works well, that doesn’t have to be your goal all the time. Just giving kids a good experience is something that that is worth pursuing, I would say. Okay, I’m going to wrap this up really quickly here, Janet. So I’ll give you just a second to think about whatever brilliant closing words that you have.

Janet: No pressure.

Tim: I would say when it comes to curriculum, when it comes to this entire discussion today, I would encourage people to just keep trying new things. As I said, curriculum is not something that is developed overnight, especially as a new teacher, you need experience, you need reps of teaching lessons and seeing what works for you, and you need time getting to know your students. You’re playing the long game and you need to figure out who you are as a teacher, you need to figure out what works for you, what works for your students, what works with planning and teaching and assessing and scaffolding. So all of those things take time, so give your curriculum time, don’t be afraid to get rid of what’s not working and don’t be afraid to repeat or come back to those things that are. And all of those things are going to help you on this journey, on this process to putting together a curriculum that fits you and fits your classroom and fits your students and everything that all of you need.

Janet: Yeah, and I would say on the same lines, don’t be scared away from trying something more than once. I mean, I’ve had lessons that I’ve been very sad have flopped, have been an epic fail, and then I learned something from that. I took it, I tweaked it and tried it again, and it actually has become some of my tried and true lessons. Sometimes it’s just the right time, the right student population, whatever it is, or sometimes not, just ditch it, like you said, that’s okay too.

I don’t know, I would say my biggest takeaway from teaching is I remember back always asking my professors at the time, how do I do this, and how do I do that? And they would always be like, “There’s no handbook for teaching.” And I was like, “Why not? Why is there not a handbook for teaching?” And looking back, it truly is, it takes time and it takes a lot of trial and error and to not get discouraged by things that are not working. I think the biggest takeaway is to just be reflective and responsive in your teaching practice, and that’s going to take you a long way.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. That’s very well said, and I think that hits the nail on the head, just reflective and responsive are two of the best qualities a teacher can have, whether that applies to curriculum or anything else that you’re doing. So Janet, thank you so much for the long conversation, the in depth conversation, I don’t know what we’re going to call it, but it’s been great to talk to you, I’ve enjoyed it and I hope it’s helpful for people. So can you come back again in, I don’t know, a month or so, we’ll talk classroom management.

Janet: You know I would love to.

Tim: All right. Thank you.

Janet: Thank you.

Tim: Coming up in just a few weeks is the NOW Conference, and we are going to continue this conversation there with a little help from a couple friends. Janet and I will be joined by Yvonne Lopez Taylor and Jocelyn Stevens, for a round table discussion on what new teachers need to know. I’m excited to have Yvonne and Jocelyn there because they can give us some perspective from a middle school lens and from an elementary lens, and also they’re much younger than me and actually remember what it’s like to be a new teacher.

And if you aren’t registered for the NOW Conference, there is still time. You can head on over to the AOEU website, click on the conference tab, and you will find all the information you need, presenters and info about their talks, our feature presenter, a picture of me and Amanda, your hosts, that is way too big, and most importantly, info on how to register and how to make the most of your day of professional development. So go check that out. We will have a couple more of these new teacher advice episodes in the coming months, so look out for those. And of course, if you think the conversation today can help a new teacher that you know, please pass it along to them. And thank you for sticking with us through the end of this episode.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University, with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you, as always, for listening, and we will talk to you 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.