Broken Schools

As I sat tonight watching the news and listening to the Governor talk about how his 5 year budget plan will eventually give money to education followed by a clip of a teacher stating how 5 years may be short in government-budget land, but in school 5 years is a long time, and a lot of students.  When I turned off the tv and started to brush my teeth the thought popped back into my head…….’If only I could open my own school…..’
Now before I go much further I should state that there are some basic things that I feel are true:
1)   Every teacher I have ever met truly wants his or her students to succeed. (I know there are duds out there in the teacher world – but the teachers I have met are amazing)
2)   Every politician that makes a claim about education or has a plan for education is doing/saying what they think is best for education.  I don’t believe any politician is out to purposely sabotage education – even though it can feel that way.
3)   The current US public school system is failing most kids – no one is singularly at fault…. it is a combination of society, family, politics, and ignorance.
4)   I believe that all the current popular proposed solutions to ‘fixing’ education are headed in the wrong direction at neck breaking speed.
5)   I do NOT believe that I have the perfect answer – I do realize my dream school fantasy has it’s own weaknesses on a small and perhaps even larger level.
6)   I believe our strength in education should be in the diversity of the students and teachers.
7)   There is nothing as unequal as the equal treatment of unequals.

With those basics out of the way I will continue on my hopefully somewhat organized reasons, thoughts, concerns and proposed idea.

One of my first frustrations (of many) is that those who make the rules and regulations about teaching generally do not have a background in teaching. (I would say that most probably don’t but since I have not done any fact checking I will make it a general statement).  I find if very difficult and seriously concerning that someone is making crucial decisions about education without having enough knowledge.  I would never call a plumber to ask about a heart attack and I would never go to a cardiologist to unplug my backed up drain.  So why in the world are people who have more of less no idea what goes on in a classroom making decisions and choices?!  Now, I realize someone probably needs to do it – but perhaps asking teachers would be a good place to start.

Teachers are not dumb people – they are full of hope, problem solving ideas, and are incredibly resourceful – Ask them what could go better.  As I said above I believe every politician is doing what they things is best – and on paper I would agree with their plans.  No Child Left Behind on paper was a brilliant idea – however the problem comes in where children are not perfect.  Children are beautifully diverse and will never fit into a mold.  I would venture to say that most standardized tests look for kids to fit a perfect mold – it’s NEVER going to happen.  So, perhaps instead of trying to cram everyone into it and penalizing schools/students that don’t fit --- we offer different molds.  You wouldn’t head to a bakery to shop for a cake and expect to see only one choice – that would be silly.  You would expect different sizes, different shapes, and flavors for different occasions.  Why should education be any different?!  The world is diverse, students are diverse – why try and make all education the “SAME”  -- why not embrace the diversity?

So here is my thought.  In college we are taught about multiple intelligences and how we should embrace them and really help kids learn through how their brain works.  Well, after three years in a strong public school – I am here to tell you that normal classroom teachers are not given the time to really embrace this idea.  Yeah they hit the kids that are oral and visual learners – but what about the rest of them?!  I don’t believe it is because the teacher is lazy or doesn’t care.  I think the teachers spend so much time trying to keep up with curriculum in between teaching social skills and testing/assessing students that they frankly don’t have the time. 

This more or less brings me to another issue I see – standard curriculum.  Let me clarify – the idea of having the same basic ideas being taught doesn’t bother me – its making every teacher and every student do it the same way at the same speed that I take issue with.  Now, I absolutely love being an art teacher and one of the things I love about it is making up my own projects.  The district I work in, the art teachers share a curriculum.  All the students will do clay, printmaking, drawing, painting, 3-D sculpture – within each of these categories students will learn different techniques, and basic art skills.  How each teacher chooses to teach these is up to them.  Does that mean that one building might have stronger drawing students – sure.  Maybe one building will be better at critical thinking, perhaps another building better at composition.  I don’t see this as a weakness but rather a strength.   I see strength in diversity – each person bringing something they are good at.  If everything was the same not only would things be boring, but our world couldn’t exist as it is.

Lets get to my original thought about having my own school.  My dream school would be a delicate balance between embracing what students are naturally good at and also being well rounded.  I believe that everyone should be able to read, write, and do basic math – however, I don’t feel the way we are going about it makes much sense.  (How many times are youth told to not take music or art because they won’t become a famous artist?  However, no one looked at me while I was in the middle of AP stat and said, ‘Amanda you are never going to be a Mathematician)  So here is my thought.  Open a school (I’m thinking elementary school) and embrace the whole idea fine arts meets strength in diversity.  I’d hire teachers that are passionate about teaching – I’d ask them to set up a plan much like the art teachers.  They would decide (with some research) what the kids need to know about by the time they leave the school – it would be up to each teacher to decide how to teach that.  For example if they teachers decided students should know about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving – then that would be the topic, but all the bits and pieces would be up to the teacher to decide.  How it’s taught, what project/exploration they would do, if they would focus on the food or the meeting of the Indians….  All the students are learning about Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, even if they learn different details.  I, again, see strength in this.  There is SO much to learn in our world that we can’t expect everyone to learn all of it – if everyone has bits and pieces we will actually know more as a collective whole.

Now, if there is a classroom teacher reading this and freaking out about having to come up with lessons for everything on your own – keep reading.  My other thought is to have the teachers teach what they are passionate about.  There are some teachers who are awesome at breaking down and teaching Math, others writing, and even others that somehow manage to teach kids to read.  Let the teachers teach their strengths.  I have observed in classrooms and seen that some teachers can teach math, but they are really amazing at language arts.  So instead of having a 4th grade teacher – you’d teach reading/language arts.  Now, this isn’t brand new – middle school and high schools do this across the country – I vote we do it in elementary as well.

So the teachers in my school are teaching a subject or two they are really awesome at.  Now comes the students.  I think we should embrace how the students learn and their interests – now in saying that I do realize that just because there is a student who could honestly play basketball ALL day – doesn’t mean they get to.  However, I do believe that students do need far more physical activity and fine art programs.  In my school, much like high school, students would get to pick what type of physical activity and what type of fine art.  The choice is not physical OR fine art – it is a choice within each subject.   So for example for physical activity maybe they get to pick between a specific sport, generic P.E., or dance.  These classes would not be ‘special’ but something that would be a significant part of their day everyday.  I believe student brains need a break from sitting and listening – to up and doing, up and creating.  I have seen SO many students succeed in my room only to hear that they can barely read, or have such bad behavior they are rarely in their normal classroom.  I would love to pretend that it’s because I am some magical teacher – but in reality it’s because I teach art.  Students need a place to create, to make mistakes, to talk, to take chances, to ask questions – they need a place EACH day where they can succeed.  Often those kids who struggle else where, they get relief in my room once a week for 45 minutes.  How sucky would it be to work EVERYDAY for eight hours and only feel competent once a week for 45 minutes?  I’d quit – but yet we don’t understand why that student can’t make better choices?!

 I would want to tailor the education to each student the best I could.  I would do my best to get rid of grade levels and place kids where they need to be according to their skill.  Just because a kid is in 4th grade and barely reads at a 2nd grade level shouldn’t mean they head off to 5th grade where they can’t read the material.  Lets have the kids not only go to teachers who teach what they are best at – but group the kids by ability.  So maybe they are in a ‘higher’ math group and a ‘lower’ reading group.  Again this isn’t a new idea.  Some people would think this is so horrible and the kids will feel bad about themselves – I’m here to tell you those kids feel bad about themselves anyway.  I was one of them.  It doesn’t matter what grade level they are at – they know they are behind and that they don’t get it.  Putting them in their correct level and really working on strengthening that deficit is what that kid needs.  It’s embarrassing to be the kid behind whether they are in a lower level with other ages or in the same age but completely lost – so lets at least do our best to actually help them.

I have been helping a 4th grade student in math all year.  She is a bright kid, great personality, but quickly becomes sullen when she doesn’t understand her math homework.  This girl is not dumb – but math is confusing for her.  The math curriculum the school uses goes too fast for her and jumps around too much.  It broke my heart so much one day that I told her my story.  That I have a learning disability and that I spent a lot of time close to tears and feeling stupid because I just didn’t get it like everyone else.  I told her that I had help from an adult as well – a tutor for 7 years.  I told her that she too will understand it soon, even though now it doesn’t make any sense.  Then I said something to her that I will never forget – “You just got to get through this.  It will get better.  You will find something in high school or college and the world will make sense to you – but for now you just have to get through all this sucky stuff”.  After I said it, it dawned on me that this is exactly how we are failing kids.  No student should have to do what I did – suck it up till college?!

I spent most of my schooling in frustrated tears and clenched jaw because it never made sense.  I always felt 4893209 steps behind.  I tried to listen, I tried to ask questions….. I never felt that I was good at anything.  I liked art, band, and singing – but those were extra.  I sucked at everything that was ‘important’.  It wasn’t till college when I discovered that I belonged in the fine arts.  It was perhaps the second week of my weaving class when I realized that I was one of the few students who did not struggle with the concepts or ideas needed to measure out yarn for a loom, dressing the loom, or even creating patterns.  I was home – art was where I belonged.  I decided to become an art teacher.  Not only do I have a knack for spatial things, but also interacting with youth.  I took all sorts of classes and suddenly the world made sense.  I was learning like everyone else – this is what it felt like to succeed, to ‘get it’.  It took till the spring of my sophomore year in college to get there.

I long to see what school would have been like for me had I been in an elementary school where art was not a ‘special’ but treated like reading and math…. Perhaps reading and math still would have sucked –but at least something would have made sense.  I would have succeeded at one thing, felt smart and confident about one thing each day… instead of casting off the stuff I was good at because it wasn’t ‘important’.

I believe that the way politicians are proposing to raise the standard of education is wrong.  It is not in how teachers are paid, it’s not about standardize tests, it’s not even about money – it’s about how we structure our schools and what we deem important.  Instead of trying to make every school across the country EXACTLY the same – embrace the diversity, the innovation.  If every school system had schools that focused on teaching everything through different intelligence then maybe kids/parents could find a school that best fit them.  A school that teachers all normal things but through music, art, physical movement…….  If we embraced the diversity in our schools the same way we do in our country – I think we’d see an improvement. 

Companies are asking for innovative thinkers, problem solvers – show me a standardized test that accurately measures these tasks, I don’t believe one currently exists.   One cannot measure creativity, problem solving, or critical thinking – it’s much like the wind: you can feel it and you can see the effects of it – but you can’t actually see the wind.  Grading schools based on how well they test is measuring nothing about these needed skills.  We need a reform in our public education that is as diverse as the students that are in it – instead of trying to make everyone the same.
And just as a side note --  Since when has art not been a crucial part of our society.  I don’t understand how the arts always get cut first and how they are so incredibly under funded!  If just for a week we took away anything that was design, art, music related – we’d be left with food and fire.  Every commercial, radio station, book, computer, phone, vacuum, commercial, movie, car, prescription bottle has been designed by some ‘artist’.  If anything we should be pushing kids to be better artists instead of telling them they’ll never make it as one……   I don’t think I will ever understand.


Light Graffiti - Sample of Day 2 - K-4th grade students

Here is a sample of the light graffiti done by my students on Day 2 of the cycle!

Want to see more?!  Click here!

1st Grade

4rh Grade

2nd Grade

4th Grade (looks like a bike going fast over grass to me)

4th Grade with a little bit of direction.

1st Grade

Kindergarten (see the heart in the middle - happy mistake)


Whole School - Light Graffiti 2011

There are two rotations left before the end of the year which means it's Light Graffiti Time!!!  Wahoo!  I covered my windows and doors with black paper, made sure all the flashlights were working, hooked up the camera to the TV and away we went!

Here is a sample of work - click here if you want to see more!

2nd Grade -- Two students

1st Grade - Two students

2nd Grade - three students

1st Grade -- two students

2nd Grade - two students
Kindergarten - two students
4th Grade - Two students
3rd Grade - Two students
3rd Grade - Two students

2nd Grade -- two students


Search for Kid Friendly Videos

Hello All!

I was wondering if any of you have wonderful, fantastic elementary art videos to share - either that you use for instructional purposes or educational entertainment.

I used Shaun the Sheep: a herd of claymation Sheep with their trusted dog herder and owner.  I like these videos because they are each 7 minutes long with school appropriate story lines, no words, and lots of comic relief.  These are great for days when projects run unexpectedly short or days when there are no art subs to be found!  K-5th grade students are fascinated by these films. 

I also love Pixar Shorts:  these are the short cartoons before each Pixar film.  They are humorous, sometimes touching, and always kid friendly.  The students enjoy these because they are familiar with them, but still enjoy watching again. 

There is also a sneak peak on my Mary Poppins DVD about the Broadway show.  It is a great and amazing clip where they are on the roof tops with the chimney sweeps.  All ages are glued to the lights, sounds, and costumes.  I generally use this clip after their show and we talk about performing arts and how they did everything that they just watched in a Broadway show.  They sang, danced, had costumes, performed on a stage for an audience, had a set, had a background, lights, and mics!  It is a great way to show that they too are performing artists!

There are many more videos I use for instructional purposes from youtube.com  such as:
Light Graffiti Example
How To Light Graffiti
Matt Dancing -- Used for my Dancing Kindergarten Project
Esref Armagan -- Used for my Blind Painting/Black book of Colors Project

Please share in the comments if you have any videos you love to use.


51 things I have learned in 3 years of teaching....

I wrote a list of things that I have either learned or found to be true in my last 3 years of teaching.  I came up with 50 things that I feel are important to know as an art teacher and many of them have nothing to do with art specific content.

1)    Make the art program whatever you dream it to be.
2)    If you don’t have time or the resources to help out with a project outside your room - it’s okay to say NO.
3)    The PTO is amazing – always thank them.
4)    Learn the name of the person who cleans your room – talk to them everyday.
5)    Have fun – but be firm.
6)    Never say a consequence you aren’t willing to follow through on.
7)    Learn the kid’s names as fast as you can.
8)    What you accept is what you teach – if you accept bad behavior you teach bad behavior.
9)    Ask questions to the kids, ask questions to other teachers – if you don’t know ASK!
10)  Try and find an art sub or two that you can call first to sub.  If you have an art sub often times class/projects can go on as scheduled.
11)  Invest in some really awesome kid appropriate videos for day when you don’t have art subs – I know it seems lame, but trust me it’s just better for everyone.  (I bought Pixar shorts and Shaun the Sheep)
12)  Make a binder of “emergency sub plans” under your computer so if there is ever a day when you are so sick you can’t see straight, or a family emergency -- you don’t have to plan out lessons.  Tell the music teacher or whoever you are closest with in the building where they are.
13) Assessing work of 500 students is tough – do something that is easy and quick FOR YOU!  Just because it works for someone else or the district tells you to do it one way – make it work FOR YOU!
14) Ask why.  If someone in the district is asking you to do something that doesn’t work for you or your program ask them why they want you to do it – try and understand so that you can come to a compromise.
15) Laugh everyday. 
16) Take and give a hug whenever students initiate the action.
17) Give lots of ‘high fives’ the kids smile like crazy when they get them!
18) Keep the kids accountable – if they can do it on their own make them.
19) Teach students to ask for what they need.  For example: “Ms. Novak I didn’t get a paper.”  “I’m sorry about that.  It’s going to be hard to do this project without one. Do you have a question for me?”  “Can I have a piece of paper?”  “SURE!” 
20) Teach the students to ask for help.  When you find them sitting there doing nothing after 10 minutes talk with them about their problem and their plan.  Then role play them asking for help – actually saying the words, “Ms. Novak I need help – will you help me?”  “Sure.  I’d love to help you.  What seems to be the problem.”
21) Have the kids do as much of the cleaning as you can – otherwise you end up doing it.
22) If the students are struggling with a procedure – worktime/cleanup/demonstration… have them practice practice practice practice!  I have had many kindergarten classes the spend all of a class getting out supplies and putting them away.  It is easier to take a class period and practice it till they get it than to fight with them ALL year.

23) If you feel a class needs an award system to help them make good choices – do it, but make them WORK for it.
24) Try new things.  Feel free to change lessons in the middle of teaching if you realize it just isn’t going to work.
25) Be honest with the kids – but keep private things private.
26) Read books the kids are into – I bonded with a student who I was having a hard time making a connection with over the Percy Jackson books.  He then lent me his book and we talked about them all the time.  After this I had far fewer behavior issues with him.
27) Get to know something about each kid – listen when they tell you about trips and events in their lives.  Having relationships with kids makes teaching them easier.
28) You are the teacher – your name is above that door – you are responsible for those kids.  If someone is keeping other kids from learning remove them from the environment.
29) Nothing is more unequal than the equal treatment of unequals. – ALWAYS remember this.
30) When there is a student who you butt heads with – they just push your buttons I have two strategies.  1) Remember they are building your patience. 2) Think about some real world job they would be really awesome at … like I had a kid who is really good at arguing and thinking he is NEVER wrong – he’d make a great lawyer.  When I think about a job they’d be good it – it helps me look past the behavior to the student and how I can help them succeed.
31) When you are at work give 150% but when the day is over go home and live your life.  On occasion work on school work outside of school – but try and make a habit of being crazy on top of things at school and then have a life outside school.
32) Can’t think of a lesson – go online.  There are TONS of art teachers who have blogs and websites.  Go surfing and before long you’ll have an idea.
33) Believe in each student – they can all succeed.
34) Each time a student comes to you give them a clean slate – although if they are being dangerous or stealing put them somewhere safe in the room and let them work back to a normal schedule.
35) Apologize when you are wrong.
36) Save or create really interesting projects for the last month of school!
37) Wait for the students to be ready to learn – but also keep the lesson moving.
38) Have the students be as self-sufficient as they can in the classroom – getting own supplies, putting them away.  Making sure students have ownership of a room they see for 45 minutes every 4 days can be tough.
39) When people try and donate stuff to your room make sure you really want it or need it – sometimes junk is just junk. (Like I have gotten bags of yarn that smell like pee or boxes of packing peanuts)
40)  Watch the ceiling tiles for evidence of roof leaks and keep books/papers away from those tiles.
41) Assume Kindergarten students have never used any type of art material.  Teach them how to take caps off markers and put them on.  Teach them how to clean up – where supplies go.
42) Kindergarten is way awesome but also generally the hardest class to teach.  Use their natural curiosity to teach then skills.  Example:  Give them primary colors and let them discover secondary colors – one student will mix them on the paper as an accident or curiosity and then it spreads like wild fire.
43) Always acknowledge that it’s okay to be frustrated but NOT to give up.
44) Have a safe place in the room where students can go to ‘take a break’ either on their own terms or yours.
45) Always acknowledge how a student feels.  Sometimes they just need an adult to say, “hey.  You okay?  You seem sad” or “I know you are mad and that’s okay.  These are your choices……”
46) Give kids appropriate choices unless they are being unsafe and then you make the choice for them.
47) Keep a journal or a PRIVATE blog where you can write about really great days and frustrating days.  NEVER write down names or specifics – but writing it out will help you process and let go of that day – also when days are rough you can go back and read about those days that were awesome.
48) Let the consequence fit the crime.  Example: if a student is not using scissors the right way they get to tear their paper.  If a student isn’t using paint the right way they get crayons…….
49) Say HI to the kids in the hall.
50) Let teachers know about kids who succeed in your room but often struggle in other areas – it helps everyone have a little more patience, understanding and hope.
51) Right is right even if everyone is against it and wrong is wrong even if everyone is for it.

 You have any other 'words of advice' or 'lessons learned'?


Buzzard's Glory Hot Air Balloons

Since high school I have been crewing for a local hot air balloon company, Buzzards Glory.  When the weather is clear and the wind is calm I assist in inflating the balloon, chasing it around town for about an hour and then helping it land, deflate and put it away.  It is a wonderful hobby!

This summer the pilot/owner of Buzzards Glory asked me if I would like one of the old balloons for my classroom to cut up and use for projects.  Again, like the CDs, I said YES!

Somehow - I'm not really sure how, the huge balloon bag made it into my classroom.  Students immediately started to ask me what it was and why I had it.  As I tried to explain the hot air balloon I had a lot of students tilt their head in confusion.  At that point, I realized what an abstract concept a Hot Air Balloon is if you have never seen one -- so I asked Sue if she would be willing to come out to school and inflate for the students - she was excited to do so.

After a couple mornings of trying to do it and having it be too windy - we finally landed a perfect morning.  I made a video that played on morning announcements to give the students some basic information and history about hot air ballooning.

The whole school came outside to watch.  It was VERY exciting.  The below video was taken by two 4th graders armed with a Flip video camera (the excitement in their voices and the screams of delight from the school is just awesome)

I picked a handful of 4th grade students to help inflate the balloon (they even got to stand in the basket!) and then another group of students to help deflate the balloon and put it away!  The whole school had a blast and our building was a ballooning buzz for the next couple of weeks.

Unfortunately the weather got cold fast this year and I was still trying to figure out what kind of project I wanted for this balloon fabric.  I spent the year cutting the balloon into smaller pieces - this took MUCH longer than I expected.  Throughout the winter I had lots of ideas, but none easy enough for the students to do the majority of the work.  Ripstop nylon is awesome stuff - but it isn't easy to sew, glue doesn't really hold it -- so any project I thought of just wasn't going to work for a whole school of kids.

There was one idea I kept coming back to - a windsock.  I went through many different thoughts about how this would work, how would the kids make it, what would I need to do..... I had a hard time trying to figure out what the ring part would be and how to attach the fabric.  I thought about bending wire - too many students.  I thought about cutting two liter bottles -- too many students and a lot of my time to cut all the bottles - besides it might be sharp.  I couldn't come up with a solution and then BAM it all made sense.  The students were going to be decorating CDs -why not use that?!  So I made a prototype to see how hard my idea was... it was beautifully simple.  Students would use skills they either already have, or need to master anyway.  The hot air balloon windsock idea was born.

First class the students decorated their CDs.  For the 2nd class students picked out three strips of hot air balloon fabric to decorate with Sharpies.  I encouraged them to use lines and shapes - however the only rule was that everything had to be school appropriate.  A lot of students chose to do words or activities.  I would have liked to see them be more decorated - but this project was really about them and their choices - so as long as it was school appropriate I accepted.  The 3rd class students tied their fabric around the CD using square knots (most already know this from shoe tying, and those who don't should learn how).  At the end of the 3rd class the majority of students took home their unique windsocks!  Success for all!

<---- This one was done by a student for his mom it says "Love Never Fails"


Radial CD Designs -- All Grades (examples of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th)

About a year ago a paraprofessional in my building came to me asking if I had any need for CD's.  I of course said YES!  Turns out she burns radio shows on to CDs for her husband, because his truck radio is broken.  They didn't want to throw them away, but also had no use for them after he listened to the show.

So, throughout the year she brings me stacks of CDs and I keep them in my room till the end of the year.  The last couple of years we have decorated CDs as a one day art project.

One year we learned about Keith Haring and how he drew on all sorts of surfaces - shoes, cars, walls, buildings.... ect.  The students then modeled their CD after his work.

This year I decided that we were going to make radial designs on both sides and then use them as the base for a windsock.  To start the project I drew three different options on the board and asked the students which one they thought was a radial design.  We did some brainstorming, some thinking, and slowly they worked out which ones didn't make sense and were not 'radial'.  After they figured out which one of my examples was a radial design I drew out some more asking if it was or was not a radial design.  Once I felt they understood what their target was, I sent them on their way with Sharpies and CDs.

All these results are from 2nd, 3rd, or 4th grade students and are diverse as the students who made them!  Some students chose words, other patterns, and even some pictures with dinosaurs, volcanoes and trees!  They always surprise me with their creative and personal thoughts!