Archive | February, 2010

Warm Fuzzies

27 Feb

How do you get your class to interact in a positive way?


Warm Fuzzies is a great idea that i took from the children’s cancer camp that I volunteer at every summer. When the kids first get to camp, they decorate a brown lunch bag with their name, stickers, and whatever else they want. The bags get hung up on a wall in the mess hall, and all throughout the week it acts as a sort of mail box for the campers. They write “warm and fuzzy” messages to other campers: “Thank you for helping me get back in the canoe when I fell out” or “You look so pretty without your wig on!” and “Thanks for going to the bathroom with me in the middle of the night when I was scared to go myself!” The kids are always so great about looking out for one another, and they always make sure that every single person is getting messages in their bags.

I decided that this was a good lesson to teach to my kids at school; a sort of extension on “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I asked all the kids to design a bag, and we hung them up. Most of the teachers participated, too. I explained the system, and emphasized that I had the right to check the bags any time I wanted to make sure they were used appropriately. If a kid got caught writing something negative, their bag would come down, end of discussion.

I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did I not have to remove any bags from the wall, the kids did a really nice job of finding ways to complement each other. It took a little bit of prompting at first by myself and the other teachers, (“Great job in English class today!! I loved your essay on ‘The Catcher in the Rye’!”) but they soon got the hang of it and wrote each other notes. Some of them would use it just to say hello, but they were still interacting in a positive way, taking the time to show others that they cared…a huge step for some of my kids.

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A Fresh Coat of Paint

26 Feb

When I started at my school, this was my classroom. Interesting space for an art room huh? First, lets talk about the carpet on the floor. I don’t think I need to explain how that presents a problem. Second, notice there’s no door? I know that “Great rooms” and “Open architecture” are all the rage, but when it comes to teaching in an SED school, doors are kind of important. Luckily, with about a month left to go of my first year, I was going to get to move! A room had opened up, and it was a much more appropriate space. Tile floors, two sinks, a door that actually closed, and lots of wall space for displaying artwork! My classes were all very excited. They helped me haul boxes of supplies down the hall, and excitedly helped set everything up. I decided to harness their enthusiasm, and took the opportunity to get them even more involved. Immediately I went to Home Depot and came back with two different colors of paint, a ton of rollers and brushes, and dropcloths to cover everything. I put them to work. We listened to music and made small talk while we transformed a dirty white room into a colorful, peaceful space. They even stayed after to help me put up curtains. I was so proud of them, and it made me realize how much they wanted to feel a part of something. Check out the pictures below of how the room looks now. We had made ourselves a home in that art room, a feeling that was passed on to each new student who decided they wanted a home there, too.

A Life Saving Suggestion

25 Feb

The very first day that I taught my elementary class was probably the worst 40 minutes of my teaching career. There were five behavioral students, all about third grade or so. When they walked in, I really thought that they would sit still while I went over rules and expectations. Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Within five minutes they were out of their chairs, running around, going through my drawers, asking (yelling) “When are we gonna do art!?” So I abandoned my “plan” and scrambled to get them back in their seats. I shoved some salt dough in front of each of them, and tried to explain what I wanted them to do. Unfortunately, I had prepared the dough wrong, and it stuck like taffy to their little fingers. One boy started crying and screaming “Get it off! Get it off!” The assistant, who was looking at me like I was an idiot, shook her head and took the boy to the bathroom to clean up. I couldn’t even organize the other four kids at the sink without one of them trying to wipe dough on another boy’s back. When I say it was a disaster, it really was a disaster. The worst part of all was that there was still about thirty minutes left until I got to send them back to their classroom (where their teacher, I assumed, must have had magical powers.) So we played Simon Says. We played Duck Duck Goose. We played Simon Says again. Finally, the bell rang and the kids ran hitting and screaming into the hallway and back to their classroom. Clearly, I had to make some changes.

I was completely overwhelmed, and I knew I needed help. Aside from completely revamping how I ran operations during a lesson, I asked my principal for some ideas on what to do if I had extra time at the end of the period. Her advice was “Bin Activities”, and for the rest of the year, Bin Activities were my savior. I went to the dollar store that very same day, purchased eight colorful bins, and plenty of activities to fill them with. I tried to keep most of them somewhat art related, but almost anything works. Coloring books, Memory, white boards and markers, magnetic blocks, play dough, you get the idea. The very next day, I told the kids that when they finished their project, they would be allowed to select one bin activity to play with until the end of the period. They would have to play nicely at their desk, and if they wanted a different bin, they had to clean up the first one. I switched out the activities in the bins fairly often, so that there was always something new and exciting to keep them occupied. I couldn’t believe it, but it worked! Bin activities saved me, hopefully they can help you too.

The Rules of the Game

24 Feb

I’ve never been good at following rules. While I understand important rules that keep us safe and maintain a certain degree of order, a lot of rules seem to exist only to stifle creativity. In my personal life, I like to do unexpected things at unexpected times; things that are outside of society’s “norms”, and don’t follow the “rules” of the world. If people look at me like I’m a little crazy, it doesn’t bother me. Needless to say this makes me a pretty unconventional teacher. I have tattoos, I don’t think it’s always a bad thing for kids to call out, and listening to a little music never hurt anyone. Obviously, it’s easier for me since I teach art, and understandably the rules are different in the art room than they are in the math room. I encourage my kids to participate in discussion, and have found that waiting for a raised hand often stops the flow of ideas. I like for them to feel comfortable expressing themselves, and if they need to listen to Jay-Z to do that, that’s ok with me too.

So it took me a few years to really settle on my Classroom Rules. I had to learn about myself as a teacher, and what was really important to me. I had to learn the nature of my kids, and what things tended to cause problems throughout the year. When I would look at other teachers’ rules, they just seemed empty and meaningless, like “Don’t talk out” or “Stay in your seat”. Nobody was talking about the anger our kids were dealing with: that it was a common occurrence to get angry at another student and walk out, or get angry at your work and tear it to bits (something that always broke my heart). I wanted to find a way to discuss the issues I felt were most important, and do it in a way that was down to earth and simple.

1. Clean up after yourself: where you were sitting, and any materials you used.
2. Treat everyone the way you expect they should treat you.
3. Don’t walk out. If you need to go somewhere, I need you to talk to me about it first.
4. Don’t be afraid to express yourself. This is the one place where there really is no wrong answer.
5. Respect the work that people do in here. Don’t destroy or alter someone else’s art, or your own.

By designating a bulletin board in the front of my room as the rule board, these five rules were always visible and I could refer to them when I needed to. I always explained them in the beginning of the year, and the kids always seemed to appreciate the fact that I was not only looking out for what I wanted, but that I was ready to stand up for them too. In fact, it was a rule that I do so. And that was a rule that even I could follow.

A Question a Day

23 Feb

Sometimes Art Class Isn’t Just About Art

By my fourth year of teaching, I had learned a few things about my kids. They were each others worst enemies. That’s the problem with taking all the “bad” kids and sticking them together…they feed off of each other. There’s no “regular” kids to set the standard. There’s no peers that offer an example of how you’re supposed to behave. When one of them gets mad at another, it’s like watching someone get sucked into a black hole; the situation gets worse and worse until all is lost. It looks something like this:

Setting: Two students are working at different tables across the room from each other. One of them is humming slightly to himself.

Student #1: “Oh my God, would you shut the *@^% up you are SO annoying right now!”
Student #2: “YOU shut the &#^$ up, you’re the annoying one!”
Me: “Ok, guys, lets just try to…”
Student #1: “Your mother knew how to shut up last night!!”
Me: “Hey!! If you’re mad, I need you to…”
Student #2: “Say something about my mom again. Go ahead!!!”
Me: “Ok, guys, no one is going to say anything about anyone’s…”
Student #1: “Ok I’ll say it about your sister then!!”
Student #2: “I’ll punch you in the face!!”

And so forth and so on. By this time, the students have crossed the room to each other and have squared off. Aside from tackling them or blowing an airhorn, there is nothing I can do to remind them that I am even in the room. They don’t mean to disregard the classroom rules or my directions, but they get fired up so quickly that they have blinders on to the rest of the world. Certainly, no one can be creative when they’re all bristled up and defensive.

So I decided I needed a way to get them to respect each other more. A way to get them talking. Not about their problems, or about these fights, just about their opinions, their ideas. I needed a way to get them to see that each classmate was a person, not just a threat. If they could see that, then maybe they would see the value in addressing each other more appropriately, and not skip right to posturing and anger.

So i started the “Question of the Day.” It was a bulletin board on my wall that asked a different question every day. I would change it each morning, and got the students in the routine of answering it when they first came to class. I would read the question out loud, and set a timer for one minute. Then, they would write everything that they could think of in response to the prompt. When the timer went off, we would go around the room and discuss our responses. I was really impressed at how well they did. They were able to find common interests, and they related to each others stories. They discussed their differences of opinion, and (with some help) were able to accept those differences. The whole process takes about 5 minutes, and it made the rest of the class period go so much smoother.

Here is a list of some questions to get you started. Leave a comment with some of your own ideas and lets see how many we can come up with!

What was your favorite childhood toy?
Name 3 reasons you should get out of bed tomorrow.
What do you think about growing old?
Everywhere you have lived, in order.
What does this quote mean to you? “An angry man opens his mouth and shuts his eyes.”
How do you feel about your neighbor?

Bulletin Boards that Build Character

22 Feb

“I like you”
“You’re smart.”
“You’re funny”
“You’re talented.”
“You can do it.”

I say these things to my kids every day. They don’t believe any of it. They are so used to hearing that they won’t be successful, it’s become the only thing they do believe. They’ve been told it so many times that it’s started to make them think that nothing’s worth it. “No one will ever like me. No one cares about me so what difference does it make?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked one of them where they think they will be in ten years and they’ve either said “Dead” or “In jail”. If that’s where they really believe they’ll be, than I can understand why making a pretty picture seems a little irrelevant.

So how do you handle this? Listen carefully, because I’m about to reveal to you the best teaching advice I’ve ever been given:

“First, get them to do it for you. When they’ve had enough positive experiences, they’ll start to want to do it for themselves.”

Not an easy task though. How do you get kids like that to do anything for anyone? Easy. Show them that you care. Listen when they talk. Shake their hand in the morning. Ask them about themselves. Treat them like adults and not like juvenile delinquents. Once you do that for them, they will do things for you. Just because it’s you. Because you asked nicely. Because you treated them with respect.

I believe this with all my heart. It’s been my teaching philosophy this far and hasn’t failed me once. Aside from living this each day at school, I also think it’s important to create an environment that expresses the same philosophy. Visual reminders are everywhere in my classroom. I make them all myself, too. Laminated, motivational posters from the teacher store are ok for the cafeteria, but for my classroom, putting a little love into my bulletin boards only conveys their messages even more. I call them character building boards, and while the room is full of art information as well, these are the ones that get the most attention.

A New Beginning

19 Feb


When I was in college and I imagined being an art teacher, I would think of pottery wheels, easels, and colorful palettes.  I envisioned a studio full of wide-eyed young learners, full of creativity and potential, all blinking up at me and excited to get their hands dirty; ready to mold their clay while I molded their little minds.

What I got instead was an abandoned classroom with a soiled carpet, a non-existent supplies budget, and a box of leftover crayon stubs that had long since started to melt together into one sad wax conglomerate.  And to top it all off, my students not only lacked the wide eyes and the excitement, but had long ago traded in those traits for bloodshot eyes that were lost in a seemingly permanent weed-induced coma, the angry depression that comes from living in subsidized housing in the bad end of town, and a Special Ed label stating that they were “Emotionally and Behaviorally Disturbed”.  This school was not a normal public school.  It was an alternative placement for kids who were “bad” and got kicked out.

But I asked for it.  I knew what I was getting into.  I actually loved it.  Somehow the idea of sorting through the mucky mess was much more appealing to me than being afraid to get a shiny, public school art room dirty.  So I got to know my students, and asked them how they ended up with me.  Here are some highlights:

Student #1: Punched a teacher in the face in seventh grade.  The teacher told him to hand over his binder, and when the student refused, the teacher tried to grab it away from him.  Student told teacher “If you touch my stuff again, I’m going to punch you in the face.”  You can deduce what happened next.
Student #2: Set a fire in the boy’s room in middle school. Was not actually trying to commit arson, but instead was cutting class and smoking a joint with some friends.  Someone threw the butt into the trash, and when it went up in flames, student took the rap for his buddies.
Student #3: Assaulted another student in the middle school lunchroom.  One day, student #3 decided to cut class.  When he was spotted in the hallway by the teacher of said class, student playfully tried to run away.  Accidentally bumped into another student, who got angry and pushed student #3 off of him.  Student pushed back and ended up being charged with assault for punching the other kid.

I know how this sounds.  No parent wants to worry about their little angels co-existing with these terrors.  And there is no excuse for the way these students behaved.  Certainly, as every good teacher or parent will tell you, there must be consequences for all the choices that these young men made.  Alternative placement isn’t an outrageous solution, especially if you ask the victims in these examples.

But now lets talk for a minute about advocacy.  In these examples, there was no strong role model present in the kids’ lives.  No one’s mom came to school afterwards and spoke to the principal about some other kind of retribution.  No one asked if it was possible that student #1’s teacher should not have physically grabbed at the student and his belongings, especially after reading the signs of stress and anger that the student was already displaying.  No one came to the school to question why student #2’s teacher didn’t even realize he wasn’t in class until after the fire alarm was already going off.  And you can be quite sure that while the parent of the victim in the third scenario was going on and on about her son’s immaculate record and his role on the football team, student #3 sat quiet and subdued on the front steps of the school wondering when his dad was going to stop drinking long enough to pay the phone bill to even receive the phone call from the principal.

But wait, there’s more.  Did I mention that, while these incidents happened in middle school, these stories were told to me in the students’ junior and senior years of high school?  The day they were pulled from their schools, their friends, and their everyday lives, they were each told that they were being put in a temporary, 45 day placement.  That they would then be “re-evaluated” to see if they could come back.  I don’t know how many of you are parents, but have you ever dropped a screaming 2 year-old off at your in-laws and thought to yourself “Ahh! Peace and quiet! If only we could leave them there forever”?  Well, if you have, you were most likely kidding, but apparently these school districts are not.  “Get ’em out so we don’t have to deal with them anymore” seems to be the most common philosophy.  No one ever came back to see student #1 getting A’s, keeping a job, and supporting his family with his tiny paycheck.  No one ever heard student #2 say that he loved math but the classes at our school just weren’t challenging him anymore.  And that public school art teacher never got to see the amazing pen and ink drawings that student #3 drew every day because he wanted to create a portfolio to get into college.

So here’s where I start to get mad.  I get angry when I have the best relationship with the kid out of all the staff, but no one asks me to go to the PPT (Planning and Placement Team meeting, where the next phase of the student’s education is decided upon).  I get mad when a principal tells me that a student is no longer to come and speak with me, because although we get along well, I’m not officially a social worker.  I get really upset when one of my kids curses out a teacher in anger, and as punishment is to sit in a windowless, 8×8 room all day with nothing to do and no words exchanged between him and the teacher he was mad at.

I don’t mean to be bitter.  I love teaching.  And I love my kids.  Every kid I’ve ever had will be “my” kid forever.  But I can’t function in an environment that could potentially be nurturing and supportive and instead is depressing and repressive.  So I quit my job, and this is my new start; a breath of fresh air.  And hopefully, by sharing my lessons and by telling their stories, all of “my kids” will finally get their voices heard as well.