I’m soo enthusiastic about art and about teaching art. In fact, when I look at my facebook posts, nearly 90% are about art or teaching art. I’ve never (NEVER) had an issue with engagement before. . .But, I’m having some challenging situations with it this year. I have quite a few kids in every class that just refuse to engage.

I’ve tried positive incentives, consequences, modified projects etc. etc. But, these hard-to-engage kiddos mostly are peeved they can’t sit with their friends (because they prove over and over when allowed that they don’t work and/or don’t behave when allowed to do so). When I ask what sorts of projects they want to do it is always “Graffiti.” Which, I’m not against at all (Banksy is one of my favorite artists and I subscribe to Juxtapoz Magazine), but this is an, at-risk kid environment. And, every. single. time. I’ve ever taught graffiti at least one kid has gone out and committed a crime because of what s/he was inspired by in the art room. I KNOW these kids would follow suit; in fact, they admit to wanting to learn how to tag stuff it in class!

I know now that a lot of the engagement struggle has to do with supplies. My school had no Art teacher last year, and the teachers readily admit that they “fleeced” the art room of supplies. My supply orders for this year have yet to be placed, which means my primary art tools are: crayons (only the original 8 pack of crayola colors), paper, and. . . . ? In fact, I went and purchased 30 pairs of scissors just so I would have some in class. There is paint, in random colors, but the only brushes I’ve found are the plastic ones with the plastic bristles that come free in a watercolor set.
This week, we painted. . .crappy brushes and all. . .And, like, WOW! What a difference it made in engagement for those kids who seem to struggle with being on task. They were just so. . .happy. I was and am thrilled. I was beginning to think it was all me, and it is frustrating when you feel so helpless to fix a negative situation.
But, THEN, today this happened. An 8th grade student (definitely the group with the largest number of hard-to-engage kids) said: “Are you the one doing the Art Club?” I replied, “Yes.” To which she responded: “Oh, then I’m sure not doing Art Club!”
Sigh. That just made me deflate inside. That she would consider Art Club and then NOT do it because of me just makes me feel like a failure. To be fair, this student struggles with her behavior at times and may have just been saying to “get my goat.” But, you know, it is hard to avoid feeling as if you -meaning me- are the problem.
Sometimes, it feels like it is touch and go, no? I wish these kids could understand how much time I spend thinking about the projects they do, and how excited I am to see what they do. . .I always try to praise and remark on the positive things about their work. I hang work etc. etc. Next week we are doing “Day of the Dead” inspired projects and I *really* hope my hard-to-engage kiddos are inspired.
And, I hope my little negative Nancy decides to take Art Club anyway.
P.S. I will say that one of my male students who got into A LOT of trouble in Art a few weeks ago was really inspired by our project this week. Turns out, he loves painting. He made one of the best works of the week, and I made sure to lay on the praise and show off his work. He just preened like a little rooster. And, me? I’m so happy I get to see this side of him and I’m sooooo thrilled that he and I could turn around our negative student/teacher relationship!

9 thoughts on “Ouchies”

  1. oh Amy. . . I think I can relate to what you're going through. I taught at a Montessori school and private art school, went to private schools, then got a job at an inner city middle and elementary school. I cried everyday after teaching at the middle school. I couldn't believe how the little buggers tried to sabotage everything! If they see you care they prey on it. I found they don't know what to do with someone who genuinely cares. AND the room you have is beautiful. . . but with NO supplies! That is so inner city. They get the big money and spend it on nonsense. Sorry to say it! It gets even more frustrating when you get out of the classroom and start dealing with the “initiatives” in these inner city schools because most of them are failing under no child. My husband always told me this and it helped. . . “GO IN THERE EVERYDAY AND DO YOUR BEST. YOUR BEST MIGHT BE DIFFERENT FROM DAY TO DAY depending on what kind of a day you're having and what kind of a day the students are having.” The attention thing is so elusive. I stopped even trying for it. . . as it changes from moment to moment with middle schoolers.The project is not as important as the relationship. So I wouldn't even stress the projects, keep it simple. I'm thinking of you and know how hard you are trying. Make sure to give yourself credit too for every good thing that happens.

  2. Amy, I can't believe how lucky I feel in my little rural school. I am adequately supplied and the kids all love art. There's very little gang influence here – my kids are more interested in hunting, snowmobiling, and video games. I never worked in a private school, never went to one, so I honestly don't know what that's like, but I also never worked in an inner city school. All I can say is give it your best shot and let them get used to you. In the meantime, I'd seriously love to send you a care package of old scissors, construction paper (you may recall that I won 100 pounds of TruRay),and some other crazy odds and ends of stuff I have stuffed unused in my supply closet (such as crazy contact paper). Maybe not the best stuff, but better than just crayons! Email me with mailing list and I'll have some goodies on the way to you next week. Keep your chin up!Meanwhile – forget those crappy brushes and cut up some sponges to paint with, or use Q-tips. Or stamp dots with pencil erasers (great for Lichtenstein). Pgood luck to you,my friend.

  3. I agree with Art Project Girl- I am finding myself in the same situation right now. I teach K-6 in the city and engagement is very difficult. One thing I did was to ask the students what kind of things they like. 100% of them are on free and reduced lunch but you can bet they have the newest pair of Air Jordans so I designed a shoe template and let the students design their own shoes- through that I taught them about line and shape. Or we did portraits of sports players and talked about proportion. We also did a lesson on “parody” and they had to cut out the Mona Lisa's face and change her into something. My example was “Mona Minaj” (a take on Nikki Minaj, a famous rapper). They really like changing Mona into some one they could relate to. You may have to really think outside the box. I would never even think of doing some of those 3 point perspective barn lessons I've seen out in blog land but I did do one of our city, St. Louis, which they like because they see it If you can't beat em, join em! Another thing I have noticed is that respect is earned, not given. This is my second year teaching at my school and I get more respect because the students (and teachers!) respect me because I stayed (in reality, I just couldn't find another job… trust me, I looked!!) Probably by Christmas, you will have earned more respect and some, not all, will be more engaged. Be patient and do not be discouraged. Those kids need you!!

  4. Sigh I just left the exact type of school you just entered. I swear I had that EXACT same exchange word for word about art club. After three years at that school I decided the kill em with kindness approach was the only retort to that particular type of kid. They expect you to get annoyed with them (most people are because of how they talk to, react to and treat others) so they get really thrown when you respond with something like…”well we will love to have you there if you change your mind!” Then walk away IMMEDIATELY do not linger so she can retort. The supply issue really hits home. I had the same thing go on year after year. In the end I sunk a fair amount of my own money into supplies and never got paid back and was always resentful about it…but at least I knew I had some stuff around to use. I finally sent an S.O.S email to the other art teachers in the district that were at the “nicer” schools asking for their old colored pencils, brushes and half used bottles of paint. I told them to send over the stuff the had in the back of the closet and within a week I had a fair amount of stuff. Try sending a note to a higher income elementary school in the district also. I bet they have markers and stuff from last years kids. Once again it is wrong, wrong, wrong that you should have to beg cast-offs from other people but at least it gives you something.

  5. It's sad that you are having to deal with so many issues on a daily basis. I agree with all of the above comments (and kudos to Phyl for the care package!!). Several good ideas there! It is still early in the year, though, and does sound like you are having some successes already. More will come, I am sure. You may never reach the kids with deep anger issues, but then again, maybe you will:) All we can do is try our best and hope that kids start to do the same. I wish you well!!

  6. Boy can I relate. I'm working on a really solid incentive program right now for my classroom because I am sick and tired of yelling over kids. I know my students have no idea how much time I spend preparing for class. My living room is filled with box after box of recycled materials I'm saving for projects ( I have no supplies either) and the back of my car is filled with used supplies that family and friends have been kind enough to donate. When I come home from work I get right to work planning changing modifying to make sure my lessons fit my students. One thing I tried with a smaller group of students was playing music. It seemed to work Most students hummed along instead of talking. I'm going to try it today with an entire class of 30. I also rented a projector form my school and I'm going to put together some power points and videos that might hook students in the beginning. Don't let the supplies thing get you down too much I just figured out this weekend how to make a Picasso guitar out of a cereal box and toilet paper roll. I'll post instructions and pictures soon. I keep telling my self to stay confident! We can do this!!

  7. Everyone! Thank you SOOO much for your amazing advice, comments and commiseration! It is good to know that I'm not alone in this struggle. . . Although, I wish the struggle didn't exist at all. I'm focusing on one day at a time. And, it does seem that for every negative comment at my school about art class etc., there is a positive action/comment to balance it. I especially love all of your ideas about incorporating the students' visual culture. I was doing it -I thought- but I incorporated their visual experience into our project today in a rather visceral manner. . .And, the kids LOVED it. So, thank you for that!I don't know what I would do if it wasn't for -as we say down South- all of y'all!

  8. I am so glad that I am not the only elementary art teacher out there that struggles. I have been teaching K-5 art now for four years at two different elementary schools. The students come from low-income homes and lack serious parental guidance. I struggle daily with bad behavior, disrespect, and negativity towards their peers. It is so frustrating but I just do what I can and try to stay positive. I find that it helps to count down from 10 to get students to do things like clean-up, line up, etc. I also do this thing where I say, “SIT SERIOUS” and they all give me there attention by clasping their hands together on the table and sitting up straight. Even my new Kindergartners know what it means to “Sit Serious.” I also have a gameboard with each class listed. Each class is listed down the left side and has a colored stripe out to the right across the bulletin board. Each class has a different game piece (purple heart, green star, orange rectangle, etc.) they start with at the beginning of their stripe. At the top I have different prizes that they win if they get to move their game piece under that prize. I place the prizes about 5-inches apart so that it takes a little time for them to earn it. I move their game piece when the whole class is on task and follows directions. It will get better for you. 🙂

  9. Hi Amy, Boy, I wish I had you to commiserate with a few years ago, when I was in almost the exact same situation. Add to the situation that the principal did not support or appreciate the arts, and that I was at the end of a hallway–not real room– with 300 middle school kids a week and NO support for behavior issues. The kids were resentful and angry and I often left school in tears, so in an act of desperation, I asked my toughest class to write me letters. I walked into class with a box, handed out pencils and paper, and told them that they could write and tell me ANYTHING they wanted to tell me, and put it in the box. They could choose to sign their names of not. I would read them all, but what they said would not go any further than me, and I didn't care what kind of language they used– they could say ANYTHING. They seemed a little hesitant at first, but then they got to work writing. I still have those letters. They are full of anger, frustration… but almost none of it was about me (someone did tell me I was “too nice” and I needed to be tougher with troublemakers, and someone else took the opportunity to half-heartedly call me some cuss word I can't remember: “You a ________, but you OK.”) It was a risky move (what would I have done with a serious-sounding threat? what if the principal found out I was encouraging kids to write swears?) but it paid off.After I read their letters, and the kids saw that they could trust me to keep their feelings confidential, things really settled down, behavior improved, and they were more open to trying things. I think they felt acknowledged. With another class, I asked them to write to me about their interests. Then I dug out my collection of unused postcards, and wrote to each kid, responding to what they had written. That also helped build a connection with the kids. Sounds like you are beyond desperation moves, but I had to share. Thanks so much for your blog, and keep up the great work!Lynne

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