Teaching the Give Up Kid and Protecting Arts Education

All artwork in this post is created by former Give Up Kids
Art Teacher:  “Why are you off task? Please get to work on your assignment.”
Student:  “Why am I even in Art? I don’t know how to draw! I’m not good at Art; I shouldn’t be here!”
Art Teacher:  “Drawing is a skill, and just like any skill you have to learnhow to do it. You had to learn skills to become good at basketball, right? Drawing is like that. Here. Let me show you.”
The above is a conversation Art teachers have all had (some of us frequently) with students.  Typically, because of schemas, it is middle school and high school aged students whom seem to have the most anxiety about being in Art class, but it drawing drama impacts elementary classrooms too. It says something about the nature of our education systems that students understand core subjects (Mathematics, Language Arts, Science, and Social Studies) are studies wherein they must continually build skill sets to advance.  Yet, students in arts classes (Drama, Music, and Visual Arts) firmly believe they must have some inherent talent in order to not only succeed, but even competently participate.  Even Physical Education, which is often afforded the same backhanded respect as the Arts, is understood as subject wherein everyone can at least participate if not compete.
As Arts educators we can continue to lament this unfortunate misunderstanding that devalues our classrooms, subjects, and careers. . . Or, we can stand up, empower ourselves, and be a part of the change needed to not only encourage our students but to also protect Arts education.
Okay. I know. That statement sounds like a dramatic rally cry doesn’t it?  But, truthfully? Art is rapidly disappearing and some of it is due to devaluation.  At the same time, craft supply stores seem almost recession-proof, and music is shared and heard in manner un-paralleled in human existence.
 Arts education is disappearing in a world whose inhabitants refuse to live without Art. And, that is a problem. . . Our problem to solve.
Part of this solution is empowering the “Give Up Kid.”
 So, what do you do when get the Give Up Kid?  You know, the student who is overwhelmed by the task of required learning Art? Whose parents aren’t invested in Arts education?  Who doesn’t believe s/he really needs art?
We teach them. We teach them Art is a series of skills enhanced by inherent talent, but for which no special gift is required to enjoy. We teach them to appreciate and recognize Art in the world. We teach them how to use the most powerful muscle they have, their brain, through creative exercises designed to help them in all facets of life.
And, THAT, paragraph sounds really good, doesn’t it?  At our core, it is what we do. . . But, as teachers, we all know the reality is much more challenging, frustrating, and gritty.  It isn’t easy to help the Give Up Kid; they have years of prior experience underscoring their false statements. 
Here are a few of my tips for empowering the Give Up Kid:
1.       Get to know the student.  Getting to know the student doesn’t have to difficult or timely. Simply, ask a few questions about his/her likes and dislikes. Identify what his/her interests are.  This will help you build a bridge of communication.
2.       Sit with the student. . .All students really. I make it a practice during studio time in my classroom (independent working time) to pick a different table every day and sit for about 5 minutes just talking with the students.  It sounds a little radical to sit in the classroom, since we are all taught a sitting teacher isn’t teaching. But, we all know there are moments when you can sit; especially if your classroom management structures in sitting time. My students are familiar with my practice of sitting and visiting. They know if they have a question during that time, all they have to do is ask me to come over and/or visit me.  While I sit with a table I pick up and participate in whatever conversation the students are having; it isn’t always about art.  Sometimes, I’ll share a funny story about myself etc. etc.  I can’t tell you how much my students love this; they all beg for me to sit at their table.  And, this practice has been a key part of reaching dozens of Give Up Kids through the years.  If you feel sitting would never work for your classroom management style, just stand near the table and speak with the students. It isn’t exactly the same; doesn’t engender the same familiarity. But, it will still be helpful.

3.       Don’t make it a practice to draw on student artwork and/or “help” by drawing a few lines for the Give Up Kid (or any student).  The schema of middle school students is that realistic looking art is good art.  This begins to change in high school, but many students remain stuck in the realism = good art place.  These students frequently ask for “help” when they mean “draw for me.”  They don’t care if they drew the work or not, as long as when it is finished it looks realistic and “good.”  I have been amused many times through the years to see students complete work that was primarily done by me (or another student) and still feel it is “their” art. The problem is when you draw –even in small parts- for a student, it reinforces the idea that drawing is a special skill reserved for the uniquely talented.  It also doesn’t give students the opportunity to work on their drawing skills and become better.
4.       Make reference how-to sheets. Lots and lots of reference sheets.  If you aren’t drawing on a student’s paper, it can be hard to help.  One easy way to overcome this Give Up Kid’s desire to say “I don’t know how!” is to provide him/her with reference material designed to self-lead. It is important to provide multiple types of references within the same project, because you don’t want art class to become formulaic.  It seems as if I am forever making class sets of how-to this/that/other.  They are really valuable resources since I can ask students to refer to the sheet, and students who need help can independently seek aid themselves.  At the same time, I put the caveat “This is only one way to draw [item]; there are many ways to draw [item]; none are “right” and none are “wrong.”
5.       Make time for a little one-on-one guided drawing.  In my experience, the Give Up Kid hasn’t had many opportunities for art-making in his/her life.  Part of the reason s/he doesn’t like art class is because s/he is intimidated.  You know that moment when you say:  “If you don’t do any work, you won’t get a grade, and you’ll fail the course” and the student just shrugs and says something like “fine with me?”  The student is scared that his/her work will be so inferior that s/he will be the subject of teasing and shame.  Since pre-teens and teenagers are driven by group perception, they would rather do nothing and fail, than try and be anything less than near-perfect.  Discretely find an opportunity to do a side-by-side guided drawing exercise with the student.  It sounds really elementary and embarrassing, but I’ve never once had a student refuse; they actually seem to appreciate the attention. Typically, I’ll make the guided drawing as simple as possible so the student has the opportunity for maximum success. After the guided drawing, I’ll instruct them to apply it to their work; they always do.  Sometimes, you just have to take a step backward and provide the Give Up Kid with a taste of the elementary, empowering experience of art that they missed.
6.       Praise honestly and realistically.  It is important to recognize the development of the Give Up Kid’s skills, but don’t overdo it.  Students aren’t adept at recognizing that you are encouraging someone who was/is previously discouraged.  And, sometimes, instead of appreciating the work of their peer, they will offer unasked for criticism:  “What? Mine is way better and you haven’t said anything about it!”  Recognize the specific skills the Give Up Kid has developed and speak to them; don’t damn with false praise.
7.       Display work with caution.  It is a big deal for my students’ art to “make it to the wall.”  I’m discriminate.  But, I don’t simply display the best or strongest artwork. I try to demonstrate the artwork displaying success for individual students. But, you have to be careful.  the Give Up Kid has a fragile confidence about any new-found ability or skill.  Displaying artwork that isn’t very strong, yet demonstrates success for the artist runs the risk of high criticism.  Remember, middle and high school students aren’t known for thinking before speaking.  If the peers perceive The Give Up Kid’s artwork as being inferior to the other artworks and say so where the Give Up Kid can hear it, you have a major setback.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t display the work of the Give Up Kid; often, s/he is thrilled to have work on the wall.  But, you should be exercise caution.
8.       Use your classroom management plan to mete out healthy doses of consequences. We all need a little religion as motivation from time to time.  I call home, get other teachers involved, and seek the aid/support of the administration when attempting to empower the Give Up Kid.  My aim is not to punish the Give Up Kid because that will lead to discouragement. Instead, it is important for the Give Up Kid to know that I will do anything and everything ethically within my abilities to help him/her achieve success.  As a student once said: “I don’t mess with Ms. J., she is, like, everywhere.”    *Also, a bit of advice:  When contacting parents, pretend you are a customer service representative.  If the parents believe you to be a nice, caring, teacher who sees the best in his/her student, they will back you each and every time. If they see you as an overly critical nuisance who is sick of dealing with their child, then they will undermine your authority (this could be its own blog post!)*
I’m interested. What do you do to help the Give Up Kid?

5 thoughts on “Teaching the Give Up Kid and Protecting Arts Education”

  1. I have to say, I feel like I struck gold! Ive been on your blog all day reading and being inspired (I'm a newbie art teacher and teaching 500 students with a laughable budget is my reality in these next few weeks.) When I did my student teaching at a middle school I often tried to check in with the “give up” kid but I was shocked and at a loss of words when that student can tell you a like, a hobby or interest. I had about 5 of these students and it was like pulling teeth to get an answer… it was really sad to witness and tried to branch out their horizons introducing them to new artists/art/hobbies? I still feel like I wasn't 100% successful but I know I did my best. Thanks for all the great INFO. It's priceless.

  2. The arts are an opportunity to express what we think, what we feel, what we love or hate, what we hope, what we want to change, what we want from the future and admire from the past, and whatever else might move us. It's part of humanity to want and need to express those things.Art

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