Why You Need to Create Art with Your Students

I have always loved art.

I understand the way I'm wired much better now than when I was a kid. I didn't know until I was an adult that I have attention deficit, which would have explained why school was such a struggle when I was a kid. I wondered if school was hard for everyone else, too, and if they were just better than me at keeping it a secret. Somehow, I managed to make it all the way through grad school, and art was a huge reason for that. While I struggled my way through other subjects, art was somehow easy for me. I found something I was good at in school, and it helped me build the confidence I needed to tackle challenges in other classes.

As a teacher, I see why art so often gets pushed to the back burner. Making sure your students master standards during the handful of hours you have with them each day is incredibly important. Teachers constant shift and re-shift those precious instructional minutes to make sure our students' highest needs are met. This is what good teaching is, and most of the teachers I know do it really, really well.

I want to share some thoughts and observations about art in the classroom, because art is something that tends to be cut when we're juggling lots of other priorities, and I'm not convinced that's a good or helpful thing. I want to be clear that my intention is not to add more to anyone's plate; we're in the trenches together, and I'm trying to figure out a balance right along with everyone else. My hope is that instead of feeling pressure, other teachers would feel permission--permission to make art a part of their classroom culture, knowing that the life skills their students learn when they are creative will lead to growth in other academic areas, as well.

At a basic level, artistic expression supports the growth and development of the whole child. When I watch my students create art, I see the final product as only a very small part of the process. Sure, their final art pieces are delightful and adorable, but what I'm always struck by is how important the steps are that lead up to that final piece. In just one art project, children can practice their gross and fine motor skills, follow multiple-step instructions, understand cause and effect relationships, develop their spatial awareness, make a plan, and modify their plan to meet a goal. Impressive, right?! Giving kids space to be creative not only supports their development as artists, but as people.

Art allows children to be innovators. I'm always amazed at the thought that, as teachers, we're tasked with preparing students for jobs that might not even exist yet. We want, and need, this next generation to be fearless when it comes to exploring new ideas, concepts, and processes. When I read stories about inventors and their world-changing inventions, the stories are almost always defined by repeated failures. The truth is, innovation is impossible without failure. If we want our students to be innovators, we need to teach them how to fail well. Creating an art piece allows students to make something completely original and innovative while solving problems, and mistakes are almost always made. The beautiful thing about art is that failure is rarely final--you can generally keep adding to your painting to transform it into something new. When our students stop seeing their failures as an end point, but instead as a starting point for something new, we have taught them to fail well.

The process of creating art builds critical social skills, especially when it's done in community. A sign of maturity in children (and adults, for that matter!) is the ability to cope with frustration in a healthy way. Disappointments and setbacks are a completely normal, natural, and expected part of life. The trick with frustration is not letting those emotions overwhelm us. Creating art in community also gives students the opportunity to practice giving and receiving constructive feedback.

Art connects kids to a larger worldview. Art is an important part of every culture, and is a way to preserve history, traditions, values, and scientific discoveries. Exposing kids to art from around the world is a very simple but powerful way to reinforce a deep respect for other cultures.

Teachers can communicate art's value by participating. Some teachers have an art program available to their class through the school. That's wonderful! If someone else teaches art to your students, consider joining the lessons. Don't just sit back and watch. Modeling a love for art is just as important as modeling a love for reading and math. Your students will follow your example! Participating in an art lesson along with your students communicates that art has value, mistakes aren't something to be afraid of, and that it's always okay to try something new.

I know that setting aside hours of instructional time for art usually isn't practical (or wise!), but I do hope you'll feel encouraged to add in an art lesson or two to your next unit. It's worth your time and your students' time, and the lessons they'll learn will carry far beyond the classroom. I know that's been true throughout my own life, both as a student and as a teacher.

So, what do you think? Do you make time for art in your classroom, too?


Easy Teacher Gift Ideas

I have mixed feelings about Teacher Appreciation Day, which in the United States takes place on Tuesday of the first full week in May.  On one hand, I'm always SO blown away and humbled that my students' parents would want to communicate appreciation for the small role I play in their kids' lives--it's such an honor to have that role, and I love my job.  On the other hand, though, it's never been clear to me why my profession in particular is singled out.  If anyone deserves a national holiday, I think it's our school's janitor, who spends his nights cleaning up unspeakable messes left behind by the students.  (And all the teachers said, "Amen.")

In any case, I thought it might be fun to write a post with some practical and meaningful gift ideas for teachers, based on my own experience and conversations I've had with colleagues over the years.  You may be reading this and thinking, “Wait, isn’t it kind of awkward and inappropriate for a teacher to talk about Teacher Appreciation Day, like a kid telling strangers at the park what he’d like for his birthday?”  The answer is yes, I do feel a little awkward writing this.  However, I've received this question from many parent-friends over the years who suspected their child’s teacher might have enough mugs and apple-themed desk supplies to last a lifetime, and who wanted an inside scoop from a teacher in the trenches.  So, what follows is in no way a personal wishlist (though I do have to admit it’s probably more aimed at women than men), and I hope it will be helpful for parents searching for an easy, inexpensive, meaningful, and practical gift.  I should also say that the list isn’t just aimed at parents--for those of you who are teachers, these could be great gift ideas for thanking volunteers or celebrating a colleague! Okay, without further ado, here's the list:

1. Essential Oil Diffuser, $20, to make the classroom smell like Heaven even after PE class.

2. Flair Pens, $14, to add a little splash of joy to grading and note-taking in staff meetings.

3. Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, $5, for obvious reasons.

4. Stickers for Organizing, $10, because stickers and cute labels make a teacher's heart sing.

5. Initial Necklace, $38, to dress up an everyday work outfit.

6. Glue Sticks, $10, because it seriously feels like these things evaporate into thin air as the year progresses. Where in the world do they go!?

7. Tote Bag, $30, because teachers carry a comical amount of items back and forth from school every day, and these cute bags can take a beating. (You can get them monogrammed, too!)

8. Grading Stamps, $19, for cheering on the kiddos AND making grading easier at the same time.

9. Personalized Zippered Pouch, $25, for carrying all of those flair pens, paper clips, and tiny confiscated toys in style.

10. A Funny To-Do List, $9, to make them laugh even when the teacher to-do list feels unending.

11. Personal Cinematic Light Box, $20, to make writing a morning message for the students even more fun. It's whimsical and silly, but could have so many fun uses in the classroom!

12. Beautiful File Folders, $14, so those stacks of paper look pretty instead of overwhelming.

13. A note from your child that will be treasured forever!

14. Finally, I've also found that some of the most meaningful gifts are the ones that communicate to teachers that the parents and students know and care about them personally.  Pretty much every teacher I've met has a secret (or not-so-secret) sweet tooth, caffeine addiction, or other quirk, and a well-placed packet of Skittles or a vanilla latte with an encouraging note can have a huge impact.  Ask your kids what they've noticed about their teachers (does she always have a bottle of Coke on her desk, or does he love going to Friday night movies at that downtown theater with his wife?), or have your school's staff fill out surveys at the beginning of the year to discover those more subtle, but high-impact, gift ideas.

Well, there you have it!  I'll keep adding to this list over time, as I come across more great ideas, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.  If you're a teacher or a parent, what are some of the most meaningful and practical teacher or volunteer gifts you've given and received? 

This post contains affiliate links. This means that Amazon awards me a small referral fee when people visit their site via the links in my blog posts and purchase something (even something other than the linked product!). This doesn't affect the price you pay, and you can be confident that I only recommend products and teaching supplies I believe in and use myself.  Thank you so much for your support in making this blog possible!


Project Based Learning in the Primary Classroom: Part 2

Note:  This is the second post in a two-part series.  See the first post here.

Now that you know the components of Project-Based Learning, I want to share a step-by-step example illustrating how I walked through a project with my primary kiddos.

As a disclaimer, the project I am about to share is not perfect. It's a work in progress (aren't they all?), and I'm sure I'll continue to tweak it in the years to come. That said, I hope this will still provide a practical example of how you can pull off a project of this scale in a primary classroom. Here's how you can make it happen!

1. Present the Essential Question and Brainstorm Solutions
As I wrote in my last post, our essential question for the project was, "How can we use economics to bring justice to the world?" I started off by presenting the students with some background knowledge: families in many countries around the world depend upon cows and other livestock for their livelihoods, but they often don't have enough. Next, I framed a central problem. Cows, which can provide extra income, cost around $500 in many countries, and that's often beyond the reach of the families that would benefit most. How could our class earn that much money and help a family develop a more sustainable livelihood? I created a problem and solution chart and had students share their ideas for how they could solve this problem. The teacher is the facilitator in this step, and can guide students towards the idea of creating their own businesses.

2. Brainstorm Ideas Individually
A few years ago, I read the book Quiet by Susan Cain. I'm an introvert myself, and this book helped me better understand how to operate well in a group setting. Jumping right into brainstorming without quiet time to think is an incredibly stressful experience for me, and I don't typically feel comfortable processing things verbally in front of others. According to Cain, it turns out that extrovert-oriented brainstorming sessions don't necessarily lead to the best ideas. Everyone, whether introvert or extrovert, has the best ideas when they are given time to think quietly on their own before coming together with a larger group. I see individual brainstorming time as one of the most important steps of the problem-solving process. Giving your students time to think individually before they collaborate with peers will help them prepare their valuable contributions to their group.

3. Collaborate as a Group 
After students have written down their individual business ideas, it's time for them to share their concepts with their group. Before your students break off into groups, review and model appropriate social skills for collaboration. I can't say this often enough: assume nothing and model everything. It's easy for adults to take for granted the skills we've mastered for working well with others. Don't forget, though, that learning how to speak is a relatively recent event in your primary students' lives. They've only been using complete sentences for a few years! It's completely reasonable and absolutely necessary to set aside time to practice how to respectfully disagree and make compromises with others. When your students do break off into their teams to share their individual ideas and come up with a group concept, remind them that they'll be allowed to tweak their ideas in the future. This isn't set in stone after the first group meeting!

4. Explore the Topic in Other Content Areas
This is the fun part for me. I love referring back to my Curriculum Map and bringing the economics theme into other subject areas. Take this opportunity to cover your measurement and data standards on the value of money, hit your language arts standards on persuasive writing by creating advertising for stores, and address reading comprehension standards by reading books and articles about finances and businesses.

ReadWorks is a fabulous resource for leveled articles, and you can search for resources about economics by your students' grade level. There is a wealth of quality children's literature with this theme, too. Here are some titles to help you get started!

1. A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams
2. Pedrito's Day by Luis Garay
3. A Day's Work by Eve Bunting
4. Alexander, Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday by Judith Viorst
5. Once Upon a Dime by Nancy Kelly Allen
6. Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco
7. A New Coat for Anna by Harriet Ziefert
8. Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts

5. Develop a Prototype and Revise
Learning how to make a plan before diving into a project is an invaluable skill that will benefit your students throughout their lives. (It's something I'm still working on myself!) Before handing over any project materials for making store products, have your students work with their team to draw a detailed plan or build a prototype out of inexpensive materials. That way, when you hand over the real supplies for creating the products to sell, your students will have a clear end goal in mind. This also helps to resolve disputes about product designs before they even start!

6. Create a Final Product
Now the fun part: give your students time to create their final products! Don't be shy about asking for help from parent volunteers, and I would recommend distributing only a few supplies at a time. For example, if you have a group painting toy cars, don't give them all 20 cars at once. Give them just a few to work on initially so that there is a higher quality of workmanship. Discuss with your students the importance of offering quality products in your store.

7. Share Learning with the Community
After all of that work developing their businesses, your class will be ready to celebrate! As a culmination of the project, host a market on your school campus to sell the products the students made. Again, don't be shy about recruiting volunteers! After the market, help your students calculate their earnings, pay back their loans, and use the profits to buy a cow for a family in the developing world.

8. Reflect on Learning
A final, critical component of Project-Based Learning is allowing your students to reflect on their experiences. Remember, you built in room for failure, and your students learned a lot through the process of fixing those mistakes or revising their plans. That's the whole point of Project-Based Learning. This reflection step will solidify for your students what they would like to do differently when you take on your next big project together as a class.

Do you feel ready to get started? If you are looking for a resource to make your first experience with Project-Based Learning a breeze, I have good news! I've included ALL of the printable materials you'll need for this project, as well as a more detailed daily pacing guide, in my Marketplace Economics packet. Click here to see more!

This post contains affiliate links. This means that Amazon awards me a small referral fee when people visit their site via the links in my blog posts and purchase something (even something other than the linked product!). This doesn't affect the price you pay, and you can be confident that I only recommend products and teaching supplies I believe in and use myself.  Thank you so much for your support in making this blog possible!