I’ve taught 9th – 12th grade art at a private high school in Dallas, 8th graders at Florence Middle School in the Dallas ISD, and Pre K to 5th grade at my current school, W.W. Bushman Elementary. I’ve also taught music at the elementary level, and I spent two years teaching special education for 4th – 6th grade specializing in behavior management and language arts. That’s eleven years altogether, so I feel like I’m a pretty seasoned teacher at this point, but every year at the beginning of school I’m reminded of what a challenge we elementary art teachers have. Here at W.W. Bushman I see every grade level, from Pre-K to 5th grade. They only come once a week for 45 minutes, and there is no 5 or 10 minute transition time between classes like I had in middle school and high school. That means my room setup, rules, and projects have to be able to accommodate 4 year olds who have never been in school before, and then go right into a class of 10 or 11 year olds who are very different in every way. With no changing period between classes there’s just not enough time to have different rules and table setups, so over the years I’ve stumbled upon a few things that help me manage my classes to make the most of their art making time:
1) Have a procedure for entering class. I divide students into four groups on the first day of class. The groups are color coded. There’s a red table, blue table, yellow table, and a green table. Each student receives a folder with a daily grade rubric and their group’s color labeled at the top. At the beginning of class I put each groups’ folders on their table. The students enter and sit with their assigned group, get their folder from the stack on the table, and write the date and lesson for the day on their grade sheet (I post this on a white board every day.) This is an easy way to keep up with work and check attendance. If they’re absent I simply mark it on the grade sheet. I have a shelf divided and labeled for each class section. At the end of class students place their folder in their class section when they line up to leave.
2) Have supplies ready ahead of time. I have colored baskets for each group that have basic supplies for the day in them (markers, crayons, pencils, erasers, etc.) I post a list of the supplies in each basket, and at the end of class each group organizes their supplies basket and cleans their table. I can walk around the class and inspect supplies and table readiness very quickly, making sure that nothing is lost or needs replacing so that I’m ready for the next class.
3) Minimize reasons for leaving work. 45 minutes is not much time to make artwork. We need to maximize every minute of class if we’re going to have successful projects. Some students will try anything to get up and keep from working on a project, so I try to anticipate any problems or reasons my kids may have for leaving their work. The usual suspects are throwing trash away and sharpening pencils, so each of my group tables has a small trash can (color coded for the group) and hand held sharpeners. Since they already have supplies at their table they don’t need to look for anything else. A lot of my students want to get up to use the sinks. I have a simple policy that the sinks are always last in class, meaning that we don’t wash hands until everything else is done. Your hands will get dirty again while you work or clean your table, so why wash them before everything else is done?
4) Label everything! I am fortunate to have four working sinks in my room (although I’ve taught art without any sinks in the room), so I have the sinks color coded for each group. I organize supplies (paper, paint, drawing supplies, clay, etc.) and label cabinets and shelves to minimize the time spent searching for needed items.
5) Have a storage system for student work in place. Most of our projects take more than one day to complete. If it’s a work on paper we simply store it in their folders until the next class. Wet paintings and three dimensional projects like clay and plaster require storage shelves, so I have some plastic shelving, a cheap drying rack, and an empty table available. I also have a cabinet labeled for each group during a class in case there’s overflow.
6) Have something for students to do when they’re finished. No matter what the project is or how long it should take, some kids will inevitably finish a project before everyone else. I keep a box labeled “I’m finished, now what do I do?” at the front of the room. Inside the box are small strips with drawing starter ideas, mostly fun and slightly off the wall things for them to draw independently. Students simply pull a strip from the box, grab a sheet of paper from the stack beside it, and follow the instructions. This is a chance for them to have some less structured art time of their own, but only after completing the assignment. For longer projects I have a self assessment rubric that kids can go through to make sure they’ve really finished the assignment to the best of their ability. I also post step by step instructions for longer projects on the board. After all, it’s been a week since they’ve seen their work or our project so they always need a little refresher of what’s expected on the assignment.
7) Procedures and Rules are your friends! This is a tough one for a lot of artists. Many of us are creative types that kind of buckle at the thought of a strict regiment or routine. While many artists thrive in chaos, most young children don’t. They need structure, and it’s particularly important when you see the classes infrequently like I do. I’ve settled on a kind of generic set of rules written as an acrostic that seems to work well for both my young kids and the older students:
Ask permission by raising your hand.
Respect our classroom. Use materials responsibly.
Talk quietly about art with permission.
Involve yourself. Participate!
Share supplies and ideas.
Treat others the way you want to be treated.
On the first day of class we go through these rules and talk about what they mean and how it looks in the art classroom. We go through the rewards and consequences and how our grades work (I’ll post a copy of my grade sheet later.) I keep a treasure chest full of goodies (mainly school supplies) that students can earn during class, and I have a file cabinet full of alternative assignments for students who won’t follow rules and need a time out from art. Time out in my room doesn’t mean sleep time or play time. Students receive an alternate assignment like art vocabulary worksheets or assigned reading in the textbooks. It’s very rare that I have a student who wants to work on our art vocabulary instead of painting or drawing. Everything is clearly posted in the room, and I just remind students to be an ARTIST when they’re in my room. The color coded groups are a clear procedure for entering class, and the supply basket checklist and routine for returning folders is a clear procedure for ending class. While there’s always a few surprises with young students, having these rules and procedures in place helps me maximize our time on task and make more art, which is what it’s all about.