Post by Thomasina Durkay
I’ve said it before & I’ll say it again, to teach the visual arts, I have to be determined, strong, & in a constant state of learning. Now, I substituted for about 3 years in Pennsylvania before moving to Virginia Beach in 2012 where I’d work as a part-time art teacher, a long-term art substitute, & just a day-to-day substitute, all while working an after-school/summer camp program & teaching art history online. In 2014 I applied to an elementary art teacher position in PPS, knowing that going from high school & middle school to elementary school would be a challenge, but when I received it I was so excited. I could finally feel stable & grounded knowing I’d have something full-time all year long…but, man, I was not ready for art on the cart. Turns out, I also grew accustomed to having my own room (although, I did at one time share a room with another art teacher…who used to hide the remote to the Promethean Board…but that’s a whole other topic for discussion). Nonetheless, having one, consistent room to teach out of meant I had storage for materials & instructional aids in a pretty immediate radius. So, on top of getting used to teaching a younger age group, I had to learn how to teach on the go.
A few lessons I learned wheeling my classroom around:
1. Rotate media & always keep placemats, paper towels, & other quick clean up materials on the cart
In the beginning I thought, “yeah, let’s just have all the grades working with the same medium at the same time”…but soon I began running out of paper, the paint would be all mixed, brushes weren’t getting cleaned, the younger kids broke the colored pencils & the older kids at the end of the day were furious they had to take a few extra minutes to sharpen them. There were so many problems that soon I realized it’s best to do it in groups. For instance, K-2 will be painting while 3-4 are drawing with oil pastels & 5-6 Sharpies. Dividing media is easier when preparing for 120 students as opposed to 650. Also, tools are ensured a proper cleaning. There are also various tips I learned that make small things much easier, such as laminating large pieces of construction paper to use as mats that prevent desks from getting messy & homeroom teachers from losing their cool. Instead of palettes, we use paper plates that can easily be disposed of & all used paintbrushes are placed in an old coffee container with paper towels to help drying (most rooms, luckily, have sinks for washing them). I’ve also learned to always carry my own paper towels & soap because there’s nothing worse than having 30 students with pastels all over their hands & no soap.
Kindergarten =”Under the Sea” with crayons & watercolor paint
2. Always have extra…for weeks!
Some stuff that’s used pretty regularly I leave on the cart all of the time, like scissors, glue, drawing paper & newsprint, etc. However, students can easily miss a few classes in a row since art is only one day a week. My lessons can take anywhere from 1-4 classes. If a student misses class 1 & 2 of a project & pops in on 3, I need to make sure I still have everything on my cart to catch that student up. At the same time, if a new student suddenly comes in January, I need to make sure I have the materials to make a sketchbook as well, so the student feels a part of the class. Let’s put it this way, in the beginning of the year I could zip my cart all around the halls, but towards the end, my wheels are screechy & wobbly from the weight of it all & I’ve definitely slowed down maneuvering it. It’s always better to have too much than not enough, though.
3. Plan for an extra day
Anything can happen with elementary students, & having 3-5 classes of each grade is an added challenge. It’s better to block off an extra week in the calendar for a lesson than to have too much stuff to do & not enough time to do it. Although, I’m sure this concept applies to “normal” art classes, too. You never know what will happen with a class -testing, field trips, ceremony, performance practice, etc.- & when one class gets behind it can cause quite the ripple for overly organized, perfectionist (like brink of OCD) teachers like myself. Plus, I’ve realized how fun it can be thinking of a one day project for the classes done first. I treat it like an added fun day & come up with a game. I’ve had students use “Rory’s Story Cubes” to create a surrealist illustration, then add a caption of what they think it would say if their work was in the center of a novel they had just randomly opened. Pinterest also has very fun art games that involve regular dice & the students use a key to create works like artists such as Picasso & Miro. The students enjoy the game aspect of it & I like seeing them inadvertently use what I’ve been teaching them.
4. Email homeroom teachers ahead of time when you’re going to need the projector/Promethean Board
So, I wouldn’t say that I’m a “technology person” or anything because I’m definitely not, but teaching art history online taught me how easy it is to create a Power Point with information, images, links to movies, web pages…everything!…& I got spoiled. Now this goes past my crazy organized lady status. As a teacher I know that when I lose focus of the students for a tiny, itty-bitty fragment of a nanosecond that that’s when these girls are fighting over a pencil & that boy is running around talking about “booties” &…well…all Hell breaks loose. In a 30-40 minute class, I don’t have the kind of time it takes to settle students down at all let alone 3 times while I start up the computer, the board, the material, the board again as one little boy shut it off, & so on…a whole class can be wasted. Moral of the story, take some time in the morning or, if you’re feeling brave, just the Monday of that week, to email the teachers & ask them to pretty please try to remember to have everything revved up & ready to go prior to art class. A Power Point can save tons of time, but not if it takes 15 minutes to open it.
5. Be inventive…& very, very flexible!
I used to display prints of artists for discussion on the homeroom boards or walls…until I left them…like 5 times! Then I realized the holes in the corners meant I could hang the prints on bent up paper clips from the back of my cart…Voila! Displaying required things, like SOLs & rules of the class, were pretty simple; I just taped them to the cart or, in select areas, used magnets to keep them up there. Something I really don’t think I could teach without is my days of the week crates. Each day I have different classes, so each day I have a different crate (bought at Lowes for $2 each, by the way) that houses the students’ sketchbooks, in-progress projects, new project materials, etc. Each class is separated with a piece of cardboard that has the class information & a list of the students taped to it. The past art teacher attached drying racks to the cart, which I think is pretty inventive (luckily the homerooms give me drying room when needed, though). I decided to separate crayons, markers, etc. into groups of 8 (I stress sharing in all of my classes) instead of trying to keep colors sorted in class packs or having a lot of movement during class…& instead of trying to get my school to spring for actual boxes, I saved the small plastic containers that lunch meats come in. Good for the school & the environment! 😉
Being resourceful also applies to the lessons, though. Sometimes I walk into a class thinking the project will take one day & it takes 4 (go back to #3), while sometimes the students finish the project in minutes & I get the good old, “Ms. D., I’m done!” For the latter, I thank my stars for #2 because that’s when stuff gets serious. Just recently, I read 1st graders a book titled, “The Dot” & discussed shapes we see, shapes we’ve used in our past works, etc. Students used a stencil to trace a circle, cut it out & pasted it to paper, & were told to create an image from it. On day 2, I expected students to add more details & take their time coloring…nope. So, with 15 minutes left to class, I gave them various colors of scrap paper I had in an envelope from past projects. Students were told to cut shapes to add more collage details to their works & I was shocked how creative they were! They made houses, cars, aliens, people, & all sorts of things…just by cutting basic, mostly geometric, shapes. I’ve been trying to get the students to understand the concept of shapes in art & the world &, man, did that day make me proud! 🙂
Art on the cart is by no means the ideal situation for teaching quality art education, but that’s not to say a worthy art education program absolutely can’t be given using art on the cart. With all the change-induced stress, I knew I had to make it work because it’s my job as a teacher to provide the best education possible to students. I could never feel like a competent teacher assigning only step-by-step craft projects & not teaching my students that art is awesome. Despite the challenges I’ve had to learn from & overcome, I manage to teach art history, aesthetics, art criticism, &, of course, art production to all of my 650 kindergarten-6th grade students. Like any situation, I adapted &, yeah, I had to fall on my face a few times to learn the hard way. However, I can see progress & development in all of my students’ understanding & ability to create different types of art…which makes me feel like a pretty darn good art teacher. 🙂 In reality, art on the cart is just like everything else, it takes some getting used to & a bit more organization, but overall, it takes a good attitude. As a teacher, my attitude dictates the class & the atmosphere, & I choose to create a fun environment where students can express themselves without fear while learning as much about art as possible in 30 minutes a week for about 36 weeks…I don’t really need my own classroom to do that…although it’d be a lot easier… 😉
Thanks for reading! 🙂