I was incredibly honored to teach full time as a specialist in Visual Art and Construction/Pre-Engineering. It was something that filled my proverbial bucket because it was a skill area that I was so passionate about. I would gleefully prep materials, practice techniques, seek out new resources and plan out different assessments that would help me be the best teacher I could be. No matter what I was excited to get going on new ideas and suggestions and every year, not matter what, I was taken aback by kids who would tell me that they were devastated that they had to be in Art. Some were really polite and cautious about it, others were blunt and borderline rude. I often would end my very first class with an exit slip that simply asked kids to tell me one thing that they felt was important. Most kids would use this as a time to beg for a specific drawing lesson (cars, faces, anime, Zayn Malik fan art) but many would use this as time to tell me that they were going to do everything in their power to switch out of my class.
So, what do we do with the kids who don’t want to be there? The kids who signed up late and got their very last option as their course? How do we engage the kids that are utterly convinced that this time next week, they will be making nachos in a bag in the foods class?
We get them the same way that we get kids who hate reading or are terrified of math or would rather wash out lockers than go to Phys Ed. We engage the who and the why.
We know that the best way to engage students is to teach the individual first and the curriculum second. When we begin to forge relationships with students we are better able to tailor our lessons and interactions so that they are meaningful and engaging. We know this, in fact I would hazard a guess that most people know this, so why don’t they do it? My answer is this: have you taught a teenager who doesn’t want to be there? It is super difficult. I’ve had the gamut of kids in this situation. Some politely scribbled assignments down, quick as can be but with very little effort or reflection. Others were full on confrontational, throwing things across the room, ripping up art work of others, swearing at me and running out of the class to hide in the bathroom. This is when it gets tricky, some of those kids have a simple case of the “I don’t wannas” while others have a lot more going on that reaches outside the realm of the art class. For those kids who are in the first group read on, for the kids who are out of control for other reasons, lets touch back on that topic another time. All kids love art, they just don’t know it. They might not love it enough that they signed up for it, but they love it enough for you to tailor some assignments to at least hook them in. One young person I taught a few years ago was chatting with me while we were working on a drawing assignment. He casually told me that he hated all art and that he was probably going to get out of the class that afternoon after he met with our assistant principal. “Too bad.” I told him. “I’m sure we could have found something that you would have liked to do.” “No way, I’m not an art person. I’m a cars person. My dad drives a cab, my uncle owns a trucking company and I’m all about cars. I’m going to work for my uncle or dad as soon as I am done high school.” There it was – the hook, cars. I began to show him images and videos online of cars being designed, sculpted, detailed and photographed. We looked at the original designs of Bugatti cars, famous cars from movies that he loved, we argued over the value of the fast and the furious movies and looked at photos of engines and cars that had been taken apart and photographed in all their complex little parts. He wound up staying in the class and every assignment we did, I tweaked so that he could focus on his love of cars. When we teach art, we are teaching skill development and creative problem solving through critical thinking. I don’t care what they draw, I care that they are creating. If we are learning about positive and negative space, what does it matter if one kid is drawing a motorcycle rather than the tree you had planned on? If we were learning about shadow and texture, rather than a cube, he would draw a car and then add value and texture. He was still learning the outcomes that everyone else was learning but in a way that made him interested to come to class each day.
I know that some of you might be thinking “but you were the art teacher, I don’t know how to draw a car!” To be clear, I didn’t know anything about cars or how to draw them. I knew the basic skills of drawing that would allow me the ability to support him getting started but he quickly wanted to know more about how to draw cars. His interest and desire to create detailed images quickly out grew my skill set. So, I got him books, found tutorials online and soon he was doing his own research. We do not have to be experts in all areas of art, that would be impossible and unreasonable to ask of anyone. I often find it ironic that we split Maths and Sciences into different skill areas as students’ progress in secondary school. There is a teacher for Biology, Chemistry, Calculus but we expect the sole dance teacher to be an expert in all areas of dance? Anna Pavlova, arguably one of the most famous ballerinas in history, studied and performed ballet for 32 years. She died at the age of 49 from complications from pneumonia. She was quoted as saying that if she couldn’t dance she’d rather be dead. That is the dedication that is required of a single discipline in dance to achieve mastery. I would argue that her fox trot was not as strong as her typical style. Why do we expect that we have to be masters of everything as teachers in the arts?
In some school jurisdictions these days, a fully time art teacher is the educational equivalent of a unicorn - mythical and rare. In fact, most specialized positions have fallen into this category. Be it art, music, dance, culinary, fashion or anything that lives under the complementary banner, it is rare to find a teacher who only has one subject area to focus on. Regardless as to whether or not we in the complementary area have only one subject area to delve into or multiple disciplines, we must all find ways to bring our practice and curriculum to life. Get to know your students and their interests first and then figure the rest out.
We talked a little about the why already from my last example. In the example, I learned who this kid was. I learned about his family, his dreams and his interests. I didn’t laugh at him or shut him down, insist that he drew what everyone else was doing. He saw me hustle to learn about his interests and do what I could to support him. He didn’t want to be in the class because he didn’t really understand what art was or could be.
Many kids are late to register for their courses for many reasons. They never get around to filling out the right form and then are systematically sorted into whatever space is available. This is common. In large urban schools we often see this as students come and go for different reasons. I’ve worked with transient populations who were transient for various reasons. Some kids were refugees and were in a constant state of movement as their living situations were being sorted out through various agencies. I’ve had homeless students who had similar flux due to an ever-revolving situation of couch surfing/shelters/friends/family. I’ve had new Canadians who often would return to their country of origin for long stretches of time to celebrate weddings and funerals. I’ve had students who never brought forms home or who didn’t fill out their course requests because there was no one at home to sign them, no one at home who could help council them on what to sign up for. I’ve had kids who just forgot because kids are going through a massive change as they enter puberty and are not always able to remember or act with intention. I’ve had kids who have struggled with anxiety so much that they feel that the choices are overwhelming. Do they attend the class that they want? The one that their parents want? The ones that their friends sign up for? What if it is hard? What if it is boring? What if they just take themselves out of the equation and let the fault fall to someone else? In rural jurisdictions there are many of the same concerns along with situations that are incredibly challenging and unique to their location. All of these reasons are just the tip of the iceberg for many kids, but the end result is the same, they don’t fill out their forms on time.
It can be frustrating to have kids stuffed into your class because there is nowhere else to put them. It can be challenging when kids are away from school for weeks on end and you are asked to teach and assess them with only a month left in the semester. It can be heartbreaking to pour your soul into your lessons and work only to have kids tell you that they hate your class. But I ask you to consider the why. Why did this kid not get their forms in on time? Why do they not want to be in art? Maybe there are really good reasons to why and it falls to us to see them with compassion and empathy. What can we do to engage the students and forge positive relationships with them so that they may actually learn something and want to attend class.
I always felt sad when a kid would tell me they didn’t want to be in my class, but I came to see that as an added challenge that, in the end, was manageable. I can’t always win them over with art, but I can at least ensure that they are valued and safe while they are with me. So, what do we do with the kids who don’t want to be there? We show them that art is the greatest place they can be and that they are always welcome.