Teaching with Contemporary Art

When One Day Is Not Enough

Image: paintcutpaste.com

With all of the mandatory testing that students must be put through it’s no wonder that most kids, especially in elementary grades, receive classes in visual and performing arts one day a week, or less, for about 40 minutes…. or less. But what do you do if you’re a parent or teacher who has a child that obviously wants more than once-a-week arts instruction? What do you do with kids that show multiple signs of wanting to spend more time creating works of art? With special thanks to Julie, a reader and concerned parent who inspired this post, here are some starting points….

Talk with kids seriously about their work. When students share their art, it’s not always because they want praise. Shouting, “That’s beeeeaaauutiful!” every time they create something is not doing anyone any favors. As a matter of fact, it ruins your credibility because kids know very well that not everything they create is beautiful. Rather, it’s important to ask students to talk about their work and give them a chance, as often as possible, to describe what the work is about. Talking with kids seriously about their work gets them to take their work seriously. Which leads to the next suggestion.

Asking, “What is it?” is very different from asking a bigger question such as, “What’s this about?” I don’t have much to add here. All I can say is that I’ve been asking the 2nd question for over a decade and have gotten MUCH better answers than when I was asking the first question at the start of my career. It gives students a chance to explain their decision-making and thought process. Plain and simple. It helps us help them.

Explore opportunities to make art in your neighborhood, town or city. Students making art with other kids, whether it’s at a church, school or senior citizen center, is a chance for them to come together and work on ideas, realizing different kinds of visions and sharing them with others. One word of caution: Be careful with programs that emphasize simply following directions vs. making art. While following certain kinds of instructions is important when learning how to make art, not all projects have to be about taking the same steps to get to the same result as everyone else every single time.

Have supplies on hand to create art. Teachers and parents don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a variety of materials for kids to make art. Whether it’s paper, markers and some paint, or different kinds of cloth and supplies to make costumes, setting up the opportunity to create is more important than trying to have the perfect set of materials. Just make sure these supplies are accessible and not in some “special” closet under lock and key!

Explore opportunities to make art in big places. Get information on opportunities offered for children to make art in museums, colleges and even in places like theater productions. Experiences in “serious” art making situations like this make a difference, especially with elementary age students. Whether they are taking a class or making art for a performance, what’s important is that they are working with other student artists and creating.

Finally, compare works by students with works by professional artists. When kids learn about the similarities between works by professional artists and their own work it can be a very, very powerful experience. Students get to build on these similarities and begin to find their own voice as they are inspired and introduced to others with similar interests and passions.

Oh, and let’s not forget that sketchbooks make great gifts.

Until next week…


  1. Erin says:

    As an art teacher, I find that the point about “Talk{ing} with kids seriously about their work” is one of the most valuable tips for incorporating art into a child life. I teach high school students, and they often don’t want to talk about their work, or will say “I don’t know” when asked a question. However, when I start the discussion offering constructive feedback and praise, the student opens up and will often start talking about their work as well. Simply saying, “its great” does not foster a discussion, and feels forced. By beginning a discussion, a student can begin to understand that art has the power to open dialogue and be more than just a “pretty picture”.

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    Erin… so true! While the work may be great, saying so doesn’t push the student’s thinking for that particular assignment or future works. Discussing what’s great about it and finding challenges the student can address allows for a deeper and more meaningful conversation.

  3. Martin says:

    Good and important article, thanks.
    As a father (4 ch.) I would agree – there should be more opportunities for children to live their creativity.

    I miss one thing: in my eyes it is quit important what parents and teachers expects from the children. They feel it very clearly. And after a while they expect from theirselfs exactely the same. This is the beginning of the end of the creativity.

  4. Joe Fusaro says:

    Martin, tell me more about what you mean re: it’s the “end” of the creativity…

  5. Martin says:

    Many people lose their creativity when they get older. As children they could paint and draw and sing and dance and whatever. But after a while they “lose” it.
    I think it is because of “expectation”. First they feel what others expect from their creative works. And after a while the children expect the same from themselfs. And this is, what I mean.
    Of course its not the “end of creativity” – its the end of being creative.
    Greetings, Martin

  6. Pingback: Friday Links: Where education and entertainment battle it out for supremacy | Stephanie Vegh

  7. Pingback: Follow-Up (and, To Sir Ken With Love) | Art21 Blog

Leave a Comment