Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Best ArtEd Medieval Castle STEAM Project in the World*

A pretty castle that was difficult to defend (little to no walls!)
Look, let’s not mince words; I heart me some assemblage. Can we glue stuff? Can we tear stuff up? Can we paint it? Can we collaboratively brainstorm? Can we see if it works? Can we just try it? Can we make a mess? Oh, I am SO there for that.

And, most middle school kids are too.

Now, y’all, assemblage does make those ole administrative observations a little daunting. . .I know my administrator was a little unnerved by the whole 17 glue guns, 100 lbs of cardboard, 27 pairs of scissors, and 37 students thing. But, it was SO, SO,  SO worth it. I can’t tell you the last time my students both learned so much and had such a good time.
Glue guns forever.

Here’s how we threw this thing down!

*1. We studied linear perspective (hey, you wanna have fun; you gots to learn). I used this wonderful aerial perspective lesson. I don’t usuallyendorse paid lesson plans, but this one is worth Every. Little. Penny. 5-6 class periods.
One of my student's aerial perspective works

*2. We studied the traditional architectural elements (and function of) medieval castles. Also, for fun, we looked at these videos to learn more about castles, warfare, and armor.  1-2 class periods.



*3. We used the worksheet below as reference and we drew an aerial view of a self-designed castle. We had 5 required architectural elements, and had to choose 5 more elements from a list of 14. I emphasized using architectural short-hand. 1-2 class periods.



*4. We assembled into student-selected groups of 2-4 students, and chose our favorite castle blueprint to build
a particularly epic blueprint

*5. We utilized recycled cardboard, glue guns, scissors, yarn, paint, and paper to build our castles. 6 class periods.
On my projector throughout the project. Safety first, y'all. 

Not.One.Child. is off-task. Really. No, really.

*6. We were given 9 popsicle sticks, 6 rubber bands, and 1 plastic cap to build a working catapult.We viewed a Bill Nye video about fulcrums for inspiration.  1 class period.
There was a variety of design
The winning catapult. It was undefeated. . .And, designed by a group of ladies. 

*7. We went outside and conducted a siege tournament against one another’s castles using our catapults. 1 class period.
SIEGE! OMGosh y'all, I wish you could see their faces. They were so serious. Like, this was life and death! My parapro and I were holding back giggles the whole time! Also, yes, you must wear a crown if you are sieging another castle! Duh, you're the sovereign!

This group went undefeated. . .until the final round. . .

. . .When they were trumped by these two very charming budding engineers. 

This is one of my favorite projects I’ve taught, ever. Here’s the thing, it’s not really about the product at all. Sure, castles are hecka awesome, and who doesn’t love assemblage and tearing stuff up? But, what the kids really learn is how to brainstorm, how to creatively solve problems, how to try something without fear, how to learn from mistakes, how to be a leader, how to be a follower, and how to try.

Lesson I learned #1:
Collaborative problem-solving brings out the best in many students. It was amazing and awe-inspiring to see some of the identified-as-lowest-performers in my school step up to this challenge and just knock it outta the park. I got to see an entirely different side of some students, and these students got to stand out as leaders (for some, this was the first time!); in so many ways, this unit worth it for that alone.

Lesson I learned # 2:
Kids really need opportunities to deeply creatively problem solve. Y’all. Oh, y’all. I just about died of laughter on the first day of castle building and the day of catapult building. ALL the kids wanted to Google “how-to’s.” They were beyond shocked when I told them they would only be allowed to use their mobile devices in limited manners. One kiddo famously shouted, “What?! We can’t use directions!?” Kids today are so used to finding answers on a worksheet, on a device, or from an adult. I don’t know if we started spoon-feeding kiddos because of the pressure of standardized tests or if it has always been a prevalent problem. . . But yowza, I was stunned to see how challenged they were to use a cardboard box. Later, I was super-proud to see how deftly they dealt with the learning curve. Additionally, it was awesome to witness the sense of accomplishment they had when they solved their identified problem (building a turret, a portcullis, an arrow slit, crenellation, etc. etc.).

Lesson I learned #3:
Competition really motivates kids. Okay, I knew this one. . .But, wow, my kiddos got super-competitive and it really motivated them. They knew from day-one that we would eventually conduct a siege tournament and that there would be an identified “winning” group. This knowledge informed the building of their castle defenses and their catapults. The kids quickly figured out that they wanted to build castles with HIGH walls, and catapults that projected items out instead of up. I’m not sure if they would have made these connections on their own without the element of competition.

Lesson I learned #4: It’s okay to have fun. SAY IT WITH ME: “It is okay to have fun.” In this climate of high-stakes testing, 1200 observations-a-year, and proving that you aren’t bad (eep, you know you feel that way sometimes), we often forget that the most profound learning is FUN. Think back to your favorite middle school education-lessons. I’m betting that there was an element of fun to whatever it was you did. I know that my kids may not remember what the heck ashlar is (and does it really matter?), but they will remember how it feels to be confident about problem-solving, how to listen to others, and how to take-charge when you have a good idea. . . And, a lot of that is because we went outside and projected spitballs at one another’s art in order to win a donut.

Mmmm donuts. J


The Best ArtEd Medieval Castle STEAM Project in the World*
*according to me

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Copper Repousse Celtic Knot Jewelry

When my 8th graders saw that my 7th graders “got” to use copper they all but demanded that they (the upperclassman) should get to do it too.

Sad thing, though, is that I was really low on copper.

Yet, I couldn’t help but want to give in to their enthusiasm. Anytime kids are demanding and/are willing to do something deep and creative in Art class; I try to make it happen.

Hence, the invention of this wee little project.

*1. We learned about Celtic art and the history of Celtic metal-working





*2. We practiced drawing our own Celtic knots using a dot matrix (easily found online)

*3. We designed our own Celtic knots

*4. We watched a demonstration –by me- on copper repousse and learned about tooling and chasing

*5. We designed 4 pendants.

*6. The first 1-2 pendants could be copied from existing Celtic knot designs (this enabled students to practice repousse without sacrificing design)


*7. The 2-4 pendants must be original in design and did not necessarily have to be Celtic. Many students chose to do monograms and/or other designs.

*8. We added a patina to our designs. We did this by painting the copper with india ink cut with soap, allowing it to try, and then “scrubbing” the copper with a kitchen dish scrubber.


*9. We added a felt bail, felt backer (to protect our skin and to enable the bail better attachment). We used E6000 glue since copper conducts heat so well that glue guns endangered us to burns.



*10. We took our pendants outside and sealed them with clear acrylic spray. Yup. Felt included. Worked fine. J

*11. We strung our pendants on cording.










This project took –from start to finish- two weeks of 45 minute class periods. I taught it to two sections of my 8th grade students. One is my regular 8th grade Art class. The other is my advanced content, year-long Art class. My advanced students had more choice with regards to their design and their patinas. In fact, my advanced kiddos are STILL working on these.  They made much more detailed designs and feel much more proprietorial about their work. The advanced students also had a choose of three different patinas: 1) black india ink patina, 2) green ammonia fume patina (expose copper to ammonia fumes for 2-3 days it turns green), and 3) super shiny (soak copper in Coca-Cola overnight and it gets real shiny). I’ll be sure to share the advanced kiddo’s pendants with you as they finish. 
Pendants in the Ammonia Bath before we sealed it up!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Cultivating Advanced Art Courses in Middle School


This is my fourth year teaching AC or Advanced Content Art in middle school.  Sometimes, I post about the innate awesome-ness of teaching such courses on my social media, and I’m always touched by the responses of “omg I wish I could teach advanced courses in Art.” 

Like, omg, you totally can. Imma tell you how I did it.

Here’s the thing: No principal (or at least very few) are going to stroll into your room / send you an email / issue a missive to you saying, “Yo. Why don’t we have an Advanced Art course?” It is not because principals are some sort of Art nay-sayer (at least not across the board!), but principals are simply bogged down in the day-to-day madness that comes with being responsible for An. Entire. School.  If you want to teach Advanced Art, you are going to have to go after it yourself.

Trust me, it is easier than you think.

Start Small
Principals don’t go into the business of educational leadership because they are visionary trailblazers. Principals tend to be more steady leadership types who are good at management. Management isn’t exactly known for visionary, innovative ideas. Management is responsible for cultivating the environment for ideas to grow. At the same time, most principals loathe trying something new; they want data, proof, what-have-you, so they can justify change. I suspect they also want a reason to avoid criticism and responsibility in the event your great idea fails too. As Art teachers, we tend to be the opposite. We are experimenters and typically unafraid to try something new. If you want an Advanced Art course, start small and ease your leadership into the idea.

Four years ago, I asked my then principal if during the last quarter of the school-year I could teach one Advanced Art class.  The class identifier on grade reports would be the same, students would not earn any “extra” AC credit, but it would give me an opportunity to demonstrate what can happen when students are given the opportunity to choose Art for themselves. I made sure to collect data, enter students into Art shows, and make a Huge Deal out of every accomplishment (no matter how small).  The class spoke for itself, and the next year my principal granted me a dedicated, year-long, Advanced Art course for 8th grade students.

Unfortunately, at that time, there was no such class offered by my district. So, while the students got to have a special class, they did not receive any special AC indicators on their grade reports. But, actually, that was okay. Sometimes, you gotta trail blaze on your own.

Go After Specific Groups of Students
Right now, the academic powers that be seem to recognize that tracking students is a Bad Thing. This is an ongoing debate, so I find it worthwhile to recognize this topic is frequently debated. Tracking is when a school consciously or unconsciously puts students onto certain types of educational tracks based on (in)ability. For instance, in the 80s and 90s (when I was in school), high school students were placed into Career or College track.  College track classes were more rigorous and the “smart” kids were College track and the “less able” kids were put on Career track. Seems a bit ruthless and unfair doesn’t it?

I know what you are already thinking, “Um, we kinda do track kids still. Just in really sneaky ways.” And, yes, of course we do. That is also hotly debated. One the ways in which I was able to go after Advanced Art courses was to utilize the tracking debate to my benefit. I pointed out that AC classes often do  -inadvertently- place students onto tracks by virtue of the fact that all non-AC kids are placed into the same classes and don’t have access to a more diversified classroom experience. Additionally, the non-AC kids don’t have the same opportunities for field trips and special learning experiences as the AC students. The obvious counter to this argument is that the non-AC didn’t have the ability to keep-up with and/or participate in AC Math, Science, Reading, ELA what-have-you.

And, this my darlings, is where I had leadership in the palm of my hand.

I simply pointed out that many of the students that are most successful in Art are not successful in the more traditionally academic classes. And, that offering an AC Art class would enable my school to offer a more diversified AC class that was more inclusive of all students and their exceptionalities (use the big words, my dears). ALSO, my district (and I’m sure yours does too) offers extra “points” on the school-rating index for AC classes and the percentage of students who take AC classes. Offering AC Art enabled my school to offer AC classes to students whom would have otherwise never been able to take an AC class. And. . .it helped our school rating index.

It’s all about the bottom line. Play to it, and you can rule.

Share Your Experience With Others
The moment I landed that first AC class, I let the Whole Entire World Know. All that bragging I did to my principal? I made sure that the Art Supervisor and Curriculum Advisor in my district were also aware. I invited stakeholders, educational leaders, and parents to my class; I wanted them to see how exceptional Art can be when students have the opportunity to choose it for themselves.

People were impressed, and they wanted this experience for their own schools.

During my second year teaching Advanced Art courses my district made a new class listing. Essentially, 8th grade Art students could take a year-long 9th grade Art course and earn high school credit. There were several good reasons for doing this with regards to management of classes and student within my district. . .But, I also like to think that my proving to many of the educational leaders that it could be done was a big slice of why this happened. . .Who knows?!  The reality is that for the past two years I have been teaching a year-long 8th grade course wherein kids can get high school credit for Art.

It’s a Really Big Deal.

Educate Your Stakeholders / Protect Your Course
Advanced Art classes are awesome, but I’m sure you’re all aware that Art is one of the first things that gets cut when the chips are down.  It is your responsibility to ensure that your AC Art course in an invaluable part of the course offerings at your school and a course that could NEVER EVER be removed. I educate 6th and 7th grade parents about this course all the time. I talk about it at Meet and Greet, Open House, and heck, when parents are just volunteering I talk about it! I also bring it up a lot in my 6th and 7th grade classes. My students are practically panting to be invited to be a part of the course! Additionally, make the actual class ah-mazing. Ensure that the students who are currently enrolled in the course are proud of it and eager to share how awesome it is with other students; you can’t beat the student gossip line!

Enjoy It

Lastly, take the time to savor your success. We spend a lot of time online complaining about Art and how it isn’t protected. Once you’ve successfully earned that first AC class take the time to thank your leadership, brag on your kids, and enjoy the class. Enjoy my loves. Teaching an AC Art class is the pinnacle of what we dreamed about at Art Education students.