CRAZY SCHEDULE DURING THE HOLIDAYS? Here is what I do the last week or so of school:

The winter holidays are quickly approaching, and I am brainstorming ways to keep my middle school kiddos busy in the coming weeks. Semester exams start this week, which means that all their assignments have been completed and we will have some "down time." Exams will be every day for nearly a week, with a "make-up" day scheduled for the last day of school, December 20. The last few days of the semester will see fewer and fewer students who show up. After their exams in the morning, many kids check out and the afternoon classes are constantly interrupted with school-wide intercom announcements, "So and so is checking out!" There is no way to have any quality structured learning time, so here is what I am planning for the last week and a half:

1. Reflection & Art Class Survey: I like the kids to reflect on their time in Art class and I give them a chance to assess the class itself. I hand out Reflection Sheets with a Survey on the back. They are asked which projects they enjoyed the most and why, and which projects didn't turn out as well (and why!) Which ones were the most challenging, what problems had to be solved, etc. The Art Class Survey asks, "What is one thing you would keep about the class? What is one thing you would change about the class? Would you recommend this class to a friend?" etc. (My 6th and 7th graders will rotate to a new elective in January, so December is their last month with me.)

Tacky Art Trophy with palette base
2. "Art Jeopardy:" The day before the kids take their exam, we will play this game. The table groups compete for small prizes while answering review questions. A student volunteer keeps score on the board and calls out questions. The questions come straight off of their semester exam study guide. I like to do a "speed round" or a "Final Jeopardy" question worth five points, just to keep it interesting! I am trying out a Tacky Art Trophy for kids to pose with if their table group wins! They think it's a hoot!

3. Scrub down the classroom! Selected student helpers will be working to assist me in cleaning up and organization. This work will be taking place every day during exams. Only two exams are scheduled each day next week, so what will the other classes do? They will choose one of the activities from #5 (see below) or they will help me clean. Some kids really, really like to clean! Go figure! 

4. Contest: This year, we will have a "Make-Off" competition, thanks to an idea from this video from Michael's Arts and Crafts store. Disclaimer: a contest will be guaranteed to get kids excited and I do NOT recommend this be done the last day or two before the break. I plan on doing this on the day of their exams, after the kids are finished testing. I like my middle school kids to be   c   a   l   m  .  

5. Activity Stations: (these will be closed on the last two days, Dec. 19 & 20, due to the kids' lack of motivation to leave them neat... I have learned the hard way not to do anything that requires any type of clean-up right before a holiday 😜!)

*Lego Building Station - Table One

*Ornament or Card Construction - Table Two ... this is the only really messy station and can be quickly cleaned up. I have markers, ornament blanks, blank paper, stencils, and texture sheets for kids to use at this table. If I am feeling very, very brave, I will have glue and a glitter bucket for kids to dip ornaments in. This requires very close supervision, however! 

*Puzzles/Games such as art related jigsaw puzzles or "Pictionary" - Table Three

*Drawing with "How To" drawing books on Table Four

*Art Appreciation Activities a' la Maggie Moschell on the Art Teachers Facebook Group ... I requested the digital version of her handouts which consist of around 40 full color pages of artists and their work, complete with student friendly biographies and an activity sheet. 

6. Videos: The last two days before the holiday there will be zero art supplies out except for paper! I will give kids the choice to watch the video and/or draw. I have handouts with tons of drawing prompts for kids who would like to draw. Click on the above link for an extensive list of videos. (I am very fortunate to have Internet access and a digital projector!) Below are the video clips I plan on showing the last two days:

Art For Kids Hub, by Rob Jensen...this will be good for 6th and 7th graders to draw along with the artist. 
PBS - Castle - David Macaulay, Youtube (this is about an hour long)

8th graders will be watching these: 

A word about discipline: 
My students know that if they act up there will be a consequence. I have several ready-made discipline assignments that I will quickly hand out if I see them horseplay, throw paper, or in any way abuse supplies. For some reason (a few) kids are more tempted to abandon all sense of self control right before a holiday - perhaps they think that teachers are too tired to hold them accountable and will relax the rules? Not so, my friend, not so! This time of the year, right before Spring Break, or the very last week of school is when I write the "Alternative Assignment" on the board. Kids can choose to do something fun, or they can choose the dreaded "Alternative Assignment." It's up to them! 

Further Resources & Ideas:

photo credit: Jamie Hyche Kolb
This awesome idea for using up wrapping paper scraps is from Jamie Hyche Kolb: "Have parents save the sample sheets from wrapping paper fundraiser catalogs. My students love mixing them with fun add-ons to create holiday miniatures. I give them glue, scissors, a small piece of mat board (4x6) and set them free with their imaginations! These were made by my second graders. The only parameter I gave them was to consider a subject that reflects on what their family celebrates in December. I love seeing what they come up with!"

Here are a few terrific articles by Michael Linsin (smartclassroommanagement.com) about handling kids right before a holiday: 

article by Mrs. Anna Nichols



It is really easy to talk about staying calm, about thinking positive thoughts, and remaining professional. However, in the day to day happenings of an art classroom, it is easier said than done! Some kids really know how to push buttons, and sometimes there are students or groups of students who make a game out of seeing just how far they can push a teacher to frustration. They think it is fun, and they revel in the power they think they have if a teacher gives in to frustration and cries, or yells, or even quits due to their behavior. It can be a real power struggle with certain students. How can you take back your power? How can you remain calm in the face of utter defiance, rebellious and rude behavior, disrespect, and apathy? All you really want to do is teach, to make a difference in the lives of these kids and sometimes it seems like they could care less. It breaks your heart. 

Classroom management is not something we automatically know how to do - it is not instinctual to remain calm in the face of belligerence....Classroom management is most definitely knowledge based.

We have got to have access to the thinking part of our brain when we find ourselves immersed in emotionally charged situations. I MUST remain CALM. To quote Fred Jones: "Calm = strength....Upset = weakness."

Stay calm! 

Don't let the situation get to you....

Getting upset is not about being weak or immature. It is natural and, quite simply, a human thing to do! There is nothing wrong with getting upset. The trick is, how do you prevent those negative emotions from controlling you. 

Above: Grace Dearborn, classroom management coach, Youtube

I teach middle school, which is a terrific environment (testing ground) for those of us who are a tad bit hot-headed and reactive. I have had to learn over and over not to be emotional, and on those days that I find myself near tears, I eat a Tootsie Roll. Seriously. It helps. Things that smell good help too. Like coffee, or vanilla lotion. Just don't drink too much coffee - caffeine increases anxiety!

The ability to remain positive and calm in the midst of a highly stressful, chaotic, negative situation can work WONDERS. Kids will respond so much better to a teacher they can trust to remain peaceful, not reactive. 

Tip #1: Decide. Take some advice from Michael Linsin and do what Olympic athletes do: DECIDE FIRST.

Before you get to school in the morning, take a few minutes to imagine yourself remaining calm throughout the day - no matter what happens - even if a figurative stampede of wild horses runs through your classroom you WILL stay calm. Think about a scenario that would normally upset you, but also imagine yourself remaining calm, cool, and collected. If you practice this morning routine, mentally choosing to relax regardless of circumstances, you might be surprised at how well it works! 

Tip #2: Relax. Train yourself to relax when faced with a stressful situation. One way to do this is to focus on breathing. Take a deep breath before responding to any provocation. Fred Jones also has some good tips for remaining calm in this article; Meaning Business Part I; Calm is Strength, Upset is Weakness. I will tell you how I stay calm - I do a whole lot of praying! 

photo credit: facebook.com
Tip #3: Ground. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed, you can practice "grounding." This is a calming therapeutic technique where you tap into the five senses. For years, I did this without even realizing it when I would eat a Tootsie Roll if I felt like I was about to lose it. Teaching middle school can be extremely stressful because we are surrounded by highly emotional and volatile students all day long. There have been a couple of times in my career where I was about to cry, but I stopped to eat a Tootsie Roll or piece of chocolate. That sweet taste calmed me down enough to keep on going. One other thing that helps me is to put on a good lotion as a form of aromatherapy. The kids enjoy the smell, too! 
my favorite lotion from Bath & Body Works

Tip #4: Pretend. However frustrated you might be, ignore the bad feelings: teachers are the best actors! Rely on your classroom management plan, redirect the misbehaving student or issue a consequence with no visible frustration. Don't let the kids see that you are upset! So, the next time little Billy throws a wad of paper across the room and talks back when you correct him, issue a consequence with no emotion (flat voice, no sighing or eye rolling, etc.) and then IMMEDIATELY focus your attention on the students who are doing their work and doing it well. Don't allow your emotions to have any power over what you say or do. Period. One fact about teaching is that you give away your power if you give in to frustration. Believe it or not, emotions can be extremely deceptive. Feelings lie! 

Tip #5: Focus on the positive.  Make a conscious effort to look for good things your students are doing and recognize that. Even if it is only a few kids in the class who are seated and/or working, notice it and acknowledge it! Believe it or not, you can train the students to work for your positive attention instead of negative. It sounds crazy, but it's true. You control your thoughts. Focus them mostly on the positive behaviors! If you have the mental control to ignore intensely negative emotions that are bubbling up inside you and instead focus your mind on the great things going on, your power increases exponentially! How much attention are you paying to misbehavior? Kids will work for your attention, whether positive or negative! Force your mind to think more about the kids who are doing right, One of the mistakes I made as a new teacher was paying way too much attention to misbehavior and not focusing on the "good" students enough. 
photo credit: facebook.com

Tip #6: Plan. Be proactive! Have a fantastic classroom management plan and know ahead of time how you are going to deal with misbehaviors. Then, follow through with it consistently and that alone will cut down on a lot of behavior. Studies show that teachers who actually do something about classroom disruptions have half the number of misbehaviors as teachers who ignore kids who are acting up. One thing Marlene Nall Johnt said to me about how she survived teaching all the way to retirement was this: "I survived by being sure of what I was going to do in every class... students aren’t grumpy and frustrated when they understand what is expected from them and that vastly cuts down on unruly behaviors.The art projects had to be challenging as well. I also had a fair and reasonable discipline plan that didn’t change from year to year.  All the kids knew it and all of the principals knew it. All the parents could understand it.  They knew that behind this smiling face was a woman who was made of steel when it came to following her discipline plan, ha."

Tip #7: Wait. Be patient - give it some time. It just takes a while for some groups/students to learn to trust you. Keep doing what you know is the right thing, and wait. 

Tip #8: Take care of yourself! It makes your job so much harder if you are not eating right or staying active. Go for walks, get outside, make some art, spend time with family and friends. Stephen Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls this habit, "Sharpening the Saw." It is exhausting to use a dull saw! You need energy to "do life," so to speak, and one of the best ways to beat stress and fatigue is to exercise. Also, don't make the mistake I did of drinking too much coffee. A little bit of coffee is really good for the body, but I wound up drinking 4 cups of coffee per day last year. I had no energy; I was "self-medicating" because I didn't know that my hypothyroid medication was too low. Yes, I even started having chest pains and went to see a cardiologist. It was ridiculous - all of it was due to stress. My doctor shook her finger at me for drinking so much coffee, saying that caffeine exacerbates anxiety. Who knew?

Tip #9: Avoid social media. Stay away from negative people, including social media groups if you find that your emotions are getting tangled there. Psychologists have found that spending a lot of time on social media is linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression!

Tip #10: Ask for help if you need it. We are only human, there is only so much we can do!  There is nothing wrong with asking for a short break if you are feeling overwhelmed. I admit, a few years ago I found myself in a situation that got the better of me. A student who I had a great relationship with viciously turned on me, attacking my character after I needed to correct her behavior. I sat in the counselor's office and cried for a few minutes after asking the assistant principal to watch the next class. She understood, it didn't take long for me to calm down, and she never mentioned it afterward or asked me why I was crying. I am very grateful that I had such a great support system!

Why does it feel like my brain shuts down when I am upset; like I just can't think? 

It all has to do with the "fight or flight" response in the brain. In her book, A Retired Art Teacher Tells All, Marlene Nall Johnt describes a conversation she once had as a young art teacher with the shop instructor. In an attempt to describe the teenager's brain, he said it is like a partially baked biscuit. It looks done on the outside but the inside is still soft and doughy. This is a funny story, but there is a whole lot of truth therein!

collaborative installation piece, 7th/8th grade
It turns out that part of the "primitive" brain stem, the amygdala, matures at a faster rate in adolescents and the frontal cortex matures more slowly. The amygdala is where powerful emotions lie, such as aggression, pleasure, and fear. The frontal cortex, the large piece at the front of the brain, is where people think through things rationally. Studies show that when the amygdala is fired up, the frontal cortex is NOT, so to speak. It has also been shown that at puberty kids' brains are changing and their rational abilities are truly hampered. They really just don't think! [BTW, studies also show that they know what they're doing when they make those really bad decisions - so they don't have any excuses. (Check out this National Institute of Health article about the adolescent brain.)]

Teachers, too, can be shackled by the amygdala when we get upset by our students' misbehavior:

On the website Education World, Fred Jones says:
"It takes roughly 27 minutes for adrenaline to clear the bloodstream. During that time, your brain 'downshifts' to the brainstem. Even with mild upset, you are in 'survival mode.' In 27 minutes, you'll be back into your cortex. Then you can think and reason again....Now, let me give you a piece of advice about managing a classroom. You will do a much better job with a cortex. When you downshift, a classroom suddenly becomes thirty cortexes manipulating one brainstem. Those are not even odds. As the saying goes: My life is in the hands of any fool who can make me angry." Fred Jones, Tools For Teaching

"What separates successful teachers from their colleagues is not the curriculum. The difference is classroom management -- discipline, instruction, and motivation -- organized into a unified and efficient whole. Successful teachers must know how to make independent learners out of helpless handraisers. They must know how to teach to mastery with constant monitoring. They must know how to mean business so discipline management is low key and non-adversarial. They must know dozens of complex skills and procedures, and they must do it all while having fun with learning. 
When you watch long enough from the back of the classroom, you realize there is a game going on. It has fundamentals and plays and offense and defense. It is dynamic. It is not a static collection of variables as described in the research literature. In this game, the teacher wants hard work from the students, but students want an entire range of other things. How will the tension be resolved? It is a fast game with a lot of players in action at any given moment. To succeed, the teacher must be automatic with a broad repertoire of complex, nuanced, and interlocking management skills.”  Fred Jones, Tools For Teaching
7th grade "Word Expression" painting, "Play"

Sometimes you need a little help from the teacher across the hall! Principal Gerry Brooks speaks about the behavioral management technique of the "Prearranged Silent Pledge" in this Youtube video:

Principal Gerry Brooks talks about dealing with negative people: 

photo credit: Personalized Mugs 4U  


Michael Linsin's articles dealing with stress and remaining calm (smartclassroommanagement.com):

Articles from Managing the Art Classroom (Anna Nichols): 

Here is a terrific article about getting the kids to calm down: 7 Ways To Create A Calm, Focused Art Room, by Anne Marie Slinkman, theartofed.com

article by Mrs. Anna Nichols



     This week, elementary art teacher Beth Young tells us her amazing story of arts advocacy in the little town of Decatur, Alabama. She just so happened to write a grant through the state department, and it snowballed into a year-long community celebration of the arts! She garnered the help of authors, artists, community volunteers, and even brought the famous Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend to Decatur. I was able to attend one of the many events with the quilt makers and it was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had. (Here is a Facebook post by Noel King, featuring some of the ladies' beautiful voices raised in song!) I am very much looking forward to seeing the Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend again at the AAEA Fall Conference! Thank you, Beth, for sharing your story with all of us, and thank you for all your hard work last year. You are an inspiration! (All photo credits: Beth Young)

a town’s journey of coming together
through the arts, by Beth Young 

     It was a beautiful warm day for February despite the chilling rain from the days before. “Will they come?" I thought to myself as I drove the giant 15 passenger van up to the community center. Oh, how I hoped so. Then, a click-clack and a loud whistle alerted me that a passing train would soon approach. Stopped by a train! Of all days for this to happen! Then, a peace enveloped the van as I was privately serenaded by the most moving music that I’ve ever heard. It was like hearing a bit of Heaven itself as the perfect harmony of Mary Ann Pettway, China Pettway, Lucy Witherspoon, and Gloria Hoppins assured me that everything was going to be alright. My worries about the details of the day (what if people don’t show up, what if the mikes don’t work, what if I say the wrong thing to the crowd, what if.... what if.... what if....) evaporated as every note dripped like honey, sweetening my very soul. My concerns about “me” evolved into hope for “we.” We were going to make it to our own event- a culminating activity from a year of artistic endeavors designed to bring everyone together. Our community would be treated to a time of stitch and song, courtesy of these famous quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. “We” would bask in the luxury of this special treat for everyone. 

     This mindset did not come easily for me. About a year before, I found myself at a crossroads in my career. After nearly twenty years of teaching art, I was feeling the pain of burn out. So often art teachers become little “islands” in our schools. We are a functional but entirely separate entity. Regular classroom teachers can be well meaning but they rarely know what our jobs entail. Many days we are asked to perform a plethora of activities in addition to what we are already doing. We become the “go to” people for bulletin boards, cute displays, and neat play backdrops. We are often respected, but are sometimes considered nothing more than a way for the regular teachers to get their much needed “breaks.” All the while we follow our plans as we manage multiple classrooms and often multiple schools. I’ve found that people in our field respond in one of two ways: 1. We become "high energy," multi-task people who do it all (and then some) with a smile. 2. We gripe and gripe and gripe and then gripe some more. (I found that I was feeling too old and too tired to do #1, so #2 became my way of life.) It’s no wonder that many art teachers feel the need to constantly promote the value of their programs. I was trying to do it all alone and was developing a chip on my shoulder the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the process. Then one day, after some quiet meditation, I had an epiphany. I realized that when we look at “we” instead of “me” change happens. (Also, I decided that worrying about everything was doing me no good. ) 

AAEI Grant:
an amazing opportunity
     In the spirit of this new revelation, a community based art project seemed to be a solution. By enlisting participation from a wide range of people, we could promote the value of art.
     The original plan was a low budget one that would involve the interaction of all three of my schools. However, when we decide not to worry and to allow great things to happen, opportunity came our way!

     One day when I happened to call Andy Meadows, Alabama’s state art specialist, about the guidelines of the state superintendent’s art show, he encouraged me to try for the AAEI (Alabama Art Education Initiative.) This state grant provides up to $25,000 to help schools that do not have art programs and offers up to $20,000 for a chance to expand existing programs. We decided to focus on a program that would incorporate the arts with other areas of study while it would teach children about the adaptive skills of our past. We also planned to offer a series of “power of art” workshops (with STIPD credit) for our faculties. 

     We received the grant! It enabled us to hire some great drawing cards for our community. We hired Nancy Raia to help us pilot a program for senior citizens and children, award winning muralist Markus Tracy to help us put together a community mural, author Irene Latham to give book talks, and four ladies from Gee’s Bend to sing and give workshops throughout the town. Although we were prepared to work together on a shoe string budget, the grant gave us great opportunities. All artists agreed to offer workshops for everyone.

 It became bigger than we thought.
Everyone wanted to get in on the act.
     We decided to expand our core planning group to include the Morgan County Archives, the Decatur Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Decatur Public Library, the Alabama Center for the Arts, the Carnegie Visual Arts Center, the Decatur Youth Enrichment Center, and local historians Peggy Towns, Judge David Breland, Dr. Wylheme Ragland, and Frances Tate. City Councilman Billy Jackson, Morgan County Commissioner Ray Long, Mayor Don Kyle, Riverside Senior Center, local quilters Bonnie Goodman and Betty Jeffreys, downtown redevelopment planner Rick Paler, the Decatur Daily, WYAM TV, Kappa teacher’s sorority, and local artists and businesses, along with the general public, were also very involved.
No one “took over.” Instead, each venue concentrated on what it did well. The result was a series of well planned events that attracted a variety of people. Teamwork was the key. The following pages highlight our very special year:

A Final Thought:
Sometimes it just takes a call. A sizable grant helped us tremendously, but many people are willing to do a lot for free. All it really takes is to go out of your box to make some new connections. We found that many of the city venues and businesses are in the same boat as us in that they need exposure, so they are more than willing to work together. Good luck!

 For more great photos, videos, and details about our events, go to decaturdaily.com, Irene Latham's website and Irene Latham's blog


Gee's Bend Quilters Talk With Students About Respect, Hard Workdecaturdaily.com

This Youtube video features the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend, Alabama, a remote community of African Americans directly descended from slaves. The quilts they create are a statement of their culture, beautiful designs that have been featured in the Smithsonean and in international exhibits. These ladies are artistic geniuses, using found fabric scraps to create highly original pieces, unique in their representation of designs passed down through the generations. 



Gee's Bend Quiltmakers, soulsgrowndeep.org
Fabric of Their Lives, Smithsonean Museum
About the Quilts of Gee's Bend in Context, Auburn University

Editor's note: Beth Young was the graphic artist for this article - she put the whole thing together for me. All I had to do was copy, paste, and take a few screen shots of her beautiful work. With much appreciation,

Mrs. Anna Nichols