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  • Meredith Blackerby

Engaging the Unengaged

One of the biggest questions I get when I tell people about my art room is "What do you do about the kids who don't want to work?". I'll be honest with you, this does happen. TAB is not a magical fix to all problems in your classroom. It comes with it's own wonderful set of struggles and frustrations. I found that it does engage many of my students (even some of the ones who were never interested in art before), but there are still those that want to drag their feet and fake their way through projects.

Let me address the types of students I tend to see most frequently...


The "Speed-Demon":

This is the student that rushes through everything. Sometimes students rush because they are excited about a project. These particular students can usually be convinced to take their time and do their best work because they actually enjoy working (they are just too excited to slow down).

It's the students who rush for the sole purpose of being done that cause the real issues. These are the kiddos who are not engaged and don't really care about their artwork (you know the ones I'm talking about).

The best way to deal with these students is work closely with them to find something that peaks their interest. That's the nice way to say it. The honest way is DO NOT LEAVE THEM ALONE. Every time they come to the art room, offer suggestions for new projects, give ideas, introduce them to new materials. Ask them about their interests. DO NOT LEAVE THEM ALONE TO SIT AND DO NOTHING. Eventually they are going to cave and find something that they are intrigued by. I have had many students completely turn around their attitude as soon as we found a project that interested them. It doesn't matter what it is, find them something, ANYTHING. The first project is just the spark that will hopefully ignite their creative side and keep them working.


The "Scribbler":

Everybody has those kids that want to just go nuts on a piece of paper. You know the type. They take a material and just go crazy until all you can see is a blur of scribbles and lines. In our classroom, we call this "experimenting". Starting in the beginning of the year, we talk about how we sometimes need to experiment with materials before we start on a new project (as seen above on their project process worksheet). So whether this is scribbling with crayons, or mixing paint colors together until they turn brown, this type of work falls under the "experimentation" category.

I make it very clear from the beginning that if you are in the experimenting phase, you use scrap paper. The students know that exploring and practicing is okay, as long as they're not using the "nice paper". The nice paper is for projects ONLY.

The students use the worksheet above to track their progress through a project. Many students choose to skip the "experimenting" step because they already feel comfortable with the materials. But students that meet the description of "scribbler" benefit greatly from this opportunity to get out all their energy before moving on to their real project.


The "Pile-Up":

If you have a sculpture center, this will most likely happen to you. Many students do not typically get the opportunity to create three-dimensional projects outside of the art room. So when they are given free-reign of a station full of bottles, cardboard, plastic containers, and tape, they go into survival mode and want to take as much as they can carry. I have many students that will just keep taping and taping until their sculpture is a sticky mass of tape and cardboard and water bottles.

To combat this issue I have students list out all of the materials that they are going to use beforehand. Do you need a milk jug? Great, write it down. They also have to sketch out their sculpture first so they have at least some idea of what the finished project will look like. For the most part, this will keep them from just going crazy at the sculpture studio and grabbing anything they can get their hands on.

We also do two different tests on our sculptures. The "Shake-Test" and the "Size-Test". If I pick up you sculpture and give it a little shake, anything that falls off probably wasn't attached very well in the first place. And if your sculpture doesn't fit in the Size-O-Meter (just an empty crate sitting on its side), then your sculpture is too big. Remind them that they need to focus on the quality of their sculpture, not the size.

The "As Little As Possible":

Sometimes this type of kiddo can overlap with the speed demon, but not always. These are the kiddos who want to take out materials, do as little work to them as possible and call it a finished product. This could be drawing a single smiley face on a piece of paper or, as you can see in the example above, shoving fluff balls into a water bottle and calling it a sculpture.

I instituted a new rule this year that has seemed to help combat this issue. My students get anywhere from 20-35 minutes of individual studio time during art class. The expectation is that they should not be able to finish a project in one class. They know by now (because I remind them as often as possible) that projects are something that take time. If we limit ourselves to just one class time, we are not giving our projects the amount of attention that they deserve.

So, since the beginning of the year, we have been brainstorming ways that we can take a project and make it better. They can add to it, go back and fix areas that need improving, combine it with someone else's project, or add a different material. I frequently have mini-conferences with students to help them brainstorm what else they do with their project.

Usually students like the one above just want to be done so they can take it home right away. But if they know that taking it home that day is not an option, then they will usually put some more effort in, simply to fill the time.



Like I said earlier, TAB is not a magic fix. There is no miracle curriculum that is going to get every single student excited and engaged in the art room. All of our students have their own unique set of likes and dislikes, skills and shortcomings (just like us adults). But TAB is definitely a way to reach as many students as possible because it provides them with the unique opportunity to create their own curriculum. They are the designer and director of their own art education. And how lucky are we, as art teachers, that we get to provide them with a safe, creative space to do something so meaningful and engaging??

I don't know about you, but I feel pretty darn lucky that I get to give them that.

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