When Art Goes in the Trash

Have you ever seen a child throw away weeks worth of hard work on the way out the door? It’s a sore spot for teachers, and we react in different ways. Some subtract points, some go further threatening to fail students who throw away work. Others just ask that it’s taken home first. People like me, however, wonder why some teachers even care about the issue.

In my classroom, if a student wants to throw work away, I’ll pass them the trash can. Here are three reasons why.

1. It establishes an honest relationship.

There is no way for students and parents to keep every piece of artwork produced in school. Some things will be kept while others are thrown away. I also know that students will not love every project they make and I realize that I can’t force them to, so I don’t try. Allowing work that isn’t wanted to be recycled or thrown away makes room for students’ opinions and preferences. Plus, it encourages acceptance of students as individuals capable of making decisions instead of forcing my preferences on them.

trash can with art in it

2. It can provide valuable feedback.

If you give students the option of disposing of work they don’t want, you’ll be able to collect some valuable information. You will quickly notice which projects are successful and which ones could be tweaked based on what work kids keep and what goes in the trash. If you notice that lots of your students are tossing a particular project, take it as a loud and clear sign you need to find something that works better. This information can be immensely valuable if you use it to help with planning.

hand holding crumpled trash

3. It’s not your work.

Who has ownership of the artwork made in your class? We want our kids to invest in their artwork, to make an effort and really connect with what they’re doing. If we ask this of them, we need to give them the responsibility to decide what to keep and what to get rid of. We can’t make them like everything they make. As a working artist, I frequently decide to scrap something and start from scratch. In giving students ownership of these decisions, we are giving them an important learning opportunity.

Positive relationships are reciprocal. If we expect our students to care about what we teach, we need to show that we respect them as individuals. This includes allowing them to decide what to do with finished artwork. Forcing kids to keep work, especially by using low grades as punishment, is damaging to the teacher-student relationship. In the end, not allowing work to be thrown away isn’t about what’s good for the student, it’s about the teacher’s feelings.

What’s your policy on the disposal of work?

How do you handle the issue of throwing work away?

Melissa Purtee

Melissa teaches at Apex High School in North Carolina. She’s passionate about supporting diversity, student choice, and facilitating authentic expression.

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  • Jan Woolworth

    What hurts me the most is the fact that I don’t receive enough funds to do everything that I would love to do with my students, so when I see a student throw something away, I see money in the trash can. I heard an academic teacher tell her students to just wait until they got to their classroom and then they could throw it away. Wow! How about throwing away that math paper? Makes me sad…

    • Anne Jones

      I totally agree, with the waste. I am an art teacher doing a long term sub job in English and we did a mixed media quote project. I stated my expectations for them to leave the room the way they found it. but no it was a mess, I was exhausted and I am angry at the wasted materials. Then you have the students that loved it and did an outstanding job . . . . so hard to find the happy medium. Letting go 4 days of school left. Spring Break.

  • I ask them why they are throwing it away. I tell them to please have enough respect for me to throw it away somewhere else, I put a lot of time and effort in teaching that assignment to you. Then I tell them to have enough respect for the creative process to wait at least one week to see if they might like the work better at that time and then make a decision. If after one week they still don’t like it, change it in some way before you decide to toss it. If after you chance it then at least you have made a fully informed and thoughtful decision before you tossed it. And if you do toss it please consider recycling it.

  • Ona

    Before it is thrown away we talk about what they don’t like or what went “wrong”. We use it as a reminder of how to do it differently in their next piece.i tell them that out of sight, out of mind when it comes to our mistakes, so it’s good to keep as a practice sheet and reference it.
    If they say it’s because it looks bad, but they haven’t even become close to finishing it, I will ask if we can work together on it to show them that sometimes it just needs a bit more love and attention. “Give your art a chance!” I usually will continue to color it in or add a background and let them see how it can still be changed without scrapping it. This has been very successful and I remind them that the parts I did couldn’t have existed without what they started. If they still want to throw away after this I let them. If I scrap my own work I should allow them the choice too (doesn’t mean I don’t make that a lesson though).

  • Debra A Bickford

    Our student check sheets require proof of the creative process. Students learn quickly to retain all work wether they like it or not and all ideas wether they become finals or not. Keeping your struggles in front of you in life helps you understand what you need to work on and how to avoid that mistake moving forward. I cannot help a student choose a different strategy if I cannot see where they have been and I cannot assess progress if I cannot see the entire process. Last, and most importantly, we already live in a throwaway society and anything can be reworked, recycled, remediated, transformed… the idea that working carefully through any process in life creates better results and less waste. A lesson is not only about the art, it’s about the learning.

  • Laura

    On the other hand, why does everything need to be kept? Is it the final product that matters most, or can we accept the artistic action and creative process as the most valuable part? It does bug me when kids throw out work, of course, but I try to keep in mind that it was the learning process that counts most.
    Also when I pass back work, I tell kids if they have a piece they don’t want to keep, return it to me and I’ll keep it for an example or we can figure out how to recycle/reuse it somehow.

    • artpoet

      I agree.

  • Betsy Glass

    This doesn’t happen too often to my students, but when it does, I tell them what I do when I’ve made mistakes in my work…that there are really no mistakes. That jagged line can be replicated elsewhere in the work, making the piece NOT what you intended…but actually something much more interesting. That a crisis can be seen as an opportunity, or that the “answer” lies in the “problem” itself. At that point the student usually lights up with an IDEA, grabs it out of my hand and completes it to great satisfaction. I guess I’m also lucky in that I only teach in venues where art is not graded, but is respected and regarded as a truthful expression of the self, where the self IS at any given time. I have also retrieved scribbly pages from the trash, taken them home, and worked on them, honoring the impetus of the original lines. I printed the progress of the work out in stages, and presented all the permutations (anonymously) back in the classroom as a work in progress into the final product. One can also save all the discards, cut them into random shapes, share them grab-bag style, and, adding material from the paper recycle bin, make collages.

  • Amanda R. Vaughan

    I used to get personally offended that my students wouldn’t want some their work. I don’t know why…perhaps the idea they don’t get as jazzed as I did about art at their age or maybe the waste. I’m not sure. Eventually I got over it and started asking students to leave unwanted work in a stack in my room. I chop it all up and we use the pieces to create new work like collages and paper sculpture. I also offer up abandoned compositions to teachers who may want to spruce up their walls. So far it’s working out really well. Every once in a while I see something hit the trashcan, but I just leave it be and move on.

  • Marla Kenney

    it wasn’t until recently that I did not fuss about this and let me tell you the reason. On more than one occasion, sadly, I have had former students die and their parents have come back to me begging for anything their beloved child may have created in my class. Many times the parents have told me that their child loved my class but did not bring much work home. It would surprise you which students these are also. The ones you thought hated your class, gave you trouble from the get go, were quiet and unassuming, were not prideful of their work. After 20+ years of teaching, I have had to let them do as they wish with their work as I have no room to save what I think is special now. But I do continue to tell them stories about the parents that come looking.

    • Nina Gettemy

      My cooperating teacher had this happen. Thankfully she kept a digital portfolio of class work and was able to pull up and print a copy of a deceased students work.

    • I had this happen, too. Exactly as you said: student didn’t put in a lot of effort, but his parents wanted anything he did, and I was mentioned as a favorite teacher. I treasure the colorful parrot feathers he brought me from his grandmother’s parrot. It’s happened twice, and I wish I’d kept everything. 11 years teaching art.

  • Pam

    I am not happy when young people throw away their art work, especially if it is a child that is doing it often or does not have a good self image. It seems to go hand and hand sometimes. Looking at it with fresh eyes the following week is a good idea and also I try to help them see where they could change lines, images or colors here and there by asking them questions and looking at it upside down, sideways and from a distance seem to help. If it gets to the point of them not budging (which rarely happens) then it can go into the recycling and collage pile. <3 <3

  • Lori Atkins

    I ask them not to throw it away in my room, but to take it home in case their parents want to keep it. But I also them them that if they are not going to take it home to leave it in my room. I go through the stack of unwanted projects at the end of the year and keep the ones I want for examples before I pitch the rest. I just don’t have room to store it from year to year.

  • Lee Ten Hoeve

    Melissa, you’ve really made me reconsider my approach to students discarding work. You made some great points. It really is such a personal decision. I always encourage them to save it until they share it with at least one other person at home before they make the final cut. However, putting myself in their shoes I’m not sure I’d want to share something I wasn’t proud of. Thanks for making me reflect a bit about this.

    • You’re welcome! Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. :)

  • megan

    I have kids keep all finished projects in a portfolio. At the end of the year they can take their portfolio home. If they don’t want their work I have them give it to me. Then I go through all the unwanted work after school is out. I will sometimes keep pieces as city student examples, others I recycle, and much of it I throw away.

  • Beverly Whitaker Williams

    I have a box of discarded artwork that other students may cut up and use in their own artwork. They have to cut it up so it isn’t recognizable as the original work. I’ve also used it as a bulletin board borders. Early in my career after I saw that they threw their art away I turned it into a teachable moment. I wrote an economics project where students had to make art from trash (recyclables) then I had the student create a business to sell their artwork at local craft fair. We sold several pieces and the students were amazed that people liked their work! During this process they learned about materials, cost, profit, capital, applying for a job, and paying taxes. We won first place in our states economic competition. But the biggest prize was that students took pride in their work and saw that their work had value in more ways than one. :-)

    • Alisha Douglass

      Hi Beverly, your economics project sounds really great. I’ve been trying to come up with a project that I could collaborate with my economic teacher at my school. Would you be willing to share your lesson?

  • Dawn Kruger

    What Melissa writes about honest relationships rings true for me.
    I have always allowed students to discard work. It used to dishearten me, but I have learned not to see it as a measure of the value of my teaching or curriculum. What they keep is so much more valuable-knowledge, curiosity, problem-solving, social skills, work ethic, tenacity, etc. They are students, after all, so process is paramount to product. I do occasionally take the time to talk about the reasons they should value and save some work. Avoiding offending me is not one of them.

  • SCapers

    My little ones to middle ones (PK to 5th or 6th) are always anxious to take their artwork home. It’s just some of the older ones (7th -8th) that sometimes think it’s cool to show how little they care about their projects by tossing them. My 5th – 8th graders keep a portfolio of their artwork. At the end of the term, I used to offer bonus points for a note signed by their parent that stated the student shared their work & told them about their projects when they took portfolio home. I got nice warm fuzzy type notes back from parents. Later, students were forging their parents signatures, etc. I told them part of my job was to teach them art appreciation so that was one way they could demonstrate respect for art, including their own. I still think it’s a good idea, but I’ve lightened up a bit and currently am not doing this. But it surely does feel good to see a student carry out work they are excited about and proud to share.

  • Michael

    I’ll send kids to get their work from the trash to put it in the recycling box. I have one chance to get them to start talking about their work before they get to the recycling box. 10% of the time if we talk about what it is, they will keep it to finish. Most of the time they’re right and it is trash.
    Upload a picture of the best art you find in the trash tomorrow at work.

  • Alicia Marrano

    Parents have a right and usually a desire to see the work that the students are producing before it gets thrown away. Also, those canvases in the trash are expensive materials that can be reused. Students should learn to be conservative with materials too.

  • Nicola Philp

    I used to feel sad too, but you can’t appeal to everyone with every project and some kids feel despondent in art as they think they’re no good, i think the throwing away is their way of telling you that. That said, i know that parents like to have a look at what their child is doing, especially if the report says ‘not so good’ or ‘amazing’.
    This was hard to show if they didn’t want to take it home – so i have portfolios from Prep (Kindergarten) all the way to year 6, we stick our work in once it’s been on display and now they have years worth of work to look back on, which they love to do and it shows their progression with skills and all the different mediums you cover – plus because they see the pieces when they look back through it can be a good intro to a lesson when you say ‘remember when we did a monster print with foam in year 2?’. Each piece is accompanied by a small annotation about the piece, to make art seem more serious to parents (this is a constant battle at my school) and it’s a bit of effort to collate but i have helpful parents who help me sort and stick the work for the little kids, older ones do it themselves, which prepares them for high school folio work.

  • Phyllis Bloxson

    I have this struggle as well. I do ask that they take it to their parents first so the parents can see what they have been doing in art. I have a photo copy of a portrait I did in 3rd grade that made me realize I wish I had others before that time to see where I was than. I tell the students they might want it later in life but to choose wisely and keep what they like the most but also give their parents the same opportunity.