How to Get Your Apathetic Middle Schoolers Invested in Art

Have you ever been in a class filled with students, yet it feels like you’re the only one in the room? Or maybe you’ve experienced the feeling of utter silence when you ask a question. It feels like you are pulling teeth just to get one student to engage in your conversation.

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Unfortunately, in a middle school classroom you’ve probably encountered one of these scenarios. You are not alone. Apathetic middle schoolers fill our art rooms everywhere! Some are required to be there while others simply don’t care. As the teacher in the classroom, though, you are the most influential person. You create the classroom climate, the rules, and the routines. You also have the power to engage your students and make apathy fade away!

Here are five ways to get your apathetic middle schoolers invested in art.

1. Incorporate Technology

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Technology in the art room can be powerful and engaging. Our students live in a tech-based world, but there is still a lot they don’t know and they are eager to learn. For those hard to reach, apathetic students, technology could be your answer. It is not just another medium, but it can be used to deepen thinking and provide immediate inspiration to your students. When used appropriately, technology in the art room can be transformative.

2. Make it Hands-On

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Is it really any surprise that working with clay is a favorite among middle school students? There’s something about the hands-on nature of the medium that engages students. Generally, the projects that create the most mess and take up the most space are fan favorites. Those same projects almost always require a great deal of critical thinking and problem-solving skills. But those are also the projects that greatly impact learning. If you’re willing to embrace the mess and get a little dirty, apathetic students may become truly engaged!

3. Bring in Pop Culture

One of the best ways to excite students is to make learning relevant. When lesson planning, think about what’s relevant to your students and incorporate it to engage their attention. This can be done by allowing students to incorporate pop culture references into their art projects. Better yet, make it your idea for students to use pop culture! My students thought I was crazy the day I told them to take out their phones and get on Snapchat. But it worked. In turn, they were invested in the project because it stemmed around a platform they use for fun in their daily lives. Bringing pop culture into your art room requires you to know your students. By knowing them you will be able to engage your students by bringing in elements that are important in their daily lives.

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4. Allow for Student Choice

Empower your students by providing choice. This does not mean you need to run a choice-based curriculum or a TAB classroom. If you allow your students to be part of the decision-making process or provide freedom within their projects, they will be more invested. Providing student choice allows students to use their strengths and personal interests. This approach will enable students to become more invested and find personal meaning in their artwork.

5. Create Variety

Teachers are often the worst students. You’ve probably experienced a professional development day or staff meeting where you are lectured the entire time. This type of setting does not capture interest. It’s important to create variety in your instructional time. While there are times where a lecture is necessary, try to break it up. If you are beginning a new project and know you will lecture for a large portion of class, try throwing in some hands-on activities to engage your students. This could be as simple as having your students stand or take a lap around the classroom every ten minutes. Breaking up the monotony is key in creating less apathetic students.

Ultimately, the art room should be a place where students are excited and eager to learn. The next time you see one of your middle schoolers exhibiting some apathy, try one of these strategies!

How do you deal with apathetic students?

What strategies do you use to engage your students?

Abby Schukei

Abby is a middle school art teacher in Omaha, NE. She focuses on creating meaningful experiences for her students through technology integration, innovation, and creativity.

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  • Mr. Post

    Tell stories. This year I told my students the story of how the Mona Lisa became the most famous painting in the world. (HInt- it has to do with a sneaky heist and a patriotic but misdirected Italian thief.) Instead of creating a boring copy of the Mona Lisa, kids painted vampires and Frankenstein portrait busts – which they loved! While they worked, I told them the story of the original Frankenstein novel as written by Mary Shelley almost 200 years ago. We talked about electricity, magnetism and how twitching frog legs all played a part in the development of the Frankenstein story. The kids loved hearing that Frankenstein’s monster was sad because he did not have a mate, a companion. The monster that the kids think of as Frankenstein never even had a name in Mary Shelley’s book it was called the evil wretch, worm, monster and it.

    This week my art students are hearing some stories about how germs were discovered, They love hearing stories about early science and the kind of wacky theories people had a few hundred years ago regarding disease. The kids are then making illustrations of the ways in which germs can make us sick or that we can prevent germs from making us ill.

    Wrapping ideas into stories makes my room as quiet as a church. On Halloween when I had a room full of kids in crazy costumes, I whipped out my Kindle and read the kids the first few chapters of a book by Clive Barker called The Thief of Always. Its about a kid who is bored to death in the middle of February until a stranger blows into his bedroom on a windstorm and promises him an adventure. The kids moaned when they had to leave art that day…

    Culture has been transmitted by stories for millenia- it’s one of the most powerful teaching tools.

    • Abby Schukei

      I wholeheartedly agree with you. There are somedays where I feel like I am just talking the entire time about non-sensical, unrelated art things, but the students actually listen and engage. Just yesterday I had a group of students huddled around a table working on their clay projects. They are currently discussing the Nazis and WWII in their history class. The students were having a really great discussion, but I blew there mind when I was able to discuss the correlation between Hitler, art, and WWII. Soon enough the table was a little crowded because EVERYONE wanted to be apart of the story telling.

      Storytelling really is powerful. Thanks for sharing!

  • Kelly barker

    Yes! This post makes me feel like I’m on the right track. This year I decided to record “how-to” videos for my lessons….they are a quick 5 minutes…sometimes just enough to get the lesson started. Guess how the students responded in jr. High? They clapped!!! They were so excited that I was a “YouTuber”. Every class we also start with drawing thumbnails from a projected image and the “to do ” list is beside it. Gets conversation going right away!

    • Melissa Gilbertsen

      I LOVE this idea! Now I just have to get them some access to tech other than my 2 wonky computers…still, worth investigating!

  • Sherri Callahan

    Student choice is an important engagement feature for Middle School Students. While working on one-point perspective, I gave choices for students… if they completed 3 assignments of 1-pt perspective to show basic understanding, they were given a menu of options to complete for a summative.