My Art Room is Not a Hallmark Store

It’s early May, and you’re ready to present an awesome and challenging lesson to your students. However, the classroom teacher drops them off saying, “So you’re making something for them to take home for Mother’s Day today, right?” Um . . . No. If this–or something like it–has happened to you, you know it can be both frustrating and insulting.

My art room is not a Hallmark Store. 

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My classroom does not exist to make cutesy trinkets for holiday presents. I have a curriculum! That’s not to say my students have never made things they want to take home and gift to their family or friends. But the products students make in my classroom are not meant to be souvenirs; the motivation and goals behind the work we do is so much more rich and complex.

Deciding how to spend classroom time should originate from learning goals, essential questions derived from your curriculum, and the state and national standards–not from what Dad would like to have on his desk at work.

So, how do you handle this conundrum?

When I started in my district, teachers, students, and parents alike expected gifts to be made in art class for every possible occasion. My initial reaction was shock. Was this really the expectation for art class? Was that all they thought I should be doing? I needed to make a plan to address the issue. I needed a way to preserve the integrity of my art curriculum and incorporate the “gifting” expectations of parents, teachers, and students.

Here is how I appease children and parents without surrendering my entire school year to making presents.

First, for each holiday, I devise a simple craft project that can be done at home. I either print out directions or link them to my school web page. Often, I find videos on YouTube that demonstrate a project step by step.

Secondly, I let interested students know they can make these gifts at home or during Early Morning Art. Two days a week, I host an open art room for 40 minutes before school. I put out the basic supplies needed to do whatever upcoming “gift” projects are on the calendar. Interested students arrive and get to work. I provide one completed example and they follow the directions. I am simply a facilitator. Since I was already offering this as “extra help” it doesn’t require any additional time commitment on my part.

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For students who cannot make it to Early Morning Art, I make a single accommodation. I leave the supplies out and allow them to “bag” them after school so they may complete the project at home. This way everyone has access and no one has an excuse.

Finally, I explain this procedure at Back to School night and parent conferences. I make sure to emphasize that class time is spent addressing state and district mandated curriculum standards and practices. After a few years, it has become fairly well accepted and understood.

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Of course, there will always be a teacher or parent who will ask why I don’t make the toilet paper roll angels with their fourth grader. To them, I say, “Well, your student learned how to draw a winter landscape in perspective instead. You should have them show you! It’s a remarkable skill combining mathematics and art. The time we have is devoted to learning what is in our curriculum. If you’d like to make a toilet paper angel at home with them, I’m sure they’d love that.”

If parents and teachers regularly see what extraordinary things students are creating they will eventually stop expecting you to do work that is beneath you and your students.

Stand your ground, be firm, and always remember the curriculum is your guide. You are there to encourage artistic habits and develop skills. It might take a while, but eventually, everyone will follow your lead. After all, you are the art teacher, not a Hallmark store.

How do you handle the art class gift expectation?

Are you opposed to doing “gift” projects?

Lee Ten Hoeve

Lee is an energetic PreK – 8th-grade art educator in an urban district. She’s passionate about making art a core subject and employing curiosity to engage learners. 

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  • mary kernan

    I will help out as needed if I can with the younger grades. However, I work it into my curriculum with a focus on shapes, lines and patterns. Balance with Nutcracker Ballet and Degas for movement. Art is all around us especially at the holiday time. I just don’t let it take over the whole month. I do love to introduce O’Keeffe with my 2nd graders as we paint huge poinsettia flowers that become matted and shared with families. I get complements years later about the paintings still on display at home.

    • Lee Ten Hoeve

      Hello Mary,

      I totally agree that with a little creativity you can incorporate it into the curriculum and make it relevant. Nothing is better than having families appreciate the quality work and learning that takes place in the classroom. Thanks for sharing!

  • Pam

    I think that there is a way to handle this expectation. I usually send home accumulated art before a holiday. The students can choose to give the artwork as a gift if they want to. Sometimes we wrap the gifts in class on handmade wrapping paper. I teach printmaking and pattern and the students learn to wrap a gift which is a life long skill they will need in the future. I can stick to my curriculum and make teachers and parents happy this way.

    • Lee Ten Hoeve

      Dear Pam,

      I love this idea… especially the home made wrapping paper. Thanks so much for contributing!

  • BossySnowAngel

    The problem I encounter is down the road. There is no middle school requirement for visual art, so we get students who have experienced the crafty art type class who believe high school art is more of the same. Furthermore, there are parents and counselors and administrators who also believe this in spite of the artwork we put on display. This is an extension of the “anyone can do art” schtick followed closely by the “I can’t draw stick figures” meme. If anyone can do it, why can’t everyone do it and if you can’t draw stick figures, what makes you think children who haven’t been taught to use their visual skills for things beyond baby food jar snow globes or turkey hand cut outs will? I strenuously avoid anything “crafty”. That being said, there are cool things you can do. For example, before Thanksgiving every year I teach a short calligraphy lesson. I talk about its history, its relevance in other cultures and the styles. It is the quietest they are all year. And they learn to write beautifully and express gratitude. I do a similar thing with warm glass and gifts. If you are innovative, you can incorporate those things the public understand, but do so in such a way that glitter and craft paint are kept to a minimum.

    • Lee Ten Hoeve

      I couldn’t agree more. Thank you for sharing.

    • Laura Geiger

      Your post is spot on! I was wondering if you would be willing to share your calligraphy lesson with me? I’ve had this idea mulling around in my head about incorporating some type of gratitude statements with an art project but I didn’t want to just have the background the only part that was art education based. When I read your comment it was like a lightbulb! I would appreciate it if it’s not too much trouble. I know it’s crazy busy this time of year so if you can’t get to it I totally understand. Lauraegeiger@gmail.com

      • BossySnowAngel

        Sorry this reply is so late. I teach them very basic stuff-how to hold the pen, how to organize the space. It takes practice and patience. But I do have them look up quotes about gratitude and encourage them to write the quote. So few of our kids read beyond kid pop literature that many of the sayings from even children’s classics are being forgotten.

  • I know this is way off the subject but I have never met another female named Lee !!! IT is awesome.

    • Lee Ten Hoeve

      Me neither Lee! And an art teacher at that!

  • Ruthy

    Loved this! Thank you Lee for this article. This is my first year teaching art. My principal approached me last week and told me that “many teachers” have asked for ask me to make ornament crafts with the kids by that Friday. . . I told my principal that most of my younger students were already creating winter scenes or holiday themed art. But, I wasn’t going to be able to make ornaments with them. It was too short notice and I have standards that need to be met before the end of the semester. My principal told me that was fine and that the teachers would be informed to make ornaments during their class time if they have to have them.

    • Lee Ten Hoeve

      Good for you! It may take time to change the culture of expectation but it sounds like you have a supportive administration. There are so many ways to weave the curriculum and the seasons together so kids still get to bring home something that parents will love and admire.

  • Marie-Christine

    You are all very lucky to have an artteacher. In Flemish primary schools, for pupils 2,5 to 12 years old, teachers have to integrate this curriculum into their normal lessons. And yes, we were expected (I am retired now) to use skills for christmasgifts, fathersday, mothersday, grandparentsday and so on… We don’t have a spare room for supplies or for art lessons. It all have to happen in our own classroom and must be integrated in our weekly plans. And I assure you that the artcurricula are rather heavy and important with a lot of goals, materials and skills to teach. It all comes next to math, language, and all the other important things.

    • Lee Ten Hoeve

      I know exactly how lucky I am Marie-Christine. I consider it a great honor to teach art and have a space in which to do it. It sounds like you are doing a beautiful job… despite the challenges. Thanks for sharing and participating in the discussion.

  • Kelly Phillips

    Thanks, Lee. I love the idea of early morning art studio time! It’s great that you send supplies home with kids. Does this cost add up or do you keep it pretty simple?