The Power of Displaying Every Student Art Piece

Do you display student artwork at your school? Are the most technically sound and visually appealing pieces the only ones to go up on display? Have you ever considered putting every student art piece from a given assignment up at once?

Designing units and projects that lead to an all-student school exhibit has tremendous benefits and can be a powerful experience for your students.

Here’s why you should try it.

artwork hanging up

Cultivating a Community of Artists

When students know in advance every art piece is going on display, it changes the classroom dynamic. Suddenly, all skill and experience levels are on the same playing field. The art room becomes a collaborative community that is vulnerable together. Student work will be on display for all students and staff to see, contemplate, and react to. By putting up all student work for a display, the artistic hierarchy of talent dissolves. Students have an individual assignment that is now part of something bigger and they are all in it together. When students know everyone is putting up their work, the peer dynamic in the room becomes less competitive and more supportive.

Generating Urgency and Motivation

When students first hear that all work will be on display, it can be frightening for some. The key is to inform students of the display two or three assignments in advance. Give students time to make mistakes, improve their skill, and work toward a final piece the entire school will get to see.

students hanging artwork

Urgency and motivation tend to rise to new levels when students know their art is going to be experienced by others. Students will not be content with their second-rate work being a representation of who they are. The amount of feedback, risk, and rigor students take on when they know their work is going to be up for exhibit increases significantly.

Inclusiveness

I admit, there are times I hang only ten to fifteen student pieces on our school walls. There are reasons for educators only displaying a small percentage of their total student work for others to interact with. The only problem with this is the inherent exclusivity it promotes. If we want our students to believe they are artists, it is important to give them a venue to make them feel that way.

If we want our students to believe that they are artists, it is important to give them a venue to make them feel that way.

Whenever I hang a small percentage of total student work, a message is sent: Your work is not good enough for others to see. Perhaps that is a bit extreme. At the same time, we must reflect upon and evaluate the purpose of our art courses and make a decision about how we want to impact all of our students. Personally, I love competition and there is a place for rewarding the upper-echelons of excellence. My argument here is at least once a year it is important to give all of our students a platform and a challenge to display their work as authentic artists.

students hanging artwork

Empowerment

How many experiences do students remember throughout their schooling? Often they study, apply, and forget. Some of the memories my former students share with me the most are times they hung up their artwork together. When students see themselves as worthy to put their individual artistic expression in public for others to engage with, it’s empowering! After a successful exhibition, students may wonder what else they can do in the public realm. For students lacking self-esteem, putting up work with peers can boost academic and artistic confidence.

art hanging up

Final Tips

There are many challenges to putting up all student work. First and foremost, you need to have ample space to accommodate the amount of work. If you have the space, try creating an all-student gallery at some point in the year. The earlier you can tell students about it, the better. It helps to have images of past student exhibits of any kind as visual support when introducing this concept. If students are told two or three projects in advance they are working toward an exhibit that everyone is a part of, the purpose, urgency, and motivation will increase.

When it comes time to hang the work, do it during class. Include students in this part of the process, too. Then you will have given all students the opportunity to engage in the entire artistic process, from conception, to creation, to communication with an audience. This experience can have a profound influence on students for years to come.

What is your experience putting all your student work on display?

What questions or concerns arise when thinking about an all-student gallery?

Matt Christenson

Matt is a high school visual arts and mural design teacher in San Francisco, CA who strives to cultivate maximum creative potential in all students.

Related

  • Rachael

    What kind of wall is that? I would hang stuff allllll the time if we had more wall spaces like that!

  • Matt Christenson

    Hi Rachael! That is a large wall in our school lobby. Lots of room to house student work!

  • Haeli

    So that may work in some instances, but as a teacher who only taught K-1, I found it very difficult to cultivate enough work that was unique to put up. And to be honest, not every piece should go up. If a kid really doesn’t care, and isn’t going to even try, then putting up their work devalues the kids who try. Kind of reminds me of giving participation trophies. Now that I’m teaching high school I know that this would not work. Some kids take art for the elective, not because they truly love art and putting up their work would actually humiliate them. You can’t blackmail them into doing good work!

    • Melissa Gilbertsen

      Here’s the thing…it’s uncomfortable perhaps to see their work alongside better work but again, they do try so much more when it’s up for all to see AND has their name on the front! I don’t put best next to worse, I finesse, but it has improved all work because now they see how good the work could be. Just what has worked for me. Peers now are the judge – not just me- and it has made a world of difference.

  • John P. Gullick

    Matt, how do you hang the pieces? I can’t tell from the photos.

  • Ann CL

    I completely agree! Two times a year (Parent Teacher Conference) I hang a piece of art from every student I see- 644. It covers the main hallway ceilings. We mat the projects with colored paper, creating a beautiful display from either direction. The community, staff and students love it! My admins are very supportive and help me however they can. So much so, this year they let me install permanent wires across the hallway, tight to the ceiling, to ease the pains of hanging. Goodbye bent paperclips! The remainder of the year I hang an entire grade level on the main entrance wall and try to keep the display cases full of clay projects all year long. It has really helped promote best effort on all projects.

  • Barbara

    I not only do a full student show twice a year and hang pieces from everyone (3 years old through 5th grade), this year I included the teachers too! I gave the faculty a heart and told them to fill it with any design of their choice and any medium. Everyone’s heart, from kids and teachers, made up a big mural in the center of my art show. Teachers got to see what it felt like to have their work on display.
    I do hang everyone’s work no matter how they look but I admit I used to put at eye level the ones I am most proud of. One little student (not my best artist!) was thrilled that their piece was very low on the wall and said he was so happy it was there so he could see it best. Made me realize I should be more proud of everyone’s efforts and I have since mixed things up more.

  • Heidi Landis

    This past December was the first time in 21 years that I displayed every piece of art that was created by every student during the semester. It was awesome! I hope to continue to do for every art show.

  • Phyllis Bloxson

    I teach about 700 + students I just don’t see it as plausible for that many students grades K-5 to be hung up at one time. I also have limited space. The other problem I have with this is the most artistic students usually are not displayed anywhere else because they just don’t fit the typical learner mold and need to be recognized somewhere. I also believe that doing the art is in itself the fun and not always the outcome. I see this as more plausible in older grades.

  • Noel Moes

    “If we want our students to believe that they are artists, it is important to give them a venue to make them feel that way.”

    I totally agree. In my instructing experience, whether I’ve done it in an unconventional venue space such as a professional art studio or a regular classroom, learning is something that can happen and can be facilitated. But I think the most important thing here is how the instructor sets up their lesson plan and how student work is ultimately graded from that perspective.

  • Melissa Gilbertsen

    I totally agree with your entire post!! I hang it all…or I get my “curating team” to help put up the work, but it’s everyone’s work that is displayed. A lot of work yes, but the immense and immediate improvement in the quality and creativity is completely worth it. That is priceless. The feedback from peers and teachers is so motivating to them that it makes my expectations of gimme your best a reality. I do hang in the office a select number of pieces but it’s determined by individual students who made significant improvement in growth, effort, and/or grit! I try to get kids from all different ability levels for this coveted spot and then I make a tag that briefly tells what they did that was amazing. It’s also excellent PR for parents and my administrator to see. Great article and thanks for not thinking I’m insane as some of my colleagues do!

    • Matt Christenson

      Thanks for sharing Melissa! You are awesome! I love the work you are doing. Keep it up!

  • Melanie Caler

    How do you handle kids that are uncomfortable or not confident enough to want their artwork up? I teach middle school and there are kids at this age that just get self conscious if theirs does not look as good as another’s.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Melanie! This is a good question. For me, I found that keeping everything anonymous helps. There are no labels to tell which piece of art was made by which student. I also tell them a good two to three projects in advance that this is where we are heading, so they tend to take their practice more seriously than previous attempts. For those one or two extreme cases of discomfort, some heart-to-heart conversations in private might help boost some confidence. Possibly even hanging those few students who absolutely refuse after the rest of the class has put their work up (with consent of the student, of course). Hope this helps! Good luck.

      • Melanie Caler

        Thanks Matt. I truly see the value in doing this to motivate kids to try harder. I have seen a rise in apathy the last few years and kids don’t care as much about grades anymore. This is a great way to get them invested personally. Going to give it a try this year!!