Art Teacher Talk

Why Kids Don’t Finish the Art Project

Why kids don’t finish the art project…well, why don’t they? Today I’m going to focus on two reasons kids don’t finish the art project. Size and timeframe. How big is the task and how long does the student have to complete it. For some reason we think everything has to be 18×24 with a 3-week deadline. I’m here to argue that this may have worked four years ago, but in here in post-lockdown world it ain’t gonna fly. 

Behold an excerpt from Mrs. Fox’s Art Teacher life…

Art 1, Circa Fall, 2009

“Ok, kids, let’s get started. Here’s your paper,”. 

“18×24 inches.”

“Here’s the materials (insert materials here).”

“Here’s the demo.”

“Here’s the artistic inspiration (insert inspiring artist here).”

“Here’s the directions (insert directions here).”

“You have 3 weeks to complete the project.” 

Fast forward 2.5 weeks…a few kids have nailed it. Gorgeous work beautifully executed. 

A few kids have finished in 2 days and have been making my life miserable for the last 8 days, causing me to consider an alternative career as a Rodeo Clown.

The remaining 80% are a combination of working one day and not the next, texting on their phones, doing homework from another class, asking to leave the room repeatedly for endless bathroom breaks and just plain giving a whole new meaning in general to the term procrastination.

At the end of the 3 weeks I had roughly 5 (out of 30) projects that looked like objectives had been met and the attitude in meeting these objectives was one of excellence and investment. Then there were my “Very Early Finishers” aka “It’s too much and I give up before I can even get started.” The rest were a combination of kids who really tried but were so unsure overall that the end result was, “meh” and kids who really tried but burned out halfway through, resulting again in, “meh.”

My question to myself was, “Why?” 

Why don’t kids finish the art project?

And more importantly, “Why aren’t they invested in the process?”

I am and always have been an “Analyzer.” 

Reflection is the cornerstone of teaching, actually, of whatever is happening in my life. Not just in my profession. 

I always, ask myself…Is it working? Is it not?

If it is not working, what can I do to improve and make it work?

I had an amazing co-worker back in the day who said, “You have to break the process down so they have a chance to learn the concepts and skills before you get to the cool stuff.”

Let’s flashback to before I actually took her advice.

From Reflection to Action

This particular day we were in the beginning of our Value Unit. 

Graphite Pencil, to be specific.

I decided the first assignment was to be a 12×18 inch project where I had them pick an image and draw and shade it (they found the images on line, so there was no direct subject matter). Quite honestly, they were hideous. Each one had about 2-3 values, save two or three that actually chose a good reference photo with a good range of value to begin with. And even those were just, “meh”.

I began to think there was something to my co-worker’s advice. (Disclaimer: Her kids work was amazing.)

So that night the Graphite Sphere Lesson was born. 

I created a worksheet with a 5×7 inch picture plane, a Value Scale at the top, and a circle with a ground plane line behind it in the center of a smaller 4×4 inch picture plane within the rectangle.

The kids came in, I did the shading demo (with them all standing around me – some one top of tables, yes, not exactly safe but you know what it’s like with 30 kids in the room) and I gave them the worksheet and told them it had to be done at the end of class. 

Here’s the weird part…they ALL got down to business shading the sphere and the background. Right away. No stragglers. Nobody on the phone (we were in full flip phone days back then, so texting was a real art form), nobody going to the restroom, nobody zoned out. Everyone is shading the sphere. Beautifully…

So I asked myself, “What changed?” 

It was like they were a different class.

This is what changed. 

  1. Size of the paper.
  2. Complexity of the task.
  3. Time given to complete it.

And this, my friends, is where scaffolding began to enter my thoughts. I knew full well that they were capable of drawing anything I set before them, but how do I approach them and convince them that they are capable? 

So I did an experiment.

After we completed the shaded sphere (in one day), I displayed all of them on my board (a few kids even took them home to perfect and bring back the next day at the start of class).

The next step was to turn a circle into a creative “Creative Spherical Object” (this is the actual Graphite Pencil Sphere Lesson from above)

This drawing was completed in a 5×5 inch picture plane – slightly bigger than the original practice.

I gave them 3 class periods (we have 90 minute blocks).

Guess what happened.

At the end of three very productive work days, I got close to 30 awesome projects – creative, well realized, with great craftsmanship – even from my former “early finishers” (aka “early rushers lol).

I asked the class why they were so much more “into it” than previous projects and they said, “it was just too much before, Mrs. Fox.” 

I had a good rapport with the class, and other than my not having a clue what I was doing (first year teacher probs), we had an open dialogue. They were very up front in telling me that 3 weeks is too much time and the project size seemed insurmountable as many of them were not confident in their drawing and shading skills yet.

As soon as I decreased the size of the paper, increased the amount of instruction and shortened the due date drastically, everything fell into place.

Scaffolded Learning

This is when I revisited the idea of scaffolding. 

I had wasted 3 weeks on that dreadful 12×18 venture, BUT, now we were about to approach white colored pencil.

I decided at the outset to start with the sphere again. The kids were already familiar with the exercise, and once I taught the colored pencil skill and the reverse value concept, they took off and completed 30 White Colored Pencil Spheres in one full class period.

Next came a 6×9 inch Ice Cream Cone Drawing, then a 12×12 inch white object still life. 

Three days to complete the ice cream.

Three days to complete the still life.

Both projects yielded amazing results.

We never worked larger than 12×12 the rest of the semester.

Additional things learned from this “Size Mindset” shift:

  • I started displaying all in progress work on the walls in my room (grouped by class)
  • I gave them the rubric and we reviewed it together (out loud) before they began.
  • The mess in my room all but disappeared.
  • No more wrinkled papers from being shoved in the drawer or folders at the end of class.
  • No more stacks of projects all over the place (it was all small and on the wall – hey that rhymes)
  • No more giant poster board size portfolios all over the place.
  • When I took the work off the wall to grade it, it fit nicely into a manilla folder for safe keeping.
  • Ooh! One more thing. From that moment forward I started every new medium with a sphere exercise. Enter the concept of “Consistency and Routine” into my teaching philosophy, and if you like, there is more on that in my Art Teacher  Survival Guide. That’s a blog post for another day…

I’m not sure who came up with the idea that art projects have to be BIG for beginner classes, but my vote is, “No thanks.”

I discovered all of this in a Pre-Covid world. 

Enter Post-Covid teaching. 

Kids have a massively shortened attention span, coupled with a Smartphone and a 1:1 device scenario, it’s a cocktail for distraction.

Keeping the surface acreage small and manageable is key to building skills and confidence in your middle school or high school artists. 

When it comes to behavior issues, I have found that students act out when they are bored, feeling inadequate or confused, and when there is too much time on their hands. 

Kids need laser focus, and keeping the parameters tight in the beginning stages of the artistic journey will help them grow the confidence they need to proceed into larger and more autonomous artistic ventures.

If you find yourself asking, “Why don’t kids finish the art project”, might I suggest reflecting on the size and timeframe of your assignments. It worked miracles in my classroom.

Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying never to work big. By all means, work as big as the room size allows. But not in the beginning. Not with kids brand new to the process. And not with large classes. Save the large stuff overflowing with size and concept to your intermediate and advanced artists. Those classes are smaller, and those kids can handle it.

Give your beginner kids time to master the skills in small steps.

Keep it small and keep it structured.

And build on that framework to grow the kids into confident creators.

My kids’ skills, creativity and boldness skyrocketed when I decreased the size of the task. It sounds counter intuitive, but it works. I can say it with all certainty. 

By the time my kids got to the upper level classes, we were charging forward on all cylinders, and the work they created was amazing. There are endless examples on my IG @mrstfoxresources and my Pinterest MrsTFox Resources. Check it out, it’s pretty cool.

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Have a wonderful and safe year and Happy Teaching!

Tiff 🙂

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