Friday, September 19, 2014

Teaching Art-on-a-Cart - Organization and Survival Tips for the Mobile Art Teacher

Teaching art-on-a-cart is not every art teacher’s fantasy. Most pre-service teachers don’t even consider it a possibility (don’t we all envision large classrooms with big tables, floor-to-ceiling windows, the latest technology, and endless supplies?).

But for a large number of teachers, reality quickly sets in, due to budget-crunching, cutbacks and school reductions. While we might look in envy at other classroom teachers who hold the keys to their own rooms, there are certain aspects of teaching ‘on the go’ that make it really not as bad as you’d think. You might even grow to appreciate it (dare I say “like it”?). Here are some tips on how to make the most out of teaching art on a cart, because - in the end - it’s not really about our own personal comfort or luxury or what we think we ‘deserve’, it’s about teaching our students to grow and love art.

#1.) Claim your home base.
Every art-on-a-cart teacher needs a home base they can work from (for the sake of your supplies, your preparation time, and your sanity). If nowhere is provided, look around the school for areas to infiltrate. In my last art-on-a-cart role, I invaded the teacher’s lounge. There, I claimed a large, freestanding media cabinet with doors, and a large space next to it to park my cart. Plus, there was a sink and bathroom in the lounge, which greatly aided in cleaning my supplies. And the fact that no students were allowed in there was delightful, and provided extra security.

#2.) Determine your storage.
Your abundance (or lack) of storage areas will determine what you are able to teach. Consider the amount of space at your ‘home base’ for storing student projects, and imagine what kinds, sizes, and how many projects can reasonably be stored there at one time. Don’t forget to think about the requirements of wet paintings needing to dry, or sculptures that need to be separated. Be creative – you can always use the tops of cabinets or hang clotheslines for drying work, or stand dry papers vertically. A folding, portable drying rack is also convenient.

Consider the space you also have for storing art supplies – paint, brushes, markers, different sizes of paper, visuals, and more. Ask your custodian if there are unused furniture pieces around the school - cabinets, drawers or shelves - you could use to store more items.

Still, there will be times when you must confront a classroom teacher and tell them straight-up that you do not have storage space, and that you must leave student work in their classroom. Granted, this is not ideal – it leaves work open to students, is out of your eyesight, and teachers are sure to be annoyed by your intrusion. Be gracious and always give a timeline for when the work will be moved. But be realistic – let the teachers know you understand it is an annoyance and not ideal, but on the other hand, you have no classroom at all and that is not ideal for you either. In the end, remove the items on time, and be sure to say thank you. You definitely need team players on your side!

#3.) Plan your curriculum.
Being an art teacher means you have to plan your lessons around time constraints, prescribed standards, evaluations, assessments, and sometimes meager program budgets. However, the plight of an art-on-a-cart teacher is that you are further limited in the lessons you can teach efficiently. Although we would all love to create life-size paintings, giant sculptures, work on pottery wheels and use the latest technology, these things cannot be easily taught (unless you’re really, really good at it!) from a cart.

But don’t let this stop you! Find ways to manipulate the lessons you want to do, into things you can do. Cut down the scale of a project if it’ll take too long; cut down the size of a project if too messy. Think outside the box, and teach any lesson you want to – it just takes organization. After many years of teaching from a cart, I have decided that there really is nothing that I cannot do from my cart. If you want to teach painting or ceramics, go for it! Simply look for ways to make your materials portable, organized, and on a smaller scale.

#4.) Organize your cart.
All this being said, it’s great to think we can teach any lesson we want from a cart. But how do you do it? Easy; organize your cart to maximize its use. Though it may be small, divide your cart into separate areas and bulk up on storage containers. Be strict that everything has its own place. Determine your needs and consider how to make them work. Since my elementary rooms did not have sinks, I kept a medium-sized bucket on top of my cart that held water cups. At the beginning of a painting class, my helper would fill the bucket in the bathroom; at the end of class, the student would then empty the bucket. For cleaning supplies, I filled a spray bottle with soapy water. A clothesline attached to the cart handle held cloth towels. I also kept a container of wipes and a stain-stick on top of my cart for cleaning emergencies.

Too many supplies? Keep it simple. Rather than ordering dozens of plastic palettes (which have to be cleaned), I purchased paper plates in bulk, which could be thrown away after a painting lesson. Rather than a hundred glue bottles, I ordered a dozen large bottles of Elmer’s with gallon refills (glue was shared among groups). When teaching a painting lesson, I only bring the largest quart bottles, one of each color I need – when the quart bottles run out, I refill them from my gallons at my home base. You can also save space by only bringing the primaries and neutrals and make students mix their own colors. Students in their classrooms will also have supplies at their desks, which means you won’t need to pack pencils and other basics. If okay with the teacher, have the students create portfolios for their work, which can be kept inside their classroom.

My old cart was a simple large Rubbermaid pushcart on wheels with a handle, a top shelf and a lower shelf. I determined that the upper shelf would be completely my own, but that the lower shelf would be for my elementary students. On the bottom shelf were separate containers and plastic shoeboxes with big labels, containing markers, colored pencils, crayons, oil pastels, yarn, scrap paper, paper towels, a basket of free-time activities and art books, and a collection of home-made photo reference folders made from cutting up old calendars and sticking them in binders with page protectors (one was about Animals, one was Cars, and one was Nature/Landscapes). At times, I would put my small box of art aprons down there also.

On my top shelf was everything I would need to teach for the class I was going to. I had a box of teacher supplies that students could not use – my own glue, Sharpies, pencils, pens, good scissors, paper clips, a notepad, discipline slips and more. I also had Class/Grade folders that I stored there, which included information on the lessons I was teaching, a student roster/seating chart with room for notes on discipline, a copy of my class rules and procedures, writing assignments, my helper charts and more, specific to each group.

#5.) Implement class procedures and rules.
As an art-on-a-cart teacher, you’re in a sticky situation. You have your own class you’re teaching, your own cart and supplies, and yet you’re in someone else’s classroom (much less another classroom that already has its own rules and procedures that the students are used to). It would be easy to tell the students that you’re just going to use the same rules as their teacher. This would make sense if every teacher in the building had the same rules – but they often don’t.

It is best to come up with your own set of rules – that are easy to learn, easy to understand, easy to follow, and easy to remember the consequence. I used a couple very simple rules of my own, made a poster, and stuck that onto one of the sides of my cart for everyone to see. Occasionally throughout the year, review the rules with your students, and explain how they apply to art class. Make consequences well-known and appropriate for teaching in someone else’s room – students knew that, depending on the offense, they would have their seat moved, all art privileges taken away for the day, or a writing assignment.

Your class procedures are entirely different than your class rules, yet they go hand-in-hand. Procedures are the way that your class is run, and in some ways, these are more important than your rules. If you have excellent and routinely followed procedures, you should not run into many rules being broken. Procedures must be painstakingly explained, demonstrated and reviewed constantly.

Art-on-a-cart teachers know that procedures begin the moment the art teacher walks into the room – I used to say “When it is time for Art, all other things are put away, desks are cleaned off, and all eyes are directed to the teacher.” This way the students know that a new class has started. I would verify attendance, quickly review what we were doing, then teach/demonstrate a new topic. Students must be quiet during that time. Next, I would announce who the day’s helpers were (in each classroom folder I kept a list of the student’s names, and had two new helpers each week), and they would begin passing out supplies. During work time, the students could talk, but they had to raise their hands for questions and could not wander around the classroom freely.

Have procedures for what to do during cleanup time (my same helpers would clean-up the classroom), where students put their finished work, and what they should be doing when they are finished if others are still working (my students kept sketchbooks they would pull out and begin working in, but they could also use the bottom of the cart for free-art-time activities). It is extremely important to set up a procedure designating who classroom helpers are. If you do not, you will run into much wasted time deciding who can or can’t help, so make sure they know ahead whose turn it is, and that everyone will get a turn at some point to keep it fair. Also, have a procedure for washing hands.

Lastly, you want to bring the class to a reasonable conclusion, leave on time when the bell rings, and that students are seated and ready for their next class to begin – you do not want the whole class walking around the room, projects still on tables and paint being cleaned five minutes after the bell has rung. Let the teacher know how the students behaved before you leave, then announce your departure.

#6.) Teaching in someone else’s classroom.
As an art-on-a-cart teacher, not only are you constantly reminded with the fact that you do not have a classroom of your own, but the students and the teachers know it and will remind you too. There are some things you should expect to happen:

  • Students will occasionally undermine you as the authority when their classroom teacher is in the room
  • Students will be distracted by their desks or other items in their classroom
  • Expect fire drills/tornado drills/lock-down drills to occur in any classroom you are in and you may not know what to do
  • The classroom teacher may stay in the room with you while you are teaching or may leave the room during art but come back five minutes late or more
  • The classroom teacher may make special requests of you (“I’m having a guest reader come in right after you leave, so can you please not work with clay today?”) or show annoyance with what you are doing in their room
  • The classroom teacher may or may not view art as important as you – and deliver that message to the students
  • The classroom might be arranged completely differently – both furniture and student desks – each time you walk in the room (so learn names quickly).
These are some of the frustrating parts about being an Art-on-a-Cart teacher – despite the fact that you already feel under-valued! However, it is best for you to just hold your tongue, put on a smile, (voice your concerns when necessary) and decide that you are going to do your best, no matter what. Get to know each teacher individually – inside the classroom and out, and become friends – or, at least – more than just acquaintances. You need people on your side! The main things you need to remember when teaching in someone else’s classroom are the following: courtesy, time-management, and flexibility.

#7.) Find out where your display areas are.
Since you do not have your own classroom, you do not technically have your own display space either. Ask administrators if you can have a designated wall in the hallway, a display cabinet, cork strips, or bulletin boards to display student work. Or simply put artwork up anywhere in the school (but expect it at times to be taken down without your knowledge). You may also ask teachers if there is space outside of their classrooms that you can use to display new artwork for a designated amount of time – sometimes they might be thrilled to say yes, because then that is one less display that they must do.

#8.) Memorize your schedule.
Plan to be at school early, use your planning periods wisely, and stay after school later if needed. You need every bit of time you have to prepare for your lessons, clean up brushes or other materials, and set up for the next day. At the beginning of the year, keep class schedules with you at all times. There isn’t a worse feeling than leaving a classroom, stepping out into the hall with your cart and realizing you have no idea where to go (when the bell rung three minutes ago). Or (even worse) entering into the wrong classroom. If you’re like most art-on-a-cart teachers, you have an awkward schedule that changes daily – some classes/grades are twice a week, others once a week, others more or less. Memorize your schedule to keep your sanity!

Teaching Art-on-a-Cart may be frustrating, but it is well-worth it.

In conclusion, there is a lot of stress to learning how to teach art-on-a-cart. The good news is that most of that stress will disappear once you get into the routine. You might even find some aspects of the job you really like: seeing the faces of students light up as you enter their room and hearing their comments (“Finally, it’s Art time!”), being able to have more in-depth relationships with other teachers, not having the responsibility of a homeroom or cleaning it up for conferences, being able to escape to your private ‘home base’, being super-organized, sometimes even hearing the surprising “You are so lucky you get to move around! I have to stay in this room for seven hours with the same children all day!” from other teachers. Put things in perspective. You may have inconveniences – who doesn’t – but you have the best job in the world, teaching art to children. Nothing could be better!

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