Writing on Wednesdays

Students writing about Roy Lichtenstein's, "M-Maybe" (1965) Photo by Melody Weintraub

Students writing about Roy Lichtenstein's, "M-Maybe" (1965) Photo by Melody Weintraub

There is a new "tradition" with artists in my Middle School Art Classes. It is known as "Writing on Wednesdays." They know that on Wednesdays they have the green light to bring their laptops to explore a new painting specifically chosen for it's era or style. Sixth Grade (since I only have them for 9 weeks) is exploring the Impressionist Period. Since I have Seventh and Eighth Grade Students every day all year, Seventh Grade is working it's way through Post-Impressionism through Pop-Art and Eighth Grade is looking at Pop-Art through Contemporary Art. The writing formats vary from a formal critique (A.K.A. Art Investigation) to prompts in which students might write a letter to a friend describing a painting, write a short story based on a painting, or even write Haiku based on experiencing a painting using their five senses. If students are in the middle of an art process mid week and unable to pause, we might choose to have Writing on Wednesdays on...a Friday or Monday. Last Wednesday, I was not prepared for what transpired during my Sixth Grade Art Class! I put students in Investigating Teams. Using a handout which I created, students were to observe the "evidence" of Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party and collect their data. What ensued was a very passionate argument regarding the content of the painting. It was wonderful. I tried hard not to smile too much. I don't think I'll ever have to remind them again who painted it or what it looks like. As students were leaving one student turned to me and said, "I love Writing on Wednesdays, Mrs. Weintraub! It's so much fun!" What's fun for me  is seeing these future Artists, Lawyers, Teachers, and Doctors connecting to Art in a whole new way. So, one day, maybe 20 years from now, when they are walking through the Art Institute of Chicago they just might take a second look at certain Renoir.

Teaching Students to Care

"World Peace." Photo by Melody Weintraub

"World Peace." Photo by Melody Weintraub

I've taught Middle School Art for many years. I've seen my teaching evolve from just teaching students how to make or draw things into why to make and draw things. In order to teach them "why" sometimes I must help them look at issues that they face and how those issues are connected to issues facing our world. For many of these students, this is the first time they have considered that their art could be used to communicate something that they are passionate about. I feel a responsibility to teach them the skills necessary to communicate this message. I believe that craftsmanship in art is as important as good writing and delivery is in a powerful speech. It needs to be consistent with the message and not distract from it. Showing them examples of art speaking they can see the variety of ways that other artists have communicated; Picasso's "Guernica," Ringgold's, "For The Women's House," Goya's "The Third of May 1808", for example. While exploring issues, I write down these themes on the board. This way students also learn the importance of conversation. I have seen them then begin to use this tool of collaborative exploration in constructing their own art. Sometimes they will even ask other students to help them develop ideas. I am always amazed at the results. Recently a student decided to explore the theme of "addiction," in creating his self-portrait. The result was a tonal portrait of himself chained inside a doorway but reaching to the outside where in the reflection of his glasses we see the colors of a beautiful day. One of the chains is broken. It is about gaining freedom from his addiction to video games, and wanting to play outside with his friends. What a transparent and powerful message from an 8th Grade student! But then so is the simplest of designs like the one carved on a ceramic cylinder--"World Peace." Theodore Roosevelt once said that, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Perhaps the best way we can teach students to care is by starting conversations and listening to them. 

Summer Plans?

So now that the art room is packed up and the totes full of planning books are stuffed next to your favorite chair at home, what's the plan for your summer break? Many of us have good intentions about making time to think about getting some ideas together, but then it's all too easy to flit away these balmy summer months with no plans at all..uh..and we all know how that works for us in the art classroom...NOT! It's true that we all need a "break" and there's nothing wrong with taking one. There is also nothing wrong with "scheduling" a break either, so that we maximize the time off and make the best use of these days. Or all too soon, we will look back and see they were swept away by Candy Crush, Facebook, Netflix and...nothing.

Setting Goals

Setting personal goals for the summer is a good place to start. Just make sure when you are setting them that they are reachable, or you will wind up being frustrated that you weren't able to accomplish anything. Want to paint more? Visit a museum? Volunteer at a Community Center? Write? Submit? Read? Draw? Make? Learn? Plan? Travel? Make a list. Keep it simple and reachable. What is reachable for some might not be reachable for others. Don't stress over it. We are all wired differently. Also, don't get goals confused with desires. Our desires are what should drive our goals. "Writing" is a goal. "Getting Published" is a desire. 

Setting Priorities

Now that you have made a concise list, number it in order of priorities. What is at #1? #2? #3?This will help you as you schedule your time devoted to each. Your goals do not need to have equal time. Some are more important to you, your career and your well-being than others and that's just okay.

Setting Schedules

Once you have prioritized your goals, decide how much time you will devote to each. For instance, if my #1 goal is to write, I might set aside at least one hour every morning to spend writing. Painting might be a secondary goal, but it may devote more time because of it's process, so I might set a painting goal to twice a week at 3 hours a pop. Setting these goals into your calendar helps tremendously when planning other life events of the summer. For instance, knowing that you plan to write each day from 8:00-9:00, helps you plan other events starting at 10:00. Or it might mean rising a little earlier if something else is planned.

Setting your Mind

A wise administrator once told a group of teachers that the most important thing I can do for students is to be interested in something other than teaching. That's a hard call for me, since I am so passionate about teaching, but think about it. If we are interested in something, it ignites our energy. When we bring that energy into the classroom, it sparkles. Use the summer break to pursue an interest, even if it's #5 on your list and see how it energizes everything else. You will find more time to do the things you love and love the things you do. 

Be Present

Summertime for me is a wonderful time to spend with my family. Nothing can be more frustrating to others than to visit with someone who is hypnotized by their mobile devices. Setting goals and scheduling helps us to enjoy the real world. The world we truly live for. If we are preoccupied by thinking of "more constructive" things to be doing, we just might miss a golden moment along the journey that will not return. The Bible says, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21) No matter how ambitious, we present for those we love. One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Patricia Clifford, “The work will wait while you show the child the rainbow, but the rainbow won’t wait while you finish the work.” 

Exiting Ticket, Please?

Well, it's that time of year again, when we scrape the last paint from the jars, try a new squeeze on the Elmer's, and run by Dollar Tree on our own nickel for pencils, in hopes of finding just enough to finish out the year in Art. We all know that we must begin the summer packing a little sooner than most, since we have more stuff than most that needs packing away before the summer elves arrive to wax our floors and paint our walls. So while we are dismantling our visual displays, bulletin boards and posters like every year, we hopelessly never seem to learn that what goes up in August, must come down in May. In any event, during these days of sorting and purging, packing and tossing, we don't want to forget that we are still in the business of sowing visions and building dreams in the lives of those young people who walk into our classrooms every day. True, we'd really like for them to finish that painting..shade that drawing and glaze that pinch pot..but we also have an assignment to finish well. What will we give them to stash in their backpack of memories about Art? What will our students take with them beyond the canvas and portfolio of art? What kind of "exiting ticket" will we give them in these last days of school? What can we prompt them to think about over the summer or over their journey of life? What kind of positive praise can we share with them? We truly may not have the time to write a personal message to each student, but we could give them each a word on a piece of paper that best describes them in a positive way. I researched a list of positive traits and found one at http://ideonomy.mit.edu/essays/traits.html . Although there are some traits on this list of over 200 words that we should refrain from using with students, this list might help us get started in the right direction. Or maybe we could share Howard Gardner's list of multiple intelligences with the class and help students in the quest to discover their gifts http://multipleintelligencesoasis.org/about/the-components-of-mi/. Maya Angelou said it best, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” How will we make them feel as they exit the art room for summer break?

Chasing That Color

7th Grade Student working on Zinnias. Photo by Melody Weintraub

7th Grade Student working on Zinnias. Photo by Melody Weintraub

As an artist, I love mixing colors to find just the right contrast, tone or hue. Do you? I tell my students that I sometimes feel that I can almost "taste" the color I'm trying to mix..like remembering the word that is "on the tip of your tongue" or finding the seasoning that your grandmother must have used in her chicken soup. I hope that I transfer that passion for mixing colors to my students. I love to see them chasing after colors in the condiment cups I distribute. When they finally mix THE color, I love to see them "stash" it in a nook of my art room for safekeeping..like a pot of gold. We use black to shade colors sparingly in my classroom. Unless we are going for a "grungy" effect. We do, however, return to the color wheel to see if the compliment can be added to create a darker shade first. I tell my students to look for the warmer tones..go red..make it deeper with a little blue and then go to green. They know what I mean. I also tell them to return to the reference photo and study the color..over-emphasize it. The results sometimes take my breath away..like the beginning of this zinnia painting by a 7th Grade student. I'm not sure that he realizes the magic that he is creating, but it is inspiring this art teacher to pick up some watercolors tonight and chase a little color myself. How about you?

Popping Off the Page

Photo of student work. Use only with permission.

Photo of student work. Use only with permission.

Recently I posted a photo of a 6th Grade student painting a rose. Several comments mentioned that the rose looked like it was "popping off the page." In the post, I mentioned that this is the first serious painting that this student has done. She is excellent at drawing, but has never applied paint in this way. I simply told her that painting is just like drawing..only with color. This relaxed her and she began to enjoy the process. This reminded me why I love teaching art and watching a student's love and talent for art blossom like the petals on this young, budding artist's rose. Not all students who discover the magic of art arrive with a backpack of talent. Some are searching for a way to express how they feel about the world around them. They are not as concerned with technique as they are with content. For those students, I will present a way for them to develop just enough skills to communicate their message. If their interest continues..skills will follow and so will their individualistic style. Some students come with a love for experimentation. For those students, I introduce a variety of alternative surfaces and new materials. However, sadly, it is just as easy to uproot a student's love for art by fencing that student into a place where only perfectionistic realism reigns. As art educators, we must celebrate a diversity of individualistic styles and differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of students at all levels. The art room of all places must be the oasis..the safe place..where the student can think, plan, design, express, connect, reflect and emerge into a confident, empowered young visionary.

Holding On

Photo "Hands on the Wheel." by Melody Weintraub. Do not use without permission.

Photo "Hands on the Wheel." by Melody Weintraub. Do not use without permission.

So, the last day before Spring Break, I decided to introduce my 6th Grade Art Class to the Pottery Wheel. Yes, the class was low in numbers that day and no, it wasn't in the scope and sequence. It was however, a teachable forty minutes..not just for the students, but also for their teacher.

STARTING SMALL- I decided to start them off with a small amount of clay, knowing this was their first experience on the wheel, a larger amount might have been too much for them to handle. LIFE LESSON: Maybe we shouldn't complain if we are given less responsibilities/position than others but instead shine with what we have been given.

SIMPLE DESIGN - No, elaborate designs here and kept trimming to a minimum. Basically the goal was to learn to center the clay, see how it worked and to get over the muddy hands. LIFE LESSON: Sometimes in order to make something remarkable or experience something extraordinary, we might have to step outside of our comfort zone. 

NO PROMISES - I also told them ahead of time that I didn't promise that I would fire what they made. The goal of this activity was not the product, but to let them experience the clay. It actually relaxed them to know that their first attempt did not need to be successful. LIFE LESSON: Enjoy the moment.

DEMONSTRATION - I demonstrated the process for them beforehand. I was careful to point out the position of my hands and arms and how important it was to maintain symmetry. I am in no sense of the word, a "master" potter. However, I know enough to teach them the basics of throwing a pot on the wheel. That's why their response took me by surprise as they practically squealed with excitement seeing this ordinary art teacher turn an ordinary pot. LIFE LESSON: Never underestimate the awesomeness of what you teach.

GUIDED PRACTICE - Now it was the students' turn at the wheel and as the first three potters began centering their clay, the other students watching and waiting began cheering them on, reminding them of the procedure they had just witnessed together. And when the second group sat at the wheels, the first group coached them and then something extraordinary happened. A student who was having difficulty centering her clay was assisted by the hands of her "coach." I watched in amazement as their hands collaboratively began to control the clay. LIFE LESSON: If life ever feels out of control, hold on and never resist the help of your friends.

My People

Okay, I'm at the National Art Education Association Convention in New York right now and I am energized. I am energized by the passion these 7000 happy art educators have for teaching and for art! There are no strangers here. As my sweet mom used to say, "A stranger is a friend you haven't met yet." Well, Mom, today I am among friends. Just ask someone where the name tags are and you find yourself deep in a conversation..sharing funny stories..and it's mostly about our profession. No fish out of water here..No matter if you're from Memphis or Montreal..New York or Nebraska..you are among friends. So many, "take aways" from this..I can't even begin to count them. I do know one thing..come Monday afternoon in the Middle School Art Room...I am ready to rock some socks off of some artists! So what's the picture of the hot fudge Sunday all about? See that cherry on top? Well, that's what this conference is to my teaching..and this is just the first day.

One Student at a Time

Colton focused student on left.   

Colton focused student on left.


As an art teacher, some days are really long. Sometimes classes are overcrowded. Sometimes we stay a couple of hours after everyone else has left, just to clean up and prepare supplies for the next day. Sometimes we feel ignored and our efforts overlooked. We think about that as we scrape pallets and struggle with missing marker caps. Sometimes others don't share our passion for the value of teaching the arts. Sometimes we wonder if we are really making a difference at all. Then that student walks into our classroom. He's a little taller than the rest at an age when everyone is just trying to blend in and find a niche. Maybe we are teaching clay that week and wondering how on earth we can possibly show twenty-four middle school students how to throw on the wheel. We decide to start with that one student after school one day when he comes in to hang out before guitar lessons. That student wraps his oversized hands around that clay over and over again until he gets it centered. Then he throws that small bowl over and over again. Wedging it between throwing like he'd been working with clay for years. He is patient and methodical until he gets it right. You decide you have found help teaching the twenty-four. You knight him as the "Clay Expert" and he begins coaching his peers on the wheel the next day. You go to his wrestling tournaments. You cheer him on. Later he takes art in high school, he decides Art College is his best route. He comes back from time to time to visit. You go to his MFA show and continue to cheer him on. Then one day, his mother sends you a link to a feature article about his work in Memphis Magazine. You weep when you read the second paragraph as you remember that lanky 6th Grade future sculptor: 

What was your first attempt at art and how did your passion develop?
"I actually didn't until middle school. In 6th grade I had to choose between choir and art, and I had no desire to sing. Mrs. Weintraub, my teacher through middle school really is the reason I am an artist today. She would let me stay after school and throw on the pottery wheel, give me the specific artists to look up for techniques, and get me to help her with props for the school plays. More than anything, she pushed me and made sure that I never settled for one medium and always tried new materials."  http://memphismagazine.com/the-memo/a-onversation-with-sculptor-colton-berretta/

Don't ever feel you are not making a difference. You are making a difference with one student at a time. #Thanksgiving

One Grid Section at a Time

There was a country hit back in the 1970's, "One Day at a Time," that was co-written by Kris Kristofferson and Marijohn Wilkin. Then there was the popular sitcom by the same name starring, Bonnie Franklin and Valerie Bertinelli. It's a nice phrase for us to remember when we get overwhelmed by the whole of life's pressures..Deuteronomy 33:25 puts it this way, "..As thy days, so shall thy strength be." My Granny Owens, who raised 10 children, had still another phrase, "Don't borrow trouble from tomorrow." Lately I've thought a lot about how this life lesson can apply to an art lesson on drawing with a grid. When a complicated image is looked at as a whole, it can also be overwhelming for students, but when that image is broken down by a grid overlay and the student learns to concentrate on one square at a time, it is much more manageable. Each square becomes a picture in itself and all that needs to be focused on are the lines, tones, shapes and spaces (positive and negative) in that one section. As the drawing matures,  one can look back as see the whole complicated image emerge and make more sense. Life is somewhat like that too. If we are in a season of life that has us feeling overwhelmed, it might help us as well, to focus on the day at hand..the art class lesson at hand..the student at hand..the moment at hand. If we don't, we might miss something that will effect the way the whole image emerges..and that something might also be a powerful work of art in and of itself. To view my instructional video on, "How to Draw Using a Grid," click this link: https://youtu.be/ucFWEGmhKjI


Seeds and Such

Photo by Melody Weintraub

Photo by Melody Weintraub

While shopping at Whole Foods the other day, I came across a package of mustard seeds. It made me recall a devotional my mother once gave, where she handed everyone in the small group a tiny mustard seed at the beginning of her lecture on Faith. I teach in a religious school and this week being "spiritual emphasis week," I thought it might be a good time to pick up a pack of mustard seeds. Monday morning, I gave each student in the class a mustard seed and asked them to read, Matthew 17:20 from the Bible (the verse about moving mountains with faith as small as a mustard seed). I encouraged them to hold onto the mustard seed for one week. Most of them took the "assignment" very seriously. One student lost the seed about 30 seconds after I handed it to him and the others around him tried desperately to help him find it again. I used this as an example of how we should all help one another when our faith wanes. Some students taped their seeds to their sketchbooks, some kept them inside their billfolds, others taped them to their laptops, some asked if they could go to their lockers and tape it inside. So on Friday, I asked them how it was going with holding onto the mustard seed. About a three fourths of the class not only still had them, but showed them to me. We then discussed what common factors helped those students to hold onto their seeds. It seems that those students placed them in places that were valuable to them. Several said, maybe it would have been a good idea to plant them and watch them grow. I also thought about how this also applies to teaching. How's your mustard seed? You know, the one you started with when you were going to change the world by teaching? Moved any mountains lately? Where did you keep it? What kind of seed is it? Is it a seed of knowledge? Is it a seed of a positive art experience? Is it a seed of motivation? Is it hidden under a pile of papers? Did you forget about it while searching for other things? Did you lose it in the clutter of life and disappointment? By any chance, did you share it with your students? Perhaps they can help you find it again. This time maybe it should be planted and nourished so you can watch it grow. 


Art Family

It's Sunday. My birthday was yesterday and yes, of course I wore my birthday crown all day. Why wouldn't I? I spent my birthday surrounded by my art family at the Tennessee Art Education Association Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. So, today I am feeling inspired, refreshed and blessed by the amazing things I learned, experienced and made at the conference. Tomorrow, I will enter my classroom with my Art Bag packed full of new ideas, skills and renewed passion for teaching...and I also managed to pick up some "freebies" for my students who will ask me if I brought them something from my trip. I also presented a workshop on Narrative and Folk Art. I shared Faith Ringgold's Narrative Quilt, "Tar Beach." I spoke about Faith and how she has inspired me. I also shared the work of Louisiana Folk Artist Clementine Hunter and compared it with my Aunt Sibyl's folk art--both equally wonderful art story-tellers. I also shared my own narrative work..a triptych music box that I made in honor of my mother and artist Aminah Robinson. I showed those who came to my workshop story blocks that my students had made. Then they made art blocks with their own stories painted on them. It was a moving experience for some of them as they began to remember their stories and consider them as art. It moved me to hear their stories and to see their art. It needed to be revisited...it needed to be expressed. Art has that power. I hope that if you teach art and if you are reading this that you belong to your state art organization. If you join the National Art Education Association, you already are a member, but you need to connect. Go to your conference. Meet your art family. They need you..and even if you don't realize it, you need them. If you're not an art teacher, and you still have a story that needs to be expressed, grab a scrap of anything and begin to make marks that expresses how you feel about that memory. Hopefully it will be a pleasant reunion..like the reunion I experienced yesterday on my birthday.


I use this gradation chart for students to learn how to manipulate tone to turn shapes into form. When I started using this scale exercise several years ago, I noticed an improvement in their ability not only to identify the different degrees of light and dark values in other's art, but also how to apply it to their own. It also become a healthy challenge for them to perfect this scale. The next step is to let them draw a shape using a template and to shade it using these methods. Then they are ready to look at a still life of forms or objects and draw applying these principles. You are welcome to use and reproduce this chart to use in your classroom. Click here to download this chart. If you would like to see this chart explained, you may visit my YouTube Channel: https://youtu.be/_4lXLfjJPB4


Kids Art Speaks Too!

"Toughie" by Melody Weintraub

"Toughie" by Melody Weintraub

Perhaps the most powerful tool we have in teaching children that "Art Speaks" is to let their own personal voice be heard. Find something that your students feel compassionate about. Different age groups have different responses to the world around them. Those of us who have taught elementary know well the experience of beginning a mini-lecture on a work of art, only to be "interrupted" by a random comment that seems totally unrelated to the discussion. If we dismiss their comments, we are communicating to them that their personal voice is really not that important. Find a way to help them bring those passions into their art work. Recently, a co-worker's dog died. All of my sixth grade art students know about it, so we are working on a collaborative art project to present to her this week. This aligns with the "Pet Project" we are currently working on. My student sample is the image of a kitten that my daughter recently rescued. This is leading to a larger service project that I will blog about later. At this point, my students feel very connected and engaged not only to this lesson but also to ways that art can reach out to borders beyond the classroom and speak volumes!

The Extinguisher

Photo by Melody Weintraub

Photo by Melody Weintraub

There it sits in the corner of the art room. Hopefully you have never had to use it, but it’s there in the event of an emergency. The fire extinguisher can serve as a reminder to you today that we never want to extinguish the inspirational fire that we have ignited with our students. It is much too difficult to get that burning desire for making art to light again and far too easy to extinguish it forever by our words, our actions and attitudes. Sometimes we allow our own discouragement to wind its creepy way into how we respond to students. It’s not their fault that our evaluation didn’t go so well, or that our student loan is still not paid, or that our supply budget was cut or that we came to school unprepared. It’s also easy to let others drench the flame that we once had for teaching art in the first place. Remember during your first year teaching how you loved seeing the wonder of imagination in the eyes of those students? Remember how you decided that you’d rather make a difference in the lives of children than have that desk job? Remember how your middle school teacher seemed to understand you when no one else cared? Remember how that high school art teacher inspired you to become one yourself? Remember how that was going to change the world? Well, world-changer whatever you are doing now as you are reading this, I can book that somewhere there is an inspired art student who is going to change the way the world thinks about art. All you have to do now is fan the flame!