About this Site and Me

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Flower Mound, TX, United States
Hi, I am an artist, wife, mom, gamer and the Elementary Art Educator at Donald Elementary, a sweet and wonderful school in Flower Mound, TX (outside of Dallas). This is a great place to see how we are integrating studio habits with technology and interdisciplinary connections. I also love to share my "wisdom" (Re: Experiences. From mistakes.) about teaching Elementary Art. I love what I do, and I've been doing it for a long time. Creating and teaching Art is what I live for. Enjoy.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

How to do: Free Choice Centers

Alrighty. Here's a common Art Ed issue that tends to stress us out:

What to do with those early finishers? Those kids who genuinely finished their work of art two weeks before everyone else? You know the ones. You have already convinced them to add more details, fill in the space, go back and edit/revise their art. They. Are. Done.
Now what?

And....don't forget...
  • These kiddoes need to be acting and thinking like artists, not bored.
  • They cannot disrupt the other kids who are still working.

Yep. She is done. And the rest of the class needs another rotation. Now what?

Solution? Free Choice Centers:  a variety of art based activities for students to create and play. 

STOP. Don't cringe at the word "play". Obviously I am not talking about "running around the playground screaming your head off" kind of play. With all the prescribed standards in education, our kids have lost the time to play- time to experiment, to make mistakes, to start over, to use their imaginations and collaborate (play with friends). This time is crucial for creative growth.

When you get a new food processor or blender, what do you do? You play with it. You make smoothies. You try out mashed potatoes. You figure out how it works.

You get a new cool art supply, you play with it. 

Our kids need the same time with their inner artist. And they don't get this time.

Oh, and before I forget, these Centers are not just for early finishers, as they are PERFECT for:
  • Emergency sub plans. For those days when you or your child wake up sick, and you have no time to throw something together. It is so easy! The kids have already been trained and have a lot of options. Subs are happy, the kids are happy, you can chill and focus on your needs.
  • That crazy week before a holiday break. Especially if it is only two or three days. You can create challenges or themes for the Centers.
  • If you have a class out of rotation. Elementary teachers, you know what I am talking about. That class that is a week ahead of all the others? That extra class during the week? Give them a Center Day to allow time to catch up. You will love it and so will the kids.
Typically, an early finisher will do a Center for about 15-20 minutes. This is time for the kids to act and think like an artist. This is time for them to do their own thing, while the rest of the class is finishing the major project. Their Center project can go home, or be saved for continued work. (Some Art teachers have year-long weavings or sculptures as a Center.) This can be time for you to play with TAB philosophy, although this is not really a TAB post.

Adding and using Centers is 21st Century Thinking. This is what is coming down the pike. This crucial time for students to choose their own path, make their own choices, is being discussed and explored by innovative educators in all areas of education.

In Art Centers, you can utilize traditional art making, Design Thinking (design and create a product), you can add technology challenges (meet your tech requirements and use those computers!), you can recycle supplies and use them for collage or construction, you can use up media you don't have time to use in class.

BONUS: Centers are inexpensive. You can raid your kid's toy box, your garage, garage sales, whatever, where ever. 

WARNING: You might have to adjust how you manage your room and behavior expectations.

Students on the right are finishing the project. Students to the left are doing Free Choice Centers. A student at the back is assessing and putting her image is her digital portfolio. 

In order to implement Free Choice Centers in your room, as few things have to be in place:

  • First of all, the kids have to be able to move freely around the room. A 21st century Art room allows freedom for the student to act and think like an artist. They can solve their own problems. Let them walk around and get their own supplies, sharpen their own pencil. Have clear behavior expectations, and you will see your kids rise to the challenge. 

They can totally handle this. I have done this in urban and suburban schools.
  • Appropriate supplies need to be located where students can access them. I'm talking crayons, markers, pencils, scissors, glue. Easy. Basic. I have a supply table in the center of the room so every kid Kinder through Fifth can access their basic supplies. 
Scrap paper, glues, pencils, erasers, Sharpies, scissors, rulers. Easy Peasy.

  • Wet materials (printmaking, paint and clay) are not used for Free Choice Centers in my room. This would be your choice. I choose to not deal with an added mess. I have used modeling clay in the past with a variety of results. It's great if you and your kids don't mind gray/brown clay as they will mix the colors. (It’s messy, so make sure you have laminated place mats and wet wipes for clean up.) At some point the clay got so gross I threw it out and never got around to ordering more...

  • Review and Remind. I clearly explain Centers the first week of school.  I remind the kids throughout the year. I have signs and charts explaining Centers. I have clear expectations for behavior and clean up. We use this Clean Up Chart. Every. Single. Class:

A 21st Century Art room, with movement and collaboration, can be noisy. There are kids on the floor. There are kids working in groups, alone, leaning over tables to share information. I used to demand a quiet Art room. But with Centers, the kids became so excited and super engaged...and so talkative! I realized I was giving myself tons of unwanted stress over something I could no longer control. This need for quiet made little sense. Plus, THE KIDS LOVED COMING TO ART. Why was I freaking out?  I had to adjust my thinking and my teaching style. It was hard. It took a few years. 

My room is not noisy all the time, nor is it deafening. But it is no longer silent, and it's ok. (I can close my door, and as long as I can get their attention quickly, we are good.)

(Please note, I am referring to Center time when I talk about the noise level. While we are deep in a project, the expectation is still "peaceful and calm".)

Here are some successful Centers I use. I have about 20 different options. I tend to rotate in and out through the years, and I order/create new Centers when I can. Here are some highlights:

*a note about the images: 
I am purposely showing pictures of (mostly) kindergarten using Centers, to prove they can handle this independence. So can 5th graders.

This is where our Centers live, on these 4 bottom shelves. Yes, this is how they look every day. It is part of the clean up expectation. And, I am not their mommy, so I do not clean up after the kids. *smiley face*

Free draw (with or without challenges)
This is the most basic, and most important, Center. All you need is a supply of drawing paper: scraps, sketchbooks, donated paper. This is a great Center as many kids no longer draw or color at home anymore. Remember how we made cards? Yeah, our little ones don't do that. You could include:
    • "How to draw" books and worksheets. You might not like these kind of books, but if your school participates in "Scholastic Book Fairs", you might find these are gifted to your room. They are fine, as long as kids understand these books are the baby steps and they need to draw on their own after. This year, PTA gave me a Spirograph! Remember those?
    • Objects for observational drawing (stuffed animals, old technology, natural objects, etc.)
    • A variety of papers, various sizes
    • White boards and markers (many of my autistic kids LOVE this media)
    • Artist Tiles/Zentangles/Super Intense Patterns and Doodles/Whatever You Call It: offer examples, books, pre-cut paper and Sharpies 

Drawing Challenges, thank you to all the amazing art teachers who post their ideas on FB!

(Personally, my least favorite Center as this is one art form I fail at. It is embarrassing. I could tell you the sad story of the origami artist who came to our school when I was in 6th grade, and how I was the only kid who couldn't get it, but I will spare you the gory details.) Kids LOVE this. This is an important Center as their fine motor skills are somewhat lacking due to technology. Plus, it is super cheap.

See how I use box lids as containers? It's because I am classy.

Hey! There's a cool iPad app for Origami: Origami Pro

The kids practice on the app first, then try it with paper.

Straws and Connectors.
I wasn't prepared for what happened when I purchased these. These are magical. I can't even explain.

I have a teenage son who owns about 5.6 million Lego's. We are also fortunate to have a dad at school who works for the company. Notice how many I have though: NOT A TON. Because that would be too much for my little room.

This is a GREAT CENTER for the Art room. Give them challenges if you want, or just allow them to explore sculpture, form, construction, engineering, all that good stuff.

(PJ day, how cute is this?) This is Kinder, cleaning up, quickly.

Perfect for the kid who needs to chill out. Or has a lot of time to devote to this art form. Not my most popular Center, but there is always 1 or 2 kids participating. Mosaic squares can be purchased from art supply stores, or you can cut your own from scraps. 

Puzzles and games.
I have had no luck with Art games, but the kids love these tessellation and shape puzzles. Great for fine motor and concentration. Also great for the kid who needs some "quiet alone time".

So I ordered those expensive magnet games, but the kids prefer the one I made with a coffee can. I glued magnets on buttons, lids and beads. They love it.
Go figure.

Those magnetic lids can be purchased at hardware stores for 5 bucks. They are for holding nails and screws. And no, these kids do not put the little pieces in their mouth, but that is a serious consideration. Think about your kids before having small magnets in your room. 

These girls are super proud of their robot!

Aaaaaand, this was the only time it was played with.

Our district integrates technology within learning. They just created their own App Store (with help from Apple), with "district approved apps" (Free, elementary age appropriate apps, with no chatting ability) available for download. Here at Donald every kid (2nd-5th) has a school issued iPad and I have 4 laptops in my room. We are tech heavy. To learn more, check out the 1:X tab up top.

The kids are allowed to use their iPads for Centers, with a few guidelines:

  • They can only use art apps (listed below)
  • They must create digital art (drawings, paintings, stop action movies, etc.) and act like an artist. (This is when I talk about how David Hockney uses his iPad to create art.)

Here are some of our current iPad apps: 

Blendoku: a very fun color theory app. The kids love having competitions. 

Tayasui Sketches and Inspire Pro (free): great drawing and painting apps with fun features
Kids 2nd-5th can easily use these apps to create digital drawings and paintings. 

iMotion  and Stop Motion (stop action movie making apps):

Making a movie in Elementary Art was unheard of 5-10 years ago. Now, kids can create a quality movie, with music, dialogue and sound affects, in no time. It is so exciting. If you want, give them themes or ideas.
Making a movie using a "photo shoot" backdrop and objects borrowed from our library.

Backdrops are laminated calendar pages or small works of art taped onto book ends. Great way to teach photography and movie making!

Sensory Tubs in our Library, this is what the kids grab to make their photos or movies.
Our Library has Sensory Tubs that the kids can borrow. We are fortunate to have them for learning photography and movie making. These are amazing resources.

You can grab small toys and figures from a Dollar Store or your kid's toy box. Or, have the kids use art supplies to create their movie.

I keep this box of scrap yarn for finger weaving, friendship bracelets, learning how to tie knots, yarn/glue pictures. It is a favorite. The kids love the textures and colors. A couple times a year I clean it out as it tends to grow.

I started buying rubber stamps at Michael's when I saw they were on sale for a dollar. Who could beat that? I also have some pretty awesome donated foam stamps. Honestly, the stamps pads are kinda pricey, so sometimes the kids use markers, which work great. They love stamping, and when they get into story telling, you can see their creativity exploding. 

Check out that focus.

So, yeah, I was the one that rolled her eyes when stencils were mentioned. If you said "Stencils!", I smirked. PSH. NOT SERIOUS ART MAKING.

That is, until a teacher donated her entire stash of stencils and the kids LOVED them. They ate them up. So I begrudgingly allowed them. But nowadays, I see that they are super important for our kids to work on fine motor skills. They need tracing practice, do not discount this. They need the drawing confidence stencils help build. Plus, some fine artists and architects use them, so they can't be that bad, right?

Plus, they help teach craftsmanship!

See? They love them. 
I know what you are thinking: What a mess! How much time does it take to clean up?!

Clean up
I am not gonna lie. If you are going to add Centers, then you better be on your clean up game. First of all, the kids do not want to stop. Second, there is a hot mess of various art supplies all over your room.

Here's what saves me:

  • I have "clean up alarms" set on my phone (and iPad, you know, just in case...). Grades 1-5 gets 5 minutes for clean up, Kinder gets 8. THIS IS A LIFE SAVER. Egg timers don't work, what if you forget to set it? Set the alarms on your phone. They will go off, even on school holidays, which is a real treat. 
  • This "Clean Up Chart": Every. Single. Class. 

  • I say, "Step One..." 6 times a day. It works. 
  • MONITOR. Look for the kid who is spinning. Look for the kid who is pretending to pick up a piece of paper. Give them specific jobs. 
  • You are not the one who made the mess. You are not the one who picks up. Have clear, concise clean up directions. Do not be vague. Say things like, "Everyone pick up 5 things off the floor that should not be there". Manage their expectations.  
  • The kids LOVE Centers. Worse case scenario, if they do not clean up well: take them away for awhile. Bring them back and watch them clean up like a pro.

Kinder cleaning tables, 2 minutes before class is over! Room is clean and smells good, too.

Adding and using Centers is not a difficult transformation. Start with a few options, have clear expectations, expect fun and enjoyment, and watch the kids explode with creativity. They are worth the mess, I promise.