Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.

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November 16, 2015

Getting Boys Interested in Art, Again.

From: Hester Menier

If you look back through the history of art, men have dominated the field until the most recent past. So it may seem surprising that getting boys interested in art class would be difficult. When art class is competing with classes more preferred by male students, like P.E. and computers, it can be hard to find ways to engage boys effectively in the art classroom. It is disheartening to hear from parents of struggling boys at parent teacher conferences, “Art never has been an activity our child liked, even when he was little, and it still isn’t their favorite subject.” Some years I can find that one idea that really captures the attention of my boy artists and other years, the same concept flops. Frequently what works is something linked with current popular culture, like Minecraft, Legos, NASCAR, etc. But I think I found the secret to success this year, offering a wide choice of opportunities that boys can’t wait to try. Here are my top 3…

#3 Architecture is an artform that is sometimes difficult to offer in an elementary art room due to lack of storage space and materials. I have solved this by making it a temporary work of art that lives on in a photograph. At the end of construction, students use an iPad to save an image of their work to a Google Drive.  This allows it to be shared with family, friends, and on a Smartboard with the whole class. Boys love to construct and problem solve with building materials.  I offer Keva planks, foam blocks, pentominoes, and small wood scraps. If you need materials on the cheap, get the scraps donated from a local construction site or the high school industrial tech class. To get them started I do small lessons on the basics of architecture, like what makes a building strong and durable (like a foundation and proper material choice), how to make the building functional for its intended purpose, and aesthetically pleasing. I offer books on architecture, blueprints and lots of building images. They make the most amazing things! My biggest success so far, a student who frequently refused to even enter the art room many times in the past, built this multi-story building with a weight bearing cantilevered deck. Now he enters the art room with a smile ready to work each week.

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Building with cantilevered deck by a 5th grade student who often refused to participate.  

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Marble Race track from a 5th grade student with poor effort in the past.

#2 Sculpture which is similar in many ways to architecture, but with many more options for materials and subjects. Again, this can have significant storage issues, so my solution, think small like postcard sized. I even have a size tester like the airport has for luggage. Materials for sculpture abound, especially if you can get parents and staff to save you recyclables. Teaching students that there are more than 10 different ways to attach materials really opens their ideas to the possibilities, beyond just glue (see pipe cleaner attachments below). Boys love the challenge of building sculpture when you offer a problem to solve. Because there are so many possibilities for subject, narrowing the field down by offering a problem to solve focuses their ideas. If you add a competition component, it peaks their interest even more. Things I have done with great success are Medieval Castles that need to have defenses to protect the royal family, robots that must stand on their own, and cars that actually roll. Plus an extra bonus, these projects can often connect with the curriculum being taught in the science and social studies classes.

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4th grader making a building with straws, pipe cleaners and foam sheets.

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3rd grader’s beginning parts for a bus. You can see the wheels, chassis, seats and roof with windows.

#1 Sewing and Weaving, traditionally thought of as girly, are a huge hit with the boys. I don’t know if it is because art gives them “permission” to do something usually associated with women, or if it is the practical nature of what is created, that creates the draw. But my boys beg to use the fiber art materials, and often create more at home. There is no need to go big here either, keep weavings, soft sculptures and other fibers projects around the size of your average cell phone. Some of the biggest hits have been finger weaving, ugly dolls and necklace weavings on cardboard. The repeated weaving and stitching movements, often lead to high success rates for boys who usually struggle with the fine motor control that drawing requires.

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Small weaving necklaces by 4th grade boys.

Here is how I know that offering these opportunities are the secret to engaging boys in the art room... I had 2 parents stop me in the hall to tell me their sons were upset to miss art class due to a holiday, because they couldn’t wait to come in a work on a particular project in class. These were boys who had history of not caring much for art class which showed in their work. And the parent, of a child I didn’t teach in Kindergarten or 1st grade, told me at Meet the Teacher Night, “Good luck with my son, he hates art class.” A few weeks ago at the end of class, he begged me to let him bring dad down to the art room to see what he had made. After school that very excited student dragged dad in, and excitedly showed him the wonderful work he had created. Making sure to offer opportunities that boys enjoy can ensure they are as interested in art as the girls.

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