Assigning Beauty

Flowerblade“We’ve been talking, and we’re tired of doing kid stuff,” said Andy, one of my favorite trouble-making fifth-graders. We were only a few days into school, and Andy had become the unofficial mouthpiece for student-teacher negotiations in my classroom. I found this half-amusing and half-terrifying. I wasn’t sure if I was ready for Organized Labor in my classroom just yet.

My assignment was of the fresh-from-summer, first week variety: we were going to make some artwork to hang on the wall. I’ve always enjoyed beautifying and taking ownership of my environment, like anyone who decorates his/her home, and I knew that students feel the same way. Studies support that filling the classroom with student-created artwork causes students to feel more socially and academically invested. Allowing people to see tangible examples of their own work and expression is a great way to instill a sense of ownership and pride, regardless of age group. (This is, in part, why local businesses sometimes “personalize” their environs with customer photos and artwork, I suspect.)

Everything was falling into place until Andy declared that these new fifth graders had talked about it, and they “wanted to make something cooler than sloppy paintings or whatever.”

Andy was a charismatic rascal, but I wondered if he actually spoke for other students. Had his protestations come out of real conversations with his classmates, or was Andy simply destined for politics? Either way, I suspected the opinions he presented as collective may indeed become collective.

Eager to wrangle this new energy before it turned chaotic, I fired up the projector and displayed some black and white photos I had taken of the moon over the ocean. The image was mysterious and powerful, swallowing the front of the classroom.

“Do you guys want to make things like this?” I asked. Clearly ecstatic that I had listened (and deviated from my lesson plan), the class became a chorus of affirmation.

Not Just For Art Teachers

Letting your students customize their environment is a great first week activity, regardless of what subject and age group you’re teaching. (Administrators can use this logic, too. We teachers aren’t immune to the charms of seeing our ideas on the wall.) Projects like this one communicate many things about you to your students: you care about their input, you’re tech-literate (even if you’re not), you value beauty for its own sake, and—most importantly—you’re not a square. (Also, don’t say “square,” lest you become one.)


That first week, I began what would be a monthly tradition for us—a themed photography contest where everyone won. (“Contest” sounds way cooler than “assignment.”) Cell phones and digital cameras are ubiquitous, and most of my students had access to one at home. But I had an alternate plan for those who didn’t.

I sent a note home with the students explaining that I wanted to display their photos in the classroom, and provided my school email address to receive any pictures taken. Parents loved this assignment, as it gave them something fun to do with their children. I gave the students a week to get their photos to me through email or by printing them out. I didn’t want to leave out anyone without time or access to the right technology, so…

This could be you.


Mini-Field Trip

I had our resident photography expert (and art teacher) give the students a quick primer on focus and composition. (Yes! Fifth graders are more than capable of understanding these basics.) We took a walk around the playground and into a nearby nature trail. A couple fellow staffers were kind enough to help and bring digital cameras as well. The students were assigned small groups and took photos (with adult assistance) of leaves, wood chips, (blurry) birds, the sky, flowers, and everything else we encountered. We adults trusted the students’ vision and care in handling the equipment (for a few supervised seconds). The resulting respect and good behavior on display were incredible!

After our field trip and the students’ home assignment, we had plenty of great photos to go around. As a Friday reward, we had a photo editing party on the projector. Some students had even used photo apps on their parents’ tablets and phones to create stunning visual effects. (A free online version of Adobe Photoshop is very helpful. Especially creative young artists can use apps like Juxtaposer to create some amazing results.)

I printed out at least one picture for every student and put them in inexpensive-but-classy paper frames, and hung up the results after school. On Monday, the classroom was filled with smiles, exclamations, and wild color. Even Andy had to concede that it was “awesome” that I let them make classy, adult-level artwork. When the principal visited my classroom and asked who took all the “lovely photographs,” I was indescribably proud to point to my students. I could tell my principle’s astonishment was genuine.

Assignment Quick Tips

  • • Don’t commit to a schedule. As the year goes on, such a labor-intensive project may not be the right fit. Spontaneous is best.
  • • Use themes. These can be tied in with whatever you’re hoping to teach, or simply fun: “Community,” “Growth,” “Hidden,” “Clouds,” “Autumn,” etc.
  • • Ask for help from your resident photography expert. A quick tutorial could inspire a lifelong passion.
  • • Tell your students why you’re doing this—because you care about their experience of being at school and in your classroom.
  • • Use photographic paper if possible. The jump in quality is noticeable.
  • • There are thousands of craft projects for students (such as these at What differentiates this approach is the attempt at bestowing agency upon the students to create genuinely impressive photographs.

We hope you enjoy this assignment idea. Summer is a great time to indulge in something similar for yourself. After all, it helps to know how fun and inspiring an activity is before you share it with someone else!

 Posted By Greg Teachout, abcteach Team






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