At the start of almost every art class (pre-K through 2nd grade) I read a picture book related to the lesson. There’s a magical quality in the air when kids raise their eyes in wonder and let themselves be drawn into something that isn’t even on a screen.

A telling moment for me is when kids go “Whoa!”

In Ian Falconer’s Olivia, this happens without fail when she learns how to make sand castles, and gets “pretty good” by crafting the Empire State Building.



They also always say “Whoa!” in Janell Cannon’s Verdi when the young python shoots himself off a branch into the air:


They’re genuinely impressed by these actions. “But wait a sec,” I want to say. “You’re saying ‘whoa’ like you actually believe Olivia built that, and Verdi can fly. You do see they’re just drawings, right? Not even digital of 3-D or that realistic or anything! Please tell me you’re just playing along, or mouthing this ironically. Because if you can somehow be that invested in a simple picture, it either means you have some sort of psychological disconnect with reality, or that these books have some kind of magical spell. But how can a few floppy, stapled, reproduced pages invoke magic? If books can make you believe in the impossible with just a few simple words and lines, then think of the power they have? I mean, the genuine, mind-altering and world-shaping power!”


Name that Kid

I’m sometimes asked, with more than 900 students in our school, how do I remember all the names? Out of context, like at the mall, it’s not always easy (no comment on whether it’s easier or not to remember the kids whose names you have to say the most: “Bob, this is not a splatter paint lesson!” “Bob, hands are for helping!” “Bob, stop eating the clay!”)

With kids representing more than 40 nationalities, there are many unique and uncommon names in our school. Happily, I’ve never once seen a kid teased for what they’re called. A few in particular give me a kick: I’m proud to say that Raphael, Leonardo, Rodin and Monet are all dedicated art students of mine (not to mention a girl who goes by Squid). But going over the class lists, I have to say the three new incoming students whose official names I like best are:  Sky, Poet, and – my new personal favorite – Spock.

Live long and do your homework, kids!

Happy New Year!

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A couple weeks ago I introduced the next project: “Kids, this is going to be very special: a tile mosaic mural created by the entire fourth grade that will be permanently mounted for display in the front entrance way! Amazing, huh?”

“Uh, sure, Mr. Roth. Whatever you say.”

“Of course, first we have to collect old ceramics, like tiles and mugs and plates. You’ll all remember to ask your parents for donations, right?”

“Is this, like, art homework? Because you never give…”

“And then we’ll have to break it all.”

Suddenly, a glint appears in their eyes. A glint! “Wait, did you say…break, Mr. Roth?”

“Into thousands of tiny pieces. With hammers. Of course, you’ll have to wear safety goggles. In case, you know, sharp shards go flying.”

The students’ jaws drop open. “How do we sign up?!”

“Don’t worry about that. They’ll be plenty to break for everyone. And once that’s done, we’ll finally get to the fun part: the mural design and implementation of the design!”

“Oh, right: the design. Yea.”

Because there’s one thing I know about kids: they love to create.


Yellow Snow (Not THAT Kind)

It’s fun to play with kids’ minds. Every winter, I read first graders the gorgeous Jan Brett book, The Mitten, based on the Ukrainian folktale . “What color is snow?” I ask, and they all shout “White!” Of course snow is white. That’s why Baba tells Nicki not to drop the white mitten she made him; in the white snow it will be lost forever (at least until Spring…) Nicki drops the mitten within seconds. Probably had to text something on his phone.

After that, I have the first graders design colorful mittens that will stand out in the snow. And all is well. Until second grade, that is.

In second grade, we again we read a Jan Brett book: The Three Snow Bears. In this story, Aloo-ki enters the three bears’ igloo while the bears are out for a walk. She tastes their soup, tries on their boots, and slips into their beds – until she finds one that’s just right.

After closing the book, I again ask the students, older and smarter all, “So now what color is snow?” They shriek the predictable answer. And that’s when I reveal the true, but shocking truth: snow isn’t white, it’s blue! And purple! And gray! Okay, it’s sometimes white, but if you really look at the Snow Bears’ landscape, most areas are rendered in cool colored shadows. For the non-believers, I then take them to the window and point out the many shades of snow on the playground. They begin to sense the second, shocking truth: Art class is as much about learning to look as learning to draw.

Of course, some kid then squeals, “That snow is yellow!” “The slanting rays of the golden sun,” I point out. “The sun is behind a cloud, Mr. Roth,” the kid continues with folded arms. Guess they like to play with teachers, too.