Making Spitballs In Art Class

Last week, over at Dewey21C blog, Richard Kessler linked to the Arts cover story in American Teacher magazine (starts on page 10). The magazine is published by The American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teachers unions in the country so this is going out to a lot of people.

I know we have heard it before, but it really got my hackles up to read about the arts being viewed as a fun subject or a “frill designed to provide students with a break from their regular classroom routine.” So learning isn’t supposed to be fun, eh? Well I am glad educators finally came out and admitted what I suspected in elementary and high school. I hadn’t realized enjoyment was such an impediment to one’s ability to learn.

The thing is, an arts teacher has to great crowd control skills. Because students view it as a relaxed, enjoyable experience, arts classes engender the energy of gym class without the opportunity to expend it with physical activity. Teachers need to be adept at channeling that energy into creative outlets rather than goofing around. Classes can often require the materials supervision of a science lab so teachers need to make sure students don’t leave the room with substances embedded in their clothes that weren’t there when they arrived.

Besides, anyone who says learning about the arts is fun clearly hasn’t had a conductor lecture about a piece ad infinitum prior to a concert.

I am only half kidding about when I make that comment. There is plenty of serious scholarly work that has been done on the arts that can be taught. The fact arts can be fun and be the subject of significant study should be to its credit. I will admit that the arts haven’t done a good job showing its connection to other disciplines.

We talk about the arts’ inherent power to raise test scores but art is not created in a vacuum entirely independent of any other discipline. Maybe that fact needs to be explored and exploited more often. An artist often needs to be a historian and researcher. They need to know about the properties of materials and how they interact. (The number of times I have heard about ceramics being ruined when a person uses low fire clay in a high fire kiln is proof enough of this.) The artist needs to know about physics and mathematics. (Fibonacci progression in music, anyone?)

Paper making alone can be used in conjunction with history (Silk Road, preservation of knowledge, expansion of literacy) and science (what is the volume of water that different types of pulp can absorb).

This was what I had in mind when I talked about arts teachers needing to be good classroom managers. I was once involved with an outreach project where we went into schools with paper making. We didn’t do anything in connection with science and history and maybe we should have. But as far as I am concerned, any teacher who can keep kids engaged and on task when they have the ingredients for a massive spitball on the table in front of them is truly a master teacher.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “Making Spitballs In Art Class”

  1. I totally, totally agree!
    I grew up as the daughter of a theatre professor. From middle school on, all of my papers in every subject had something to do with theatre! My only motivation for taking math classes was just in case I ever had to do accounting or something else involving math for a theatre. My understanding of history, literature, foreign language, philosophy, and even science all came alive with plays like A WALK IN THE WOODS, MOTHER COURAGE, COPENHAGEN. Theatre has value so much farther beyond what we are using it for today!


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