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How this Indianapolis art teacher helps students banish self-doubt

“No trolls allowed.” Drawings from Indianapolis art teacher Kate Toebes’ class hang in the hallways at Lawrence Central High School.
“No trolls allowed.” Drawings from Indianapolis art teacher Kate Toebes’ class hang in the hallways at Lawrence Central High School.
Courtesy of Kate Toebes

To kick off each semester, Indianapolis high school art teacher Kate Toebes starts with a lesson where she doesn’t expect students to create “good” art.

In fact, it can be the worst drawing they’ve ever made.

The point is for students to eliminate self-doubt and silence trolls — so they can feel confident in their creativity and take risks.

“I had heard so many students say ‘I can’t draw’ or ‘I am not an artist’ over the years, but since we started banishing these self-doubting gremlins, I don’t hear them say this anymore,” said Toebes, who teaches at Lawrence Central High School.

Toebes recently told Chalkbeat about this critical lesson, how she asked students to express their feelings during the pandemic, and why virtually teaching art poses challenges.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What challenges do you expect to face teaching art?

Teaching 3D art virtually is a challenge! 3D is hard to capture in a 2D medium like photos or video. I really prefer letting the students make all their art and art messes in my classroom studio where I can help guide them as they work. I am a little nervous about how they will do on their own without supervision.

Although they are online with me for a portion of the class, much of the work of the virtual students is completed on their own, and then they show me what they did since the last class. I just have to trust that they will make good choices with their instincts.

What has been your favorite lesson to teach remotely — and what about it works well?

In the spring, I taught a lesson called “pandemic reactions” where I had the students use whatever they had available to create art expressing their feelings about the pandemic and quarantine along with a paragraph about the work.

I think what made this lesson really successful was that they were presenting the lesson just to me, not to the whole class, so they could be vulnerable on a level that they would not reach if they had all their peers around them.

I was so touched to hear the stories of the student who was struggling to care for younger siblings while also trying to manage her schoolwork, the student who did a photo study of the empty playgrounds, the student who created a collage of all the places she wished she could travel to. There was a sadness and heartfelt longing in much of the work that I have not heard from my students before. I was honored to be able to be trusted to validate these responses for my kids.

Tell us about how you incorporate social and emotional learning into art classes.

I start each semester with one of my favorite activities, which I call “Banishing Gremlins and Trolls.” I kind of got the idea from Brené Brown, who researches shame. She wrote in “Daring Greatly” that most people can remember a shameful incident in school that changed how they saw themselves. She called many of those memories “creativity scars,” when people were told they weren’t good at creative endeavors like writing, art, or music.

​So I thought about this and how I could prevent creativity scars from happening in my classroom. Brené also mentions shame gremlins that live inside our heads that tell us that we are not good at things and basically challenge our core worthiness. I want more than anything for my classroom to be a place where students can take creative risks, but they absolutely have to know that they are safe to do this.

Trolls. You know them: They say terrible things to get a reaction out of other people. They criticize, mock, and inflame. I believe they are not who we really are, but a symptom of a past hurt coming out.

So here is what we do: We write every terrible thing we say to ourselves, that others say to us, or that we can imagine someone saying that would hurt someone’s feelings. We scribble those words all over the paper with markers. Then we overlay that with a drawing of a gremlin or troll.

This is not supposed to be good art! It is supposed to be free, maybe goofy, maybe the worst drawing you have ever done. Then we name it. Mine have names like “troublesome Tyrone” and “grouchy Greta.” Then we banish them from our art-making space. This might sound like a ridiculous exercise to do with high school students, but I am telling you it works!

I had heard so many students say “I can’t draw” or “I am not an artist” over the years, but since we started banishing these self-doubting gremlins, I don’t hear them say this anymore. If a student ever makes a negative comment about others’ work, several students will immediately respond, “That is a troll comment and those are banished from the art room.”

Do you plan to talk with your classes about the antiracism protests that took place following the police killing of George Floyd?

Yes, I do want to address this. I think it will fit into our African masks lesson. We talk about the masks we wear literally and figuratively. We talk about ethics and appropriation. I think social justice will be a bigger part of this already rich discussion.

Tell us about your own experience with school and how it affects your work today.

As a high school sophomore, I was walking down the hallway when the art teacher (who I knew from middle school art) Mr. Bob Gabbert came up to me and asked me why I was not in his art class. I didn’t think I was good at art, but he told me that I was and that I should take his class. That moment changed my life. I try to never miss an opportunity as a teacher to change a student’s life.

What’s the best advice you ever received — and how have you put it into action?

As a student teacher, my supervising teacher told me not to be afraid to be real with the students. They can sense phoniness, and they need authentic humans in their lives. I had thought that I had to show up in some kind of way to be acceptable as a teacher, but now I am just me in and out of the classroom. My students appreciate that they can ask me anything, and I will try my best to answer in an appropriate way.

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