Club Story: Finding the Right Equation in Green Bay

It’s National Arts in Education Week! Today’s Club Story comes from Craig Knitt, Visual Arts Director at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Green Bay.

I heard a statement early in my teaching career that has stuck with me. I heard it from more than one instructor so I knew it was true. They said:

“It is better to love your subject matter than to love your students.”

I have pondered this fact for a long time and because of my deep passion for the Arts, I felt I was on the right track! I love my subject matter, but I also always had a soft spot for my kids. This left me thinking “Uugh! What am I doing wrong?!”

 Throughout my twenty years in the public school system I saw how rewarded the teachers were who remained “no-nonsense.” School was about getting the work done, about teaching the “skills” and personal connections were not important. Teachers were recognized as the best for their class test scores or their strong disciplinary tactics. They practiced strategically placed detentions, and knew just how to use a little public embarrassment to keep the toughest class clowns in their places.

One teacher (Mr. M) ran the tightest ship. From day one his Sophomore class learned just how much he despised their age group. He cracked a plastic baseball bat across the desktops so they knew he meant business. This guy knew his stuff and no one questioned his love for his subject matter. I longed to have that kind of control over my students but discipline was never going to be my strong suit. My caring and compassion for my students was seen as a weakness and Mr. M made it clear he did not admire my teaching style. In staff meetings he often called me out for having “hippie ideas.”

Following my time as a teacher in public school, I received the opportunity to enter the afterschool space. In 2014 I joined the staff at the Boys & Girls Club of Green Bay as a part of the Youth Arts Initiative funded by The Wallace Foundation to answer this question:

What impact do the Arts have on kids (age 10-13) in an afterschool setting?

I began to write up the most thorough and thought-out curriculum on Graphic Arts ever created. I planned and plotted the daily lessons for weeks before I officially started class with my lucky young artists. Then came day one and I quickly learned just how different the Club setting is from “school”. I had a handful of curious onlookers and maybe even a couple that wanted to be there, but for the most part I had a group of kids that had just put in their full work day (at school) and did NOT want to come to the Club for more of the same!

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My detailed curriculum was scrap paper! I needed to rethink.

Lucky for me I had a good start on a crucial part of the job, building positive relationships! Before I started my classes I built positive relationships with the staff and parents by asking questions and communicating in a playful yet thoughtful manner, but more importantly I was building positive relationships with the kids! My room was open for youth to step in and chat with me and it was decorated with awesome comic images and a series of painting that caught the eyes of anyone passing by. I also had examples of my own personal artwork on display.

Building positive relationships and a genuine sense of caring between yourself and your youth often times means you must make yourself vulnerable.

Vulnerability is not just a word that you can take lightly.

Artists express vulnerability often. Whenever they share a work of art they are sharing a part of their soul, a part of their inside that leaves the creator very vulnerable. This is something that’s important to teach our youth and give them the space to explore.

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My classes enjoy weekly “camp fires” where we all sit on the floor in a circle. Sometimes we use a flashlight with the overhead lights out. We’ll tell stories, have candy and talk.  We talk about where we should go with the class, what we should create next and what cool stuff we’ve seen. We talk about what we should finish, how we should finish and what successes we’ve had. We also talk about ourselves! What movies we like, what songs we like or whatever the topic turns to. Most kids love to talk when given the chance, especially when they know someone who cares is listening.

Connecting with youth has always been easy for me because, if I’m being honest, I’m a big kid myself. That helps! Stay true to the child we all have inside ourselves. When something gets you excited, allow yourself to get excited! When you find things you think are interesting, share them with your kids. If you are a bit of a clown, allow that to happen. But, make sure you’re being genuine!

 Kids are young but that doesn’t mean they can’t sniff out a ‘fake’ immediately.

You’ll become the blunt of their jokes if you behave that way.

My class of young artists has created cards, calendars, posters, animated clips, independent videos, games and countless drawing in our space. They have created packages, architecture plans, costumes, props as well as scripts and characters for their own movies AND a professionally printed comic book. The Imagination Station has become a place where my students strive to create.

Find more examples of youth work on Craig’s Youtube Channel!

My students know that once you’re Mister Craig’s kid you’re always Mister Craig’s kid! 

After 5 years of hard work, of being studied and surveyed by an independent research group, and working in partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs of America and The Wallace Foundation the results we found through the Youth Arts Initiative were no surprise to me:

The Arts are significantly important in the lives of our youth and we have the data to prove it!

Oh, and remember Mr. M? Well I was there the year he retired. He was recognized at an end of the year banquet for his incredible contribution to the school district. After he talked with many of the other staff he pulled me aside for an intimate moment. “You know what, Knitt?” he stated. “This last year I ran my classes like you would have. I’m not sure they learned any more but they didn’t learn any less…. and I had a lot more fun!” With that we both smiled. I knew inside that the joy he shared with his students in that last year combined with his love for his subject matter made all the difference in the world.

Turns out, the right equation is love for subject matter PLUS love for youth!

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What are your favorite Arts activities? How do you make sure youth feel like they belong? Would you like to write for the Club Experience Blog? Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email to share your Club Story!


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