I have found that middle school kids WILL get motivated if it has
relevance to their lives. One of the most successful things I've ever
done with them is woven hemp stuff, bead weaving, etc. Polymer clay
beads are good, but expensive and involve razors. Origami that ends up
with a product like a cup, box, etc., can work. I have found the best
way to teach origami is to actually xerox every stage of the work. Go
into the copy room and make the model, copying each stage. Color one
side of the paper with the side of a crayon so the two sides are
contrasted in the copies. If you have the time and equipment, tape
your hands going through the stages and play it for the kids. This lets
you concentrate on them rather than your demo model. Peace cranes are
definitely within their ability level.
Other trendy stuff they enjoy is designing tattoos, CD labels, etc.
Stay away from long-term, slow result stuff (at least at first) like
As far as behavior goes, I am a shameless briber and have "competitions"
between tables or groups for dinky little prizes like stickers, etc.
Some folks say that that spoils them, but I have found that it sets a
certain level of calm that they then come to expect.
This next idea has been batted about a lot. After 25 years of teaching,
I no longer have an "open studio" approach to working. I play music. I
choose very calming stuff, usually baroque...playing popular music leads
to general hyperactivity and a lot of posturing, arguing over styles,
etc. WAY too disruptive. While the music is on, there is no talking.
I used to think that art should be looser, they have to be so controlled
in their other classes, etc., but I have finally come to see that the
kids interpret the ability to talk and move around the room at will as
evidence that art is undisciplined and just not as important as the
other classes where they have to be quiet. This change has not come
easily to me and at time I do feel like the art nazi. But in general,
it is working for me. I don't think the kids are suffering. We have
block schedule and I allow a full 10 minute break with snacks, then back
Good luck to you. It can be SO frustrating, but you will come up with
the ways that work for you.