Making Art Class Relevant Again9 min read


Students today want to know the purpose behind what they are learning and how what they are learning will help them in the future. Every teacher will eventually hear the question, “Why do I have to learn this?” Any effective teacher will have a meaningful response to that very valid question. Eight years ago, while revamping my art program as part of my Master’s degree project, my research definitively verified the importance of these two traits. Relevance and Vision help motivate students and give meaning to what too many students feel are seemingly random assignments and projects. As a Christian teacher in a Christian school promoting Christian values, I felt that a Bible verse could best accomplish the creation of this mission.

“… whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV).

This verse now serves as a goal we strive to meet in the art program at Lutheran High Northwest (LHNW) in Rochester Hills, Mich. where I have been blessed to serve for the past 22 years.

  • It reminds us that every activity we engage in has meaning and relevance.
  • It encourages us to challenge ourselves to a level of mastery.
  • It stimulates us to build relationships.
  • It motivates us to seek opportunities to utilize our gifts in service of our Savior.

At LHNW we constantly remind students that “we love and serve God by loving and serving those He has placed around us.” It has become my mission to find service opportunities specifically for the art students that I can weave into our curriculum. I want my students to see that their skills can serve God just like anyone else’s. I believe the verse above encompasses all these goals perfectly. I put it on the head of my newsletter, post it in my classroom, and begin each year talking about what that verse means to us as artists, students, and Christians.

[Tweet “I want my students to see that their skills can serve God just like anyone else’s.”]


One of the ways I thought we could move toward this goal is by partnering with our elementary schools and congregations. As part of my Master’s program, I took an “Authors and Illustrators” course that inspired the idea to pair my high school artists with elementary school authors. Out of this came our own “Authors and Artists” project. In this project we partner with the 4th grade class at Our Shepherd in Birmingham. The fourth graders write stories and character descriptions for us and then my Graphics Arts class illustrates the stories and characters and turns them into books. We meet at LHNW for snacks and a book party with the unveiling of the books to the authors as the highlight. The authors and artists get to meet, talk, and have their pictures taken together. We have been able to create 160 books together over the years. This year, the first class we made books for is now making books themselves. We have come full circle!


Empty Bowls Dinner 2013 (20) - Copy

During one of my first years teaching, I helped a student earn his Eagle Scout rank by helping him make ceramic bowls for an Empty Bowls Dinner. Years later, I felt I wanted to revisit this idea and begin a tradition of my Ceramics classes hosting one of these events each year. Our ceramics students make the bowls, soups, desserts, and salads, and we then host one of St. John, Fraser’s Lenten dinners. Our guests are free to eat all they want and take the bowls home with them as a reminder to help those who are in need. Only a free will donation is requested. The money we raise is given to St. John to support their MCREST program, which helps the homeless in Macomb. We leave any useable leftovers to the lunch program at St. John in thanks for letting us use their facilities for the event. To date, we’ve been able to donate over $5,500 to help the homeless. This has been an impactful event for the students who help serve at the dinner and many of them volunteer to help in subsequent years. This year’s dinner is March 25, 2015 from 5-7 p.m. I invite you to come and eat and stay for worship service afterward!

Other projects have been discovered through online research. One project in which we annually participate is called “The Memory Project.” It was started by a man named Ben Schumaker, who sought to give a tangible keepsake to orphans as they moved from shelter to shelter, to help them have some stability in their lives. In this project, students pay a small fee to cover shipping overseas and in return receive pictures of orphans from around the world. They then create an original portrait of the orphaned child and send it back to them as a keepsake. It’s been a good way to get my students thinking about others who are less fortunate and to think about how simply drawing a picture can help others in some small way.  We aren’t allowed to put Christian messages on them, but with “Lutheran” as part of our school name, we can at least demonstrate that we are a group who cares about them. It’s a wonderful idea that has connected us in a small way with kids from India, Pakistan, Peru, Mexico, and Tibet. By the end of this school year we will have sent out over 50 high quality portraits to kids all over the world. If interested, you can find out more about this program at


memory project girls 2014 LHNW


While an undergrad at Concordia University Ann Arbor, my professor, Dr. Ken Schmidt, sponsored a contest among the graphic design students to design the Concordia Christmas card that year. I thought this was a great idea. Each year we now hold a similar contest at LHNW and have the winning design printed and sent out to all our families and recruits. This gets students thinking about Christmas and what it really means. How do you best portray a message so important? One year a local congregation contacted one of our winners and asked if they could use the card for the cover of their Christmas bulletin. What a great opportunity and confidence builder for a budding young artist!

Not all of the ideas come from my head and my research, and not all of them become permanent parts of our program. Parents often discover new opportunities. The Memory Boxes project was suggested to me from a parent, Linda Monks, who had a connection at Beaumont Children’s Hospital and who had been told that this project was about ready to be terminated due to lack of interest. We needed to step up and save it. In this project, my students were provided with a number of blank keepsake boxes that were going to be used by parents who had lost children at the hospital. We painted a few dozen boxes for them, but unfortunately the project was still terminated the year after we participated. The next year we made some works of art for families to hang in their rooms while at the hospital.

Students have begun to find opportunities as well. One of them came to me with the idea of contributing Valentine Cards for Beaumont Children’s Hospital. She had noticed an opportunity at one of the local stores was collecting cards to donate to this cause. We were able to make a couple hundred. This same young lady also told me about “Operation Write Home” where people make holiday cards for soldiers who are stationed overseas. I hope to get my students more involved in this effort in future years, especially as many have loved ones who are stationed in dangerous areas around the world.

kristeen cummings valentines day cards


These are some of the bigger efforts in which we consistently participate, but there are other opportunities that present themselves from time to time. I have done presentations for the Webelos, Cub Scouts, and Boys Scouts to help them earn their art badges. I have had the St. John, Fraser Kindergarten class come in and lead our school in chapel, then come down to do an art project with my students. It’s a great way for both sets of kids to witness to each other. One year, a local grocery store was looking to cover the entire store in hand-painted penguins as part of a corporate contest. We happily obliged! We’ve been able to exhibit art in local malls, churches and even once at Cobo Hall as part of the MANS Conference. I encourage my students to enter all kinds of contests, and some promote Pro-Life and other important social issues. Our students minister to each other too, designing t-shirts, program covers, and logos for different school organizations.


I am most proud of the young men and women who go on to use their gifts for service, and not necessarily just in an art-related field. These students have:

  • Created a mosaic in a grade school;
  • Designed a poster for the Professional Church Workers’ Conference;
  • Submitted illustrations for a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer;
  • Redesigned the exterior of Fisher Body Plant 21 in downtown Detroit for vertical farming;
  • Painted a mural on the wall of Children’s Village, a facility for displaced and homeless youth;
  • Designed the new Kresge Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts;
  • Remodeled projects in Detroit to help revitalize the city;
  • Designed wells in Africa; and
  • Calligraphy work for the George H. W. Bush Foundation and Chick-fil-a.

Many others have become teachers and graphic designers at different companies and churches. In a wide variety of walks of life, there are so many former students who are doing great work and are exemplifying the love of God to others, and I couldn’t be more proud of them!

Cusco 477


Reorganizing our priorities to more align with God’s has resulted in not only greater enthusiasm and support or our art program, but a real sense of relevance for both our artistic gifts and our faith. We have been so blessed by God that we can’t help but find ways to share those gifts with others! In every walk of life, it would do us well to remember why we are here – to love God and our neighbor. This calls for our best efforts in all that we do. It is my hope that my students will always hold 1 Corinthians 10:31 close to their hearts and remember that all the activities we participate in as Christians are relevant, for we are the witnesses of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!

[Tweet “In every walk of life, it would do us well to remember why we are here – to love God and our neighbor.”]

I invite you to visit  and check out our latest art department newsletter, the Crusader Kaleidoscope. If you have any opportunities for our students to be involved in service, please contact me!

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About the Author

Jeff Davis is a proud product of the Lutheran education system (St. Peter, Macomb; Lutheran High North; Concordia University Ann Arbor). He earned his Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Oakland University. As a mid-year grad from Concordia, he was given the opportunity to fill in at Lutheran High Northwest and has been there since, teaching a wide variety of classes in the areas of Art, English, and Theology, as well as coaching numerous sports.

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