Mix Tapes & Vibes: How to Create a Positive Classroom Culture

Remember mixtapes?  You spent hours carefully choosing songs to make the ultimate playlists.  Often, the music selections were made with someone else in mind—A girl to whom you wanted to profess your love, an ex you were hoping to win back, a best friend to commemorate a road trip taken together.  Sometimes the mixes were titled based on vibes you wanted to create—”Songs for a Rainy Day,” “Get Pumped,” “Slow Jamz.” The compilations captured and re-told stories of the moments that had made up your life so far. These lyrical time capsules were created to communicate messages to listeners and make them feel a certain way.

It is no longer the 1980’s and 90’s and mixtapes are now considered ‘retro’, but because of Joe Brusca, they may just make a comeback. He compiled a sort of “mixtape” of his own for the first day of school.  He did not begin with the syllabus, but instead started with a personal presentation. BUT, it was more than just “getting-to-know Mr. Brusca” PowerPoint.  The selections Joe included and what he communicated to his students were deliberately chosen to A) introduce them to his discipline and to B) set a tone for the semester.


Here is what he included as he presented images and spoke to the class:

The Language of Art

  • “The medium I used for the painting is oil paints.” 
  • This is a photograph I took and a digital image I created.
  • Joe also explained abstraction and non-objectivity about his alabaster rock piece. He included names of tools like ‘chisels’ and ‘spikes’.

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Personal Experiences in the Field of Art

  • “I worked for a graphic design company as production manager after college at Cal Poly SLO and created many of the artwork/design posters hanging around the room.” Joe wants his students to know he understands the design process as well as the reproduction/print publishing process.


  • “The photo and graphic of the snowboarder hanging on this wall is actually me.  I sponsored when I was in college and was semi-pro for awhile.”   I encourage everyone to stop by Joe’s room to see his snowboarding pic…it is pretty awesome!  

His Own Artwork

  • “This is a digital design I did that was used on the cover of a magazine in Germany.  I have a print of it here in the front of the room.” 

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  • “I sketched in my art journal over the summer on a trip with my family.  I take it wherever I go. Here are some drawings I have done. 
  • “These rings, I am wearing one now, are examples of jewelry I have made for me and for my wife.”

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Connections to Artists and Art History

  • “This is my daughter Remy Monet.  I named her after my favorite artist. Remy is the french medieval town of St. Remy where Nostradamus was born and where Van Gogh painting the starry night and a famous self-portrait.” 
  • Joe also talked about how his connection to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism are the main influences for his paintings, and discovering Dali inspired him to pursue art while in college.

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Connections to Other Subjects and Interests

  • “My son is named Finn Bodhi.  He is named in part because one of my favorite books is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and because it is a family name. ‘Bodhi’ is for the tree of enlightenment that Buddha meditated under to reach nirvana.”
  • Joe also included even more about his favorite TV series, Video games, sports, hobbies

After the presentation Joe had the students go through several four corners activities so that they were moving around the classroom space, talking to one other, and engaging in whole class discussions.

He had them move to four corners based on the following categories:

  • Grade Level
  • Favorite Color
  • Number of siblings
  • Vacations destinations over the summer
  • Types of Pets
  • Favorite Sports
  • Favorite Foods

Once they moved, he would ask questions and get to know the students a bit more. After this activity they had a game of Two Truths and a Lie and ended with an Exit Card.  You can see the Exit Card questions below.


Think about what a rich experience this is for the first day of school.  Joe’s mix of personal background, academic language related to art, and group activities communicates his values and expectations for the class. His students will already begin to talk and think like artists.  They will know a little bit about who Joe is, what is important to him, and the role that art has played in his life. Finally, they will know that he cares about who they are and wants to know their stories. Stories in the classroom are vital.Screen Shot 2018-08-28 at 6.17.20 PMAn ASCD article by S. J. Adrienna Joyce, “Stories Are All We Are,”  discusses why we need more storytelling in the classroom.  Narratives are what connect human beings. In fact, stories should be the very first “formative assessment” we have for our students.  The old adage, “Don’t smile until Christmas” has no place in education today.  We learn better when we connect, feel valued, and see relevance. Joe certainly accomplished all three. Creating a classroom culture where students feel safe and respected should be a priority for every teacher on campus.  So try these this school year:

  • Learn who your students are, where they came from, what they value, their feelings toward school and toward your subject matter.
  • Tell them stories about what led you to pursue your interests and teach in your field.
  • Bring in pictures of you or important objects related to your subject.
  • Talk the language of English, of science, math, psychology, band, history, P.E., auto, band, culinary arts, psychology, photo, video production, etc.
  • Explain the ways in which you continue to read, research, and produce in your subject matter.
  • Give the students a survey to learn more about them.
  • Conference with students one-on-one during class time.

Remember that school is not only about teaching skills, it is also about building relationships. And just because the school year has already started, don’t think you’ve missed your opportunity. It is never too late to “be kind, rewind!” Start a class with a little bit about you. Allow students a glimpse into what shaped you into the person you are today.  Connect and create a vibe that you and your students can groove to until June.

If you made a mixtape for the school year, what would you title it?  Leave a comment and let us know! Joe’s would be: “The Surreal Times of My Life!”



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