The Cracker Box Sketchbook

posted on Jul 24, 2020

The quote, “A pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty” is often attributed to Winston Churchill. Whether Churchill said it or not, it’s true.

Top: Supplies gathered for a sketchbook-making YouTube demonstration. Bottom: Emma H., bound sketchbook, grade seven.

As we teach remotely, looking for new ways to reach out to our students, we have a unique opportunity to demonstrate what we teach every day in our classrooms: the value of creativity and creative thinking. Because we have faced the difficulties of minimal funding and budget cuts for many years, art teachers have developed another survival skill for these difficult days: resourcefulness!


Art Survival Guides
My school cancelled classes immediately following spring break, so some of my students did not get to take their supplies, artwork, or sketchbooks home with them. As my middle- school classes moved to online learning, I began to focus on what type of art lessons were possible considering the availability of materials.


Since I didn’t want students to break the habit of working in their sketchbooks, I decided that I would teach them how to make a sketchbook out of materials they could find at home. We decided to call these sketchbooks “Art Survival Guides.” This lesson would not only exemplify resourcefulness, but it would also teach them the skill of bookbinding and sewing, while also focusing on sustainability.


Making the Cover
I created a sketchbook-making video and posted it to my YouTube channel so students could watch the entire process before beginning. Students were instructed to find an empty box, such as a cracker or cereal box, or to empty the contents of an almostempty box into a safe container and save the box.


Next, I demonstrated how to collapse the box carefully without crushing or destroying it. The tabs were carefully pulled away, but not removed until the student decided whether or not to incorporate the tabs into the design. We discussed how the tabs could be used to make pockets for pencils or ephemera, as well as how the tabs, when glued down, gave the edges of the book a more finished appearance.


Students were instructed to make the holes for the binding by measuring and marking every inch down the center crease of the collapsed box. Students dipped a cotton swab in water and moistened the center crease before folding and inserting a needle in each marked inch to make the holes.


Placing Pages
After the cover was prepared, the next step was to fold and cut the papers to fill the sketchbook. I suggested that if students had different types of paper at home, such as construction paper, bond paper, or even notebook paper, it might be nice to vary them within the sketchbook. Students folded each piece of paper in half and chose one piece to use as a template. They measured and trimmed the paper to fit the cover and pierced holes in it to match the holes of the cover. Once all of the folded papers were trimmed and pierced, they were placed inside one another and positioned in the gully of the cover.


The next step was to sew the paper to the cover. I considered that some students had never threaded a needle, so we started with that. And since we were threading a needle anyway, I showed them how to sew a button on a piece of fabric before they began binding their sketchbooks. The thread of choice for the sketchbooks was embroidery thread, but if students only had regular gauge thread, they doubled or tripled it in their needles.


When students completed their sketchbooks, they submitted photos of the inside and outside showing the binding. I was amazed at how well all of them turned out. Some students chose to cover the product graphics on the front of the box with collage materials, while others left it visible. Students were then ready to fill their wonderfully original sketchbooks.


Shelby W., sketchbook cover, grade seven.


Sketchbook Prompts
In my middle-school art classes, we refer to our sketchbook prompts as “Sketchbook Frenzy.” This was also the title of the NAEA 2020 Convention workshop that I was scheduled to present with a colleague, Carrol McTyre, before the convention’s cancellation.


Sketchbook Frenzy works much like a video game. Students are encouraged to work through the first “level” before moving to the next. I allow students to submit prompts to add to the Sketchbook Frenzy, which I update regularly. Since they are the ones submitting the ideas, the prompts are more likely to be relevant and engaging for their peers. I also don’t restrict them regarding the levels. The purpose of the prompts is to draw students into the habit of visual journaling. So, if they want to skip a level, it’s fine with me. You can find a copy of our prompts under the “Handouts and How To’s” tab at my website (see Resource below).


This lesson empowers students by showing them ways to be resourceful with repurposed and available materials as they learn about art online. It’s also another example of how a difficulty became an opportunity.


Melody Weintraub teaches middle-school art at Briarcrest Christian School in Eads, Tennessee, and is currently president of the Tennessee Art Education Association.


Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.


Melody Weintraub website:


View this article in the digital edition.