Teaching Basic Skills Through Art

A few weeks ago, I was teaching a simple leather-bound book project to 2 different groups of 'at-risk' kids.  One day my students were middle-schoolers, the next they were high-schoolers.  The 2 classes were interesting to compare with one another. 

During the middle school class, we had no music to listen to (and, honestly, it never even occurred to me, as I had plenty of instruction to give), but during the high school class, we listened to someone's i-pod on shuffle, a bit too loud, with a bit too much rap.  Now, I like rap (not misogynistic, violent rap, and, yes, it's out there) but this was a time for maybe jazz or classical - you know, a chance to broaden the kids' listening experience.  I taught the same project to each group and each group had college student mentors in a good student/mentor ratio.

What I found was that during the middle school group, there was a lot of great conversation around the project and around creative possibility.  But during the high school group, things were a bit chaotic and there were concepts that the kids just didn't get - like making sure the pages (with different h x w dimensions) were stacked uniformly, even though I explained that to them as I handed them their matching pages.    Also, some of the high school kids hadn't had much experience using scissors (!). 

Many of these kids are living in chaotic situations already, they don't need to be in another chaotic environment, is my theory.  Perhaps some early jazz and classical music next time will provide a calmer, yet inspiring environment.  I'll try it.

So my next challenge is how to make some projects, without them seeming remedial and condescending, that teach basic skills to the kids.  Ideas?