In Search of my Previous Teacher

Appreciation

Are you tired, discouraged, fed up, and wondering why you struggle so in your job?  This post is for you…

This has been a rough school year: students not doing their work, more disrespect to me than usual, behavior issues and classroom management problems that have me feeling like a lion tamer with a chair and a whip in my hands.  I teach in a 9th & 10th grade high school with every ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation representation there is.  Many of our students come from low income homes, we have a sizeable SPED and English Language Learners population.  I have been teaching there for 9 years and it has always been a challenging environment, but this year is seems particularly difficult.  I’m 63, a legitimate age to consider retiring – I’m tired, and this is going to be my last semester as a classroom teacher, even though I am short a couple of years before jumping through the golden hoop.  With all of the problems this year, I am sad that my teaching career is going to end this way.  I have felt this year that it feels like I’m mostly spinning my wheels.

Well, the Universe wanted to give me a pick me up, and remind me that the work art educators do is vital and essential to our children’s education.  It couldn’t have come at a better time.   I received an email in my school email from a former student Friday, from a student I’ll call Steve.  Steve searched me out.  He combed the Internet to find me, reached out to verify I was his high school art teacher, and we launched into a conversation.  This is what he said to me:

I took your Art I Sculpture class for the credit, and often times in your class (as in many classes) I would not pay attention, sleep, etc.. typically student. I was not a “bad” student per se. ( I use quotation marks because “bad” is subjective to me) I was an average student as far as academically visibility.   However, I will say this. That school year was one of the worst years of my life, but your class was one of the few things that defiantly made it livable.

I was recently going through videos of my interest, then remembered a video that you showed me in class back in 2014 ( if I am remembering correctly). This made me think about you more and more. This is not the 1st time I recalled back to your classes, but this time it stuck in my head more. What particularly I remember about you is your passion you had about just about everything you did. My thinking is because you are an artist. Your class was a major factor of something I would learn later in life, even if I did not know it when I did learn it. What art truly was. Whether you meant to teach this lesson or not, or if you even agree with it. But that art is not how good one can draw or sculpt. It is what one can create, even if not physically. The human mind and spirit itself, and the uniqueness of each individual. You taught me this indirectly with your passion for just about everything you did. You would often times lecture for minutes before class about life, meaning, etc… this was my art lesson, even if often times I did not listen. It was more than that as well, it was not just solely your passion; it was not just the fact you could care about this or that, but the why, how, who, what, etc.. and your motivations and feelings, even if I disagreed with you. To me it was also a message that art and beauty is in just about everything in life, that it comes from the soul and all humans including myself are capable of creating such a beautiful world that spirits such as yours inspire to create others of equal yet different inspire. Later, I learned this on my own and through other things, books, people, as well after your class and school year, however your class was my foundation that I grew from.

I am not sure I described perfectly what I am meaning to say, or if I am making sense. However, what I wrote is an understatement. However, I do not want to go into too much detail because I am a writer, and I will spend hours trying to edit rather than just sending you the email.

Wow!  Tears came to my eyes.  What a gift at this moment in my career, when I feel I am at a low point.  But the real juice in this message is not for me alone.  I asked Steve if I could share his message with the art community at large.  He said yes – this is my response to his email:

Thank you for reaching out to me today.  My soul, spirit & passion have taken hard knocks this year; not from disinterested students, but from a constant barrage of disrespect and downright meanness from many of my students this year.  I should teach 2 more years to make it to my full retirement benefits, but I just can’t do it.  I am broken, and my passion is bruised, and I will say ridiculed by many of my present students.
You have given me the greatest gift a teacher can ever receive, acknowledgement (albeit after the fact) and sharing of your intellectual, mental, emotional & spiritual growth.  I consider myself a seed planter, constantly sowing seeds that I often don’t know will germinate.  To hear you express your understanding of the importance and nuances of art is confirmation to me that the power of art has sprouted in your soul and will continue to impact you as you navigate life.  Art is in our DNA.  It is the heartbeat of mankind.  The entire world can crumble, but man will continue expressing the human condition through art.
Thank you, Steve, for finding me and sharing your well articulated thoughts with me!   I am very proud of you that you are tapped into curiosity and a thirst for more.  It will serve you well, my friend.
I have a request.  I would like to make a blog post about this experience of a student seeking their teacher out with appreciation and gratitude.  You see, I’m not the only teacher who feels broken.  This story can provide hope and motivation at a time when teachers are at their lowest point.   Your generous expression of gratitude could ripple through the Universe to others.
This is the time of year when teachers are burned out, BUT are also beginning to think about the next school year.   Hope springs eternal as we imagine our next crop of students and rethink our curriculum and how we can present it in better, more effective ways.  This post is for all of the seed planters out there.  It’s time to order up a new batch of seeds to be planted in the fall.  You may have drought conditions, there is bound to be some stormy weather that unseats your solid footing, or there could even be an illness that creeps through your school.  Stand firm and hold on.  Your work is making an impact and is changing lives.  I hope someone looks for you, their former teacher.

Surface Design Association Inspires Explore Fiber

This is my Pecha Kucha presentation (with the text) that I presented at the Surface Design Associations’ 40th anniversary conference 4/3 – 4/6/2017. Find out how receiving an SDA scholarship to attend the 2011 Minneapolis conference planted the seed for the creation of http://www.ExploreFiber.com

Art Education – The Challenges of Curriculum Transition

This presentation examines a school district’s Art I Foundation curriculum change into the Understanding by Design curriculum template. Find out the challenges and successes for this National Art Education Association annual conference in New York City March 2017.

Bring Fibers Into Your Art Curriculum

See examples of art educators in the Plano Independent School District using fibers in their art projects. This presentation gives not just examples, but advice and resources to support including fibers in the classroom. Resources include the website Explorefiber.com, the blog of Cassie Stephens, and the fiber course of The Art of Education.

The Power of Photography – Artist of the Day Video Theme

Day 8 - I see you

This is such an exciting time in the history of man!  I want to share the history of photography with them, and get them thinking about the POWER they carry around with them – the camera in their phone.  Never in the history of mankind have so many had such a powerful tool in their pocket.  The 21st c. has seen the explosion of communicating information through visuals.  The fact that a high percentage of the population of the world has the capability to transmit images globally in the blink of an eye has completely shifted the way we understand our world.  It has been a huge democratization factor, and has changed not only art, but also politics and society.

This week’s Artist of the Day videos centered around the theme of Photography.  I wanted to help them find out how to take better pictures, and to think more broadly about the kinds of pictures they might take.  Here is the lineup:

My student teacher came up with these questions for the students to reflect on after viewing the videos:

  • What is one way to improve the composition in your photographs?
  • A photographer in Dubai takes photos while skydiving, how can you change the way you take pictures based on your interaction with your settings?
  • What might be some challenges and considerations of taking successful photos underwater?
  • Micro photography is taking photos of the smaller details in life (like the ant carrying the pink leaf). What objects or organisms would you be inclined to take photos of at the micro level?
  • If you were a photojournalist, what story would you want to capture through photos?

Showing our students these viewpoints of professionals broadens their perception of the world.  I asked each class how many students were interested in photography, and a healthy number of hands were raised in each class.  Photography and video content are trumping text in information dissemination.  Helping our students to strengthen their visual literacy is an important skill art teachers can pass on.  Enjoy this lineup of videos, consider showing them to your students and use these questions, or come up with your own questions or activities to connect our students to the power of the image.

Process Over Product in Art Education: A Student Centered Approach to Making Art

Living in the 21st century is living in a time when change is rapid and insistent.  It can be difficult to keep up with  constant change, much less embrace and incorporate it into our teaching practices.  My experience as an art teacher has always been at the high school level in a public school setting.  My school is highly diverse in every way – racially, culturally, economically, religiously, and with a high percentage of students with special needs.  It is challenging teaching so many kinds of children while striving to target their individual needs!  More than challenging, it can lead to a high level of frustration for both teacher and student!  I know my experience is not unique – this is the common landscape of art classrooms across the country.  When teachers get together, they talk about these common problems and wonder how we can reach our students when we feel like art can be at the heart of their individual expression.

Art education, just like education in general, is also in a state of flux.  Decades of teaching centered on a teacher driven, studio techniques curriculum does not engage the majority of students taking beginning art classes.  The teacher is faced with apathy, defiance and push back as the students query their teacher about why they should do it.  It’s not that what we’ve been doing for the last 20 or 30 years is wrong, it’s just that we need to think about what we’re doing with a new lens, adapting our pedagogy to incorporate not only technology, but the mindset of the digital natives that we are teaching.

My presentation reflects my own journey as an art educator over the last 10 years.  I have been exposed to many ideas, techniques, strategies and approaches to teaching art.  When new ideas come my way, I have taken them immediately into the classroom and played with them with my students, and I have been very transparent with them about why we try these new methods or vocabularies – I want them to care about the art they make!

The lesson plan format I present here is the culmination of my own teaching experience.  I have created an outline that put teaching studio techniques not at the front of the lesson, but is woven throughout the art making process.  What comes at the beginning of my students’ experience is investigation, exploration, questioning and journaling to connect to their own discoveries and their personal lives.  The art that results from this approach is more authentic and not formulaic like many “art projects” can turn out to be.  They have more motivation and excitement in their creating.  And, they are more involved in the assessment of their project because I have shifted my grading to assessing their effort and persistence instead of how skilled their end product is.  My students like being graded this way and I do to.  We are slowly changing from an art classroom to an art community, where their voice, ideas and creations are celebrated and valued as unique expressions.

After viewing the presentation above, here are some questions to consider about your own experience teaching, or how you think you will incorporate some of these ideas when you begin teaching:

  1. Have you ever been a part of a class in which the instructor used a questioning strategy –like QFT or artful thinking?  If so, did it deepen your understanding or connection to what you were learning?  Tell us about your experience and how you would incorporate questioning strategies into your own teaching.
  1. Do you think students can produce high quality artwork if they are focused on the process instead of the product?  This lesson plan emphasizes discovery and investigation instead of teacher driven instruction about processes and techniques.  How would you fold in studio technique instruction into a lesson plan that emphasizes students driving their own learning?
  1. In many art experiences, reflection and assessment come at the completion of the art project instead of throughout the process. Identify at least three types of assessment tools you would use with your students and how you might weave them into a process over product lesson plan format.

I welcome your thoughts and would love to hear your comments!