August 15, 2017

A Ray of Hope...

A tiny ray of hope to start the new school year:

Yesterday I went to the Whaling National Park Visitor's Center in New Bedford where my students have had 4 collaborative art works on display in an exhibit with the theme "Strength in Diversity". We were asked to create art works that show how the past, present, and futures of our communities are affected and made stronger though our diversity. 

Many of you know I grew up in and now teach in a district that is not known for being as diverse as some of our neighbors. When we started the project back in May, I asked the 22 students from 2 random classes who were going to be involved to write down and draw the flags that represent their families' nationalities. Along with the American flag we all share, even in that small group, we actually had more diversity among us than I had imagined: a wide variety of European nations and Canada, Dominican Republic, China, Cape Verde, and Cherokee to name a few. The kids included these flags in their art works, and some groups went further, adding in symbols of religions and for the LGBT community. One group added a fighter jet to remind us of how our military, every day, defends freedom for everyone, and they truly meant everyone. 

When I looked at the art work, I remembered how these young people worked together without needing a lot of input from me to embrace diversity in our little town. They didn't need a lot of help understanding why our country's diversity is special and adds to the beauty our communities. I didn't have to explain to my students why respecting other humans who happen to be different from ourselves is an important and good message. They tend to know what's right, sometimes better than many adults. 

Maybe that's because they are young, and things seem much more simple. But I think there is more to it than that. I believe that first and foremost, their parents are raising these children to be good human beings. I am grateful to these parents for teaching their children to be accepting and kind, and I am grateful to teach in a community where I much see more of this than the alternative. Another reason is that in our public schools, we work really hard to address bullying and bigotry when we see it and make sure that all students feel that they belong. I may avoid talking to my students about my personal political views in my classroom, but I make it clear that everyone is welcome here, and though I don't want to censor their voices and views, I do let them know that hate speech or imagery of any kind is not welcome at all.
As others have said before me, we are not born with hate. People can be taught to hate and oppress others, or they can be taught to have empathy and compassion. We can show our children, or anyone else we encounter, that all humans have equal value through our words and actions, openly discourage bigotry and hate when we see or hear it, and try to be kinder, more understanding people ourselves. In this way, every person can and will make a difference. I'll try my best to do that, especially in light of recent events.

Many sincere thanks to my student artists who created these artworks and give me hope for the future.

If you want to see the "Strength in Diversity" exhibit, it runs now through Sept. 30 at the Visitor's Center on Williams Street and features many beautiful entries from schools across Massachusetts. 

You can also see more (and better) photos of the art work at

June 17, 2017

Summer's for Art Students!

Summer is the best time for kids to keep busy with art projects and classes! I started art lessons at about age 9. It was fun, I met other kids who loved art, and it kept me motivated to learn more and keep doing art for the rest of my life. 

Here are some learning opportunities in Southcoast, MA. There always seem to be more available for very young kids, but I have found some for tweens and teens, too. The cost of a class is usually pretty reasonable considering most are several hours long and include supplies. 

• The New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks! host art classes year-round but their summer program, Cool Arts Kids!, is always a hit. These classes are taught by artists and are held in the museum. Mom or dad can drop off the kids and grab a coffee or shop downtown. It’s a great way to try out classes: if your young artists like the summer classes, you may want to sign up for some during the school year.

I’d recommend these classes for 14 and up:

These classes are for ages 10-13: 

• Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School in Rochester's Summer Discovery program is for kids in grades 3-8 and has a STEAM focus, with sports, arts and crafts, and more...

• Friends Academy in Dartmouth has a summer camp that covers ALL the arts, as well as sports, science, foreign languages, culinary classes, and more. There are many choices of time frames, and topics are a la carte. 

• The Lakeville Center has lots of cool themed classes, and 2 age groups to choose from.  (2 age groups: ages 5-8 & ages 8-12)

• The Children’s Lab in Mattapoisett caters to the younger set, but they do offer a drawing class for older kids this summer.

• If you have an advanced teen artist in your life, consider looking into classes at UMASS Dartmouth or BCC. A mature, experienced older student may be accepted with permission of the instructor and even get college credit for these classes. Have a portfolio of drawings or letter of recommendation from your child’s teacher ready.

• Finally, you can create art experiences right at home! For a small investment, a sketchbook and pencil or even other basic supplies kept handy are a great way to encourage a young artist  of any age to create at a moment’s notice or during a few minutes of cool down time on a hot day. These items can be easily brought along on a vacation to record the sights around you. Likewise, a digital camera or iPad can give kids some photo ops— ask them to really try to capture their experience and the interesting things they see vs. selfies. They could also create art later based on these photos— grown up artists do that all the time!

So, make some time for art this summer and enjoy your vacation!!

May 14, 2017

Reflections on a (Kind of Crazy) School Year

Well, a whole year has gone by and not a single post… obviously the sign of a busy teacher. No kidding, this year has had me far too busy to write much for a lot of reasons. For starters, my student load increased by another third and my schedule went from 7 to 9 (very short) periods, so prep has been challenging. The days go by fast, but because of the unique demands of teaching art, there have been lots of lesson planning and classroom management changes necessary— and those take time.

That said, after a long absence from my blog, here are some of the ways I dealt with a challenging year:

More is More: Though my class time with students was reduced this year, I actually ADDED a “bell ringer” activity. Each day, my grade 7 & 8 students start with a “Warm-up” drawing. I post a theme each week. Low-cost in supplies, we start using a 12 x 18 paper folded 3 times in half and replenish as needed. This activity exercises visual memory, idea generating, and creativity. Students can also practice shading and color media skills.  Believe it or not, it actually increases the time I have with students because they settle into the routine of this focused activity quickly. I give them appropriate time as needed, and then we launch into the day’s main event.

Prep Like an Elementary Teacher: I teach middle school, and students should be able to independently set up and clean up their studio and work space, right?! Well, it can take 10 or more minutes for a large class (18+) to set up and 10 to clean up their own spaces in a 43-45 minute period that does not include class-changing travel time. For my larger classes, I absolutely have to prep more to utilize work time. 
One way that has saved time and still allowed students to have some responsibility is to have a tote with supplies for each student work table. Later, I do have to comb through the totes to make sure the supplies are re-organized, but this has allowed for more instructional and work time in a short class period. Cleaning brushes sometimes comes down to having a student collect all in a large cup of soapy water for a volunteer to clean at the end. I also cheat and bring some things (like mixing trays and water cups) home to clean in my dish washer from time to time. I make sure I have enough sets to use for multiple classes in a day, and just rinse before putting them in a plastic tote for transport.

Grading on MY Schedule: I close grades “early”. Grades take 1 to 2 weeks to compile and complete with comments for my 325+ students in 4 grade levels (I currently teach 3/4 of the school at any given time throughout the year). We do essentially 8 report cards a year (“progress reports” are exactly the same process and work load as report cards). I hold projects over to the next grade period that end too close to grades being due.This way, students who were absent or unfinished close to the end of term get a grace period on their work, too. I can chip away at entering the final grades and comments throughout that longer time frame, and still have time to re-check for errors or update a single grade as needed. There is no way that I could close grades on the official day and have the data entered in our online system for 350+ students 1 or 2 days later when due by my administration.

Saying No: I had to reduce the demands on my time outside of classroom duties this year to save my sanity — not even joking a little bit here. When the year started, I was dealing with some anxiety about going back. First-day butterflies after 20+ years of teaching?? What?!! Seriously, I had some real issues many teachers face, and I had to deal with them or I know I could easily burn out. First, I started seeing a counsellor to talk about my stress issues, and it was truly helpful. Do not be ashamed or afraid to talk to a professional about your teacher stress. 

I realized that I had to choose between focusing on my classroom vs. other activities, and that was a no-brainer. I started the year by telling myself I would agree to do nothing that wasn’t directly beneficial to my students and program. I dropped some leadership and committee work that I really enjoyed doing but had become overwhelming. I also decided to avoid people who were toxic or energy drains as much as possible while remaining professional. I stuck to it. It made it easier to prioritize at that time when you get a lot of people asking for things and for you to do things. I literally practiced what I would say out loud. It didn’t go over at all well with some people who were used to me agreeing to do everything asked. 

My stress level went way down.  As time went on, I began working in things that I felt I had the time for without feeling over-burdened and were worthwhile for my own reasons. Some of my close co-workers even mentioned that I was handling art show season really well this year— so clearly in past years I was a raging stress ball!! Seriously, I was! So, this year was better, but it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Stress is an ongoing reality. I still do take on some “battles”, but only situations that I think are truly worth it.

As the year comes to a close, I know there will be more changes ahead. One thing we can count on about teaching is that it is constantly changing. That keeps many of us interested in what will lie ahead, but it can also create anxiety for some of us. Hopefully my tips will help some teachers in the same situation work through stress and changes in practical ways.