Teaching Art: I model how to be human, art is secondary.
I knew I was an artist since I was 5 years old. I remember my kindergarten class, standing in front of an easel and dipping a big chunky brush into red paint. The brush seemed huge as I grasped it and smashed the red tempera paint onto the paper. It was hopeful and the paint made a splash and dripped down. I was so excited, it was better than I thought! What was this magical thing?! I asked my teacher and she said,”You are an Artist.” I did not know what that meant. All I knew was that whatever this activity was, whatever this feeling and even the smell of the paint was, I was it. And my life has never been the same.
I became an arts teacher after working in the Design Industry for many years. My look in the textile and fashion industry was known for being splashy, bright and child-like,my florals are bold and bright and I was known for designing children’s gift wrap, toys and textiles. The biggest compliment I received was when someone thought their child could have drawn it! I would sometimes stand in a store aisle and wait to see which product of mine a child and parent would pick up. It was my way , before the internet of researching what sells. Design Thinking 101: Create it and see what works, make it better the next time. Watching kids skip down the aisle with a bag or toy was a massive bonus.
And then, I illustrated a children's book called,”Those Toes”, written by Marie McLaughlin (now out of print) and was invited to read it to elementary students. I got to share my research, of communicating with Jane Goodall foundation and her sending me prints of her chimpanzee’s hands and feet! This book changed my life, for as I was looking into all these little faces, those eyes so intently viewing my paintings , children learning the art of illustrative storytelling , I fell in love. Literally. I knew I would go into teaching art because I wanted children to feel what I felt in that moment. In love with learning, in love with color and storytelling and illustrations.
I started to give workshops to art teachers in many districts, on reservations in New Mexico and teaching storytelling, teaching using children’s books as a starting point to creativity. I was teaching opportunities and a new way of thinking to many who thought that the arts was not an option for a career path. (I now know I was integrating art before I knew the world, "integrating”.)
I went back to school to not only become a teacher but to learn the language of teaching."
I went back to school to not only become a teacher but to learn the language of teaching. As a designer I knew how important it was to communicate well and use the language that others used to be understood and to be taken seriously. It’s been a journey, I have learned so much and I wouldn’t trade it. I’ve worked for crazy well known designers, asked to do wild things but nothing is wilder than helping a child express themselves or make a mark they are proud of.
Back to teaching; as a designer I knew how to develop and design and create something out of nothing. I knew how to listen to my clients needs, problem solve and do it on time and within a budget. All these skills came in handy when it came to the art room.
As an artist I knew how to ideate, come up with ideas, paint with abandon as well as intent. I knew how to take risks and make mistakes and learn from them. I didn’t really believe in mistakes. All these skills came in handy when it came to teaching art, coming in with an idea, modeling permission to make mistakes, cleaning up after yourself and going back in for more.
Learning to teach was interesting. Learning to teach art was ridiculous. Lesson Plans? Grading? WTF. But there I was and after teaching my first class where students were meant to follow a prescribed way of creating, I immediately thought that this was not the way that artists create. Artists have their own ideas. Designers collaborate and hear the needs of their clients but artists tend to do their own thing with the materials at hand and my students? Why was I expected to feed them ideas? Have 25 penguins looking the same or handprints? That’s when I sat down with my principal and told him I could not teach the way the textbooks prescribed and to my delight he said,”You are right. Go for it. Do whatever you like.” and so I did. I didn’t know the language of teaching yet, but the language I knew was that art is universal. My students understood me.
I taught from the heart. Shared my experiences, set up tables of supplies as if the room was one big art studio and the students created their own magnificent works. I asked my students what they liked, what they played with , what they sang, about themselves. When the Design Bug hit me? I treated my students like design colleagues and gave them parameters, limitations in color, materials or the process but never the outcome. They surpassed my wildest dreams and expectations.
I taught from the heart."
I was given a room with boxes and turned it into a working arts studio!
Around 2008 I met Kathy Douglas and Diane Jaquith Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB; Douglas & Jaquith, 2018). My mind was blown! I wrote George Szekely, of Play Based Art to try and find answers as to why adults were so into children’s art looking like adult art. He too thought of children as colleagues! Now, I have a Design Degree and he is a forerunner in arts education, reading his books, I felt validation. The adult aesthetic wasn’t real. I felt like we were fooling one another. As a long-time designer , knowing what children’s interests were, what they read and played with was critical to my success, creating with the right colors , images, etc. Over many, I honed my skills and talents. I knew in my gut that our educational system needed to teach observation and critical thinking skills, not hand over the answers or worse have students copy my work, thinking my ideas were theirs.
Teaching art, I believe it is harmful to a child's sense of autonomy to squelch their creativity in order to fit it into an adult aesthetic. Children’s work needs to come from their experiences and the more I delved into TAB, Choice and Play, becoming a leader in TAB, helping to create the association and board, and teaching at Mass Art and Design at their TAB Institute and giving workshops etc. the more I have realized how important it was to listen to children’s ideas, help them develop and trust in their own creativity, and watch how the arts enriched every part of their learning. For 18 years it has been a privilege.
I called what I did, ”Teaching Kindness through Art.” and I still plan to write that book. Kindness is what we teach k-5. After that it becomes Social Justice and acceptance of others. In the past few years the wording has changed to Equity , Diversity and Inclusion. Children learn kindness first and fairness next. Children in k-8 need to learn compassion, empathy, the art of listening to one another, sharing, and how to be good citizens. Art can help with that, help us learn about our diverse cultures and experiences. I craved diversity, inviting visiting artists of different ethnicity, religion and culture into the art room and my world expanded alongside my students. My work with my students was then recognized by my peers with the The National Art Education Association, The New Mexico Art Education Association, Golden Apple, Partners in Education and more, I became a mentor for my district's art programming, specializing in TAB, Choice based Art and Play. I believe this all came about because of my passion for teaching with kindness and inclusion and I am very grateful for it all.
Professional Development: Seek it out and make your own
When I could not find what I wanted to learn or share, I made it happen. I helped develop our TAB teaching group In New Mexico that met for over 13 years, sharing pedagogy and best practices. I became the president of our arts association and was instrumental in finding folk others wanted to learn from. I became part of the Kennedy Center Arts Integration Team working with the Santa Fe Opera and developing workshops. I passionately became involved with ARTWORKS, a group that developed out of the LIncoln Center, with a philosophy of Art for Art's Sake and I learned Visual Thinking Strategies, VTS and then surpassed the standard way of talking to folk about art by working with Museum Hack, learning how to be respectfully irreverant around art! After a 48 hour intensive training , I guided a group of New Yorkers through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and gave them an experience talking about Madame X and Singer Sargent (Singing and pointing out the undergarments that Madam X must have suffered wearing!) I started creating more workshops and professional development based around the idea of fun and engagement and my professional development workshops surpassed the expectations of attendees.
Creative Curious Collaborator:
So I did things as a designer, an artist, a person motivated by play, fun, community and I used the creative process, the design process and TAB became my thing. As I developed workshops on teaching choice, design processes, creating safe spaces and community my network grew. I worked with all our state museums developing programs for multi-age folk and families. I worked with businesses and then Meow Wolf asked me to open their first learning space! After 15 years as an educator and over 35 as a designer I built a space where the public could come in off the streets, access art materials in an organized manner and make art, community art, personal art, multi-ages playing and creating side by side all day long! That was a dream, the creative minds and artists young and old, walking and creating in the space was inspiring.
Transformation: Fairy Artist Godmother
And here I am now. All my skills blend together. I no longer give myself too many titles. I don’t need to. Yes, I am a teacher, designer, mother, wife, friend, artist, dog lover,a maker, a hiker and a problem solver ( leaving out several hundred things!) that likes to solve puzzles, and when I work with someone? I am another creator, a curious collaborator wanting to know your needs and help them come to life. I am a cheerleader, perhaps even a fairy artist godmother that can get you started and show you how to blend pedagogies and ideas. I met Jessi Ruby years ago and found someone who shared this passion of transformation through a blended pedagogy of ideas. Together we will help you make magic and meaning for yourself and your students.
My personal goal is to transform the way you think about your teaching. I believe in you. I see too many teachers second guess themselves, their administrators, and their students. It is a waste of time. Let me help you find joy in your teaching. Let me help you recognize all that you know about good teaching and let’s get this party started! You and your students deserve it.
Roni Rohr , 2023