Monthly Mentor

Reta Rickmers (January)Rickmers
Hello to all, my name is Reta Rickmers. I’m in my 27th year teaching high school art. My path to becoming an art teacher did not run straight. I tried many jobs from waitressing, working on the highway as a flag girl, to the U.S. Forestry Service in timber management, to installing street signs for the City of Austin, Texas. Art, however, is the thread that has always run through my life. In 1985 as a single mother of two young boys, I enrolled in California State University, Chico to obtain my BA in Art and a teaching credential. I began teaching in 1990. I teach at Pleasant Valley High School (PVHS) in Chico, California and also serve as the Visual and Performing Arts Department Chair. PVHS is a school of about 1,800 in town of about 100,000 when the college students are here. I am eternally grateful that I found my niche in life as a high school art teacher. I love working with teens. I learn from them constantly and they help keep me young. I am also a working artist focusing on acrylic paintings. Click "Go" to read full bio.



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Tuesday 01.17.17

Art Shows

From: Reta Rickmers

I believe in having students think like an artist, produce work that is original and personal to them, and be willing to exhibit it. We have shown work in many ways over the years, from small displays at the public library and in our downtown art supply store window for Youth Art Month to partnering with our local Chico Art Center for Creative Fusion, our annual junior high and high school art show. We also participate in our local County Office of Education Annual Juried High School Art Show and our local county fair. Of course, parents are invited to attend or to view all of these exhibits.


I want to share with you in more detail how we also exhibit at my high school and how this encourages students to ‘up their game’ and to increase both quantity and the quality of their work. Students in my intermediate and advanced Art Studio classes are told from the beginning of school that there will be an exhibit of their work in November. We hold this show called Fall Prelude in our library. Our librarian is my most steadfast collaborator at my school. She helps us ‘take over’ the library twice a year as well as helping with countless other things. The work is not shown anywhere before the show (not even in the classroom) to promote the “great reveal” of the art. Through grants we are able to pay to have the lunchtime reception catered by our high school culinary class. They serve the food on platters as they circulate amongst the guests. Parents and staff are invited via an email newsletter and with a small paper invitation. Students are given tickets to give out to their friends. Our school Jazz Band provides live music. The staff is, of course, encouraged to attend!

I keep all student work until the exhibits. Work is matted or framed (I keep a big supply of frames for students to use). However, students also bring in work I haven’t seen before on the day we set up the show.  They have been working at home so they will have a great exhibit! They are so motivated because they know people are coming just to see their work. Many parents and family members attend, including grandparents. Points are given for wearing their Art Studio T-shirt and for having their photo taken with their art display. The work is left up for a week or two for all to enjoy. 

Photo #1

Students learn how to present their work, how to arrange a display, create titles and an artistic name tag to go with the display.

Photo #2

Hundreds of people attend the reception including our superintendent, our principal, our Art Advisory Board consisting of local artists and art professionals from the university and community college, parents, and the local newspaper.

This fall show helps prepare students for the big show in May called the Spring Finale. We do much the same as for Fall Prelude but we take over the entire library for the day. Students create artists statements with their name and photo. See example below.


There is also a slideshow of all the statements on a big screen during the reception. 

Photo #3

Students stay with their work after the reception as teachers bring in their classes to interview the students about their work, the decisions they made and the idea or message behind the work.

Both shows generate excitement and help the students realize that often part of making art is to exhibit it and to be able to articulate their ideas. The students are often amazed that other people, including adults, are interested in their art (and even sometimes offer to buy it). The entire school enjoys these events and it is a way to showcase our art program. 

Do you have ways you exhibit student work that you would like to share? Please comment below!


Monday 01. 9.17

Community Collaboration: Phoenix Fashion Show

From: Reta Rickmers

A more recent foray into the community came in the form of a fashion show in April 2016. Inspired by Project Runway and local fashion group Chikoko, I decided to venture into the unknown by challenging my 2 classes of Art Studio students to create wearable art out of recycled, upcycled, or unusual materials. I love fashion - you should see my closet! I’m addicted to Project Runway and I like to pretend I’m Tim Gunn: “just make it work!”

The creations were not meant to be functional but had to be able to get down the runway and back. Students could work alone or in groups up to four. If working in a group of four they had to produce 2 fashions. The entire project took 3 weeks from introduction to the runway show. I had thought about doing this project for years before, finally, I was motivated by this specific group of students, many which were second, third or even 4th year students of mine. These students seemed to me to be able to meet this challenge because they were creative, enthusiastic and self-motivated students.

As in introduction to the project and as part of my art service learning requirement, I had 20 students help back stage at the October Chikoko Fashion Show. This created much excitement for our show. 

In March student teams reviewed their individual strengths and decided on the roles they would play. They also had to decide on materials and begin collecting them. One student was our sound person, another our videographer, another our stage manager. Someone from each team had to model the fashions or they had to find someone to model. We had all body, gender, and personality types as models. Students worked together to brainstorm and draw their designs before beginning construction.

Photo #1

Most of the students had never used a sewing machine. I brought in a brand new, but simple sewing machine and told the students it was up to them to learn to use it. Some students who had experience taught other students and one former student brought in her sewing machine and gave sewing lessons and lent a helping hand because she had heard about our project. Sewing was not required. We used over 500 hot glue gun glue sticks to get 27 works of art down the runway.

Rickmers photo #2

Fashion #3

I received a small mini grant of $200 from our local Arts for All arts booster group that allowed me to give money to students to help procure materials, but many didn’t need it as we had bins of fabric donated to us and most of the materials were recycled. Garbage bags, aluminum foil, papier Mache, spray paint, balloons, paper, fabric, beads, jewelry, plastic bottles, bottle caps, tarps, zip-ties, plastic table clothes, plastic bags, shells, paint, ribbon, twigs, playing cards, remade dresses, fabric scraps, bottle caps, popcorn bags, cardboard, duct tape, plastic flowers, tissue paper, lace doilies, broken CDs, film slides, magazine and old books pages were employed in amazingly creative ways.

We had three themes emerge: The elements, fun and fantasy, and spring prints. Teams were responsible for hair, make up, and accessories such as jewelry and shoes.

Photo #4

Photo #5

We secured a location for the event, rented a catwalk, sold tickets, enlisted the help of parents, asked a dance troupe and the school jazz band to perform, and we had a dress rehearsal. We sold out the event and raised money for an art scholarship. The students were incredible! The community was supportive. Our fashion show combined teamwork, creative thinking, and problem solving with the changing role of the teacher from expert to coach. It was the favorite day in my teaching career.

I will be giving a presentation at NAEA in New York 2017 on Phoenix, a fashion show created by high school students using unusual materials. Hope to see you there!

Photo #6


Tuesday 01. 3.17

Happy New Year!

From: Reta Rickmers

I was pleased to be asked by NAEA to write a blog but before I committed to it I had to ask my friends and colleagues if they thought I had anything to write about and they immediately suggested I write about my community collaborations. This is my first attempt at writing a blog so I am exploring unchartered territory. Thinking back over my 27 years of teaching high school art, I think the most important thing I have learned is that if art transcends the classroom in some way it has magnified meaning for the students. When art intersects community it makes a powerful connection. In order to find ways for my students to have these experiences I have collaborated with parents, teachers, our local university, local artists, art galleries and museums, former students and state and local organizations in the form of grants. As art teachers I think it is common for us to fear that the art our students are making is not relevant enough. Over the next month I will share with you some of the ways I have collaborated with different groups to avoid this problem and what I have learned from writing and managing grants for my program.

For me it all starts with networking. I started years ago to look for ways to enrich my program, The Art Studio @ PVHS. The Art Studio is a two or three year in-depth art program that was originally funded by the California Department of Education’s Secondary Specialized Program grant. At the beginning of school, I ask my students to get a photo release form signed by their parents with a parent email address required. This allows me to publicize our activities in the local paper and I also to send a newsletter to parents with photos to let them know what we are doing.

Download newsletter

When we do community-oriented projects or events, I let everyone know, including my superintendent. By doing this, my program is known about town.  Consequently, people contact me to donate supplies or to offer possible projects.

An early project offer was to create life-size mosaic fish that inhabit the Sacramento River to be installed at the base of a sound wall public art project next to our high school. All of my classes were involved in this project for two weeks. These permanent mosaics are now part of our City of Chico Public Art Portfolio.

Photo #1

Through my connection with the mosaic artists that worked with us, I was able to have my students create mosaics as class projects on four concrete benches at our school.

The students took great pride in creating something that would be a permanent part of our high school campus. They were required to collaborate in small groups and with the entire class to create a strong design. “Buy in” was incredible with students who came to school on Saturday to grout the benches. And, that is what we seek—art making that is relevant to our students, that provides opportunity for growth, and inspires them to do more.

Photo #2


Wednesday 12.28.16

Moving to Inquiry

From: Michelle Ridlen

Asking students provocative questions had led us down a path of inquiry that truly worked well for our students. So much so, that when it came time to re-write our curriculum, we pushed forward with adopting the newly revised National Core Arts Standards and an inquiry-based format for our model lessons.

Alice in Wonderland “Curiouser and curiouser.” Going down the rabbit hole.

What does it mean to teach through inquiry?

We would begin by developing unit themes and big ideas driven by essential questions to frame the unit investigation. These had to be broad enough that students could enter into the theme from multiple perspectives and explore multiple variations of their own choosing. So for example, one of our elementary units is Story with some of our questions being, “How do pictures tell stories?” “How do artists show a feeling or mood in a visual image?” “How do we use art to tell stories about people?” where as one of our advanced studio classes has a unit called State of Mind with the essential questions: “How can we see emotions?” “How do we make something internal, external?” “How do we show thoughts, ideas, or feelings without depicting recognizable objects?” “How can we depict a state of mind through art?”

We pushed ourselves to go beyond a media driven curriculum. Especially because more and more artists today are making art that defy traditional art categories. Artists make art with the media that will best execute their idea or meaning, so how do we teach our students about the expressive qualities that lie within each media choice? We promote play and experimentation, collaboration and creative explorations. We encourage students to think about ideas in multiple ways and to try them out in multiple media. We want them to gain experience and familiarity with multiple ways of expressing and representing concepts.

4bInnerChild by Dave BInner Child by Dave B on Flickr

We avoided lessons that mimicked or copied one artist’s style or way of working. Instead, we tried to provide a variety of artists that explored a theme or similar idea in multiple ways to encourage students to explore how they would approach a theme or concept. What unique perspective do they bring to the table? We wanted students from elementary to high school to know that we valued their voice and that as their teacher, we would help them learn how to be heard. We would give them choices (sometimes limited) in their media use or in the subject matter. The balance was knowing how much or how little choice they were developmentally ready for in connection with our learning objectives. We purposefully try to expose students to a combination of artists, both traditional and contemporary, and with a variety of perspectives from diverse cultures and world views.  

Multiple ways from point A to point B

We are transitioning to a focus on process over product. This is sometimes the most difficult to do because it is hard to let go of the pressure to have many “wall worthy” works of art to display in the hall or in a gallery. We feel an immense pressure to put work on display that will make adults ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ at the cuteness or the skill. However, as an audience we tend to judge student artists on the level of an adult or professional.  Is that truly fair to children and adolescents who are just starting out? How can we as teachers shine a light on the stages of development that go into becoming an artist?  What can we add to the display of artwork that illuminates the thinking behind the hard work?  How can this practice encourage ownership of student learning? How might this promote a healthier growth mindset in our young artists and future artizens?

4dStudentsWorking3rd Grade students working on their artwork

We decided we needed to think and talk more about art. We needed to help students learn about where to get ideas and how to nurture idea seeds to get them to grow. How do we brainstorm? How can we collaborate and offer feedback to strengthen ideas? What kind of suggestive examples, compelling role models, and diverse methods can we provide that will help students engage in meaningful art making? We are teaching students about the practice of keeping a sketchbook from the earliest grades and promoting its use to track our process from idea to fully executed work and to include the documentation of revisions. How can we use sketchbooks to talk about our ideas and the development of our work with peers and mentors?

4e_MiddleSchoolArtist Hard at WorkMiddle school artist hard at work

Our lessons focused on an inquiry process that roughly followed this outline:

- Engage - Hook students with juicy questions, examples of artwork, or  conversations about art. Get their wheels turning in conjunction with the theme.

- Explore - We asked “Can acts of engagement and exploration be works of art in themselves?” “How do artists push beyond what they already know and readily see?” “When do exploration and experimentation become art?” This is where we encourage students to experiment with media or explore different interpretations of an idea or concept. We expose students to artists and artworks that work within a connected theme.

- Explain - This is where we may revisit individual student questions or learning needs, giving more explicit instruction. Researchers Housen & Yenawine argue that when you teach information - whether it is a concept, process, or technique – that is a genuine question of the learner, then it is more likely to be retained. Also, a summary of research on learning and cognition shows that learning for meaning leads to greater retention and use of information and ideas according to Bransford, Brown, & Cocking (2000). Students tend to be much more receptive when they saw an immediate need and use for the instruction.

- Expand - Students would then choose how they wanted to create an artwork that showed their own thought development within the unit theme. For elementary grades this may be more limited while as they advanced into high school, more leeway was given to explore broad connections. Feedback and revisions may also occur.

- Extend - Students would present their artwork to peers and others through physical displays or virtual galleries, sharing artist statements and documentation of their process along the way. Reflections may also be encouraged to be mined at a later date for further art exploration.

4f_HighSchoolGalleryShowHigh school art work on display

While we started on our curriculum revisions back in 2014, and are continuing to work our way through all of our grade levels, we are beginning to see the positive impact it is having on our students. Students are more enthusiastic and take more pride in their work because it is truly the expression of their own ideas. We are seeing more authentic student art that is developmentally appropriate where we can witness the improvement of their skill and talents. And we are seeing a return of critical and creative thinking. Students are shedding the “just tell me what you want from me” look in their eye and instead we see a spark that holds future possibilities. We see students emboldened to try something new or to see “what might happen if…”. It is remarkable to see this change in our students and as teachers we are eager and excited to see them continue to grow.   

How do you use inquiry in your art room? What kind of questions do you use to engage your students and provoke exploration? How has using inquiry changed the way your artists grow or your studio runs?  

Tell me more...I’d love to hear about it in the comments or through Twitter. Catch me at @mridlen.

As this is my last post for the NAEA Monthly Mentor blog, I wanted to thank NAEA and Linda Scott for this opportunity. Blogging is certainly a way to rethink how you see your work and your place within students’ lives. This was a great means of stretching myself and pushing myself to grow. Thank you and I can’t wait to read next month’s mentor!


Wednesday 12.21.16

A Path Towards Change

From: Michelle Ridlen

Once I had decided I needed to update how I was teaching to meet my students where they were coming from, it was a fun challenge to renovate my lessons. Although at times it seemed overwhelming, I reminded myself “There is only one way to eat an elephant, one bite at a time.” So I dove in to revising how I approached my first unit.

3aElephantHow do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

I started by taking some inspiration from one of the amazing speakers I had heard at the latest NAEA National Convention, Olivia M. Gude. Some of you may already know her and be inspired by her articles or her lectures. Hearing what Olivia had to say completely rocked my world. She has a particular knack for getting you to think about the choices you make and the impact they will have on your students. One point in particular that stuck with me was when she asked her audience to think about the amount of time spent on a two-point perspective drawing in comparison to the entire time you spend with your students in the art class. For me, I realized it was almost an entire fourth of a semester. Is that what I prioritized from my time with my students? If I really thought about what I wanted my students to remember about art after graduation, or in 20 years, was being able to to draw precise orthogonals without context or substance what I wanted them to hold on to? For me, the answer was no.

3bGudeOlivia M. Gude
(For more thoughts from Olivia M. Gude, I invite you to check out her articles written for Art Education or her Digication e-portfolio).  

Working with a partner art teacher, I sat down to re-evaluate what I valued about art, and what we wanted our students to really appreciate and cultivate in their own learning. That was when we hit was about what they valued in the learning. How could we start where they were, and bring what they were interested in learning to the forefront? How could we illuminate the connections between their personal interests and bigger concepts in art? Where could they find meaning?

We started by asking our high school students to think about how art and visual images communicate. Where do they see visual images and what kind of messages do they communicate? We connected what they had learned in english class about literal and figurative language to how images communicate in similar ways. We looked at artworks by Frida Kahlo and Cindy Sherman, using a loose Visual Thinking Strategy discussion style.  

3cKahloWoundedDeerFrida Kahlo’s The Wounded Deer, 1946

We then moved them towards using images to communicate their own messages, asking the question, “How can you communicate a message without words?”  Inspired by Gude and a Spiral workshop, we examined how symbols are used to quickly communicate a message and appropriated street signs to communicate new messages.

Spiral Workshop - Bureau of Misdirection: Mixed Media

We scaffolded student thinking, showing them examples of how artists working in the past and today communicate without words. We examined artists like Keith Haring who developed his own system of symbols, as well as his influences from calligraphy to graffiti as well as the artists who inspired him such as Andy Warhol who used images of objects and well-known people to reflect cultural values of the time.  We discussed the complex idea of semiotics, creating our own images and interpretations of words like Power or Success. Students asked their own questions about how color can affect meaning and how does size change the feel of a composition? Once we had them asking the questions, we knew we were headed in the right direction. We pushed students to think about what they were seeing in new ways, and encouraged experimentation and play.

3e.PowerStudent artwork: Power

Students thought about questions like “How do artists communicate a sense of identity?” and “How can I communicate a sense of identity?” Students examined non-traditional portraits and how objects can represent people. We returned to Andy Warhol’s shoes and how he used shoes to represent people.

3f.ShoePortraitStudent artwork: Self-Portrait as a Loafer

Then we turned it over to them. How would you represent your culture of today? How would you reflect what is going on in the world and what is important to you in it? How do you see yourself today? We encouraged students to experiment with mixed media after showing them a variety of media and techniques. We used the three tenants of motivation (autonomy, mastery, and purpose) to push their intrinsic motivation and downplayed the number grade, instead getting them to focus on making progress toward some growth in an area of personal interest such as an artistic habit or skill.

We saw a real departure from the recreated artworks of the past, and a massive difference in student attitudes and interest. By asking provocative questions and exposing students to the work of professional artists, we were inspiring creative practices that had led to some truly meaningful work from our students. It also reignited our passion in the classroom, giving us a jolt of energy we hadn’t quite realized we were needing as art educators.

What kind of provocative questions do you ask of your students?
How do you expose your students to artists working today?
How do you keep yourself asking questions and where do you turn for your dose of artistic inspiration?

I’d love to hear more in the comments below...


Thursday 12.15.16

Phase Change

From: Michelle Ridlen


Reflection is a very important part of my teaching practice and a vital way I can grow as an educator. Reflecting on my practice allows me to step back from my teaching and really analyze if what I am doing with and for my students is what is best for their development and learning. I’d like to share how a time of reflective practice made a huge impact on my students and our studio practice, but first I’d like to ask you to take some time to reflect on your personal views about:

* Your theory of teaching art
* Your personal philosophies and/or
* Your current teaching practices

How does the way you feel about art in your daily life influence the way you teach? And how does art in your daily life gel with the way you teach? Do you create art in the same way you ask your students to create? 

Pushing Myself
I had been teaching for a few years when I started to notice a shift in my students. My students seemed to be getting lazier and lazier.  No, let me correct that - they weren’t lazy. There was just a lack of enthusiasm. Was I starting to get stale? I didn’t think I had lost my own creativity in lesson planning. It wasn’t every student, but I was noticing that I had more and more students just going through the motions. I saw it the most in my Intro students, the ones who needed art “just for the credit”. My upper level printmaking students were doing fine, going along making art and developing their craft. What was it that was so different in my Intro classes?

I posed this problem to my colleagues at one of our Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings and my fellow teachers said they were seeing the same thing: a lack of motivation and a lack of creativity in the assignments. At the time, research on creativity and teaching people to be creative was scarce. Since then, many books have been written, countless TED talks have been given, and countless other teachers have realized that somewhere along the way education and a focus on standardized testing was unintentionally stripping the creativity out of kids. And I was doing the same to my art students. This had to change.

I had read and been inspired earlier by Dan Pink’s book A Whole New Mind and Sydney Walker’s Teaching Meaning in Artmaking. Neither mentioned the core of what we had been unintentionally teaching our students - how to follow directions to re-create artwork.

Teaching Meaning in Artmaking by Sydney Walker and A Whole New Mind by Daniel H. Pink

By focusing so concretely on the elements and principles, and to a certain extent media skills, we had forgotten about making room for students to explore their own artistic connection and choices. I decided that I needed to embrace more of my own core philosophy that art is for everyone and reflected on how I could better reach my students and help them see where they connected to art. This led to my transition to focus on artistic literacy and artistic habits of mind.

2cAmazon_Paint By Number Kit Everything You Need to ReCreate 8 Vintage Masterpieces
Paint-by-Number Kit: A popular way to re-create art

Building artistic literacy requires that students participate authentically in the arts. They need to be given the opportunity to engage with artistic processes such as imagining, investigating, constructing, and reflecting. I started to build my lessons so that they were more student-directed and less teacher-directed. I used my expertise as an artist and educator to help expose students to the way artists work, how the build their skills and when necessary, how to mine for ideas. The biggest change being that students had more opportunities for autonomy and choice so the work they created was more legitimately their own.

This was very difficult at first. For both my students and myself. It was actually downright scary. It scared me to let go of what I had been doing (mostly pretty successfully) to try something so dramatically different and have faith that it would be better in the long run. It was difficult to let go of the control of the learning and the resulting product to invest in the critical thinking and the overall process. It scared me to not know what would hang on those gallery walls.

I had to let them take ownership of the learning and let them come to me. The hardest part being that I had to present it in a way that piqued their interest and made them hunger for more. I had to lay it out in a way that provided purpose, allowed for autonomy, and made progress toward mastery.

And, I’m not going to was a lot of hard work. I had to take something that came very naturally to me and break it down into the parts that students could examine for themselves. I had to really think about where I got ideas, how I found ideas when none presented themselves, how did I motivate myself to keep going when I felt frustrated or when things weren’t looking the way I wanted them to? How could I encourage my students to take the lead and drive their own learning?

It is always scary for students to put themselves out there. Student portraits after being encouraged to make individual creative decisions and pursue personal skill development

Little did I know then, that finding the answers to these questions and solutions to these obstacles would lead my students to produce their own, inspired artwork. I saw that fire of curiosity rekindled and students started to become enthusiastic learners again. I could feel I was on the right track.

How do you inspire your students to take risks in their artmaking?
Do you give them room to explore ideas and make mistakes?
How do you encourage them to develop their own line of inquiry?

I’d love to hear about it in the comments below...


Thursday 12. 1.16

Art & Fear

From: Michelle Ridlen

Putting yourself out there is scary. When I was first presented with this opportunity to blog, it was exciting. I have presented at conferences multiple times with plenty to share and thought, “Sure! This will be something new and fun.” Now that I sit down to write, it is downright terrifying.

But this is a good thing, right? I was reminded of the quote by Seth Godin, “If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try.” But what is so good about doing something scary? Well, if it is scary it might be a new experience (it is) and it might open you up to new perspectives (hoping so). New perspectives and new experiences help us to grow, to develop things about ourselves that weren’t there before.

1aSeth-Godin-if-it-scares-you-quoteSeth Godin

Writing this first post is a lot like what it feels like to make art after a long dry spell. You have to get over that hump of creative block. Your stomach might clench up in a tight knot and all those nagging voices of doubt start to bubble up in your head. You try to ignore them and dive in, frustrated at first as you shake off the cobwebs, but then you get over yourself, your doubts, and find your flow, enjoying the process for what it is - a release, a way to tap into something that fulfills you, and ultimately a way to find meaning and purpose in the creation of something that wasn’t there before.  

Fred Rogers pushing himself to create (from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Episode 1481)

You owe it to yourself, and your students, to push yourself to try new things and to keep creating even when it is scary or feels uncomfortable. We need to give ourselves permission to try new things and to participate in small creative acts. Even small acts of creativity can snowball into greater creative acts that ultimately make it easier to think outside the box. If you are feeling stuck, look for the little ways that you can practice creative thinking. Try a new recipe, drive a different route to work, model experimenting with new media in front of your students. Feel the way your students feel when you present them with a new artistic challenge. Be ready to teach them to overcome their fears.

1cOfficePhoto_CREATE_A reminder to myself to create something a little each day

What are some of the ways that you push yourself to be creative?

How do you teach your students to overcome their fears?

I’d love to hear about it in the comments below...

If you want to read more about the way art gets made, the reasons it often doesn’t get made, and about the difficulties that cause so many artists to give up along the way, check out the book Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland. I love this book and recommend it to my graduating seniors.


Monday 11.28.16

STEAM Lesson Ideas that Engage Students

From: Jessica Soifer

Happy, happy Turkey week! I am thankful for this opportunity to write for NAEA, to share with the art community and build some connections around the world through this experience. 

This week I am sharing some STEAM ideas that I have done with my students. 

Knoles Elementary STEAM club offers opportunities for students to explore and discover while problem solving, critical thinking and working together. Creating, building and experimenting spark excitement for the students throughout the year.

Last year STEAM club was a 5th grade club after school that was once a week. We explored many topics and many activities that involved opportunities for experiential learning.

- The gardening project was an important activity to continue from the previous year. Knoles students worked with a non- profit called TerraBIRDS (Being Innovative, Responsible, Dedicated Stewards). “TerraBIRDS” mission is to educate and empower young people through gardening to help prepare them as the stewards of a sustainable future for humanity.” Some of the activities that the students did was move rocks to create an area to grow plants and retain water to have more water go to the plants. Water is very precious in the high desert of AZ. Native plants and grasses were planted to help beautify the space. Students learned responsibility in order to care and nurture for the plants and garden space. Videos were created by the students to present their new knowledge and proud, hard work of the gardening project at open house.

- I wanted students to give back and do a service project called “Chairs for Change.” The students repurposed chairs and donated them to a Flagstaff fundraiser. This event raises money to support girls’ education in developing countries through New Education and the Mala Fund.  Knoles STEAM club redesigned and donated 7 chairs to this organization.


- Students had to problem solve in order to discover and create a pendulum. I gave students different sized rulers, tape, scissors, cardboard, foam, styrofoam, yarn, string and fabric. The goal was to have students come up with a functional design and create a painting to see if the pendulum worked or figure out what changes needed to be made. Here  are a few examples.


- Students had another discovery project, designing catapults. Materials they could choose from where styrofoam bowls, large and small containers, plastic spoons, tongue depressors, popsicle sticks, straws, rubber bands, small pieces of clay, marshmallows and paint. Students first had to launch clay balls and marshmallows. Once they did that the students had to measure the distance of the launch for each and what the difference was between the two materials. Then they could try a catapult painting.


- Building, blasting and measuring for the rocket project was a big hit with the students. They used transparencies, foam, washers, tape, rubber bands and paper to build the rockets.  The students measured several distances for the planets. Then problem solved with the materials and weights to achieve different distances.


- A parent brought in a 3D printer and the students created designs to experience the 3D printer.


This year the STEAM club is a 3rd through 5th grade club. The goals of the club are the same except the students will be focusing on different projects. The first semester the students are working on:

- The students created seed bombs with clay, stamps and AZ wildflower seeds. Take a chunk of clay and roll some seeds into the clay, roll the clay clump into a ball, stamp the top and either plant them or throw them into an area where you would like your seedlings to grow. Through this project the students learned about the practical use of the clay and how it helps protect the seeds from weather and critters. 

- To continue the gardening project the students used eggshells as planters. They learned that the eggshells are recycled and given back to the earth. When the shells are planted into the ground the shells will decompose and give the soil calcium.  The shells also help fend off slugs and other critters. 

- This coming week the students will become artist, scientists and paint onto petri dishes. They will use the scientific method to document their discoveries in this project. They will watch the growth process of the paint on their petri dish and then collect data on what they observed.  Then the students will create a watercolor painting inspired by the petri dish painting. This investigation was inspired by artist Klari Reis who created The Daily Dish 2013.

- The students will be exploring and creating our own personal compost. Here is the layering system that the students will be using. As they observe the compost process, they will document what they observe over the course of the of a couple weeks.


I hope I was able to offer some interesting lesson ideas to try in your classroom or clubs. I have done some of these lessons and others in my art class. It is easier to execute the lessons in STEAM club because I have 50 minutes versus 35 minutes for art class. All of the materials that were used in these projects were from the art room, donations or recycled from parents or Northern Arizona University. Try one of these out and let me know how it goes or how you changed it. I would love to hear. Until next time. Be happy, love, always smile, and create!


Friday 11.18.16

Adapted Art Curriculum

From: Jessica Soifer

Happy, Happy November! One of my personal greatest accomplishments that I have achieved has been designing a functional curriculum for the Beacon program at my school. There are 2 sections of this program. They both foster differentiated curriculums for students with autism. One program is an inclusion program where students are in their mainstream classes for a certain percentage of the day. The other is a self-contained program where the students spend the majority of their instruction time in the special education classroom. Both programs focus on achieving specific goals to demonstrate progress and success that is stated the IEP’s.

Flagstaff Unified School District has an adaptive PE program for the special education programs in the whole district, but there are not any art or music programs district-wide for special education. So I thought, why not create a program at my school and maybe one day the district will hire someone to teach an adaptive arts program district wide for all special education programs. Art is exercising your brain and is just as important as other subjects. We do teach cross curricularly whether it is intentional or unintentional.

All students have their unique differences. It takes a community to manage and educate all of our students. Ways that we can honor our students unique differences are building connections with them. Learn about what their favorite things are, what they enjoy most, what they do not like and what triggers positive and negative behaviors. In order to develop accommodations for students it is important to connect with your building specialists, go to or read IEP’s to learn more about the students and set goals for students in the art classroom.

For the adapted art curriculum, I worked with the special education teacher at my school to help make this curriculum successful. I asked lots of questions and wanted to provide tools that were appropriate for the students various skill levels to create success. All the students have a schedule and token board (to help reinforce positive behavior and the student works towards something they enjoy.)


Some students with Autism have various sensory sensitivities. Here are some tools that can be used in the classroom to help adapt or ease into a project for the students individual needs. Noise reducing headphones help students that have noise sensitivities. Textures can have a great effect on some students. Having gloves available or alternative materials can help tactile sensitivities. Smells in the art room may be too pungent, so nose plugs may come handy.


Some other tools that can help are visual icons for the students rather than verbal directions. Scissors that squeeze that take less effort than the manual open and close that most of us are accustomed to. A tennis ball or fabric for gripping for students who have a hard time gripping smaller tools or something with texture for sensory stimulation. To help with transitions you can also use visual timers.


A big part of the success of students with Autism in the Beacon program are their paraprofessionals who work with the students on a daily basis. To help create student success and independence, it is very important as the teacher to one establish a relationship with the paraprofessionals, but also making sure they know their role and modeling positive behavior in the classroom. As the teacher, I relay clear expectations for what and how the paras are to work with the students in my art class. Each student is different and there are different approaches for each student. Communication, teamwork, goal setting and developing strategies are key to success when working with all students but especially for making accommodations for special needs students.

This entry is dedicated to my sister who is developmentally delayed. I am thankful for the life lessons that she has taught me growing up. She has inspired me to be a teacher and change students lives on a daily basis. I love her dearly, cherish our relationship, enjoy her uniqueness and share her passion for caring for others!

I would like to share this template that I have created for students and paras.


Monday 11. 7.16

Celebrating Veteran's Day

From: Jessica Soifer

Happy, happy November! On November 4, my school had our annual Veteran's assembly. The music teacher, Mr. R conducted a beautiful ceremony honoring the Veterans who attended the assembly, and the Veterans around the United States. Every year the 5th graders interview Veterans, write essays and share the stories of the brave men and women at the assembly. Mr. R also has the students sing an array of songs honoring and thanking the Veterans for their service.


One way the Knoles artists showed their appreciation for the Veteran’s was created art and I displayed their work for the assembly. This year kindergarten designed and painted their own interpretation of an American flag on textured wall paper. We discussed texture and practiced painting techniques by making their brush dance in the paint and on their paper, not scrubbing to give the paint or their paper a bath.

2a 2b 2c

The kinders also made poppies by drawing wavy or rounded lines, cutting and gluing. The students chose between red, white and blue wallpaper to create their flowers. 


First grade made poppies as well. They practiced following directions, drawing big wavy lines close to the edge of the paper, cutting and painting appropriately. They painted with sparkly, warm colors.   

4a 4b

Here the works of art combined.

Fourth grade made Pinwheels at the beginning of the year to celebrate Pinwheels for Peace. We are creating peace, one pinwheel at a time. So I displayed them on the bulletin for Veterans Day. They created designs on ripped jeans with oil pastels as well..


This has been a busy week with setting up 2 art shows, 2 professional developments and creating jewelry to sell at the Flagstaff Arboretum. The artwork that i displayed was obviously for the Veteran’s assembly and the other at the district office. It all got done. The Vets appreciated the artwork and the folks at the district office have been giving many compliments to the Knoles artists. Well until next time. Be happy, love, always smile, and create!