Monthly Mentor

Barbara Laws (January)
Barbara Laws is a veteran educator. She has been working as the Senior Coordinator for Art in Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia for the past 14 years. Before that, she held the positions of elementary school assistant principal, instructional specialist, and art teacher, all for Norfolk Public Schools.She has served the National Art Education Association in a number of positions: Supervision and Administration Division Director; National Convention Program Director; and Southeastern Region Vice President and has served on various committees.Her honors include NAEA Elementary Art Educator, Supervision and Administration Art Educator, Marion Quin Dix Award and Distinguished Fellow. She is also actively involved with the Virginia Art Education Association and has served in many capacities, including, President, Secretary; Supervision and Administration Division Chair; Policy Chair; and TVAEA President. She has been named Virginia Art Educator and is also a VAEA Distinguished Fellow. She was a Founding Director of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She is currently appointed to the Norfolk Commission for Arts and Humanities and involved with the Virginia Coalition for Fine Arts Education. She earned her Doctor of Education degree from The George Washington University and her Master's and Bachelor's degrees from Old Dominion University.



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Monday 01.19.15

Building a Learning Community

In the many years I have been in education, I have experienced all kinds of professional development – often being done to me rather than for or with me, sometimes at the level of the elementary students I taught.  Many of the most meaningful experiences were the opportunities I had to engage in deep conversations about content and teaching practice with other professionals, both within and outside of art education.   

Two other factors have also guided the way I have thought about and have approached professional development.  When I started in the district visual arts coordinator position 13 years ago, art education had moved toward a more content and personal meaning-making focus.  As our art department began to make this curriculum shift, we needed to become a community of learners engaged in ongoing conversations about effective teaching practices and student learning.  Following are some of the strategies we have used to accomplish this.

• Treat the curriculum as a living document and review and revise frequently based on teacher feedback and new needs or understandings.
• Provide opportunities for teachers to work vertically across grade levels as well as with their grade-level or course peers.
• Build a safe learning community where teachers are not afraid to ask questions or seek help.
• Ensure frequent structured opportunities for teachers to collaborate and share expertise.
• Look at student work to assess professional learning needs.
• Ask teachers what their professional learning needs are.
• Set up conversations about effective practice by asking questions, focusing on a goal or collaborating on an instructional resource.
• In addition to regularly scheduled professional learning times, offer other opportunities for teachers to self-select.
• Focus on student work.
• Tap teacher expertise.
• Balance the discussions about curriculum and teaching practice with studio sessions and discussions by outside artists.
• Provide professional learning opportunities which are at the level of the adult learner and then make sure there are collaborative opportunities to identify classroom practice.
• Design professional development activities which assist teachers in translating district level initiatives into effective art instructional practices.
• Provide special support for struggling teachers, beginning teachers and those new to the district.
• Offer peer mentoring and observation opportunities.

As we have worked together over the years, the routine of looking at student work and teaching practice for areas that we need to explore further and then addressing them has become a part of our department’s culture.

-Barbara Laws
Senior Coordinator for Art, Norfolk Public Schools, VA

Thursday 01. 8.15

The Importance of Exhibitions

Every year about this time I chart out complete exhibition information in my office for quick reference. Completing the task earlier this week combined with being asked yesterday to provide a listing of how student progress is monitored made me think about the importance of exhibitions for measuring and raising the quality of teaching and learning occurring in art classrooms.

To begin with, displaying work and receiving feedback from viewers is a part of the art making process - so much so that “Presenting” is one of the 4 major organizing categories for the NCCAS Visual Arts Standards. In addition to the skills developed by students as they participate in exhibition processes, conversations, perhaps prompted by the way the work is presented, can take place among parents, families, students, and the teacher about learning represented in the works of art and the benefits, value, and purposes of art education. These connections can also be made with the community, decision makers, and other stakeholders and so the exhibition becomes a point of advocacy.

On the other hand, student exhibitions can serve as powerful learning tools for art educators.  I am thinking about the role it has in our district. We avoid isolating work by schools and, with major shows, hang collaboratively. These occasions become important professional development opportunities for teachers. While hanging and looking at work – their own students and others’ – they self-reflect, have discussions, and feed themselves with ideas for their own instruction. New teachers can begin to fill the empty files in their heads with examples of student work thus becoming more familiar with what quality is and what reasonable expectations are for their students. Because our curriculum, beginning in kindergarten, is based around using the artistic process and applying skills and techniques to make personal meaning, rather than isolated activities, student solutions are individual and there is always much to see and learn from in any exhibition.  

-Barbara Laws
Senior Coordinator for Art, Norfolk Public Schools, VA

Friday 01. 2.15

Happy New Year

The beginning of January is often touted as a time for self-reflection, an opportunity to examine what we have accomplished and where we have fallen short, and to make resolutions based on our assessments.  While self-assessment is an ongoing process for us, as art educators, we are well into our “new year” and the time is right for us, too, to take stock of where we are, where we need to be over the course of the next months, and what we need to do to get there.

In addition to the usual “where are my students now” and “where do I want them to be”, there are larger questions which can be helpful in thinking about instructional goals and direction and effective practice:
•    Am I teaching art, not just “having art?”  
•    Does my teaching support students in using artistic processes to create works of art with personal meaning?  
•    Rather than isolated activities, have I set up rich learning experiences which will give students knowledge, understandings, and skills to tuck into their proverbial artmaking toolkits to be used independently at a later date?
•    Am I helping students to become more thoughtful in responding to works of art, including their own?
•    Finally, to build support for rigorous instruction in the arts, how am I effectively communicating what students are learning in my classroom to parents, administrators, decision makers, and other stakeholders?

While these questions are phrased to apply directly to primary, elementary, and secondary art teachers, most of the rest of us should reflect on how effectively we support and assist teachers, through professional development and preparation experiences and the development of learning communities and other opportunities, in their quests to provide quality art education in schools. 

-Barbara Laws
Senior Coordinator for Art, Norfolk Public Schools, VA

Saturday 12.27.14


"If I could turn back time, if I could find a way," Cher sings with a conviction about having the power to change the past. My husband and I are doing just that. We have travelled 5,000 miles to hike the Napali Coast one more time, say our vows one more time, and enjoy the beauty of Kauai one more time since 1999. All with a new perspective and amazing dreams. December, for art educators and many, marks the time to rework, rethink, and refresh what they have practiced in the past with a confident brush to repaint the future. Will the future hold new lessons, new viewpoints, new methods, new media, new? We owe it to our students to "find a way" to prepare effective learning opportunities for them. Attending the National Art Education Association National Convention or your state conference is an awesome way to re-ignite your teaching skills. This past October I presented at the Wisconsin Art Education Association Conference, Summit Artists+ Public Art= Art is Long, Life is Brief (pictured below), and will present at the NAEA National Convention, so please join me in finding a way.

All-School Summit Nature and Fitness Trail Mosaic Labyrinth

Summit Librarian, Alyssa, teaches all students about other Little Free Libraries throughout the world...
 Collaborative Art and Musix Wassily Kandinsky Inspired Mural

-Jill La Grange

Thursday 12.18.14


We pulled up in front of an old Texaco station, painted white, gas pumps removed, and a cantilevered overhang, much needed in the winter storm tonight. Without being asked we blurted out, chocolate, mint chocolate chip, banana, strawberry, and black cherry, my mom always ordered the same. Through the window and bright, blinking, illuminated business signs we watched as each scoop was perfectly formed, placed perched on an ice cream cone and gently secured to a cardboard tray. My father appeared with a huge grin next to my mother’s window, she swiftly cranked down the window of the 1969 white Pontiac station wagon.  First placing her cone on the open glove box door, and then passing each cone to the back.  One by one, all of our hands became clenched with napkins, our tongues catching all the drips and bliss.

You can imagine my delight when I realized my memories aligned with artist, Wayne Thiebaud (CBS Sunday Morning). His art depicts the array of food served at picnics of his childhood and his memories as a restaurant employee. His work brings smiles to my face and smiles to the faces of my students. What better way to get students excited about art and explore how to read images and understand the meanings carried by objects, learn that throughout history experiences are recorded in a variety of visual forms, including fine art, folk art, designed objects, movies, television, and multimedia images, that document their time and heritage, and reflect upon the nature of art and design and meaning in art and culture.  

Project description by works of art
Ice Cream Sundaes by First Grade

Logan's ice cream sundae

My first grade students were inspired by the work of Wayne Thiebaud and created their own ice cream sundaes. Utilizing drawing skills, oil pastels and their own memories of favorite toppings.  Gummy Bears, ice cream flavors, sprinkles, caramel topping, chocolate topping, maraschino cherries were discussed in detail and stories of their own trips to the local ice cream shop. We displayed their work and to create more memories and inform our parents, grandparents and friends of the value of art we celebrated with an Ice Cream Sundae with a Wayne Thiebaud Spirit Exhibit and Ice Cream Social following our first grade holiday program. I wonder (know), when my students are all grown-up too, they will have a story to tell, one filled with joy, art and ice cream. Bliss!

Works of art displayed for exhibit

Parents preparing a sundae for their child; Palette of toppings for Ice Cream Social

Parents and grandparents view works of art

Holiday Program prior to Ice Cream Sundae with a Wayne Thiebaud Spirit

-Jill La Grange

Wednesday 12.10.14


Good Chaos, the day of an art teacher. A before school meeting, an all-school assembly, kindergarten-fourth grade classes, taught several modified lessons to accommodate special education students, a Parent Teacher Meeting (P.T.A), a letter to the Milwaukee Art Museum to arrange visiting artists, made rodeo hats for the holiday program, loaded the kiln, prepared clay for a project, uploaded art to Artsonia and of course write this blog post. I believe all of us would agree this is a typical day for an art educator, Good Chaos. So with all of the good chaos how do we instill within students the importance of art and offer them opportunities to aesthetically transform their own environment. Keep it simple! Three simple career transforming words of advice I received from a phenomenal physical education teacher colleague.

Keeping with the theme, keep it simple, one of my student’s parents shared an amazing idea of having our students make a Buddy Bench for our playground and she sent me this link. So during a follow-up discussion about the project she offered to secure wood, a carpenter, paint to create the bench and to also approve the project with the principal! By simply collaborating and welcoming project ideas from parents, our students will benefit and large scale community projects will be more doable.

Buddy Bench being delivered by carpenter

Buddy Bench in process

Buddy Bench Project details:
* Idea originated in the United States by a second grade student named Christian
* Christian’s father explained to him that Buddy Benches are in Germany
* Buddy benches are for fostering friendships

Summit Artists use their ARTISTIC FLAIR to create their own Buddy Bench!
* Create maquettes
* Entire school votes on the best designs
* Top 12 designs of 16 are selected
* Each side, back splat, seat are designed by different students and combined to create one bench
* Design is transferred to wood by students
* Carpenter cuts wood and assembles
* Parents, students and teachers are invited paint Buddy Bench during Open House
* Art club completes Buddy Benches
* Funded by P.T.A.

Buddy Bench Maquette

Buddy Bench Maquette-4-in.x 6-in.

Buddy Bench Project Essential Ideas
* Artists can transform the environment aesthetically to reflect the interests and values of its inhabitants
* The quality of human life is affected by environmental and cultural interdependencies
* Involvement in art develops aesthetic awareness which can improve the quality of life
* Creative behavior involves divergent thinking, problem solving, and extension of the imagination as evidenced in both the general learning process and observable behaviors

Left: Students entangled with their work of art | Right: Students painting Buddy Bench

Last week was the unveiling of the Buddy Benches, so during our all-school morning meeting time each classroom teacher discussed with their students how the Buddy Bench is a place to meet a friend during recess. Samuel, a shy kindergarten student whispered in my ear at the start of art class (good chaos) on Friday, “Ms. La Grange, thank you for the Buddy Bench, I found a new friend!”

Buddy Bench Ready for Creating New Friendships

-Jill La Grange

Tuesday 11.25.14


As Thanksgiving approaches, it seems appropriate to think about the word "thankfulness." According to the thesaurus it may mean gratitude, appreciation, or recognition. In previous posts, I have written about the museum as another place for learning about art, the importance of instilling a growth-mindset in our students, and how I have learned to get high school students talking.

The topics I have considered this month are all different aspects of our profession. In this, my final post, I want to tell you about a few things for which I am thankful:

I am thankful for the opportunity to have been the November Monthly Mentor as it has allowed me the chance to slow down, if just for a few hours, to reflect on some of the things that make our profession and my job important.

I am thankful to work in a field such as ours where I really feel like I am making a contribution. In this day of high-stakes testing and emphasis on math and science, to the (almost) exclusion of the humanities, the arts play a key role in helping students learn how to think critically about, and connect personally with, content that gives meaning to their lives.

I am grateful for the opportunity to work in museum education and to share art with high school students. Every once in a while, they remind me, with that spark in their eye, of what turned me on to art. Their enthusiasm for art keeps me striving to keep it fresh for them.

The element of surprise is also something I appreciate as I slow down, wonder, and connect with the art alongside my students. How wonderful for me to be reminded that studying the same work of art again and again can offer a different perspective when looking at it through the lens of different students.

Finally, you don’t have to be the Monthly Mentor in order to reflect on your practice. Try to take a few moments just once a week to consider your work and how it impacts your students. Being more reflective has energized me as I think of new ways to reach my students. I encourage you all to give yourself this gift.

Happy Thanksgiving!

-Elisa Patterson

Wednesday 11.19.14

Get Them Talking: What I’ve Learned from Working With High School Students

Museums are in the process of change as they evolve from a model of ultimate authority and transmission of knowledge to one that fosters the collaborative discovery of meaning.  ~Carole Henry

Getting high school students to engage in discussion while viewing art in the museum can sometimes be challenging. Students may feel uncertain or reluctant to participate in this potentially unfamiliar environment. Although museums are different settings from classrooms, we are, nevertheless, still interested in the same things for our students.We want them to slow down and look carefully, to think deeply and critically, and to feel comfortable enough to participate in rich discussions. My experience has shown me that providing structured looking activities, especially those that encourage peer-to-peer interactions, can “get them talking.” 

To help students find personal meaning in works of art, we might start with a simple looking exercise called Think/Question/Explore (adapted from a Harvard Project Zero Thinking Routine). Students are asked to respond to the open-ended prompts, either verbally or in writing. Then, we discuss their responses as a group. As the quote by Carole Henry suggests, allowing students to do this collaboratively can be very empowering (The Museum Experience, the Discovery of Meaning, 2010). High school-aged students are generally interested in the opinions of other students and conversations in peer groups can spark their curiosity, leading to divergent ideas and questions. My role as an educator is to listen and strategically weave in content about the topic that builds on students’ interests, pushes thinking forward, and provokes new questions or ideas.

Another activity, textual analysis, asks students to connect visual evidence to ideas the artist has written or to quotes by a contemporary critic. This can help students be critical about written sources. It is always fun when the students either disagree with the source or with each other. When this happens, they are asked to make claims to support their arguments based on evidence in the art or text.

Sketching is another tool to facilitate close observation. I introduce it as a looking exercise rather than a drawing one. For example, students may do short gesture sketches while looking at a sculpture, and they are encouraged to move around the piece, looking and sketching from different points of view. Their sketches provide a visual jumping off point to discuss what they see. AttachmentAfter spending an hour or so doing these kinds of activities, high school-aged students generally come to the realization that they can discover a lot just by taking the time to look carefully and to discuss, ideally with a friend, what it is they are seeing and thinking about a work of art. By making the experience more social, we are able to “get them talking.

-Elisa Patterson

Wednesday 11.12.14

The Importance of Mindset

Let’s dispel the myth of the artist as creative genius propelled by innate abilities, and instead, let’s celebrate hardworking artists who spend untold hours and energy diligently pursuing their art. Throughout history there have been a number of artists who could have worn the “creative genius” label—Leonardo, Michelangelo, Vermeer, and Picasso. Yes, they excelled at their craft but they also thought outside of the box and advanced art (and sometimes, science) through creative breakthroughs. However, I think it is important for our students to understand that most successful artists have to work hard at their art.  

Recently I read Mindset, The New Psychology of Success (Balantine Books, 2008), by Stanford researcher, Carol S. Dweck. She researched how we view ourselves and how this can affect the way we live our lives. She identified groups with a growth mindset as those who see challenges as something to overcome in contrast with those who had a fixed mindset and see themselves as limited by intelligence and abilities. So what does this have to do with teaching?  Dweck cites several examples of students who were told they were good at something (the artistic genius), only to become unmotivated and, in some cases, failures. They were victims of the fixed mindset. In other examples, with the encouragement of a growth-minded teacher, students who practiced or studied would excel in their pursuits. These teachers didn’t dwell on what the student could or could not do, thus labeling them.  Growth-minded teachers put the value on efforts and the process of getting there. This will sound familiar to art educators as we already value the process as much as the finished artwork.  

Here at the NGA, we had the opportunity to host the second day of the NAEA Creative Industries Studio conference. This two-and-one-half day conference for NAHS students from across the country featured talks by creative professionals, workshops with artists, and visits to museums. I was particularly moved by the keynote speaker, Maria Fabrizio, illustrator, designer, and blogger of Wordless News. She described her work process: gets up at 4:45 every weekday to review major news sources, processes the information, formulates ideas into sketches, and completes a wordless illustration of the news story, posting it on her blog by 10:00 am. Then she begins her day job as a graphic designer! Maria Fabrizio’s work ethic and almost total immersion into her work exemplify what I believe is the life of today's serious artist.  

Photo.MariaFabrizioMaria Fabrizio from the NAHS Creative Industries Studio

Teachers are not miracle workers and there are “no short cuts” to achievement.   
It is our responsibility as art educators to place the same value of practice and hard work as a means to success as is expected in other disciplines.  

-Elisa Patterson

Monday 11. 3.14

Museums—Another Place to Teach Art

I am reminded from time to time that those of us in the art education world can forget that art doesn’t just take place in the classroom. Seeing original works of art in the museum can also have a transformative effect on students. I know this from first-hand experience because it happened for me during a 6th grade field trip to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. We understand that on a field trip to an art museum there are other lessons beyond just learning about art. A recent study on the educational value of field trips conducted by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art concluded that students not only recalled factual information about the art, but they also achieved high scores on critical thinking, empathy, tolerance, and interest in museums. To this day I can recall some of the artists I saw during my elementary school field trip—George Segal, Lucas Samaras, Jackson Pollock. I credit that visit to the art museum, along with the rich art instruction in the public schools I attended, as significantly impacting my career path and journey in this great field.

I have had the privilege of working in the Education Division at the National Gallery of Art for over 25 years, and for the past 10 years my focus has been on high school-aged students. I try never to forget my first museum experience when developing programs, understanding that it might be a first-time visit for some impressionable student. Art education is an evolving field. Today, we are less likely to lecture as we guide students through the galleries, and more likely to use an interactive approach. The new visual arts standards, released this past fall provide a set of guidelines for art instruction.  I think museum educators quickly realized that these new standards were building on the strengths of how we already approach our teaching. Learning about art is important, but so is creating, presenting, responding, and making personal connections to art. These have long been goals of museum education programs. And every time we reach that 6th grade girl or boy and see that look in his or her face, we know we have perhaps transformed the life of one more child.

-Elisa Patterson