Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



Join the largest creative community established exclusively for visual arts educators, college professors, researchers, administrators, and museum educators.

Join NAEA Renew Membership

« October 2014 | Main | December 2014 »

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