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.



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Friday 08.28.15

Benefits of Arts Education

From: Nan Williams

Learning in and through the arts clearly transcends academic excellence, yet there is a higher purpose.  For me personally, arts and education experiences have taught me about empathy, trust, infinity of ideas, expectation, stamina, efficiency, enriching the curriculum, and the powerful “uses of adversity” that Shakespeare mentioned. Some observations about student learning in the arts:

• The arts reach and motivate all types of students in all subjects.
• The arts focus on activities that are constructive, uplifting, and motivating in school.
• Working in the arts requires active and conscious use of all learning: academic skills, knowledge of history, culture, informed reasoning, problem solving, and so much more.
• The arts embrace multiple points of view and solutions.

Personal Growth and Creative Thinking
• Independent thinking disciplined ability to observe, reflect, adjust, and strive for perfection.
• The joy of exploration, discovery, and exhilaration of achievement in mastering something that’s difficult.
• Commitment, self-discipline, persistence, courage (i.e., diligent practice, embracing a range of judgment, as in exhibitions and auditions experiences).
• Persistence in face of “failure” - weeding out what doesn’t work.
• Trusting that answers will develop and take form. (So much in education works toward a quick, rigid, and final answer to a problem. Kids often say, “I messed up,” and then don’t have the skills to figure out what needs changing.)    
• Using flexibility and patience to deal with the unexpected. Eisner calls it “willingness to surrender to the unanticipated possibilities of the work as it unfolds.” What a great life skill!
• Appreciation for good craftsmanship and skill, pride in personal achievement through hard work, and self-evaluation.
• Practice in using the tools of creativity: discipline, persistence, trust in the infinity of ideas, the value of change and adjustment, finely tuned senses.

• Empathy, understanding others, teamwork as in performance and group experiences.
• Communication of ideas in non-verbal, as well as verbal form.
• Seeing the value in many different solutions and points of view.

World Views
• Respect for our world’s historical and cultural achievements. 

Visualizing Cultures

• Awareness of cultural and historical diversity, the look and feel and sound.
• Personal, creative, and joyful engagement with music, visual art, dance, and theatre that creates informed citizens who are equipped to support the arts.
• Development of discriminating judgment that has application beyond visual and performing arts analysis.
•  Preparation of students so that they can function and thrive in today’s arts-bombarded world, with full understanding of the power of the arts.

Happy journey ahead! Remember that NAEA and your state organizations are powerful allies.

Copyright © 2015 Nan Williams

Wednesday 08.26.15


From: Nan Williams

What motivates us? Our passion for the arts? Our wanting to share this with students? Our desire to make tomorrow better? We thrive on doing the impossible. We learn and adjust. We want to enrich our curriculum, make daily tasks more efficient, share student work generously, and demonstrate that living the arts enriches our lives. When we’re motivated in any endeavor, we’ll find a way. Here are a few random thoughts on motivation, both for teachers and students.

• What is called “discipline” is really about knowing our students and being aware of needs. Student behaviors can invite us to soothe unexplained aches. Perhaps the “show-off” needs a minute at the end of class to “perform”. Maybe aggression mirrors what happens at home. Maybe there’s a hurt (hunger, abuse) that needs mending. Any positive act (exhibition, sensitive evaluation, audible compliments, etc.) can work. Humor always helps. So does remaining calm. And most of all, we need to stay aware of what’s really happening.

At my monthly meeting for the interns I was supervising, I asked students (both classroom and art teachers) to share one challenge and one triumph during their first weeks in the classroom. Enthusiasm multiplied as we went around the table, but as we reached one third grade intern, she said, “I hate my school, I hate my teacher, I hate the kids…” And at an observation, she was oblivious to student response; when she asked a question, a student near me said under his breath, “Who cares?”  Fortunately, the other interns showed masterful sensitivity to students.

• Students respect a clear routine, especially when handling many materials. For example, they respond better to an impersonal reminder for cleanup time. I set a timer’s first ring for 2 minutes to “get to a stopping place,” and then another 3 minutes for actual cleanup, during which table leaders collect work and turn in counted materials. Plus and minus points are assigned for group response.

Kindergarten Painting

• Solid curriculum is itself a motivator. Whatever the current standards, substantive lessons keep a perspective that includes relevance, history, culture, reasoned judgment, experimentation, solutions, discovery, skills in media, design, communication, and dialogue about student and museum work.

Study of Islamic Tile

It is possible and desirable to do this for every lesson. A middle school lesson on portraits that I observed could have been greatly enriched by reference to the rich history, purposes and styles of portraiture.  

• Our motivators ultimately are the kids and the challenges of figuring out better ways of doing things because we’ve experienced the arts in our lives. It ‘s not always easy, but I can attest that there are rewards beyond what you can even begin to imagine!

Next time, we’ll talk about many ways the arts enrich all of our lives.  

Meanwhile, please keep in touch!

Copyright © 2015 Nan Williams

Monday 08.24.15

Child Development

From: Nan Williams

After observing and collecting children’s drawings for such a long time, I’ve begun to understand the analyses of Lowenfeld, Kellogg, and others. A few observations:

When children babble before talking, fall before walking, or try to manage their food, folks generally accept these efforts, yet when it comes to early writing and image-making, it can be a different story.  Quite often adults criticize these early explorations, and may even say, “Let’s fix your spelling...Here, let me show you how to draw this...” or apologize: “Oh, these are just Sam’s scribbles.”  I try not to be judgmental; I just describe the lines, colors, shapes, sizes, that students know I’ve really seen their work. One little guy, when someone asked about his artwork, said, “This is not a story; it’s a picture to look at.” (So there!)  

But we art teachers have a sweet secret. We know the first mark or the first “story” can be just as exciting as that first step. It’s been revealing for university students to collect children’s drawings from 9 months or so up through high school, and to see the remarkable awakening when the baby goes from being unaware of the paper and crayon to consciously making a mark. What an awesome first step in mark making!

I’ve learned to understand that children do what artists have always done. They experiment; they find unique solutions to visual problems;
they use x-ray,

Baby ILnside Mommy, 1st
Baby Inside Mommy, 1st Grade

multiple views,

Multiple Views 3rd
Green Witch, 3rd Grade


Music Class, 3rd
Music Class, 3rd Grade


Emphasis on Hair Dryer Heat. 1st
Hair Dryer Heat, 1st Grade

distortion; they show importance by size,

Importance by Size.3rd
Importance by Size, 3rd Grade

increasing amount of detail,

Increasing Detail, 2nd
Detail, 2nd Grade

and more.

Their logic is wondrous to behold. In the early years they record what they know, not what they see, so we find a blue sky, even if they’re referring to a totally red sunset or a gray day. They will carefully draw facial features even when a figure is in silhouette. Little guys know that two objects can’t be in the same place, so they will not overlap shapes. They know that a cube is made up of squares, so they try to draw a cube using squares. They know that tables have four legs, and they will draw all of them, even if they’re not in view.

Table Legs.1st
Table Legs, 1st Grade

Here’s a sunset that still has that ever-present sun up in the corner! 

Sunset, 3rd Grade

So they’re ahead of a lot of us. Little ones intuitively know that the arts are based on ideas and illusion, whether it’s visual art, storytelling, dance, puppetry or music. A lot of grown-ups are still stuck in issues of “reality” in art. I try not to interfere with natural progress; I “nudge” and ask questions, and when children discover on their own, the idea “sticks”. I do provide many media, and opportunities to draw from imagination, from memory, from observation; their explorations are delightful.

I know you’ll always enjoy the engaging images that children invent!

Copyright © 2015 Nan Williams

Friday 08.21.15


From: Nan Williams

In observing various classes, I’ve been surprised that so many arts and classroom teachers make logistical considerations so difficult. Why do things the hard way? Here are a few of my favorite solutions for the elementary school art room:

• Why change art materials for every class? Why not use the same medium all day, and simply adjust lessons as appropriate for grade levels?

• A second grade teacher had her aide cut out dolphin-shaped name tags for a trip to Sea World. Why not use dolphin images within rectangles, easy to photocopy? Similarly, a fifth grade intern wanted to die cut complete sets of the alphabet for all 25 students. Why not put the letters in a grid on a single paper that can be copied, then cut out by students?

• Managing materials can be simplified. Most art rooms have students divided into groups. For example, four groups have their own table leaders for tasks, so there are only four students out of their seats. A student from each group can go to a central table as needed, perhaps to select a paint jar. The groups have their own permanent color-coded items like scissors, pencils, sharpeners, trash container, needles, or whatever is being used.


When needed, there can even be colored T-shirts on the backs of the chairs. Items in use can be distributed, counted and returned to a designated location, and groups get points for being quick, quiet and accurate. 

Color Coding

Leader distributes and collects work that is stored in color folders, boxes or bags with color tags.

Storage Boxes
Collection Table

I watched one art teacher use precious work time by standing in front of the room, holding up papers one at a time for students to retrieve (a critique would be a different process).

• Painting can be simplified. Why cover tables with newspapers? Why wash paint containers and brushes every day?  One idea: plan painting for all classes for the day or week.

Paint Jars

Have a brush in each baby food jar color (mix 48 colors), located at a central table, and then put plastic over the whole thing overnight. One student from each group selects a jar to use, so traffic is minimal. Strong bristle brushes can survive washing at the end of the two weeks. When jars run out, ask students what to mix to refill that hue, tint or shade, so they can learn more color theory.

•  Wish I had space to describe some easy set up processes for crayon batik, painting, paint mixing, printmaking, clay recycling, etc. Example: it’s useful to make a small clay disc with class code (4C), that stays with and identifies the class in and out of the kiln.
• Grade book has dividers in order of class attendance. It’s cumbersome to put teacher’s name on papers; just assign 3A / 3B / 3C. 

Roll Book

Keep a plastic overlay over the roll, using a washable pen to make follow-up notes for next class. Seating, attendance, progress, + or – points, behaviors, etc. are all in one place.  

Everyone has favorite ideas. Won’t you share yours?

Copyright © 2015 Nan Williams

Wednesday 08.19.15

Capturing it All

From: Nan Williams

When you’re in the middle of handling Timmy’s tantrum, it’s hard to keep perspective. I’ve tried to make myself stay aware of what was happening (mostly), and capture memories:

• Thank goodness it’s so easy to take photos now! I do treasure the 40K slides I have from the early days (now mostly digitized), and I’m grateful for the instinct to record silly and significant things, like “Our batiks are waxed, so we’re ready to dye today.”
 And the class collapsed.


• I’ve kept notebooks of the class lists of all my students. I haven’t counted, but what would rolls of regular public school classes, university classes, summer activities come to after 40 years? Part of that was survival. 

“We’re going to dye today!”

And a whole grade level on one page can keep track of those who have exhibited that year. At our inner city school, kids came and went so fast that I just highlighted them as they left, because I knew they might come back. It was also a visual reminder that when you plan for 700 students, but have 700 roll changes, your supplies don’t last long.
• Another collection “Echoes from the Classroom” contains gems.         
~ Art is like having my own rainbow.
~ The principal is going to come abuse our class tomorrow!
~ Our teacher is not here. (Well, who taught the class?) Oh, we had a prostitute.
~ Answers to roll call: present . . . president . . . pregnant
~ Pilgrims are people who ate up most all of the turkey.
~ I had to ride the bus today. My mommy’s home because she had her boobs tied.
~ Art is important to me because I want to be a doctor when I grow up. I need to know how to see things, how to solve problems and how to have ideas. Art helps me do that.

•  And of course there are the certificates, awards, silly stuff, and treasured notes from students and colleagues. 

Countless conference bags, 300 presentations (49 for NAEA).

Conference Bags

Working for our profession is incredibly joyful and inspiring.  

2015-08-13 11.06.01
Class Rolls

• Teacher roles have been endlessly listed. Here are some: counselor / advocate / mediator / housekeeper / oracle / dietician / drill instructor / museum curator / clerk / salesperson  philosopher / traffic cop / negotiator / coach.

And I’ve added: (See NAEA Advisory, “Set the Stage - Run the Show!” - Fall 2011) producer / director / fund raiser / actor / director / choreographer / conductor / scene designer  stage manager / publicity manager / technical director / house manager / caterer / photographer / librarian / reviewer / critic.

Next time, a look at logistics. Hope you’ll share ideas!

Copyright © 2015 Nan Williams

Monday 08.17.15

Advocacy (continued)

From: Nan Williams   

Sometimes I think arts folks give the impression that we have all the answers (we mostly do?), and that other educators need to come to us, BUT I’ve found in working with students, interns, teachers, and administrators that a more effective approach is to ask ourselves how we can help them. A few examples:

In “Art in the Elementary School” it’s helpful to include more than sketchbooks, sophisticated art media, firing the kiln…things teachers are not likely to do. For actual classroom survival mode, there’s much more that’s beneficial:
• Learn how to do coherent bulletin boards by using form and design effectively.

1_Classroom bulletin board
Classroom bulletin board


2_Classroom bulletin board
Classroom bulletin board


3_Art room bulletin board
Art room bulletin board

•  Learn how an art critique can be an impressive lesson in looking, responding, analyzing, writing.
•  Learn about natural developmental stages in order to better understand kids’ thinking and visual devices. 

4_Collage, Second Grade
Collage, Second Grade

In an assignment to collect drawings from early scribbles through high school, a student brought in a K drawing with various Christmas symbols scattered on the page. The little guy had intuitively pulled it all together by filling in all the negative spaces (pretty advanced for K). The teacher had written on the drawing: “Very messy!” Sad. Another time an intern was letting her 5th graders use stick figures. I laughingly asked the class if the art teacher (a buddy of mine) let them draw stick figures and of course they sheepishly said no!
•  Learn practical skills: using and maintaining paper cutter and other tools, selecting good scissors, making books without seeking out that binding machine. A long-reach stapler will easily bind books up to 12”x18”.

5_Stapled Book
Stapled Book

•  Help younger students know how to hold scissors, how to wipe a table, how to use glue…Have you noticed the many awkward ways students hold pencils? How could they ever manage calligraphy?
•  Learn that laminating student artwork actually diminishes it, and that cookie cutter work stifles individuality. And “coloring”?  One little guy said, “I want to draw my own lines!”
•  Learn to develop authentic holiday work, showing respect for culture and custom.
•  Learn that when writing, you’ll get better results by drawing or painting the idea first, before writing. The details of location, weather, people, animals… are worked out in the drawing, and the writing proceeds easily. Or insert the drawing into the printer.

6_Drawing with Text, Third Grade
Drawing with Text, Third Grade

It’s helpful to show administrators lesson plans that have an opening paragraph summarizing skills and substantive learning that are included. Or you may have an opportunity to gently point out that doing the poster contest or luncheon decoration will derail your curriculum for that week. All these can be avenues to advocacy for your program.    
Next time, capturing the adventures. Meanwhile, please share your ideas!

Copyright © 2015 Nan Williams

Friday 08.14.15


From: Nan Williams   

Have our messages been effective? We’ve collaborated, exhibited, performed, researched, lobbied, preached to the choir, and more. We have dutifully proclaimed:
    • The arts raise test scores.
    • The arts develop thinking skills.
    • The arts make the child whole.
    • See, we teach math too! and reading! and…

But the arts transcend academic excellence. Although widely circulated statistics show a correlation between arts study and higher test scores, there is a higher purpose. Arts experiences require active use of all learning. This habit embraces discipline, failure, perspective, detail, independent thinking, surprise, infinity of ideas, cooperation, and the exhilaration of achievement.

We’re not going to be effective until decision-makers--legislators, administrators, parents, the general public--really know what we’re talking about. Example: A Disney representative was paired with a music educator to visit state leaders about arts funding. A legislator shook hands with the music educator and said, “I understand why you are here, but (turning to the other) why would Disney be interested in the arts?” That’s when I came to know our challenges. He never noticed the environments, landscaping, sets, costumes, signage, special effects, architecture, transportation, and the designers, musicians, dancers, actors, technicians, whose imagination and vision bring it all to life?

Performing any art requires courage, critical thinking, discipline; studying the arts fine-tunes our senses, develops discriminating judgment, enriches our lives. The arts help us know and respond to others; they nurture our intuition; they stretch our outlook; they feed out souls. The arts strengthen our productivity and sense of workmanship; they are the essence of civilization.

We long to see our students find a view beyond self, refuse to accept limitation, become curious and awake, know the wonder and love of learning, feel the brotherhood of all mankind, help heal our world.  Maybe, over our steep mountain, we’ll find the garden of Edward Mattil’s gentle statement: Children may be likened to a handful of seeds from many flowers… Under good conditions they all bloom and have their own beauty. Our classrooms are the earth for these seeds, and when fertile and rich, they bring for the best. (former NAEA President)

Our seeds - our students - and our lives - need cultivation. This requires energy, sweat, and expectation. Our life’s gardening is often fatiguing and messy, but the fruit is sweet.

Next time, more about advocacy. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Copyright © 2015 Nan Williams

Wednesday 08.12.15

Teacher Preparation

From: Nan Williams   

In today’s climate of constant pressure, overload, evaluation connected to student test scores, evolving standards and curriculum, out-of-control paperwork, budget challenges, lack of empowerment - it’s a wonder that so many choose to become teachers. Yet the profession is full of folks who have limitless passion for the whole process.

But the preparation path is intense. I’ve described my own unprepared venture into the classroom. In looking back, I’m grateful for having to do it on my own, without any preconceived or rigid instructions. I’ve often asked interns, “If you had no curriculum could you still teach? Essentially, we need to tune in to our students, know them well, determine their needs, and help them discover. If we truly understand their emotional, physical, and intellectual needs, we then can intuitively find the appropriate ideas and resources. We need perspective, persistence and patience, and other magical qualities. How many of us regularly refer to the many shelves of notebooks and teacher instruction, all filled with words and words and words, and not much about the face-to-face encounter with a child who comes to school so hungry that she’s crying?

In an earlier post I mentioned the challenge of formal teacher preparation that’s apt to focus on those rules, processes, record keeping, standards that are forever changing, and what I described as linear thinking. That indeed is one aspect. But arts teachers especially need to embrace lateral thinking, which touches on infinity. Here’s what I’ve come to know that we need. I’m sure you can add more from your own experiences.

We need:
• Knowledge of art (cultural and historical connections / critical analysis / skills and techniques / tools, materials and media, criteria and evaluation).

Hats in History

• Knowledge of curriculum planning and assessment that is relevant, compelling and substantive. And embracing all current versions of “standards”.  Use self-evaluation.
• Knowledge of all aspects of classroom management (discipline, room arrangement, ambience, organization, circulation, accessibility, temperature, color, noise level, visibility of projections and teacher's presentations, economy, environmental concerns, storage, areas for library, computers, display…)
• Knowledge of human development so we can provide appropriate experiences.
• Knowledge of questioning techniques, critical thinking, and students’ discussion about their own and others’ work.  When classroom interns tried to refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy while teaching, I suggested simplifying it to what / how / why questions.
• Ability to handle administrative duties, paperwork …  
• Advocacy and exhibition initiatives.  Everything we do, from lesson planning to room design, daily routines and acquisition of materials, annotated exhibitions, working with administrators and teachers, etc. is advocacy.

First Grade painting


And that’s what’s coming next: thoughts about advocacy. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about your ideas. Share them below in the Comments section! 

Copyright © 2015 Nan Williams

Monday 08.10.15


From: Nan Williams                

Why would anyone want to be an underpaid, overworked and often misunderstood teacher? Here’s my answer in this short version of Kenny’s Crayon Resist, that was published in School Arts.

A Thursday seemed to be a brighter day, and in spite of his destructive actions, silence, lack of participation and other problems, I knew that success for Kenny was possible. I refused to accept the label of “mentally handicapped” and intuitively felt that he could achieve much more than he led us to believe.

So on this brighter day, when I saw a slight glimmer of interest in his eyes, I tried to put aside my two-year failure to reach him, and proceeded with the crayon resist lesson that allowed us to explore the behaviors of wax and dye. He quietly watched and listened, and actually tried several times to begin a paper. He started with a big X, and the words “I CAN NOT DO IT” and headed to the trash. In listening for the right words, I gently nudged him to continue to try, and to practice in school all the things he’d need in a job, and to find the joy in artwork that only he could do.

Finally he did start a strong drawing, but class was over, and his teacher agreed that the students could finish them in his class, so that we could later apply the dye. He was surprised that Kenny could write the words on his paper. Later, meeting Kenny in the hall as he delivered the papers, I asked if his was work was there, and he said deeply, “Bottom.” There it was: a strong and confident drawing all ready for the dye. When the papers were dry from the dye, I mounted them in our special place where everyone could see on the way to lunch, and later noticed that the little “Kenny” I had written in the corner on the front, had been carefully torn off. But the best part was on the back: In tiny letters he had written, “I can do it.”  


Sometimes we become so overwhelmed by the day’s challenges that we don’t record these experiences, except in our hearts. But we remember. And it’s the Kennys who make us want to come back tomorrow.

Next time, we’ll talk about teacher preparation.  Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your ideas!

Copyright © 2015 Nan Williams

Thursday 08. 6.15

Arts Thinking

From: Nan Williams

Accidentally becoming an art teacher has affirmed my belief that there’s value in being open to new experiences.  I’ve never gone out and asked for a job; I’ve just said “sure!” along the way.  This has led to careers in music, theatre and art, and knowing how intensely the arts have framed my life and outlook, I’m eager to share that with students, and they see my passion. Also, I’ve had parallel careers in K-12 and university classes, working with both classroom and art teachers. Students knew I came with real-world issues and daily adventures to share.   

It seems that teacher training, especially for the classroom, is often built on linear sequential learning with separation of subjects. It’s been illuminating for me to nudge this thinking into the lateral thinking we experience in the arts. For example, in an Integrated Arts class, when the assignment was to devise a lesson based on “color,” a student presented a nice science lesson on the rainbow. I asked if she might also engage imagination, and include a writing piece, musing about what could be at the end of the rainbow, and what you might wish for. She freaked out, and simply could not combine something emotional with science. (Actually, I’ve always felt that it’s the scientists who dare to dream; artists are often the keen observers.)           

After 40 years of adventure, memories flood my thought. And i realize now that what always pulled me through was what I call arts thinking. Here are a few favorite thoughts about creativity:

• Ideas: trust, infinity of ideas, persistence, stamina, perspective and lateral thinking, joy, thirst for masking things better or easier (“problem solving”), listening…
Every creative act is a sudden cessation of stupidity. (Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera)
  Creativity is not an aptitude, but an attitude.  (Schirrmacher)
• We also embrace what the world calls “failure.” Some favorite quotes:
Sweet are the uses of adversity.  (Shakespeare)
There are no failures. There are only people who quit. (Phyllis Diller)
Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently. (Henry Ford)
The most important ingredient in success is failure. (Albert Einstein)
A man’s errors are his portals of discovery. (James Joyce)
If I fail 99 times, I am not discouraged. Then I know 99 ways it won’t work. (Thomas Edison)    

So what is arts thinking? It can include seeing the whole and its parts, flexibility, adjustment, humor, expectation, discovery, and so much more. If we embrace these qualities, our daily activities will be opportunities for strengthening our programs and making the message effective.

Next time we’ll share some thoughts about listening. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your ideas!             

Copyright © 2015 Nan Williams