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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Saturday 03.24.18

Ceramic Calaveras

From: Jennifer Pulbratek

Ok, so I'm a member of an art teacher Facebook page...and, of course, I have to keep up with all 11K AWESOME art teachers there. One day I saw that an art teacher had posted that they were doing Calaveras.  They had found Calaveras cookie cutters and were stamping them on slabs. (I really wish I could remember who this was to give them credit, but it was years ago.) Of course I had to keep up with them! If someone is doing something amazing, my kids have to do it too!  

Thus began the hunt for the cookie cutters.  They are made by FRED, and at the time were being sold at Francesca's. So I called every Francesca's in my area...sold out...finally found one and the salesperson was sweet enough to hold it for me. (Now you can order off Amazon. I wasn't Amazon-savvy then.) Then I get this idea...I should invite all the Spanish classes in for this...Totally reasonable...100+ kids in my classroom...And a math teacher I'm buddies with too, just because his Calculus kids deserve a break and he hates missing out on fun.

And it is beautiful. In doing this for the last 4 or so years, I have never had a problem. One kid choose to sit out because of their beliefs, and I will respect that. My grandmother was raised Jehovah Witness. I try to be sensitive to my kids’ feelings as they navigate high school. Because I think that if this is addressed respectfully, you can create an amazing learning opportunity that is not offensive to anyone. I'm not doing this lesson “just for fun," although I will admit I have a coveted pair of leggings to wear the day of glazing.

One thing I really try to emphasize: this is NOT Halloween. It is a way to honor those who have passed before us, to remember them, to celebrate. Many cultures do this--look at Greek Vase Painting, Egyptian tombs, the vinyl "In Loving Memory of..." that people put on the back windows of their cars.

The prep work: Roll out tons of slabs and stamp them with the skulls. Cut and punch holes. I will enlist the help of kids if I can get them, but I punch the holes. Sometimes they get them in the very center of the forehead and the skull looks as if it was executed, and then other times too close to the top and it won't hold. Smooth the sides so they are not sharp after bisque firing. Let dry. If I can, I like them to dry on a light grate. I think I found mine for $14 at Lowe's.  


Prep your kids: Pair up with the Spanish teacher and explain what Dias de los Muertos is. Explain that it is about a culture, it’s not a religious celebration. Discuss the food, the cultural traditions, how sugar skulls are made, how this is a celebration of life, not death. There are lots of resources out there as well, short video, articles, and such. But do prepare them.

The day of the glazing: Have lots of glaze (or acrylic paint if you choose) palettes already made. You can cover with saran wrap to prevent from drying if you need. I like to use Mayco Stroke and Coat Underglaze for this...It is stable low and midrange firing. Colors don't change much, light can go over dark...But they are $$$$ Right now I am mostly using Duncan Concepts. Yes, I do mix them with the Stroke and coat. Turns out fine. Choose 5-6 colors. Do not overly complicate the color thing.  Concepts do need a coat of clear. I will have clear glaze also laid out in containers and have instructions at the tables for each kid.  Brushes will also be at the tables. Along with a few students, I will have an under-glaze pencil for the kids to put their initials and the first initial of their teacher and class period (R.T.  B3). When you have four different teachers, this is a help to ensure everyone gets their work back.  

Kids apply underglaze. Small brushes are helpful. Then they let it dry for a few minutes before putting  on a coat of clear. Teachers make sure everyone has their name on the  back. I generally have the kids bring the skulls directly to the kiln and I load them in from there, checking the back of each one.  If I have a TA or good student helper, this becomes their job.  Send one or two kids around to refill glaze and make sure all brushes are washed. 



Make sure you go home and relax. Have a good dinner and go to bed early. This is exhausting. And I imagine what it feels like everyday to teach elementary, except you have what, 8 different lessons?

When you unload, enlist a few kids to tie some yarn on these so they hang. If I have kids that did not want theirs or were in more than one class, I have them put a dot on the back. The dotted ones become gifts for the support staff, maintenance...everyone that makes our job possible. You could get a little frame from the $ store and out it in with a nicely written "Thank you"...Just an idea...  

Honestly, I was thinking about not doing it last year...I was tired, I had no TA's...My classes are 40, 39, 38... my sons need a lot of help on their had Latin and is studying Medea (That's a joyful story...)  But my husband delivers for a big company and saw one in someone's window. He told me about it because he wanted me to know the impact I make on the daily life in my community. There it is, folks. We make an impact. Everyday. Even though we don't see it in the hundreds of pounds of clay to pug, or the hours of kiln loading, the paper towels left on the floor...we are there peeking out of windows as a reminder of the amazing times school held for these amazing people.  

And then I remember pulling into parking lots and seeing them hang from car windows. Ok, one of my former student teachers is doing these, so I guess I can no longer assume in the near future they are all from my kiln. But this impact is why I spend weekends making them and why I am spending the time right now to share what I have learned with everyone is worth it. Do it.  

Many kids will never have the opportunity to take Ceramics or to decorate a sugar skull. But because of this lesson, they had it; and maybe, just maybe it will bring us together rather than pull us apart. In the long run, kids will not remember what we taught them, but how we made them feel.  



Friday 03.16.18

The Power of Communication

From: Jennifer Pulbratek

1. Meet kids at the Door. You learn so much from this. I knew a teacher that shook all her kids’ hands. I really love that idea. I wish I could do it, but my mother-in-law will tell you I’m a germ-conscious person. There is a reason I do not keep Kleenex on my desk. I love kids, but I really don’t want to touch them. My teenagers tell me that I’d hate teaching elementary…they tease me that it would be torture for me. Since I have started meeting kids, I can get a read on their day, what’s going on, who is happy, who is upset. And it helps me mentally prepare what direct instruction, demonstrations, class discussion, or whatever is going to happen that period. I have a few minutes to adjust during attendance so I’m a bit more collected. This practice has also helped me build stronger relationships with kids, giving me a minute for a conversation- whether it be a scolding or a compliment.

2. If the kids are not meeting expectations, it’s likely that I have not been clear enough. Expectations in an art room are very different than another classroom, and expectations vary from teacher to teacher. Instead of being frustrated, re-teach expectations. Remind kids. They are just like us, they get busy and forget. (Now sometimes they just don’t want to do it… but often my lack of clarity or consistency is the issue.)

3. If a kid isn’t behaving, don’t hesitate to call their parent right then and there. I have a few kids whose parent cell phone numbers are taped to my computer. One kiddo a while back was absent a lot. Every day he was absent I called mom right then during attendance. It was short and sweet. She knew, the other kids also saw, and it curbed absences.

4. If you freak out on a kid, apologize. I’ll admit, I have done this. In the middle of 143 teachers being cut at the district I worked, a kid said something. I don’t remember what. I responded harshly. I should not have been so harsh. The kid was wrong, but so was I. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I apologized and explained to the kid how I was feeling. The kid explained themselves, and we were good. Sometimes you will build the most trust from those kids.

5. When giving praise, be specific. Instead of saying, “This is awesome!” say “The pattern you choose to put in the background really pushed your subject forward. It also makes the viewer think about why the subject may be leaving.” Or something like that. Be really detailed. Ask them deep questions as well. “I really like the way you carved these two patterns here. How are you going to resolve the conflict between how different they are?” As a teacher you don’t have to have the answer to the question; it’s not your art work.

6. IF, if, if, if you ever touch a student’s work, ask first. Sometimes kids need the teacher to show them the line they are talking about, or how to hold a pencil, or place their hands. But if you go in and touch without asking permission first, you are telling them that what they have done is wrong. If a student feels like they have made art wrong, they will shut down.


Wednesday 03. 7.18

The Power of Appreciation

From: Jennifer Pulbratek

A few years ago my husband and I came to the realization that everyone needs appreciation. I actually asked him if he wanted to collaborate with me on this post--he declined. However, he wasn’t lacking words in telling me about how I use appreciation in my classroom, how he has learned to use it at work, and how we as a team use it in parenting, especially with our defiant child (we are forever grateful for behavior analysts).

Everyone needs to feel appreciated.

People think Millennials complain too much… “my boss didn’t compliment me!” However, what have we been teaching our students to do? Advocate for themselves. When you hear that, they are just advocating for the need to feel valued. Why do people leave jobs?  They are unhappy because they do not feel valued.

Remember the time you walked into the teachers’ lounge and somehow a conversation started about a kid who was just awful? Another teacher was describing the student’s behaviors and you felt angry for them, and grateful at the same time that you don’t have that student. What a relief, right?!? At some point in the conversation you find out who the kid is…and low and behold they are your best student. You know, the student that stays after class to make sure all the chairs are put up, or the one that just cleans things up extra well, or the one that brought you a bag of pine cones (not readily available in the desert) because they heard you wanted some of your students to draw pine cones. Why is this kid so good for you and so awful for the other teacher?

Lots of reasons… they could be naturally artistic. But we know even some really artistically gifted kids are not well behaved in art class on their own. Somewhere along the line you showed them appreciation. Showing appreciation validates a person--it gives them importance and purpose. Positive reinforcement is much stronger than negative reinforcements and has longer lasting effects. I forget who said it, but someone once said, “Nail students for greatness.” After that I attached a small nail to my computer with a bit of tape, just as a reminder. Show your students you value them, and you will transition from a dictatorship to more of a coaching relationship. You are cheering them on, but they own the process.


A teacher and mentor I really admire once game me the advice, “That student that you like the least, you have to love the most.” As hard as it may be to find something to appreciate, find something and be genuine about it. All people, especially students, see right through fakeness. Build that positive relationship with that student. Use the power of appreciation to create a learning environment where kids feel safe to explore, experiment and make art without fear of failure. 

A person who feels appreciated will always do more than just what is expected.”- Author Unknown 


Friday 03. 2.18

Finding your Inner Spirit Animal and Ultimately Yourself…

From: Jennifer Pulbratek

After being invited to write for this blog, I got on here and checked out who had written before me.  Holy Guacamole!!! THE Katherine Douglas… I adore her! That’s like trying to follow Queen, Prince, Blondie. I just can’t. I messaged a dear friend and fantastic art teacher and told her I’m sick to my stomach. (I don’t belong here.) She reminded me to be myself; that’s what makes me a good teacher. 

I often tell student teachers they need to find their Spirit Animal, or themselves, their “thing”. They can’t be me. Just as much as I can’t be other teachers I adore: Bob Ross, Cassie Stevens, Sister Wendy, Clara Lieu, Gerry Brooks, or Snape to name a few. As teachers we have to find our own thing, embrace ourselves, our odd quirks and what works for us. Some teachers embrace technology wonderfully, then use it! Others are awkward… why force it? Some teachers are really great at lecture, while others can lead kids in fantastic conversations. Some teachers use sarcasm well while another teacher using the exact same line would be a train wreck. Find your thing, and then mine the heck out of it. I learned first-hand this year that when you don’t because you are nervous about what kids expect, you will fail. 

This last year I moved to a new school and replaced a well-loved teacher. I had a student who really struggled with the change. Another kid was in my room after school when there was a tantrum from the struggling one. The second student said to me, “Man, when I’m in Ceramics 2, I need you to be you.”

A few years ago at my former district, my best friend was cut due to budget and I was given the advanced art classes (her babies). I was always second guessing myself. I so desperately wanted to do right by them. I was really nervous one day and asked how my friend did something. One kid said, “Don’t worry how she did it.  We need you to do things your way.” I stepped into the storage room and cried.

The kids need us. And they need us to be us. Full of our quirks and our flaws. They need to see our mistakes and our rawness. Don’t be afraid to be human. We are not perfect, but that’s what makes us perfect for our kids. To be fair, we have to accept their flaws. We have got to be okay when a kid nervously chews on a pencil. Or fidgets and rips the clip part of a pen cap off. Yeah, we should address it with the individual, but we have to forgive them and build that relationship with them. 

If we lose a piece of work, we must admit we lost it. If we blow something up in the kiln, we have got to own it. We need to ask for forgiveness and model how to say, “I’m sorry.” How else are kids going to learn to take ownership if the adult in their lives don’t do it, and do it often? 

And then let your passions hang out. If you tell jokes, do it. If you give compliments, do it. I held kids to high standards. I would give compliments, but then ask them deep questions about their designs and where they intended to take them. And I’m fairly blunt. Sometimes it takes a while for kids to get used to a new personality. I experiment, I explore, I address each kid as their own artist. I try to give each individual a purpose to their assignment. If something isn’t of a standard it should be, I tell a kid. And that’s me. It’s taken awhile for some to warm up. And to be fair I think it’s taken me awhile to get comfortable enough to be me… to get to the point where I keep parents’ phone numbers taped to my computer and set times on my phone for kids who are easily distracted so they have a dead line for each sub step. 

But I’m happy to report my spirit animal is back. A kid spotted it yesterday in the middle of chaos, kids doing what seemed like 100 different things, including a “secret” therapy smashing session (of unclaimed glaze ware) for a kid who was having a rough day. The observant kid walked by to see what was going on, came up and whispered to me, “You are a good teacher.”