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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« February 2019 | Main | April 2019 »

Sunday 03.31.19

The Process of Reflection

By Holly Houston

When I agreed to write Monthly Mentor blog posts I immediately scrawled a list of topics:

  • My new grading experiment with AP Studio students
  • Collaborating with colleagues
  • Art show at the local Historical Society
  • Lessons from my superintendent
  • Fitting more art history into my art classes
  • Balance
  • Collaborations with artists in the classroom
  • My former art student as an art sub
  • Administration in the classroom: why this is good
  • Should I have a classroom instagram account?
  • Glaze magic
  • Making art next to my students
  • Favorite clay tools
  • Thinking about and planning work

I could have listed more, but thought that was enough to go on. As it was, I veered off the list and found other things to write about each week. I can’t thank NAEA enough for this opportunity to remind myself how much I enjoy and find value in the process of reflection. Making that reflection public was extra incentive to try to write well, which is also good practice. Next year I might propose writing a “Weekly Reflection” as my Professional Growth Goal.  Thank you to those who read my musings and commented, either in person or on the blog. I wish you all a wonderful and creative spring!


Tuesday 03.26.19

The End of a Blue Day

By Holly Houston

It is the end of a “Blue” day, a day when I have continuous back to back classes.  I love my students yet find I am rather tired by the end of these days. On this particular Monday we don’t have our typical weekly after school meeting, and I have been able to slow down and respond to the day’s email.  Sunlight streams across my desk, which is full of artwork, rubrics to assess, favorite pens, and a smorgasbord of other things. A Pandora jazz station is not helping me shake the urge to take a wee nap (but I won’t).

Behind me is a wall of glaze test tiles that my Ceramics I students make each semester, teaching them how to work precisely with clay and glazes.  It is a lesson I love as students are amazed to see the new colors created by layering different glazes, and then they utilize them with the following pinch pot lesson.  It gives them some ownership in the studio, and that’s always a good thing.

Photo 1-Tiles
To my left is a small wall of collected inspiration, from artwork made by friends to some by the more famous.  As I tell my students, having readily visible images of work I love and admire is inspiring and a reminder of why I both teach and make art.  

Photo 2-Inspiration

Hanging from the ceiling around the room are gently spinning, cascading layered loops of paper, sculptures made by my Art Fundamentals classes.  Every June I weed out all but my favorite, yet I can’t seem to let them all go as I have a vision of weaving in LED lights someday for the months when it gets dark around 4pm…

Photo 3-Sculpture

My last student just left, having worked since the end of school.  She is behind on her AP portfolio and I gave her a pep talk I hope she internalized, yet she looked doubtful as she walked out.  I don’t know that students realize how attached we get to each of them and their work. I realize I cause stress when I have hard conversations about missing work, yet I’m also shouldering stress about that work and want so badly to see every student succeed. I’m hoping that comes across, too.

Time for me to leave and head home.  I will pack assessments into my bag in hopes of reading reflections tonight, but am thinking it more likely my day’s worth of energy has been sapped already.  Sometimes it pays to do non-school activities on school nights as it thoroughly recharges my batteries to come back and teach again tomorrow.

- HH

Wednesday 03.20.19

Building a Better Classroom Community: Lessons from the NAEA Convention

By Holly Houston

As Kimberly D/Adamo and Lois Hetland emphasized in last Thursday’s “Emotional Security” session, students will create better work if they feel safer in the classroom. I also think if I can encourage experimentation and permission to create something that might not “work” in the interest of learning from mistakes, being better informed, and personal happiness, then I am heading in the right direction.

On Friday, Nicole Brisco spoke about advertising her art program to grow numbers and I think students’ emotional security plays into this.  Why would students sign up for, or advertise to their peers, classes in which they are insecure? I hope to create art experiences that are challenging and develop critical thinking and technical skills, yet also nurture positive feelings about art-making. I like Nicole’s ideas about collages and additive use of materials--these are great ways to have students work together to problem solve and think spontaneously and not necessarily have grades as consequences for their work.  

Last fall I tried to emphasize classroom culture with each of my classes. We did “ice breaker” exercises in every section.  However, the months have passed and I haven’t found time to think much about students’ emotions. I was reminded by these two sessions that I need to do culture check-ins with my classes throughout the semester.  My AP students have been together all year, yet as they dive yet deeper into their sustained investigations, they could use some time to step back, relax, and work on a collaborative piece, perhaps one in which there are some rules, yet also freedom to explore and cut loose a bit.  It is easy to get caught up in all the work that needs to be done during class time and lose sight of taking stock of the productivity level. If Kimberly and Lois are right, and I suspect they are, my students will work more efficiently, produce stronger work, and generally be happier if I pay more attention to their emotional needs.


Saturday 03.16.19

Can Cannolis Console Tired Feet?

By Holly Houston

I can finally relax.  All twenty-two art students and three chaperones are on the final bus leg back to Maine after being in New York City for a weekend.  This is the eighth year I have done this trip, always on this first weekend in March.

Is it worth it?  I always say yes.  The up-front work is heavy with communication to students, parents, and the hotel. There are fund-raisers to organize, money to manage.  Paperwork to fill out. Schedules to plan.

But then there is the group’s increasing excitement about the trip as the date draws near. Planning clothes and snacks. Making lists of places to possibly visit. 

I hope this trip is not just about the art and I know it is not.  It is about experiencing a weekend in the city that might be different from past experiences. We focus on art in Chelsea, MoMA, and the MET, in cathedrals and other architectural wonders, and on building walls.  Art is everywhere in the city.  We stop at all sorts of fun food places I’ve stumbled upon and tried over the years. We also spend the weekend navigating the subway, asking strangers for directions, giving up seats for older adults, donating to street performers, not being on phones at meals, and bringing a scarf—just in case. These are important things to experience.

What I am perhaps most grateful for are the conversations I have with students as we stand on the subway, walk through Central Park, look at art. We talk about travel experiences, both in NYC and away.  I check in on plans for next year—art school? Gap year? Undetermined? And talk about my own path to my current place in my life.  I ask questions, they ask questions.  I put in a plug for happiness.  We talk about art with mutual excitement: seeing a researched work of art in person, not just online, is equally thrilling to all of us.

It is a very busy weekend and everyone works to curb their complaints about aching feet and develop a bit of tolerance for rerouted trains and extra stops for coffee and leg resting.  At the end of the day, there are always cannolis to be found and savored, and tired feet feel just a little less tired.

I am pretty sure I know where I’ll be early next March—taking another group of Yarmouth, Maine high school art students to New York City for the weekend.  I just hope they don’t run out of cannolis!



Tuesday 03. 5.19

Keynote Address for Youth Art Month Celebration at PMA - March 2019

By Holly Houston

Good Evening. Thank you to all who have made this amazing event possible. I am honored to be speaking to you tonight. I’d like to frame my remarks around five quotes that ring clear to me as an artist and art educator:

“Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except the best.” Henry Van Dyke

You have to start somewhere. You all CLEARLY have something to say and you say it so well (or your art would probably not be on the museum wall right now). Remember that if you are ever feeling that you aren’t the best artist and others have so much more talent, that you, too, have talent and if we all waited for only the very best to make art, there would be very little new art to enjoy. We ALL must contribute to the absolutely essential and varied world of art to see it continue to grow and flourish.

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
Art makes people FEEL. It gives messages of hope, sadness, happiness, anger, and so much more. It has the power to describe SO MUCH--from how you feel about your new puppy to your frustration about the amount of plastic in our oceans to a personal journey you have experienced.

Have you ever stood in front of a piece of art, either by a classmate or in a museum or gallery, and gotten lost in how it makes you feel? It is an amazing sensation! What I think is so very wonderful is that different pieces of art make me feel differently, and the experience I feel when I stand in front of a certain piece of art is likely to be different than what you experience. It might be similarly powerful, but different.

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Be open to learning new things.
Surround yourself with people who can teach you new things.
Take chances. Try something new. That can be scary. Sometimes you’ll create a mess. But sometimes you’ll make a masterpiece. Isn’t that worth trying for?

“Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered.” Michelle Obama

There are a lot of things that fill your days. You are responsible for other classes, not just art. You play sports, like to read, have chores and jobs. If art is something you love to do, make it happen. Your artwork’s presence on the wall outside this room is evidence that you are a creative thinker who cares about making your mark. Let this empower you to continue to do so.

“Often when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of something else.” Fred Rogers

I feel very certain that your having your art hanging here in this month, in this year, is not going to be the end of your art career. This is the beginning. Let this be the fuel for your creative flame. Let this be your connection to museums and galleries for the rest of your life. YOU have your art hanging at THE PORTLAND MUSEUM of ART. That is very cool! You make us proud to be your art teachers, your friends, and your family. THIS is just the beginning. Please continue to sing with your art so that the woods of our lives will not be silent.

Thank you.


Sunday 03. 3.19

Ashtrays and Assumptions

By Holly Houston

One beginning ceramic project that was worked on while I was fulfilling my civic duty as a potential juror was the making of pinch pots. Upon inspection when I returned, I found many fabulous, very well-formed and unique pots. Students were asked to have refined, even sides and bases, use texture on at least two of their pots, utilize sprigs on at least one other, and leave smooth spaces for decals on one other. There were multiple examples left in the room as references. Two different students made these pinch pots.


When I saw them an inner voice shouted in my head, “ASHTRAYS??!!!” As fate would have it, the day of their next class was a snow day and the following class found them both on a field trip. This was most likely to their advantage, as it gave me some time to think about the origins of these pieces. I called on a young substitute from the classroom across the hall; she is a former art student of mine. I asked her what she thought these were. She looked puzzled, then tentatively volunteered, “Pinch pots?” When I asked her if she had ever seen an ashtray, she said no. We discussed the relevance of ashtrays as a current-day household item, and determined it unlikely a teenage student at our school would think to make one, if s/he even knew what one was. Our students are more likely to vape (a whole other issue) than smoke cigarettes, and I have certainly never heard any student refer to ashtrays or ashtray use. It is more likely one student thought of altering the edge of the pot and the other student followed suit.

This made me consider the assumptions we make as teachers and the need to stay relevant to our students. I think by showing students we have an interest and at least a general understanding of what is trending in their lives, we are showing we care. As an example, after taking a state-designed and mandated survey on technology use, an Advisee shook his head and said he would have put more effort into it if he hadn’t been asked such irrelevant questions such as how often he accessed Facebook. “We don’t use Facebook,” he scornfully said.

Despite feeling fairly certain these pinch pots are not destined to hold ashes, it is hard to let go of thinking about the viewing of them in the display cases by people my age and wonder if they, too, will see ashtrays. I will have to be doubly sure to post the project criteria nearby!


Friday 03. 1.19

Jury Duty? Me?

By Holly Houston

At some point last summer I received a notice that I would be called upon to for Jury Duty within the year; I was asked to send back my most convenient windows of time. I found this request very generous, yet also almost comical to respond to, given the nature of teaching. Classes were just getting up and running in September and October, I had a visiting artist arriving for the month of November, when he departed I would be frantically trying to pack in all that had been pushed aside in November before we reached the end of the semester in mid-January. March held an annual trip to NYC with advanced art students, as well as the National Conference in Boston. April held an already planned vacation week in a very warm spot, and May and June involved the final push for AP students and wrapping up the year for all others. I wrote back that February would be best.

Sure enough, a letter arrived in January, detailing my duties. In both preparation and as a firm believer in asking questions, I called the number on my formal and slightly intimidating yellow paper (that told me it was a crime to not show up at jury duty) and explained that my job as an art educator included, among many other technical skills, teaching students how to throw on the wheel and how to properly use an expensive etching press--things that were nearly impossible to find a substitute to teach. The clerk kindly yet briskly told me that while I certainly was NOT excused, she could minimize my time. I felt a deep curiosity and sense of civic duty, yet also an inner frustration over creating lessons that would lead to having a sub for an undetermined period of time.

I was slightly dismayed by what became the standard adult response when they heard I had Jury Duty: picture a sad face accompanying the words, “I’m so sorry; what a pain!,” to which I responded that I hoped people like me were in the jury if I was on trial! I was somewhat buoyed by the standard student response, which was generally open curiosity. I frontloaded class information to students so that they would be prepared for my possible extended absence and also explained to them all I knew about the jury duty process so that they might one day be prepared to accept this civic duty.

The day arrived when I was required to be at the courthouse by 8am. Sitting shoulder to shoulder in a courtroom, we potential jurors watched a video about being a juror, yet then I was able to leave, and I promptly returned to my classroom. At my next appointed time to appear, oddly at 11am, I found a line of people signing in to prove they had shown up, then we were all allowed to leave as there were no cases scheduled! Thus ended my civic duties, which was both a relief and a letdown, and I headed back to class. I didn’t find out what it was like to participate in an entire trial and I wasn’t called upon to make any judgement calls. I did, however, experience the stress of not knowing what serving on jury duty would truly look like for me and my students. I overprepared all of us. I was able to sit in a courtroom for a few hours, people watch, and study the portraits on the walls and the incredibly ornate ceiling and chandeliers--truly impressive. My students, of course, sailed through my absences, kept creating artwork, and welcomed my return. The bottom line is I am relieved this experience is over and also feel happy that the experienced educated not only me, but also my students, on this civic duty to which we have relatively little control, yet need to take seriously.