Monthly Mentor

Susan Silva (August)
Each month, a different member and NAEA awardee is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Susan Silva is currently the Secondary Fine Arts Resource Teacher in Fairfax County, VA. Beyond the classroom, she has served as a curriculum fellow for Engaging the Arts and Museums in Mind for Project Zero, as well as facilitator of Digital Storytelling at the National Gallery of Art. Silva was named 2019 Southeastern Region Art Educator by the National Art Education Association. Click "GO" to read her full bio.

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August 06, 2019

Awkward is the Name Game

By Susan Silva

So…here we are. Another August has arrived and perhaps the annual back-to-school dreams have started making their annual appearance. Or perhaps you are already embarking on teacher workdays to prepare for the new school year or looking longingly at the back to school section in Target.

I don’t know about you…but my dream always starts at a train station. I am there waiting to board, looking around and taking in the calm. It is quiet, slowly individuals trickle onto the platform. We are gathering, the energy building, however no one quite yet willing to make eye contact or break the silence. Summer is ever so slowly eking into the distance behind me…

I will tell you when I am dreaming in that holding pattern at the station platform my thoughts drift to those first precious moments that await me in the classroom. You know it well, the students slowly entering the room, lingering sometimes out in the hallway, looking for a friendly face, someone familiar… the room seems to scream silence. It is a challenge, who will be the first one to break the seal of the new school year? Then the bell rings, signaling the train leaving the station…and I wake up.

But let’s rewind and delve into the first days of school. You know that brief time when the students are so quiet and still taking in their surroundings and an eager beautiful awkward energy hangs in the air. When I am standing in the hallway before each class, the hallways are quiet and eye contact is fleeting. I find myself savoring those moments then embracing them tightly, amplifying the weight of the tension--using it as a vehicle to break down barriers to gather up those students and set a new mood.

I have used a gazillion icebreakers over the years, and I can tell you that bar none the most important icebreaker is the one that allows you and the students to learn each and every individual’s name in that classroom. Is it easy? No way. Is it painful for the students? You bet. Does it require an insane amount of effort? You know it! Does it ever get easier? No! And I would not have it any other way.

During my first year of teaching, I had the pleasure of being a faculty advisor to a theatre company that would come into the school and stage a complete performance in just a week’s time. I volunteered for this primarily out of curiosity, but also as a way to connect with this newly created community. Because how on earth could a play come together in seven days? The value of that experience has stayed with me. Each year when the train is leaving the station much more important than collecting the “tickets” is knowing all of your riders. It will make the adventure all that more exciting and personal.

The time devoted to learning your students names the first few days of school lays the groundwork for all future encounters and learning. You can play an alliteration name game, two truths and a lie about the origin of the name, ballgame build, the story of the name…it really does not matter. Find the routine or game that will make those names stick. Not only must the names stick for me as the teacher, but also for every student in the room. Because this is the foundation to creating your community!

The art room is a bustling space. There are work areas, clean-up areas, laptop carts, maybe even a darkroom or a light studio. Taking advantage of that precious time on the first days of school to create a classroom culture of knowing each other’s names and pronouns--it’s instrumental to the learning that will occur in that sacred teaching space for the rest of the year’s journey. Students feel valued and connected when we know their names and pronounce them correctly.

My name is Susan Silva, silly Susan Silva smiling sweetly, if we are playing the alliteration name game. (say that five times fast…) I am your monthly mentor for August! I hope your back to school dreams are filled with wonder and excitement with who you might meet this year in your classes!

-SS

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