Interview with Art-Ed Hero Tina M. Atkinson

Where do you teach and what grades do you teach? How long have you been teaching art? I teach at Percy Priest Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee. I have been the art teacher there for 21 years! I have also taught some art education classes at Belmont University.

What is your favorite time of the school day and why? One of my favorite times of the day is called “Open Studio”. During my planning in the morning, my 4th graders have their 1st recess. I open the art room so they may choose to create, especially in the winter when the weather is poor. It is fun to have the students come in and work, help each other, chat about events. I don’t teach during this time, so the students have to work independently and coach each other. I love it because if you can teach something, you have really internalized the information, so

What is your favorite lesson or concept to teach? I love to teach clay and weaving. Weaving is great in the winter when everyone is so busy. I let students choose their own seats to weave so they can chat about all the exciting things happening this time of year.  Clay is great because it is so very different than what the students are used to and they are so excited about it! I’m really silly when I teach clay so it adds to the fun!

What has you underwater right now? Dipping all those clay projects in the clear glaze and getting them fired before the holidays. I also use Artsoinia.com, which is an online art gallery. By the end of the year, the students and I will have uploaded almost 6,000 works of art. Right now I am behind with photographing and uploading all those clay projects!!

What is saving your life in the classroom right now? The last week of the semester I set up Free-Choice Art Day. It is a time for students to create what is inside them and apply some of the skills they have been learning. I give the directions and then they can move from table to table making and cleaning up. While they work and listen to music, I am working too, putting away all of the random supplies we used but did not have time to repack. I place odds and ends on the collage/recycle table too which always spark creativity! It is the student’s favorite day of art and I love to see what they create with the materials and what they have learned. Parent volunteers and 4th-grade helpers are also lifesavers this time of year. I put them to work taking pictures of clay projects so they can get home before the holidays!

Who is your favorite artist to teach kids about? Leigh Alfredson! She is a street-painter friend of mine who works out of state. Every year she comes to my school and does a workshop with my 2nd graders. Seeing the students learn about and from a live artist (because I don’t count)  is really an amazing experience that they will always remember.

What does your studio practice outside of the classroom look like and how does it make its way into your classroom? I am a mixed media artist. That sounds so much better than being an artistic magpie! I love to make and I attend lots of workshops and classes (such as TN Art Ed. Association conference and community classes at The Clay Lady Campus here in Nashville) in which I get to learn new processes! Once I have a collection of creations, I combine them to make one cohesive piece. I am usually working in a theme so each small piece is a part of a larger idea that will be combined to illustrate my message. I include meaningful found objects and a lot of symbolism to create my pieces. Currently, I have been creating works of art that bring awareness to those who silently suffer from digestive issues, so the objects I use are very textural, like nails, gravel, barbed wire, satin, metal, clay and so on. Most of my pieces are about hope and offer a sense of community for those you needlessly struggle alone.

What’s your least favorite thing you get asked to do by your colleagues? My colleagues are very respectful of my time and resources. It helps that I foster a culture of collaboration. A phrase I have used for years is, ” I am happy to advise you on your fabulous project!” By becoming the consultant, it allows people to feel comfortable asking for help and advice and absolves me of the responsibility of not meeting someone else’s expectations because it makes each petitioner the leader of the project.

Do you let people borrow your glue guns? Yes…well, I am always willing for people to bring something to the art room during my planning or after school that can be glued. I encourage teachers to keep their own mini low temp glue gun in the classroom. I keep the high temp one in the art room and they are welcome to visit it when the room is open.

How often do you collaborate across disciplines and what is a collaboration you are excited about right now? I am often designing trans-curricular units. By planning trans-curricular instead of cross-curricular it allows creativity to remain center stage as students knowledge-build and research through a variety of other academic subjects. Creativity is very motivating and the student is often driven to do more, writing and research to better communicate the idea they are developing through art. Some ideas start as collaborations but end up becoming all mine. One of my favorites is a Greek Sculpture unit in which students explore Greek mythology, design an original character that could be inserted into the mythology. Students then sculpt, paint and embellish the sculpture. The final step is to write an origin story for the new character explaining details about famous relatives or special powers the character may poses. Another unit I have been developing to teach in the spring includes studying plant and animal cells. This unit includes mono-printing cellular structures and then reverse engineering the organism that the mono-printed cell may belong to based on similarities to either plant or animal cells. My target grade is 4th because they missed learning about cells when the science curriculum moved its teaching from 4th grade to 3rd grade. My daughter happens to be in that group, so I decided to fill the gap through art.

What would you tell a 19-year-old who is thinking about becoming an artist or art educator? It is the best job in education! If you are going to teach, teach art. It is challenging and not for the disorganized, but it is the one place kids can still feel like humans. They are allowed to create and express themselves in the art room in a way that is being tested and assessed right out of every other element of education. Find an expert art teacher and spend time in the art room with them. Make as much art as you can, try as much media, pay attention to your education classes because management is important. But…if you don’t believe that by teaching art you can change the world, then pick something else.

Who was your art-ed hero growing up? I grew up about 60 miles south of Pittsburgh, so in high school, we would take a field trip every year to the Carnegie Museum of Art. I fell in love with the art of culture and would read books about the things people made and what they were used for in antiquity and in native people. I really enjoyed trying to figure out what an object was made out of or what it may have been used for in daily life. The stories that the objects told were fascinating to me. I still love to do this at museums and art/craft fairs. I am constantly amazed by what people make and the ideas they have.

What question do you wish I would have asked but didn’t? What is the answer?

If you had the stage in front of administrators and art policy-makers, what would you want to say about why art education is essential?

I would encourage every administrator and educational policy maker to spend some time in an art classroom, not as an evaluator, but to see how this time positively impacts student’s lives. Making art has an amazing calming property that soothes anxiety and pushes worries away for a little while. More than that, it is challenging and fosters students to think about problems from different angles. This ability to approach problems with an attitude of exploration and determination fosters innovation that translates to every field and industry. Creative entrepreneurs, artists, politicians, administrators, teachers, doctors, scientists, inventors, mathematicians, researchers and more all come from the art room where failure is recognized as a sign of fearless exploration, a positive learning strategy that leads to success beyond measure!

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