Interview with Art-Ed Hero Ellery Nief

Where do you teach and what grades do you teach? I teach at Inskip Elementary School in Knoxville. I have around 530 students from Kindergarten through the 5th grade.

How long have you been teaching art? I am in my fourth year teaching art; I have been fortunate enough to teach at the same school for all four years.

What is your favorite time of the school day and why? My favorite part of the school day is when students share their artwork with their class. I try to allow time for students to get to share their artwork with the class’ undivided attention. It is amazing how students will come out of their shells for the opportunity to share something they worked hard on.

Is there always a class period regardless of the year and the group of kids that feel similar? Every year when Kindergarten starts a couple of weeks after the rest of the students, I am reminded of how young they are. Many of my kindergarteners come to the first day of kindergarten with no experience in a classroom setting. It is always a challenge to take a step back and remind myself that they are still learning how to be at school. Even though this is a challenge, their eagerness for learning and their amazement in new materials always makes the challenge worth it.

What is your favorite lesson or concept to teach? My favorite concept to teach my students is idea generation. Through my district’s curriculum and the new Tennessee Visual Arts Standards, my students are gaining idea generation strategies that help them to create artwork that is personally relevant and engaging. It is such an enjoyable concept for me to teach because it gives me a chance to hear all of my students’ great ideas for creative and innovative works of art. My favorite strategy to use with them is a collaborative brainstorming list where all the students are throwing out ideas making a huge inspiration list. Most of my students end up creating art from ideas that didn’t make the list but are proof they are taking this strategy from a teacher-led activity to an artistic habit.

What has you underwater right now? What has me underwater right now is the lack of time in the day. I have many duties in my school and in my district and even though the days seem long, most days do not have enough daylight. School-wide scheduling difficulties make it hard to get everything done during the day. The populations I teach require me to be at my best when I am at school, so a work/life balance is super important to me and unfortunately hanging student artwork is sometimes the first to give. It breaks my heart because I believe hanging student artwork throughout the hallways is one of the most important parts of being an art teacher and when the school day is scheduled to the second, it makes it hard for me to get that done without staying hours after work.

What is saving your life in the classroom right now? I am privileged enough to have an intern (student teacher) this year. Katy O’Dell is an art education teacher candidate at the University of Tennessee. She has been such a great asset to my classroom. She was quick to jump in and get to know the students and they love her for it. With a busy daily schedule, new curriculum, and new state standards, it has been so great to have a second pair of hands and another brain to problem solve within the room. With this being my fourth school year, I am still a new teacher myself and I believe we have both learned so much from each other, at least I hope so!

Who is your favorite artist to teach kids about? I love to pull in artists as the students are working. With a choice-based curriculum, I am not spending a ton of time making sure students recognize famous artists. I have been really pushing the exploration of materials with my students. Sometimes they are hesitant in working with materials in an exploratory way instead of immediately making an image. It always gives them a boost of confidence and freedom when I show them work by artists like Cy Twombly or Helen Frankenthaler.

What does your studio practice outside of the classroom look like and how does it make its way into your classroom? My studio practice is a juxtaposition of so many different mediums. I work primarily in mixed media collage and pull in anything that lends itself to the project I am working on. I have most recently been working with gel printing plates and collaging the prints I make. Through my own studio practice and my training as an art educator, I have gained at least a basic level of knowledge in so many mediums that I feel comfortable bringing many new materials and tools in my classroom. My students are definitely gaining skills in experimentation and exploration and they think of ways to use materials that I would have never thought of. They teach me as much as I teach them.

If you had the stage in front of administrators and art policymakers, what would you want to say about why art education is essential? If I had the stage in front of administrators and/or policymakers, I would encourage them to visit their local art classrooms more frequently. I would encourage them to talk to young art students and teachers. I would encourage them to volunteer and be a substitute in an art room. It is one thing for art teachers and art education researches to tell administrators and policymakers the importance of art education, but it is a completely different thing for them to step into art rooms and experience the benefit of arts education.

What would you tell a 19-year-old who is thinking about becoming an art educator? I would tell a 19-year-old art education student to create a network of colleagues. When you find a job, if your district does not provide opportunities to be around other art teachers, create your own, look online, reach out to other schools near you, and call your art education classmates. There is power in a community of fellow art teachers. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to see other art teachers at work, get into their classrooms, go to conferences, and share lesson plans and resources. Your art teacher friends and colleagues can be your greatest asset.

Who was your art-ed hero growing up? My art-ed hero has always been my family. I am a fourth-generation artist and have been fortunate to grow up in an environment that values the arts and supports any creative endeavor. My family serves as a constant source of inspiration for me. Both of my parents attended art school at different points in their lives and my dad has a custom woodworking business, Wood Designs by Glenn G. Nief. Both of my paternal grandparents worked in the arts, my grandmother worked as a cartoonist for General Motors, and my grandfather was a freelance window display artist and sign painter in Detroit. One of my great grandfathers was a design engineer for Ford Motor Company. My aunt, Jan Heaton, is a watercolorist based in Austin, TX and Laguna Beach, CA, and a cousin, Christine Vaillancourt, is a painter out of Boston, MA. In addition to an artistic family on one side, the maternal side of my family is full of teachers. I am lucky to have too many art-ed heroes to name, but can’t forget to shout out to all of the art professors I had at the University of Memphis, they have been so integral in who I am as an artist and art educator, I think about their influence daily.

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