The art of teaching art: Honoring two of the state's finest art teachers

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Jennifer Lundgren, an art teacher at Montlake Elementary School.

Years ago, I served as a volunteer art teacher in one of Dallas’ rougher areas, at a community center near a middle school. The center’s staff saw my spraypaint art at a charity auction, and approached me to teach their junior high clientele how to do it. A dozen or so students started showing up for the class after school.

These kids attended because their other options were often an empty home or the street. The street wasn't a good option, the center's staff said, but it was the option that often won out. I was expected to be a babysitter of sorts, in hopes my class would be more compelling than the other choices.

Teaching art, the easy path is to play this sort of pass-the-time role. “Here’s some materials,” you can say, before giving everyone a broad sort of assignment. "Have fun, don't be disruptive. I'll check in with you guys later.” But to go the extra mile, to invest in the kids who have that spark of interest and encourage them to develop, is a seriously worthwhile endeavor. Because being a good art teacher demands you do more than is necessary, the same as being a good teacher of anything. It takes patience, positivity, and a genuine interest in others.

Those who do it well can be the reason kids gain a greater sense of worth, find something that they love, and lead a fuller life.

Last month, two Seattle area teachers were honored by the Washington Art Education Association as the statewide Educators of the Year, on both the elementary and middle school level – Jennifer Lundgren and Jennifer Heller. They provide perfect examples for how visual arts can be taught in public schools, the WAEA said in a statement.

To further honor these teachers and their work for Seattle’s kids, we coordinated with Seattle Public Schools to share appraisals of their approach from colleagues, their students, and the teachers themselves.

Jennifer Lundgren – Montlake Elementary School 

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Jennifer Lundgren.

When Jennifer Lundgren was called to the principal’s office to be told of her award, she reacted like one of her over 200 students may have. “That kid in me was like, ‘Oh, what did I do wrong?’” The award was later announced on the school’s curriculum night, where parents gave her a standing ovation.

What does a dedicated art teacher look like? In her work, Lundgren demonstrates some good examples. Applying for space at the Seattle Art Museum to show her student’s work, for example, and following through on the two-year process to make it happen. Publishing a quarterly ‘zine filled with her student’s work, and hosting a regular school art walk.

In short, giving students the shot in the arm all budding artists look for: having their work displayed for others.

Lundgren started as a parent-volunteer at Montlake Elementary, followed by a part-time stint as a paid teacher in the 2013-2014 school year, before being hired as a full-time educator last year. Art was a valuable part of her personal development, she says, something she brings to her work.

“The kid who is struggling in a classroom in reading or in math – any kind of core subject area, they come in here and they might shine in here,” says Lundgren. “Art was really where I found my confidence, so I relate to those kids. Even the kids who are brilliant in class have their insecurities, and they can come in here and hopefully it’s almost a therapeutic environment for everyone.”

Montlake Principal Melissa Gray puts it more simply: “She makes our school beautiful” and “makes art accessible to everyone.”

Lundgren teaches students from kindergarten to fifth grade. Luka, one of her fourth graders, says she likes Lundgren’s encouragement: “She doesn’t tell you to change it, but she gives you a tip for how to make it better. Instead of saying, ‘You did this wrong,’ she says, ‘You did this great, but maybe you can try it this way next time.’”

“She teaches beforehand really well, so you know what you’re going to do,” says fifth grader Clara. “It feels like something you enjoy and not something that teachers are just telling you to do.”

Jennifer Heller - Eckstein Middle School

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Jennifer Heller.

For Jennifer Heller, the value of art education comes from the confidence it can give a student.

"It gives kids a break from the regular core classes, and there are so many kids that will succeed in arts class that can’t succeed in anything else,” says Heller. “I’ve had some special education teachers say that a student took an art class, and while they may not understand what’s going on better, they may be flourishing more as an individual or as a person because it’s built up their self-esteem.”

Where Lundgren was described by a student as hands-off in the right ways, Heller provides a more energetic model, according to Eckstein Middle School principal Treena Sterk.

"Within her classroom, Ms. Heller is constantly in motion," says Sterk. "She makes personal contact at least three times with each student in every period...Heller provide(s) an individualized experience in art.  She polls each class every semester, asking students for their interests, finding out what students have always wanted to try in art, but have been too scared to try."

Julia, one of her seventh grade students, says, "I love Ms. Heller because she’s so spontaneous and comes up with the best art projects — like we have to learn the color wheel every year to make sure we know it, and this year we are making it on cookies with icing.”

Another of Heller's seventh graders, Dahlia, says: "She gives you kind of creative freedom.”

  

About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at drew.atkins@crosscut.com.