Artist. Art Teacher. Creative free spirit and all-around hilarious person. Abby Schukei has not been teaching long, but she has been teaching really, really well. Her twitter feed is one of my favorite follows; it is equal parts humor, irreverence, and views into the world of art teaching. She embraces the chaos that is elementary art: 3 schools, 2 of which are on a cart, and a thousand needy, messy students. I’m not kidding, by the way–she really does teach 1,000 students. The chronicles of this chaos can be found on her blog Exploring Art: Elementary Art, which was recently named as the best “Rising Star” blog of 2014 by the Art of Education. I talked to her about blogging, teaching, her favorite artists, and most importantly, kindergarten nappers. Give it a read:
Can you give me a quick bio? Where you grew up, went to school, what other art-related things you’re doing. Also, most importantly, what made you want to teach art?
I was born and raised in Nebraska, originally from Norfolk, I’m currently touching the lives of elementary students in Bellevue. OKAY fine, I’m probably just giving them a full dosage of crazy. I guess you could say I was a college prodigy, that is I actually graduated in 4 years. While my friends and twin brother were still frolicking around campus, I was stuck in the workforce at the mere age of 22. Now as my 25th birthday is here, I couldn’t be more thankful for all of the clothes ruined by paint…I mean all of the fun being an art teacher has been! In the Fall of the 2008 you would have seen me running between the chemistry building and the art building. For a year I thought it was a good idea to be a dentist, but I mean when I could make art for homework opposed to memorizing chemical formulas there really wasn’t a choice :)
At the age of 4 is when I knew I would be the next Picasso. I crawled up on the counter, found my mom’s smiley face stamp, and you bet I stamped her woodwork EVERYWHERE–I just wanted it to be happy. In all actuality, art and creativity was something that was fostered at a young age. Growing up I found success creating art and I had an awesome junior high/high school who really challenged me and inspired me to want to teach art.
What are your strengths as an artist? What role does artmaking play in your life?
I am a painter. It’s actually kind of funny, I’d consider myself to be a portrait painter, but I hate teaching portraits to my students! I used to have a strict oil paint only policy, but teaching has really pushed me to try different mediums. For instance, both of my siblings have recently moved into new homes so I have become the designated artmaker, which is awesome because it forces me to actually make stuff.
I’ve fallen into the Gelli Plate printing craze with my students, so I decided I was going to take on my own 6’ printing project. I would have never even considered doing something like this if it wasn’t for trying it in my classroom. The piece isn’t done yet, but I plan to share it when the masterpiece is finished.
Where do you look for inspiration?
There are so many great resources out there on the web for us art teachers. Through the blogging community I’m constantly in awe of the ideas others come up with. But, seeing all of the projects that other teachers do, I don’t want to just simply copy them. I certainly find inspiration from them, but I want to create my own original ideas. A lot of my teaching inspiration comes from me. Sometimes I’ll sit in my classroom (where the bulletin boards are filled with tie dye) and I’ll think “what would I want to make if I were 10 years old.” I have the mentality of a 12 year old so I can relate easily. If I’m not excited about doing a project why should my students be?
What are the big things you’ve learned over the first few years of teaching?
Just try it. I’m only in my third year of teaching and I already feel so comfortable in what I’m doing. Sure, I have bad, crazy days, but don’t we all? I’ve realized that sometimes you just have to take a risk and try new things. Have I started a project with students that has been an epic fail? YEAH, more than once, but now I know and I can learn from my mistakes.
Tell me about your blog. Why did you start it, what types of content are there, and what are you trying to accomplish with it?
I started my blog, http://aschukei.blogspot.com/, during my first year of teaching. In my unique teaching environment, I go to 3 different elementary schools (2 in which I do art on a cart, and 1 where I have my classroom). All together I have about 7 sections of each grade level so I’m repeating the same lessons a lot, which sometimes gives me a little extra time. I’m a huge tech person and like to write, so creating a digital lesson plan portfolio has been beneficial to me to see what I’ve done in years past. As I see about 1,000 students I also wanted it to act as a communication platform for parents and teachers to see what was happening in the art room. As I mainly share the happenings in the art room, I’ve found that it’s been a tremendous resource in connecting with other art educators around the country as they’ve given feedback and hopefully use it to aid in their teaching.
Are you a process person or a product person? Why? Or . . .what role do you think student choice should play in the classroom?
What came first the chicken or the egg? I used to say process, but now I’d go with both. It’s very important to me as an educator that each project I do provides exposure to a different process, but to as well be able to walk away with a rewarding product. I used to envision myself as running a democratic classroom in which the students had a voice in the decision making processes, but I had the final say. I only see each group of students 20 times throughout the year so if I did that we’d never get anything done.
I don’t want to inhibit a student’s abilities because I’m not letting them create whatever they want, but in order to enhance learning I feel that parameters need to be set. I’d like to think that I’m giving a student an opportunity to try something that they wouldn’t have without me.
What traits/habits/skills do you think are most important for students? Why? What about for teachers?
As a teacher, flexibility. Sometimes we forget to do something or plan something, but that’s life. I’ve become so good at making things up on the fly that it’s almost scary. In a perfect world, students should listen. We live in a world where they always have to be busy and sometimes it’s okay to just sit and do nothing. With the way education has evolved into an outcome based test system, I wish I didn’t have to tell students how to think and be creative.
For you, what determines success as a teacher? How do you determine success for students?
When a student who struggles or is uninterested in art actually enjoys and learns something, that gives me a great sense of pride. If students are able to come into my class looking forward to whatever we will be doing that day, I think I’ve been successful in doing my job.
In no particular order, who are your five favorite artists? What do you love about them?
Robert Henri & Berthe Morisot– I’m into Impressionism and portraits. They both used color in an amazing way. When I saw Henri’s “Jessica Penn in Black with White Plume” at the Seattle Art Museum I was so into it.
Aaron Holz– The depth, perception, and illusion, along with the color he has in his paintings are stunning.
Gerhard Richter– From photorealism to vibrant abstractions–there’s something about that combination I just love.
Rebecca Mason Adams– She’s a recent discovery, but I’m mesmerized by her use of black and white which usually is something I don’t take any interest in.
Lastly–describe what an ideal classroom would look like for you.
Not perfect. I’m okay with some disorganization, sometimes chaos is my order. I want my classroom to be a creative space where students feel comfortable, they know where everything is that they need to use, and they can practice being independent learners. Once a kindergartner walked into my room and said, “WOW, I love it in here, I’d love to take naps here.” That was a good day.