Nebinger Elementary School is nestled in the Italian Market or Bella Vista neighborhood of South Philadelphia where Sylvester Stallone's Rocky character trained for his title bout.. Living only a few blocks from the school, and one of its most involved staff members, is Leslie Grace, art teacher and art advocate, the founder of the Philadelphia Art Teachers Alliance, and the 2016 State Elementary Art Educator of the Year.
Leslie has taught art for over 13 years... High School classes in Georgia, and Middle School students in a private school setting, but she didn't "truly ever feel comfortable in my own skin" until she was hired at the inner city elementary school in South Philadelphia in 2014. There, with support from her 'pro-arts' principal, Leslie built her K-8 art program from scratch since that school had been without an art program for nearly 15 years. Her successes have garnered support from the community, surrounding museums and art groups. Leslie's eyes glisten with emotion when she proudly states that she has "found my niche" connecting with inner city school students.
New to elementary art education, Leslie sought out meetings at Tyler University, professional study groups, and Moore College of Art and Design workshops for insights to build her art program. These connections spurred Leslie to found the Philadelphia Art Teachers Alliance to help connect, support and retain art teachers in the city. Finding "my place in art education and discovering my voice in advocacy" are two of her proudest achievements.
Everyartist asked Leslie Grace about creativity, STEAM and motivating students. Here are her responses in their entirety:
Everyartist: Why value creativity?
Leslie Grace: In today's modern society there are aesthetic demands on the world we live and operate in, and we as educators need to help shape creative problem solvers and critical thinkers for the 21st century. Not only that, but with everything going on in the world today, students need to have ways to creatively express themselves. This outlet for expression and for our students to have a voice- to be heard and to be seen- is URGENTLY NEEDED!
Everyartist: Is your school a STEAM school? How and why do you support its philosophy?
Grace: Yes, though it is a newer burgeoning program.The way the STEAM classes are here (and the school community is still calling them STEM) is that they are a pull out or push in type of class. The teacher pulls select students that have expressed interest in learning more science. He does not have a homeroom. His entire schedule revolves around pull out and push in classes...which is why I think actually adding it to the specials rotation schedule would be better, and allow for a more equitable experience and education in science, tech, engineering, and math... AND if I can get everyone on board with the language- Arts to truly make it STEAM. For some grades, he pushes into the class, and the whole class will get to do science with him. (Usually once a week). This is the first year we have had a program like this, and we are about to get a new principal, so how next year will be organized remains to be seen.
Science is only tested for students in 4th and 8th grade in our state testing. So to my understanding, it is not very heavy in most teacher's curriculum. Math and literacy take much precedence. Our previous principal saw and understood the need for more science, so she created his schedule to be the way it is this year. Hopefully our new leader will still see this and possibly be open to my ideas. My wish for the program is that his class becomes a regular part of the specials schedule (art, dance, drama, guitars, and physical education) so that all students can circulate through the STEAM Program. This is something I will be suggesting for the next school year. There is still room for growth in collaboration between he and I, and I am certain he is open to that.
I, of course, support the program, especially since STEAM is something art teachers have always been doing, except now we have a label for it. We have been teaching the golden ratio, how to use a ruler and measure, and how colors mix and react with light and each other. We guide students in building and designing structures that are stable and sometimes follow a function after form. We put iPads in their hands and show them ways to digitally create and manipulate art. They become designers, makers, and doers in our art rooms, and many times, without knowing it, our students do better in their academics and in social settings because of their experiences in Art.
Everyartist: What is the single, easiest (best) way you spark creativity in your students?
Grace: First, I try to create a nurturing environment that they feel safe in. From there, when the comfort is established, I try to give them thought provoking challenges in art and design. Recently I have established a goal or challenge for myself to include more contemporary artists into my curriculum., and to compare and contrast their works with the western art that we art teachers can get so comfortable teaching. I feel it is important for the students to know there are artists and designers currently working and making waves in the world. Therein also lies the opportunity to reach out and communicate with those artists. That is exciting!
Everyartist: What do you think most often blocks our students or us creatively? How do you counter that?
Grace: FEAR!...Fear of rejection, of not doing 'good enough'. Fear of their ideas not being accepted, not being able to draw well, or not having the most unique ideas, which can cause mimicry in the art room at times.
I try to encourage students to try their best and I try to point out the flaws I make and potentially the flaws in other established artists. To err is human, right? Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg is always a go-to-book I like to use to show students how a mess can become a success, and how mistakes can be reimagined into 'happy accidents' (Thank you Bob Ross!) I let my kiddos know that there is no right way to create art. All voices are valid and worth being heard. Skill or 'talent' comes with time and practice...like riding a bike or playing an instrument.
Everyartist: What are your future tasks or projects?
Grace: I want to have my art club paint themed murals in our white walled stairwells...I can't hang art there because it risks getting torn down, but beautifying the space with murals would encourage a love and ownership of the space. Some research has shown that schools with aesthetically pleasing design can produce higher testing scores just as aesthetically designed hospitals can help shorten healing time.
I also want to create a 'Trash-ion Club" where students upcycle random goods, that would otherwise be overlooked, into fashion garments.
And, additionally, I want to create a Makerspace in my school for students to really put design thinking into practice.
Everyartist: If you had a magic wand or a special power to make your school into a more magical place, what would you do?
Grace: I would create a more design thinking environment and school, allowing for more divergent thinking (moving away from 'teaching to the test'). As R. Buckminster Fuller said,
"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
I also would have every inch of the space coated in murals and put in more windows. Children need to be inspired by the spaces to work and create in. Bare walls and fluorescent lighting is not conducive to that.
This energetic, involved, passionate, collaborative individual, Leslie Grace, gardens, cooks, explores marine biology, and currently is reading Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brained Thinkers Will Take Over the World in her spare time.
Leslie and her students participated in the national Everyartist Live! event for the first time in the fall of 2016. "I had not previously heard of it. The students who participated showed so much creativity in the inventions they came up with, and they were excited to know that at that very moment, students were creating all across the country and maybe the world, too!"
"I think next year, if it is held in the spring, I might be able to organize something school wide. I also think I can help encourage other teachers in the district through PATA (Philadelphia Art Teachers Alliance) to get involved."