Best days of my life, teaching art to elementary students in the cafeteria

Something new is cracking open at ChicagoNow.

Blogapalooz-Hour Morning Edition is making her maiden voyage today.  Usually we do this writing exercise on the last Wednesday Night of the month.

Our fearless leader sends out a topic at precisely 9:00 PM and any blogger up for the challenge has one hour to ponder, write, edit and post our response to that topic.

Well, some folks work nights, go to school, are delivering their babies or can't stay up that late. You will find me in that final category. Bedtime is usually before "The Tonight Show" and my brain is pretty fried by the end of the day. Not exactly the best time to be creative and write anything worthy of applause.

This is exactly what I needed in this head-spinning, overscheduled month of June.

On this mid-month Wednesday our topic will be delivered at precisely 10:00 AM, just the perfect time to write, accompanied by my third cup of coffee.

I've been up since 4.

Just got it.  Have fingers poised on the keyboard and raring to go:


Write about a period or moment in your life when you were at your best.


This period in time was more about me, being the best in bringing out the best, in others. And I was quite successful at it if I don't say so myself.

I worked as a substitute teacher in District 26 for about eighteen years. Some can't do it for a week. Some one day and they are out the door. It's not for the faint of heart.

Fortunately, the principal where I worked most often, was the best I've ever known in my entire life. Maplewood Elementary School, grades 1 to 6th, was my second home.

I don't have a teaching degree. My degree was in Fine Art. However, in McHenry County you can be a substitute teacher with a college degree in any field.

Dr. Kevin O'Connor believed in my abilities often when I doubted I could be successful in a classroom full of 10-year olds during the last week of school. Or the day before Christmas break. Field Day? Don't ask.

Best boss I've ever worked for.

In the year 2000, the Art teacher at Maplewood Elementary was going to go on maternity leave for about three months. Kevin called me and offered me the long-term substitute job in taking Keli's place.

You can't be serious!  I would love to do that! Fine Art majors don't take education courses but we have four years of art courses in sculpture, ceramics, graphic arts, art history, drawing and my favorite, painting.

And I love kids. All ages.

I researched ideas, got Art Education Magazines from a generous art teacher in Arlington Heights and planned for what these artists would be creating under my watch.

Art classes at Maplewood took place in the cafeteria. Lunch was served in the gym. This was only for a year while a new school was being built.

Having all of this space was a dream come true.

I could spread the students out and if you wanted to work alone at a huge cafeteria table, then go for it. No one cramped together in tiny spaces, fighting over the last red crayon.

Music was a necessity. I personally can't draw a stick figure without music because it does loosen you up and make your creativity flow. Students could bring their own music in and we'd play it during our hour together. Mozart to Beatles.

"Who Let the Dog Out," made my bottle of orange tempera paint fly off into the fluorescent lighting in the ceiling. But I recovered.

All Children art artists. The problem is they forget once they become adults.


Give a 7-year old a paint brush, palette of paint, (small portions please), charcoal pencils, oil pastels, clay, wire, sponges, buttons, puzzle pieces and a little direction and encouragement. With that freedom to express themselves, look out baby, you have some of the most creative, colorful art this side of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

Pass out supplies, crank up the tunes, offer gentle support and positive suggestions, and sparks flew in that brief respite of spelling tests, multiplication tables and prairie animal reports.

I abhor it when all the students' artwork looks the same. Sort of the venus paradise coloring concept of staying in-between the lines and not going against the dreadful example pasted to the chalkboard.

All of the artwork should reflect THAT child's imagination and heartbeat.

Art is not created with the hand or the eye. It comes from inside. It should be unique and a reflection of who they are.

My fifth-graders brought in old shoes. (Some smelly gym shoes). These were painted, decorated and turned into personal sculptures. Sixth-graders turned sponges, paint, cereal boxes, pieces of an old window screen, wires and hot glue into three dimensional paintings similar to the modern artist Frank Stella.

It's amazing that some things you probably throw away in the trash can be given to a child and with fresh eyes and a wild imagination, become a work of art.

I honestly could have framed their work, put it in a museum and no one would have a clue it was done by an 8-year old.

So many kids think they aren't "good" or compare their artwork to Bobby, sitting to their right. If you encourage them to just have it be play, don't set too many restraints, and set them off in the corner to figure it all out, a true work of art is created like no other.

That's what art is.  Simple.  Not complicated.

Creative. Non-judgmental. No standards of compliance to what is correct. No wrong way of doing things.

It's YOU.  You are the artist.

My best days were teaching art to my beloved students. I think of those few months as the most creative time for me, because I was able to bring out the best in them.

And I felt that I did succeed because they were so successful.

Thank you again for that opportunity, Kevin. You were and still are such an encouraging and open-minded human being.  And for allowing the creativity to flow down the halls and into the cafeteria.
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