Principle #3 Honor the diverse perspectives, experiences, and contribution of all involved.
Principle #4 Engage experienced and skilled teaching artists and arts educators.
It is early in the morning on a seventh grade art day at Sunset School. For Jennifer Head, one of Sunset’s teaching artists, the day begins at 5:30 am, even if she was up late the previous night working on an editing job. She and her son Julian will need to allow an hour and twenty minutes for travelling from their home in Port Orford to the school in the Empire district of Coos Bay. Jenn wants to arrive at school by 8 am, in order to review her lesson and be fully prepared for the first of two 90 minute classes that she will teach that day. But, she will have several tasks to complete before they get in the car. Depending on the time of year, she begins the day by either building a fire to heat the house, or checking on the plants in her vegetable garden and making sure that they are well watered for the day. She will feed the animals, prepare breakfast and pack lunch before Julian gets up for breakfast.
Jenn has said many times that her job as a teaching artist at Sunset has been the most enjoyable job that she has ever had. She has always loved both art and science. Throughout her life, she has tried to find a balance between the two. I asked her when her love for art began and what was the spark that started that love. She thought about it for a minute, and responded that it was something she always did. She does not remember a time in her early years when art wasn’t a part of her life. When she was eleven, she began taking art lessons with adults. These lesson included all types of medium from oil painting to charcoal. In high school she was involved in a once a week afterschool art program that also nurtured her love of art.
When she moved on to college, the balance between art and science shifted more towards science. She continued to focus on science when she received a Fulbright Scholarship to go to Belgium to earn her Masters Degree in Animal Physiology. In 2000 she moved to Oregon to study at Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in Charleston for her PhD. During that time she got back into art. She started quilting and she also took some watercolor classes at Coos Art Museum. She says that art kept her sane during this rigorous period of her life.
After she earned her PhD, she hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail, before moving to Las Vegas to work at UNLV. During that time her son Julian was born. When she made the decision to be a fulltime mom, she gave up her job and returned to Oregon. She moved to Bandon where she worked to start up a Montessori Charter School but, funding sources fell through so she was unable to pursue that dream.
She began to think about ways to bring in money and once again she went back to art. She began producing art to sell, including felt work, drawings, and other media. At about the same time, she saw a notice seeking local artists to volunteer as assistants in the art program at Sunset School. After one month of volunteering with the program our teaching artist convinced her to try teaching. It has been a good fit and she has been teaching with the program ever since.
Jenn brings her diverse background to the classroom. She has a gift for sparking students’ interest in art and relating art to other aspects of their lives. Our lesson this year with clay touched off a discussion with her students about her work with local cob houses. She also has a calm demeanor that has helped many students feel better about their art experience. One student told me that Jenn helps her think though the problem of what to do if she makes a mistake. This student is learning that failure may lead to other solutions that she would not have imagined.
Jenn is proud of her students’ achievements over the last three years. She has a special connection with those students who are on the margins—those that have more challenges in school or life in general. She has seen their confidence grow. She mentioned one student in particular who has really blossomed over the last three years. Back then he wouldn’t participate, but now he is really coming out of his shell as a person and an artist. I know of other students who have a special connection to Jenn as well.
Jenn’s experience at Sunset has also been valuable for her son Julian, who is homeschooled. Julian usually joins his mom when she teaches. Lately, he has taken on more responsibility for helping set up and clean up in the classroom. He also participates in the 4th grade art lessons.
This will be Jenn’s last year working with the program. This was a hard decision for her. She moved from Bandon to Port Orford last fall. The commute is hard, especially now that Julian is older and involved in more activities. One of those activities is a STEM club in Port Orford, which Jenn has been asked to help coordinate next year. She will also continue editing for scientific journals. She plans to start a perennial plant business. She has also told me that she will be a substitute teacher for the Sunset art program. I hope that she will continue to teach art in Port Orford. Perhaps she will add a little STEAM to that STEM club. And of course, she will also continue to create art, not only to sell but to experience the satisfaction and enjoyment that it brings her.