I started the school year this last year with my usual high hopes, list of achievable goals, and the coolest secret ever. At the beginning of the year I was twelve weeks pregnant, and waiting to tell my coworkers and students until we were into the relative “safety” of the second semester. One of the things I was most excited for was creating a piece of art for our son when he arrived, but generally speaking, this is not my strongest area. Thankfully, I work with one of the best art teachers in the world. (no exaggeration)
As a little background, the school I teach at is thoroughly committed to teaching the arts. Each student has music and art every year, and there are after school programs for dance and drama. All the teachers at our school are amazing in their own ways, and the art teacher is no different. She is warm and caring with the students, while also providing a truly rigorous curriculum throughout the grade levels. But the place where I think she is the most impressive is in the way she incorporates religion throughout that curriculum. And this is where the icon part comes in. The 7th grade art curriculum includes researching a saint and creating an icon for that saint.
As the 7th grade religion teacher, I’ve always gotten to be slightly involved in this process. I help the students research saints, and for the last four years I’ve gone with the class to the local Orthodox Church where they have an iconographer in residence who is painting the entire church from ceiling to floor. It is literally one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. From year to year I’ve always wanted to join my students for art class, but never really made the time. That all changed this year when I decided to make an icon of our son’s patron saint.
I learned a bunch of valuable lessons from the experience and also from getting to be a part of another teacher’s classroom for an entire quarter. Here are a few of my takeaways from the experience and some ways I used them in other class settings.
- Environment is key. I was really impressed with the ways the art teacher created the classroom environment during the project. For the first two weeks when students were researching and learning the basics of iconography, she ran the class the way she always would- instruction, time for questions, and then time to work on the project outlines. Then, when we began the actual process of making the icons, she changed small things to create an atmosphere of prayerful creativity. Each day one student would share the story of their saint and end their presentation with a prayer that the whole class would say. The art teacher would then turn on religious music to play softly in the background and students could drink tea while sketching their saints. (When we got to the painting stage the tea went away for don’t-wreck-the-icon purposes.) After my quarter in art, I was much more aware of the environment in my classroom and ways to change the mood. When we were in our third week of snow induced inside recess we listened to swing jazz and hung up Christmas lights to change the feel in our room.
- Icons are a great way to get to know the saints and also to pray. I learned a lot from each of the students as they report on their saints and created their icons, but I learned the most from my own research on Saint Maximilian Kolbe, our son’s patron saint. As I worked my way through the icon process, I felt more and more connected to his story and more excited to share it with Max when he arrived. When I was frustrated or worried during the day, I would find my mind turning to the 45 minutes when I could work on my icon in a prayerful environment. As I pasteled and painted and gold leafed, I prayed for our son and for my pregnancy and our family. It was a completely new experience for me to tie artistic creativity to prayer. (I’ve always been more of a writer.)After completing the icon, I started trying to connect art and prayer more. Later in the spring I will share one of my favorite post-icon projects, which was our coloring book about the I am statements of Jesus.
- I needed to change the way I talked about myself in front of my students. For years I have hated listening to students use negative self-talk. “I’m bad at math” or “I can’t ever do that” can be common refrains in a middle school classroom, and I always tell students not to talk like that. As I joined the art class, I started to notice the exact same patterns in my own speech. “I’m not good at art” or “You’ve seen the way I draw” were two phrases I used a lot, and it was the same type of negative mindset that my students have about their own school experiences. The fact is, I’m not good at drawing because I don’t take the time to learn to draw. (I know talent matters, but I think a lot of times people don’t realize how much time and practice go into art in addition to ability.) When I listened to the art teacher and followed her directions, I could draw. I was really proud of how the icon turned out, and I was excited to share that with my class. I am still working on the negative self speech, but I think the awareness is already a step in the right direction. I am also trying to identify other ways I speak about myself that aren’t a good example for my students.