Believe it or not, the pandemic had its bright side. During this tumultuous year, we’ve had so many teachers across the nation successfully use our SPARK Hybrid curriculum. They’re sharing amazing stories about how they are SPARKing interest with art students and connecting with works of art. Today, I interviewed one of those teachers, Staci Sterenberg, who’s taught grades K-8 at a Chicago parochial school for 19 years.
Staci Sterenberg is a teaching artist living in Chicago. Her work as an art educator has brought her into classrooms and learning spaces for all ages and her art practice ranges in media from mosaic to sculpture to crochet. Her mission as an educator is to promote and value the creative experience while facilitating exploration in a variety of media. Her perfect world is a place where curiosity and creativity are free to discover and where mistakes are detours and not dead ends. Staci holds a Bachelor’s in Studio Art from Michigan State University and a Master’s of Art Education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In this episode, she and I discuss her feelings about being an artist, how the Coronavirus impacted her classroom, and the unexpected gifts she received from the pandemic. We also dive into some of the amazing lessons from SPARK that her kids participated in and greatly enjoyed this past school year.
4:18 – How Staci’s history lead her to teach art
6:19 – How SPARK influenced Staci’s education philosophy in the classroom
8:27 – Why Staci felt with her district and administration at the start of the school year
13:09 – A SPARK lesson that went particularly well with Staci’s 4th graders
17:24 – What made the lesson Staci found for her 7th and 8th grade classes so timely
23:01 – The art piece that proved to be a misstep for Staci’s e-learning students
30:23 – How the art teacher community online came together at the start of lockdown
32:16 – Staci’s big, one-word takeaway from this year to use in future years
35:54 – A false belief many people have about being a good artist
38:29 – How art got Staci through the pandemic and her identity crisis as COVID hit
44:42 – The blanket decision that prompted Staci to leave her school district
47:13 – A life philosophy that Staci learned from an old boss and wants to pass down
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Cindy: Hello, and welcome to the Art Class Curator Podcast. I am Cindy Ingram, your host and the founder of Art Class Curator Podcast and The Curated Connections Library. We’re here to talk about teaching art with purpose and inspiration. From the daily delight to creativity to the messy mishaps that come with being a teacher. Whether you’re driving home from school or cleaning up your classroom for the 15th time today, take a second. Take a deep breath. Relax those shoulders, and let’s get started.
Hello, everybody! Welcome back to the Art Class Curator Podcast. This is Cindy Ingram. And this summer, we are celebrating our teachers and talking with them about how their year was. And what they learned from teaching through this crazy, crazy, crazy school year. And today I am talking with Staci Sterenberg, from Chicago. And I love what Staci had to say about vulnerability, about really how she felt through the pandemic. How she feels about being an artist. And then, also, some amazing lessons that her kids did this year using the Spark Hybrid Learning Curriculum from Art Class Curator.
So before we get into the interview, I want to tell you a little bit about what’s going on with the Spark Hybrid Learning Curriculum. We had so many teachers from across the country use this curriculum this year. And it was such a success! We heard so many amazing stories about connections that students made with works of art. About projects that were related to the artworks that were really fun, and authentic, and that had a lot of personal voice. And it was just such an amazing, positive experience.
So what we’ve decided to do for the new school year rather than keep Spark separate from our normal membership, the Curated Connections Libraries. We are now combining the Spark Hybrid Learning Curriculum into the membership, the Curated Connections Library. So all the things that you loved about Spark, the videos, the art projects, the engaging activities, the discussion questions, that sort of thing, we are adding those into the membership.
So in the membership, we have over 160 works of art, at the time I’m recording this. And we will have probably a few more added since we add four new ones every month. And this year, we are also adding in Elementary Lessons. So we’ll talk about this, a little bit in this episode. About how her 3rd-5th graders actually had the most positive experience using the lessons from Spark. So we have a new Elementary Essence Lessons added, K-2 and 3-5. So that all of your elementary kids can be covered and they can get these sort of amazing art connections in their classrooms. So excited about that!
We are going to be opening the doors to the membership pretty soon in August. So keep an eye out to our email for that. If you are not on our email list, be sure to go over and join the waitlist for the membership so that you can find out as soon as it opens up. You can go to artclasscurator.com/join and on there, there is a form to enter in your email to join our wait list.
So excited to share with you all that. We’re also getting a completely new redesign. It is beautiful, and it will be kind of restructure a little bit. Really user-friendly. A lot of amazing new functionality. So I can’t wait to share that with you in the coming weeks.
Alright, so let’s go into our episode with Staci Sterenberg. I am so excited to welcome Staci Sterenberg to the Art Class Curator Podcast. Welcome, Staci!
Staci: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Cindy: So, before we get started, I would love for you to introduce yourself. Tell us who you are. Where do you teach? What grades do you teach? Anything.
Staci: I am in Chicago. I teach at a parochial school and I’ve been there, this is my 19th year. And it also is going to be my last year at this particular school, so I’m currently looking for a new position
Cindy: And what grades have you taught?
Staci: I teach Kindergarten – 8th grade.
Cindy: Why did you become an art teacher?
Staci: I started teaching arts after I had two children of my own and they were toddlers or infants at the time. And I had been self-employed since I was in my early 20s. I developed a line of jewelry and accessories made out of polymer clay. And so, I was selling my work to boutiques and some chain stores around the nation. I had opened a store in an “up-and-coming” neighborhood. And I put that in air quotes because it meant that there were hopefully customers coming, I think, but it was just a little bit slow going. And I was honestly a little overwhelmed by all the things I had. And so, I thought teaching would be easier. No, just kidding! It was, it was my experience as an artist and a mother that really led me into teaching. And another artist mother was starting her own push-in program with the Public School System. And I managed to convince her that I’d be great at art educator and so she took me on. And then within a year, I was working in a K8 school at one school, and then the following year, I was splitting my week between two schools. And then, the year after that, I started full-time at the school I am in now. So I recently went and got my Master’s Degree in Art Education. I started in 2016 and graduated in 2018 because I didn’t have those credentials that I felt were going to prevent me from moving forward to my career.
Cindy: Congratulations on your degree!
Staci: Thank you.
Cindy: Not easy to do with kids and a full-time job.
Staci: Nope, but I did it. So I know I can do hard things.
Cindy: Yes. So, tell us a little bit about your classroom. You know what? What kind of lessons do you typically like to teach? Or what’s your kind of overall philosophy of education?
Staci: Well, my philosophy is to tap into the creativity of the students. And to give them confidence in accessing their creativity. And I think it’s fair to say that I’m very material and process-based. And I found that your program really helped me to break out of my own interests. And see other artworks that I could be introducing in the classroom and associating with the projects that I may, or may not have been doing, but expose me to some new things. So, definitely at the age group that I work with, getting kids, you know, getting their fine motor skills going, and strengthening to giving them some foundational skills. And then ultimately, when you’re getting into Middle School, you’re really trying to get them to access their willingness to be creative and to have fun with materials and be excited about making.
Cindy: Yeah. I’ve definitely noticed that to be true. I mean, I noticed it as a teacher that in the middle school, they lost confidence. I have a middle schooler now, daughter. And I’m seeing it happened like she was so creative for so long. And suddenly, it’s just like she forgot and so it’s just, I’m trying to encourage her to embrace it again. It’s the last thing.
Staci: They feel so vulnerable, and watched. And they’re so hypersensitive in that developmental stage. That I think it really does inhibit them to be themselves. They really want to be, kind of fit in and it’s a tough age. I remember it well myself. Now my kids are not middle, they’re adults now so, yeah. Different issues.
Cindy: Yeah, there’s always a different issue.
Staci: There’s always every stage to be at.
Cindy: So with COVID, how did that impact your teaching? What was your year like?
Staci: Wow. I remember one of your questions was, “How did you feel at the beginning of the school year?” And I think it’s hard to even kind of remember that, but I was really, really terrified. I was really angry, to be honest. I was angry with my district and with my administration, who I also knew were just sort of following the procedures that they were being dictated to, but doesn’t matter, right? I mean I was still really upset and nervous. And didn’t feel like I had a lot of say and how the school, how I was going to do my program, that I was being forced to enter into this territory that I didn’t know how to maneuver within. And I was very, very filled with anxiety, really.
And then, we went back to school immediately so we started in August. We were full in-person learning. Families had the option to stay home and we did not have a really large amount of families, maybe 30 students out of 500 elected to stay home. And we had, you know, tried to keep the desk 6 feet apart or as far apart as they could. I used a voice amplifier, so I, you know, I had a headset. I was wearing a face shield and a mask, and I was in a car too, I lost my room and I did get one piece – I felt like this was a really big achievement for me was I suggested that the special teachers rotate on a trimester system so that we weren’t in every single class. So I taught 3rd-5th grade. Then I taught 6th-8th grade in the second trimester and now, I’m with my K-12 students. And so that really reduced them on cohorts that we were going into.
Cindy: Yeah, that’s a really good idea.
Staci: And it was an interesting experiment to just be working with one age, kind of one age group, and really being able to kind of delve into their minds a little bit and things like that. So I really like that a lot.
Cindy: Did you find that it was easier to form relationships with the students?
Staci: Well, it was definitely hard for me to form relationships with my middle school students. Back to our middle schoolers, they were so tuned into their technology and using their technology all day for everything, even though we were in a classroom. At first, we couldn’t even, you know, handle papers or share materials. There was just so much uncertainty about how, and concern about spreading the disease. So, there are so many procedures and I was instructed to remain 6 feet away from my students at all times. Which in reality, is not possible but still, we were supposed to maintain our distance. So we all were relying on using technology to communicate with the kids. And middle schoolers being the way they are, it really did, I really struggled with that. I really did and I don’t feel like I was able to reach my middle schoolers the same way that I was able to reach my younger students. My 3rd-5th graders, we had a great time. That was my first trimester. We used all kinds of different media. The students were using Google classroom by 3rd grade. So I really like using Google Classroom. So that was probably my favorite experience and I used the most Art Class Curator lessons in that group as well.
Cindy: Oh, I love to hear that because often our elementary teachers are not sure how to how to quite do it. And I told them, you can. It’s possible.
Staci: Yeah, you can. And I haven’t used just many with K12 and I used quite a few. I wrote down the ones that I like, that I had the most success with, that was one of your questions but yeah. I feel like in the 3rd-5th grade, that was kind of the sweet spot for me, for whatever reason.
Cindy: Awesome. So can you tell us an example of one of the lessons that went particularly well?
Staci: Sure. Well, with the 4th graders and I think I did this with probably 5th graders too, I just wrote it down as fourth grade. The Cocijo lesson was really well received as an object and learning about different deities. The year before, we had done a unit on Ganesha, in the Hindu Faith. So they were kind of ready to go with this a little bit. And it seemed to really lead to a lot of interesting projects. We did the complete picture activity after the lecture. And the discussion that really fit in really nicely with like a 40-minute, 45-minute period. And then I had them design a deity or a weather guardian. So I created a brainstorm sheet for them to do. They had to choose an element of weather and imagine a power pose that weather God would assume. And then pick three symbols to represent it, that had to be incorporated in the design and then they drew it in their Sketchbook. And then, for my early finishers, I created an origin story comic strip for them to do. Actually, that was for a sub. I had a sub that day, so I had them do that and that was something that they really loved doing. And then, that led to the Zapotecs tradition, the weaving traditions because I had actually been to the area between Oaxaca and Mexico City and visited us at Zapotec space with all their weavings and everything. So I shared my photos with them and we did a weaving project after that.
Cindy: Oh, I love this! Okay, so I just want to warn you. I am having a thunderstorm right now. So if it’s loud, I apologize.
Staci: Oh, I didn’t hear a thing.
Cindy: Okay, I keep muting it. So listeners, if you’re listening. Yeah. Oh, it’s been raining non-stop. For the listeners, I want to tell you about this artwork because they might not be familiar at all with the word “Cocijo“. So, it is a sculpture of a Zapotec, God of Rain and Thunder. And it’s a ceramic sculpture and it’s very sort of abstract. Really, a geometric kind of shape. Yeah. And so it has a lot of the symbols like the forked tongue is supposed to like represent lightning. And then there are eyelids that are kind of cloud-shaped and so they’re kind of like clouds. And so there’s a lot of, there’s like snakes on there somewhere, too. I think.
Staci: Well, the forked tongue, I think that alluded to the snake and I love the cloud eyelids, how they’re they’re like rectangular shaped. So we were able to have nice discussions about just you know, identifying the elements of art in the work which is usually where we start. Because it’s a good entry point for the kids to start analyzing something.
Cindy: I loved hearing your story of your lesson because you had a couple of settled things in there that I think were really meaningful, the connection to previous art lessons. So you’ve studied similar kind of. What’s the right word?
Cindy: Yeah, there you go. Deities from other religions that had some similar symbolism and things. So they’re pulling from past examples. They’re looking at art, they’re analyzing it, they’re talking about symbolism, and then in the project, they’re doing something that is related to the theme of the artwork but it’s not some sort of like an exact copycat. They’re getting to do their own choice in their other own symbols, but then you, you added your own personal connection with your pictures. So like they’re seeing how you personally relate to art too. And so, it’s like, there’s just a lot in there that is really exciting.
Staci: Yeah, thank you. We had a lot of fun together with that unit and it sort of just snowballed, you know. In my 7th and 8th grade class I think the most, the one that I really found that moving and meaningful was them learning about the Augusta Savage piece, Lift Your Voice and Sing. It was very timely. We were studying this, in the early parts of 2021. And I felt like that had a lot of momentum socially surrounding this idea about Augusta’s struggle as an artist, as a female artist, as a black artist. And then how her piece was misinterpreted and called The Harp. And she felt like that, you know, detracted from the meaning of the piece. And then how the piece was lost and that her work was not treated as it probably should have been treated. So a lot of her work is lost. So when I created a presentation to introduce that, I also included a video that shows the performance of that song and it was really great. It’s a great, great performance. And then it was performed at the Super Bowl, in the opening. So a couple of kids got to see it performed again, so it really added legitimacy to this whole thing. So the project that those students did, I wanted to get them a little chance to paint a little bit. So we did some wet on wet watercolor techniques and thought about color as emotion. And they were to select a song that was really meaningful to them to make a collage of their watercolor paper. And it was just really great to, that was a very intimate thing to see what song the students picked. There were so many surprises and then how they interpreted the song visually using the materials that we had because we just had magazines. And they could come up like one at a time and take them. And it was again, we’re really in the throes of being very, very safe about protocols and handling materials and things like that. One student did Blackbird by The Beatles, and it was a gorgeous piece. Another one did Psycho Killer by Talking Heads, I just didn’t see that coming.
Cindy: That’s right. And that’s amazing.
Staci: And then I had two or three kids, maybe the song is back, Take On Me by. Aha. I was just totally caught off guard by some of the choices. So despite us being separated physically and sort of, even mentally, I would say that really, I felt like it gave us some intimacy.
Cindy: I love that. I’m going to explain for the reader this artwork to or not the reader, listener over the artwork taste. You know what we’re talking about, Lift Every Voice and Sing for my best of Savage is a sculpture that was created for the World’s Fair. I have the date, 1939 in my head, I have no idea if that’s right. It feels like around there.
Staci: I think, yeah.
Cindy: It was like one of those random dates around there.
Staci: It’s in the ’30s for sure.
Cindy: And so, it was created for the World’s Fair and it is a bronze sculpture of figures that are in the shape of a harp. But, I don’t know the harp parts, but the wood part at the bottom is a hand and then the strings are like choir singers. Yeah. And then their bodies are like Roman Greek columns. And then the front, there’s a man sort of kneeling with something in his hand, and then Lift Every Voice and Sing is the Black National Anthem. So, it’s a really meaningful song. There’s so much symbolism in that. There’s so much, you know, connection to be made. Historically, personally, it’s a really beautiful, beautiful work of art. And one thing I want to point out.
Staci: I am not familiar with that artist or that work and so I really felt like, I was very grateful that, that was there in the packet.
Cindy: Yeah. And that’s really important to us that Art Class Curator introduce artworks that are really powerful and meaningful, and they don’t have to be famous. They don’t have to be ones everyone knows, that they’re famous because someone decided they were famous and most likely, it was some white person who decided it was famous. So we were really trying to expand what is worthy of showing in your classroom and to your students. And it’s more than why it’s a traditional show.
Staci: Yes, and have shared with people and social media about your program is that I feel like you do and really excellent job in diversifying the objects that students are looking at.
Cindy: Another thing I want to point out to about that lesson was I love, you know, a lot of teachers don’t like to get really prescriptive lessons for their curriculum because you’re creative. Our teachers are creatives, they want to put their voice in it. They want to create projects that are meaningful to them and that they really enjoy teaching. And so you can take the stuff from Art Class Curator and use it as a jumping-off point. But then you still have the flexibility to infuse your own self into your lessons too. And you can create those projects and really authentic ways.
Staci: Yeah, I appreciate that too about that program.
Cindy: So do you remember, or did you have any more examples you want to share before?
Staci: I wanted to maybe talk about the Nina Katchadourian piece which is a family tree. We were doing e-learning at that time because the school decided to, and I think this was a great idea, after the Christmas break to do e-learning for two weeks to make sure that everybody who traveled was able to quarantine and keep any infection out of the building. And it worked out really great. So that particular lesson, I was e-learning with my students on that and I think that was for me, that was like a misstep because that piece is so hard to see anyway because it’s so big and the pictures are really small and just sort of the way it’s constructed. And I don’t know if it was just being online together. Looking at it really on a little screen but it was almost like they didn’t get it, like I think it’s so funny. And I felt like, there’s also that void when you’re talking to your students on Google Meet, you don’t hear them. Their microphone is muted and so there’s not that vibe, you’re not getting a vibe at all, so I think they didn’t get it but I’m not sure if they got it.
Cindy: You know, I wonder if it’s because all of those logos are older, they’re more classic. And they’re ones people already that would understand and see from their childhoods. But now there’s new, new look.
Staci: We have a lot of fun with it though. I had them, before I shared the peace with them, I think it was before I shared the peace with them, I had them go find something in their house. I really like doing this about you learning was having them have access to their stuff. That was a fun thing to play with, but I had them go find something in their house that had a face on it. Like, had a brand ambassador. So everybody came with their objects, the products that they had. And then, I had them like pick a toy and they had to create something using that toy as their little mascot, or a little logo, and we had a lot of fun just kind of playing around with that concept. And then I did have the students create a family tree. I followed the lesson that you suggested and it had so many good ideas like inventing a family tree, creating a family, doing a mash-up. Most of my students did actual family trees and those were really nice too. It was very precious to see them create family trees and talk to their parents and try to find pictures and all the various ways. By the time we came back, we were presenting our works. They were bringing those works home. Oh, I’m sorry, to school and we were sharing them with each other. So we got to do a gallery walk and share all our family trees and things like that.
Cindy: Yeah. So even if they didn’t really fully connect with you or although you’re not yet, you never really know when they are online. Yeah, it still ended up being a positive experience.
Staci: Yeah, yeah. I would say. So I think my 6th graders were the most successful out of the three grades I did that with.
Cindy: Awesome. So, you mentioned that at the beginning of the school year, you were terrified, angry, filled with anxiety. How did you feel when you were introduced to the Spark Curriculum or when you first got it?
Staci: Oh, I was well, I was relieved and excited. I felt supported, you know, I felt like you created something that had the flexibility that I wanted as an art teacher, but a good framework for me to do exciting presentations and be able to maintain social distance. Giving the students an opportunity to move was really, really helpful and that carries over into my, whether I’m working with Art Class Curator or not. I have that really stuck with me and I continue to give kids an opportunity to move around as much as possible. And at first, when I think I was barraging you with emails, I think the first week or so, because of – I didn’t know how to do certain technical things like upload and download and there was a lot of like back and forth thing trying to get the presentations to be Google-friendly and things like that. Once I got the groove of that, then everything was okay and I modified the presentations to suit my classroom.
Cindy: Yeah, we want to make sure that those are editable so that you can add your own. If you have pictures from your vacation, you have more information you want to add, stuff on a particular thing you’re learning, it’s important.
Staci: So that, sometimes the handouts I would just kind of make another one, and I’d sort of copy and paste some of the things that you did because the formatting just wasn’t being groovy like going from a Word document into a Google Document. I’m sure you’re familiar with how that can like not to be agreeable from time to time. So I figured out how to work with those issues too.
Cindy: Yeah, that’s one thing that we’re adding. We’re adding that into or combining SPARK in the membership that we have The Curated Connections Library into one and we are running in Google Doc files for all the worksheets that are already formatted. So this is it’s going to open up a can of worms, but I think will help more people than the can of worms. So hopefully. yeah.
Staci: The can of worms is like access and stuff like that. Is that? Or I mean I don’t know…
Cindy: Getting the permission emails from students.
Staci: Yes, I can see that would be a can of worms to contend with. Yeah.
Cindy: Yeah. You were about to say something else. Do you remember what? I think we both started talking at the same time.
Staci: I think that’s what I was thinking, the Google thing can be tricky. You know with the access and editing and then giving it? I mean do you have to just give it away? Or do you just make it a viewer? How do you do that?
Cindy: There’s a way to do it where it forces them to make a copy.
Staci: Okay. Okay.
Cindy: Somehow kids find a way around that though and we still get the emails. Like I don’t know how they do it but they figure it out, but we’ll just have to, we’re just going to set a separate account for that. So if they email a request, we won’t see them and we’ll just kind of ignore it. And hopefully, because one time I made the mistake of being on my personal Google account. I was getting 20 in a day, it was like, okay, this was a bad idea.
Staci: It’s funny like I open my Drive up sometimes, because the art teacher community was so, we were all just so tuned in to the social media during those early months of lockdown. And I go into my personal Google, Google Drive, and there are all kinds of presentations. I don’t even know where they came from. That teachers were sharing with each other stuff. I’m like who are they? What is this opening this up?
Cindy: But our teacher community really came together in such a strong way, beginning of the pandemic, it was really inspiring.
Staci: They did. They did. it was really great and it was exciting. It was like, I was kind of on fire, you know, trying to be innovative and trying to reach my students at home. And learning how to make videos on my phone. And just all the things that we were doing it was a very exciting time. It wasn’t just locked down misery, you know, there was a lot of innovation and community going on too.
Cindy: Yeah, I felt that too. It was only after the pandemic was like a few months in where we all started to just get tired and mad and angry but that of those first few months, it just felt like it was almost like a weird gift. It was just like you get to take a break. And you get to do what you want to do, and there are new creative challenges. And it was how I felt, so I got to connect in different ways with my family that I really like. Even my daughter, was in fifth grade when the pandemic started and we would take walks every morning before she did online school and we both talk about how wonderful that was that we got, we got to do that.
Staci: And so there were good that really was a weird gift. It’s true. Yeah.
Cindy: So you know, I’m thinking back about the year and like the emotional roller coaster of the year and all the things that you had to make it through. What did you learn this year? About teaching or about your students or about art that will change what you do in future years.
Staci: My big takeaway is I guess for one word, is vulnerability. And using my teaching practice as a way to tap into my students and helping them kind of be themselves. Tap into their authenticity, their creativity, their vulnerability, maintain a growth mindset, be flexible, don’t let things get you down. Kind of all the ways we had to relax our busy lives. I think all those that kinds of things can come into the art room and create a really nice safe space for us to learn together and see art as windows into cultures and others instead of like this abstract art world that lives in museums and cost millions of dollars and things like that. I feel like it for me, I’ve always been sort of torn by that because, we’re taught that, that where art is right and so. Since all our whole society was totally broken down and we’re all just dealing with our humanity. I feel like that really crystallized what I’m trying to do in the art room too.
Cindy: Yeah, that’s really beautiful. I think for a lot of people for a really long time, kids, especially, they’re not directly taught but they’re indirectly taught that vulnerability is bad. You know it. You don’t need to open yourself up, you’re going to get hurt, all this stuff. And then you kind of realized as adults, especially with like Brene Brown’s work over the last 10 years so that’s coming out more, that actually vulnerabilities is a gift, it’s a good thing. It will help you make connections in this world. And so, I love that you’re using that, that opportunity in your art room, to open your students up to that, and to celebrate that and who they are.
Staci: It’s kind of a huge relief because there have been artists. Well, there are artists you know, they’re artists who have tragic stories, that have complicated stories, let’s say. And I’ve felt a lot more comfortable talking about those kinds of subjects, like, even Vincent Van Gogh. Every second grader knows that he cut his ear off, you know? And so being able to just confront that and talk about what that meant and get kids to I think like, I remember saying like, “Can you imagine doing something like that?” And “Can you imagine how you might feel if you felt like that was something that you needed to do?”. Vincent needed help and he was really suffering. So it might seem like a crazy fun fact about this, but he was a human being and he was in a lot of pain, but he also had this gift. He made this gorgeous work that we all love today, you know,
Cindy: Chills a little bit there, that’s good. That’s a really important lesson because I think a lot of people believe that to be a good artist, you have to be in pain and you have to, and it’s just not true. Like what would Vincent Van Gogh’s art have been like had he not had that pain and had he worked longer, more years, and more time to develop his art like what did we miss out on you know? We celebrate his pain as that made beautiful art but it’s also like well, we lost a person too early, who was a genius.
Staci: There so much coming out about his life. Like, you probably saw Loving Vincent that movie that was every frame was painted. That shed some really interesting light on, his supposed suicide. And even there was a really big show here in Chicago, 15 years ago, or something of Gauguin and Van Gogh in The yellow house. And at that time, this theory was revealed and I don’t know, I don’t know how much credence has lent to it, but It stuck with me. There’s a theory that Gauguin was actually the one who did it. Who, they had one of their roes again. And Gauguin was an experienced fencer and they had an argument and that he did it, and then he left like when he was wounded and unconscious or something. They think that he left town in the night. That was the end of their collaboration and things like that. So I always kind of wondered about that too. Like did he?
Cindy: I feel like there needs to be some sort of like investigating show on that. Like they do on, I just watched one on Netflix that it was the art theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the, I think it was in the ’90s or the ’80s and they did like a three or four part series on Netflix where they analyzed the theft. They should do that, like show every theory that’s ever been made. What evidence we have and just like dive into it.
Staci: Yeah. Yeah. It’s just tough when those are the things that bubble up to the surface. And that’s what you’re up against. Yeah. As an educator, you try to dispel that and bring his humanity into the story.
Cindy: Hmm. Excellent Sidebar about Van Gogh. Yeah. So, I think that that’s a really important lesson to help overall. I think that’s beautiful. Thinking too about the last year, how did art get you personally through the pandemic? Or what role did art play and how you made it through?
Staci: Well, when we got that special gift that we were mentioning when we’re in those early weeks of the lockdown, I was in a state of just create. I was like a creative volcano. And I was doing all kinds of things, drawing, stop-action, animating things and crocheting and just like, just always busy, busy and trying to create lessons and doing all the things that come with that. That did kind of weigh in overtime and this is really before the pandemic and sort of happened around grad school for obvious reasons. I would do art fairs, and things like that, and holidays, and sell my work. And when I started grad school, I was kind of starting to taper off because I was just too busy. I was doing less stuff and then the pandemic came and I really kind of hit this sort of plateau where I was like, am I an artist anymore? Because I don’t produce products that people buy and I have sort of was already questioning that while I was a student. But it really started to come to the fore because everybody was like making things and putting them on social media, Instagram, and things like that, and it was starting to kind of get to me. And I turned inward and became more sort of isolated as an artist. And I’m still talking about that with myself, what it means to be an artist, and shifting my thinking. I was taught that you could call yourself an artist if you made a living at it or did it part-time or that you made money on it. And I’m revisiting that question and I’m answering it in different ways and realizing that I’ve been an artist my entire life and to varying degrees, I’ve had so many art experiences. As a matter of fact, everything I’ve ever done has been infused with me as an artist, everything I’ve approached. So I think that it’s saved me but it’s almost like, I’m in defense of my art practice like just because I crochet blankets doesn’t mean that I’m not an artist or that I’m like a crafty lady or something. You know what I mean? Like all those sort of stereotypes that we associate with different medium and how those kinds of crafts that women have mostly done are devalued and not considered as art forms.
Cindy: Yeah, I love that. That is a really, I think compassionate way to treat yourself and your art practice, you know. It’s creating something. I mean, I’m in actually, I say this because I’m currently in a writing class and it’s called the Compassionate Voice, or the Compassionate Writer. She talks a lot about developing your practice and making it personal and being really kind to yourself through the process. Being an artist is a vulnerable thing and I think you always are. It’s just there are sometimes when you’re doing it more, and sometimes when you’re really inspired and sometimes when you just need to be moving your hands and you know working through that way. So I think I like that you’re giving yourself grace there and space to figure it out. And just, I think the important thing is to, I guess stay out of judgment of yourself. It doesn’t have to look any one way and that’ll help you work through students. Tell your students about that, too.
Staci: It does. It’s given me a lot more, I guess, insight into their thinking a little bit too. And the thing is, is that once I have come to terms with this, which I think I have whatever that means, there’s still the whole world that still thinks that their way. Guess I just have to start with myself and work my way out.
Cindy: Yeah. And then, well, in that, will impact your students and then that they will impact the people around them and then they will impact people around them. And you know, when we’re both long gone, they’ll be may be some change there.
Staci: Yes, let’s hope.
Cindy: So, what are your plans for next year? I know you said that you are looking for a new school. But how do you feel about going into the new school year?
Staci: I feel good about going into a new school year. I feel like we’re coming out of this and that the next, my next phase, I’m assuming that I’ll be in a classroom. I got really close about two weeks ago and I didn’t. It was me and another person, they pick the other person. So anyway, so now I’m on to this other. I have a couple more interviews this week and the interviewing process, I mean, this is a little off-topic from the question, but since I haven’t worked anywhere else in 19 years. The interviewing process has been just kind of wild. Every school has its own process and then being in COVID and doing Zoom interviews and essays and filming myself. Making teaching and sending that in and trying to make a resume that people want to call me. Oh man, it’s been quite an adventure. And I wouldn’t have had those skills if I didn’t go through COVID because I have lots and lots of technical skills that I didn’t have before. But anyway, to answer the question, I’m ready to go back to go into a new school year under the circumstances that we’re in right now. But the vaccinations and Chicago has done a pretty good job. You know, the community that I’m in has been fortunate that we haven’t had a lot of infection and that it’s been able to be controlled, so that’s good. The ZIP code that I live in in the city was really bad, really, really bad. Had a really, really high infection rate. That was a thing, one of the things that made me so furious about, the district that I, which is the Archdiocese of Chicago. Don’t know if we want to out them or anything but they just made a blanket decision to have all of their students go back to full-time, all-time classes. And there’s a school, two blocks away and we had like a 23% infection rate, and I just thought how can you do that to those children who probably have fewer resources, that are a direct contribution to the households, have more people in them. I just thought, “no.” And that’s why I decided I wasn’t going to go back because I just, I just couldn’t. There were other reasons in the first place and that was just it. I’m done with it.
Cindy: Yeah, I think a lot of teachers hit that point this year, that sort of, they were already unhappy and then this really solidified that they need to move somewhere else.
Staci: I think, for me, I took stock. I had to take stock, like I’m definitely mid-career if not towards the end of my teaching career. So yeah, like is this what I want to be doing, iis this who I want to serve? And the answer was no. So yeah, looking for a new home.
Cindy: Yeah, I think that’s so true for so many people, this year was just, it was a year of what makes me happy and why am I not doing that. Why am I doing that? I shouldn’t be doing it and just everybody just kind of reshuffled their lives.
Staci: Hundred percent.
Cindy: Yeah, so is there anything else that you want to share about any of this that we kind of missed? Or if there’s anything that you want to say to teachers who are planning for next year, what you might want to say?
Staci: Well one thing, when I was in college and graduating from college, I had one of my few bosses and one of the best bosses, and he gave me tons and tons of experience and trusted me. And he actually even helped me start my own business, and kind of pushed me out of the nest. But he would always say – we ran and we ran a little boutique- and he would always say, “Maximize what you can control. Don’t blame those sales on the weather.” Things like that, “Always do what you can do with what you have.” So that’s like a philosophy of my life, basically To maximize what I can control and not worry about what I can’t control. But I would encourage all teachers to try to maintain that community and find your people if they’re live or in social media, or, in Zoom chats, or whatever. Stay connected to the art teacher community. Do things that you love, continue to practice your work, and never let anybody tell you that it’s not worth your time, and that was something that I also included in my Master’s thesis that I wrote was about the isolation that art teachers feel. Being typically the only representative in your school, you were like the “art department” and it’s all on your shoulders. And that can be very daunting and very lonely. So, get connected to other teachers. Artteachers are the best.
Cindy: Yes, hundred percent. As someone who gets to spend her life with them. That’s just such an amazing group of people. And it’s such a shame that they are so isolated. I know, I felt that when I was teaching too. No one really, not a lot of engagement with the other people because you’re so busy. You were teaching what, 9 grades?
Staci: Yeah, you teach 9 grades, five days a week. You have probably have a family of your own. Who’s got the time? When I first started, there wasn’t really even much online. There was this, the incredible art department. Do you remember? Yes.
Cindy: Oh, yeah, hundred percent.
Staci: You were like the port in a storm. I mean, they were the one and only.
Cindy: Yeah, that and the art dictionary, I love that. It’s gone now and it’s devastating to me. Okay. So that was beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing all I love that. I have one more question, which is what I ask everybody that I interview and that is which artwork changed your life?
Staci: Oh yeah. Oh gosh, I had to think about this one. I had to just like really like, let my mind go blank. Almost go into like a meditative state to try to let something bubble up because how can you pick something? But I’m going to say something that I really think made a big difference and my mom, growing up, I lived near Michigan State University and they had a museum. They have an art museum now that’s very fancy and everything. But this little museum, I think it was a national history museum. And so I was probably four years old and we would go visit it periodically. But there was this sculpture in the entryway that was a giant robot, and to me, being four or five, or whatever, I don’t know. It was all made out of junk, like coffee cans and bolts and odds and ends, and that just kind of embodies like, my whole aesthetic. I love re-purpose, I love work that’s made from repurposed materials. So I credit that robot for igniting that love that I have for that kind of aesthetic and that sort of process and that sort of creativity. So I don’t know who made it, but it’s that robot.
Cindy: I love that and that shows that when we show kids art, it will impact them. You don’t know what impact it’s going to make. Yeah, but you know, had you, maybe not had that experience, maybe you would have decided later that you wanted, that art was your thing like that. It could have just made that slight change.
Staci: I’m sure I went home and check and try to make something like that. Oh yeah, you know I’m sure.
Cindy: Small lessons and big lessons, and it’s wonderful! Alright. Well, thank you so very much for talking with me today that was such a great conversation.
Staci: Yeah, it was really nice talking to you.
Cindy: Thank you so much to Staci Sterenberg for this amazing conversation today. I loved what she had to say about so many things. The examples that she used of the art that she talked about her in her classroom, the importance of showing new and different works of art, as well as her thoughts on vulnerability on being an artist. So many great insights there in that conversation with Staci. So, I hope that you enjoyed them as much as I did.
Again, if you are interested in learning more about our membership, the Curated Collections Library, which includes all those lessons that we talked about today, the Nina Katchadourian, the Augusta Savage, the Cocijo – in the membership we have for each artwork, there is a lesson plan with discussion questions, talking points, biography of the artist, it also includes engaging activities to use with the artwork. So you know, Staci mentioned moving around the classroom, so there are activities that get kids moving. There are activities to get kids writing, there’s compare and contrast and music connections, and all sorts of different engaging activities to connect with the works of art, and then there are art projects for them. So for every artwork, there are a couple of art projects that we recommend and they’re written in a way that still gives you a lot of flexibility and gives you a jumping-off point, and then you really can make it your own. And that’s really important to us and to art teachers, is to have that sort of flexibility to allow you to still have the creative freedom, but to give you these resources to infuse new artworks into your lessons, some beautiful conversations that you can have with your students, and then make those authentically connect with the art-making that you’re doing in your classroom. You know this is not cookie cutter. This is not, you know, anything like that. This is really authentic connections to works of art and personal connections, and I know this type of teaching has such power so I hope that you check it out. You can get on the waiting list at artclasscurator.com/join and we will have the doors open in August, once our new redesign is done, so I can’t wait for you to check all of that out. So, thank you so much for listening today and I will see you again next week on the Art Class Curator Podcast, bye.
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