Unsatisfied with the lines in her fountain-pen drawing, an Eckstein seventh-grader asks art teacher Jennifer Heller what to do. Heller shrugs, smiles and suggests she stop worrying and just move to a fresh sheet in her spiral pad. “Next page!” Heller declares.
“That’s why I love art class,” says the student, relieved.
This sort of relaxed but caring approach is one reason Heller (pictured at left) has been named Middle School Art Educator of the Year by the Washington Art Education Association. And she’s not the only Seattle Public Schools winner: Montlake’s Jennifer Lundgren is WAEA’s Elementary Art Educator of the Year. Heller and Lundgren are among five award recipients statewide who will be honored at the WAEA Fall Conference in Leavenworth on Oct. 24.
Both teachers share the conviction that art class should serve as a refuge and an outlet – especially for stressed or struggling students.
“The kids who maybe don’t really shine in their classroom come in here and they can just – we like to say – let their freak flag fly a little,” says Lundgren. “They find their voice in here. It’s really great and powerful to see.”
'Let's hang and draw'
Lundgren and Heller each approach art from a supportive, growth mindset.
“It’s middle school. They are just trying to figure out their identity, and then you have someone like me who says, ‘You guys are great just the way you are. Let’s hang and draw,’” says Heller. “We’re kind of one big artistic family.”
Both teachers also happen to be in their third year of teaching in Seattle Public Schools. Heller came to the district from an Everett school, and Lundgren (pictured at right) had served Montlake as a parent volunteer.
Lundgren’s full-time position is funded in part by the school’s PTA and the district’s Creative Advantage arts program, and she stresses how lucky she is to have funding when many districts don’t offer arts, especially at the elementary level.
“The arts teachers in the district, we call ourselves unicorns because we are so rare,” Lundgren says.
The visual impact of Lundgren’s work on Montlake is immediately apparent; her students’ murals, sculptures and drawings adorn every wall, dangle from ceilings, and dot the school garden. She prints a tiny “Montlake Review” quarterly 'zine filled with student doodles and hosts a school art walk. And she’s persuaded the Seattle Art Museum to allow her to show her students’ work next month in SAM’s Community Corridor, for the second time in two years.
Montlake Principal Melissa Gray calls Lundgren “absolutely amazing. She has a way of making all kids feel successful, whether they are quote-unquote naturals at art or not. And she makes our school beautiful.”
Eckstein’s Heller is known for her unusual projects; for example, teaching the color wheel through cookie-making or leading kids in the meditation that traditionally accompanies “zentangle” pen-and-ink drawings. But she takes the most pride in the connections she makes with students. Evidently, many students share the feeling; it was a former student who nominated her for the WAEA award.
Eckstein Principal Treena Sterk shares that Heller redesigns her curriculum each year according to what students tell her they would like to try in art class. “Her passion and commitment are unsurpassed.”
Read more about Arts in Seattle Public Schools.