These teachers help bring culture to class

Their focus on art earns awards from Woodruff Arts Center

At a time when teachers are being laid off and arts education is considered low-hanging fruit on the budget cut tree for many states, a group of arts instructors are being honored for their work to keep arts flourishing in public schools.

The Woodruff Arts Center honored the five teachers — three from metro Atlanta — Saturday for their efforts to bring the arts in all its diverse forms to students in Georgia.

“There are pockets of really bright light all around the state where people are creating something with limited resources,” said Joe Bankoff, president of the Woodruff Arts Center. “We want to celebrate those in the community who are really focusing on the arts, not just teaching them.”

Larry Bunch of Ringgold High School has created something of a small artists’ colony in the North Georgia town. It’s a studio and gallery space for students to create work that’s seen by the whole community.

Vann Thornton of Tift County High School in Tifton has found he can reach at-risk students by involving them in a steel pan drum orchestra.

The three other awardees, profiled below, were also recognized for their innovative efforts to make the arts not simply a classroom activity, but a part of students’ lives, teaching them lessons that will serve them no matter what career path they choose.

Each teacher received $2,500 to spend however he or she liked. Most said they will give some if not all of their award money back to the arts programs they’ve developed in their schools. For these teachers, every penny counts toward keeping the arts alive and thriving.

Into Kevin Cole’s drawing class at Westlake High School stepped an overly confident Madeleine Wood.

Wood, 17, had always been praised for her ability to sketch what was in front of her and make it jump from the page. So when Cole gave her a C on her first homework assignment, she thought something was wrong, that maybe Cole had mixed up her work with someone else’s. He hadn’t.

C-worthy work gets a C and that was what Wood had turned in.

“I’d heard he was a hard teacher, but after that I realized I’d have to step it up,” she said.

So step it up, she did. Cole demands that of all his students. He transferred to the south Fulton school from the more prosperous North Springs High School six years ago. At North Springs he was key in building the school’s arts magnet program. He was named Georgia Art Educator of the Year in 2003 and Southeast Region National Art Educator of the Year in 2004 by the National Art Education Association.

Seeing Cole’s accolades rack up, a former Westlake principal wooed Cole to his campus with the promise that he’d have as much latitude as he wanted to build a similarly strong arts program on the south side. That appealed to Cole, a successful sculptor in his own right. He was especially drawn to the fact that Westlake was predominantly African-American. He would be needed there.

The battle was uphill at first. Parents couldn’t see how a career in the arts would be viable for their kids. Student art wasn’t displayed around the school. There weren’t even any display cases for it.

Cole, 51, brought in some of his own work. Online, he showed his students the galleries around the world where his work was sold.

“I wanted to show the kids that it is possible for someone who looks like them to be a successful artist,” Cole said.

He encourages his students to pull from their own experiences as legitimate fodder for their own work. For a recent assignment he had them make collages, inspired by the work of Romare Bearden, showing what they saw on the way to school each morning. One student’s canvas was a wash of foreclosure signs. Another’s was a portrait of a drunk man outside a public housing complex.

“I always tell them, ‘If you’re going to make it ugly, I want it big and ugly,’” Cole said. “Express yourself, who you are, what you see. Because I’m not concerned with them becoming an artist. I’m concerned with them being a productive citizen.”

There’s no better motivator than a good idea. About three years ago, Kerry Bryant came up with one that had him on fire.

Barrow County’s Hispanic population was exploding and he wanted to broaden the arts curriculum so it would embrace the musical traditions of the increasingly diverse district.

A mariachi band just might do the trick, he thought. A high school mariachi band could entice Latino students who had a low participation rate in school music programs. It could also be an ambassador of sorts, bringing together kids of different backgrounds to play good music.

So Bryant ran with it — and smack into opposition from some school board and community members.

“Some people associated it with immigration issues,” Bryant said. “Some said, ‘Why are we teaching that? We ought to be learning American music.’ And I said, ‘Well, this is American music now.’”

Mariachi is a traditional musical form born in Mexico. Its string and brass ensemble arrangements have influenced music around the world.

“But some people thought it was four guys walking around in a Mexican restaurant,” Bryant said.

He had to educate, lobby and advocate, making the case that whether jazz, rock, country, rap, symphonic or mariachi, all music has an incredible communicative power. Eventually Bryant, 48, was able to win over the school board. Kids who play in the band can now get academic credit for it.

Latino students joined the band in droves. So did white and black students. When they perform, parents of all races fill the audience.

“He had to be brave to bring that kind of experience to the curriculum,” said David Gregory, associate professor of music at Reinhardt University. “It’s no longer, ‘That kind of music,’ or ‘This kind of music.’ It’s just music.”

Katina Krass doesn’t speak Spanish.

Most of her Spanish-speaking students either don’t speak English or have limited English skills.

Those facts panicked Krass when she began teaching at Lake Forest Elementary four years ago. But once she began teaching the children about tertiary colors, artists and their mediums, her fears abated.

“Teaching art is very visual so everybody is equal when they come in here,” Krass said.

The other day she read a story to her students about Vincent Van Gogh, showing them pictures of his work of starry nights and luminous sunflowers. The children’s eyes lit up. Then she turned the session into a geography lesson, helping the children to find his ancestral home of the Netherlands on a globe.

Last year, her technique caught the eye of Maritza Morelli, director of Los Niños Primero, a summer school for Spanish-speaking children about to enter pre-school or kindergarten.

Morelli was looking for a teacher to help with the program and heard about Krass, who was voted Fulton County’s Overall Teacher of the Year for 2009-2010. Morelli observed Krass’ class and was convinced this woman who spoke no Spanish could teach children whose only language was Spanish. That Krass taught the universal language of art was all the better, Morelli said.

“I asked the parents of 34 kids in our program how many of the parents had been to the High Museum,” Morelli said. “None of them had. The parents were intimidated by the idea of going to the museum because of money for admission, transportation issues getting there. And when you have that environment at home it’s difficult for the children to keep up with their more privileged peers.”

In the summer session of painting, coloring and drawing at Los Niños, Krass helped plant the seeds of art appreciation in the kids. She’s hopeful that the lessons they learned will help their self-esteem blossom.

“I’ve had a few of my Los Niños kids come to school at Lake Forest, and I can tell them right away,” Krass said. “They are confident and they are not afraid to speak up.”