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How this Philadelphia art teacher works to teach equitably and ‘without bias’

Leslie Grace is an art teacher at George W. Nebinger Elementary School and recently named president for the Pennsylvania Art Education Association.
Leslie Grace is an art teacher at George W. Nebinger Elementary School and was recently named president for the Pennsylvania Art Education Association.
Courtesy of the School District of Philadelphia

Leslie Grace, an art teacher at the K-8 George W. Nebinger School in South Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood, has spent a year teaching remotely — making demonstration videos and posting them to YouTube and Google Classroom. She feels this learning method will carry over when students return for in-person learning.

“Gone are the days of students huddling around a table, fighting for space to see what I am teaching,” said Grace, who was recently elected president of the Pennsylvania Art Education Association. “Now, I can record in advance, present the demo on the smartboard, and I can watch my students to make sure they are engaged with the video playing. No more fussing that so and so is pushing or that they can’t see over someone’s head.”

Grace said she’s amazed at how resilient her students are and what they’ve accomplished during this difficult school year.

“The drawings that some of my kindergarten students have made have been so well done that you’d think a second or third grader would have done it,” Grace said. “And when they can recall the name of artists I introduce to them just once, or the art terminology, it’s like, ‘Woah — simply amazing.”

There are good days and harder ones, Grace said. “There are frustrating moments when students keep unmuting and all talking over each other, or when their cameras are off or pointed at the ceiling,” she said.“I really miss seeing all my kiddos.”

Grace spoke with Chalkbeat about the importance of exposing young people to artists who have been marginalized, what she fits into her jam-packed days, and what never to call an art teacher at your school.

How do students benefit from art?

Art education has many benefits to a students’ development, and I always defer to Elliot Eisner’s 10 Lessons Arts Teach, as it is a profound list. But just reflecting on what I have observed in my 17 years of teaching, art helps students understand themselves and the world around them. Art has helped my students communicate when words can’t and has helped them to process feelings and emotions. I have seen my students gain confidence and feel success in the art room when they have lacked that in other academic areas. I have also witnessed art helping develop my students’ fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, which is so important, especially throughout the younger years. I have seen within the span of one year my students gain better grasp and control of their art mediums, and even seen that progression over longer spans of time with my older students. And lastly, when we’ve worked on collaborative projects, I have seen my students grow into new roles and become leaders. Art empowers these kids!

How do you get to know your students remotely?

I am lucky that I have been teaching some of my students for the past seven years, and know them pretty well by now. But for my new students, kindergarten kiddos, and first graders whose year was cut short last year, I get to know them through their art and side conversations. I design my lessons so it allows for the students to express their individual identities, and thus, with every piece they create, I learn something about them! And while they are working on their lessons, we chat. It’s not always the deepest of conversations, but we will talk about food we like, movies we’ve watched, or our favorite games, and all that allows me to build a rapport with my students. It actually makes me think about my own experience in school... I recall having the same types of conversations while working on my art projects. I absolutely cherish those conversational moments.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

The racial reckoning that has been occurring has affected what happens inside my classroom. The majority of artists we are learning about or gleaning inspiration from are Black, Indigenous, or persons of color. I want my students to be able to see themselves in the work we look at and to feel a connection to the work. I also hope to bring more exposure to artists who have been marginalized throughout history and even in present times.

As a white woman, I am still doing the work to make sure I teach without bias and bring content to my students equitably. I also want to make sure I teach with sensitivity to cultural appropriation and guide my students in how to be inspired by work without offending or stealing from another’s culture and work.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

When I moved to Philly, I taught for six years at a private school on the Main Line. I had small classes, well-performing students, and a generous budget, but some of the parents came from a place of privilege and would try to debate their student’s B grade to an A, or would not believe it if a teacher told them their child had a behavior issue. I think I have PTSD from that, honestly!

I get so much anxiety now when I have to call a parent about behavior issues, but you know what? The [district] parents I have had to speak to whose child misbehaved always believe me, and the majority of phone calls go really well. I still get tense though!

I don’t think I was ever meant to teach in a private setting. I was becoming stale in my teaching and it was not a challenging environment for me. So I realized I needed to teach in a setting where I can do more good, so I got my master’s degree, refreshed my teaching portfolio, and transitioned over to the School District of Philadelphia. It is where I belong. It’s not perfect, but neither am I. I feel a greater impact here in what I do, and it is anything but predictable!

What part of your job is most difficult?

Managing time and changing mindsets. Art teachers at the K-8 level teach the entire school! If you’re lucky, your school is a small cozy size. If it is not small, then you’ve got some organizing and planning to do! As the art teacher, you are expected to teach all students within one week, give those students at least one grade a week, keep parents connected to what’s going on, and display student art. I am sure I forgot something, but that is all in addition to readying the art materials, grading the work, cleaning the art materials, ordering supplies, managing supplies, and fixing things all in your daily 45-minute prep period. (It’s amazing how many people come to the art room for fixing broken shoes, glasses, etc. . Oh, and if you’re me, who just has to be extra, you are also managing the school play, updating the school website, and communicating with community partners.

Another difficult part of my job is having to deal with what non-academic teachers are labeled as. “Specials teachers” is the least-offensive term we have in the district to call our arts, gym, and tech educators. What’s the most offensive then? It’s being called a prep teacher. It is belittling to our profession and a disrespectful title. The classroom teachers get their preparation block when their class goes to specials, and thus “prep teacher” became a thing. I teach children how to become divergent thinkers and how to express themselves. I teach children how to empathize and how to communicate. I do not teach children how to prep. I am an art teacher. I teach art.

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