Advocating for the Arts in Your Community (Ep. 114)

As art teachers, many of us worry about budgets, money, and even whether our job will be there from year to year. Because of these worries, it is vital to advocate for our program. In today’s episode, Nic talks to Ashley and Randy McKee about how you can be an advocate for the arts in your community. Listen as they discuss creating a bold, bright, and beautiful environment for learning and how that can affect students and their learning. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Nic: I recently was connected with a young art teacher who inquired to me if I had ever had my program or my job be on the chopping block for budget cuts. She explained that her school was going for a referendum, and if the referendum does not pass, she will lose her job. This is very scary for her and it should be. And after 18 years of teaching, I can honestly say yes, almost every year of my life, I have been in worry and fear in just struggling to make sure that I have a job the following year, because it is a passion of mine.

So I thought what would be the best advice for any art teacher who is facing this situation? And I thought arts advocacy, that’s the bottom line. Arts advocacy. This is what you can do. You can’t control the situation of your district, you can’t control budgets. But what you can do is advocate for the arts so that people know why you’re important, what the benefits are for their students, and just why you should be working in the position that you’re working.

Today we’re going to talk to two art teachers, Ashley and Randy McKee. You’re going to love what they have to tell you about arts advocacy. It’s probably going to plant the seed for lots of ideas in your own head, and maybe give you some ideas of what you need to do to make sure that you are advocating for the arts in your community. This is Nic Hahn, and this is Everyday Art Room.

I am so happy to have you guys here today. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. I know you have a lot of information to share with us. But let’s give our listeners just a little bit of background. Can you guys go ahead and introduce us? Tell us, to yourself, tell us where you’re working, who you’re working with, maybe how long you’ve been working, and just your family situation as well.

Ashley: I’m Ashley McKee. I teach K-6 art in a very small rural school. And I’m going into year 10. I’m excited for it.

Randy: I’m Randy McKee, Ashley McKee’s husband. I teach also K to six in the same school district, same rural school district. I am going into year 14, 15 or 16. I’m not sure.

Nic: I can appreciate that. Yeah, and you guys are a couple and you have some kids too, right?

Randy: Couple of children. A son, seventh grade, daughter, fifth grade.

Nic: Excellent.

Randy: Some school district.

Ashley: Yeah, I ride to school with Randy.

Randy: Yeah, I’m the boss.

Nic: Okay. Hey, that’s some good family bonding right there. All right. Prior to this podcast interview, people might not know you as Ashley and Randy McKee, but you’re very active on social media. And they’ve definitely would know your social media tags, especially on Instagram for both of you. But can you tell us why you’re involved on social media and more about your platform in that way?

Randy: Go ahead, Ash.

Ashley: Thanks. I’m known social on Instagram as Ashcanworks, and a little bit on Facebook too. I started my Instagram account because my brother-in-law was nagging me while we were visiting Florida to start selling artwork there. But I quickly realized that it is an incredible tool for connecting with other art teachers, and it became professional development at my fingertips every single day. And I love it. Facebook though, is the most popular way to connect with families where I live. So I update a lot of what I’m doing on Facebook for my teaching community here.

Nic: Oh, you know, that’s really interesting. So you actually started with a different idea of Instagram, but it’s become something personal for you basically. And then you’re saying that you’re communicating with your families in your community on Facebook, so you have two different platforms that you use mostly.

Ashley: Yes.

Nic: Okay. How about you Randy?

Randy: Well, I am @angrystrongo on Instagram. I don’t have a Facebook account. I’m not really a social media gadget person. I’d rather sit in the corner mostly. But angrystrongo was a name that, kind of weird for people that don’t know or didn’t read a couple of my posts. But when my son was four and a half, this was a dream or slash nightmare he had about this character. And I sort of ran with that, because it was such a neat and interesting name. But it doesn’t really have anything to do with me personally. I’m not angry or strong. I’m not going to be lifting cars or anything.

Randy: But again, I started Instagram basically with the same intention as Ashley, but I didn’t start right away because I usually don’t. I was seeing all of the connections she was making, and then I realized also that wow, all these people, because I’m kind of a font nerd, all these people exist out there that I didn’t know existed, and it was really a great way to … I follow a lot of font folks, some really impressive people, and I follow some art teachers that are doing things that I’d never considered. I mean the internet for all its negative attributes is amazing for what we use it for. It’s just unbelievable.

Nic: Yep. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think that there is a lot of negative connotations to using social media, but it can be such a powerful tool and it can be used for good. Right?

Randy: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s amazing.

Nic: I love the moment when I discovered that these two Instagram accounts were connected to each other. It blew me away, because I followed each of you separately and I commented on each of you separately on a regular basis. I loved your work, Randy. There’s a picture of an ice fisher person that I just … I love that image. I love it. And that was the first image that brought me to your account. And then Ashley, I think you just popped up because of all the wonderful bright colors that I was seeing on your Instagram. But when I connected you two, I was blown away because to have so much creativity in one place, I don’t know, I was pretty impressed. So you guys both have a great presence on social media. And Randy, can you talk just really quickly as well about your … What do you have, Etsy or a …

Randy: Yes. I think now it’s Etsy and we’re selling some shirts through Threadless.

Nic: Yeah. So you’re social there too in a way.

Randy: Yeah, I have a graphic design background. I got into teaching late in life, and I absolutely love posters. And I think it was through the fonts, the posters and poster design. And what we were seeing early on is that I was designing posters for my classroom, and then I’d redesign them as I got sick of looking at them. And then what Ashley said and some people early on in our Instagram journey were saying is, hey, I would like a copy of that poster. So then it just all kind of bubbled up from there. I didn’t think these posters were very, you know, personally groundbreaking because I guess I’m so close to them and they’re just in my room all the time. But it really started to catch on from there. And then once people start liking your work, of course that’s the great kick in the pants that keep working.

Nic: Yes. Yes, it certainly is. And I’m a proud owner of some of your posters as well. And you guys collaborate on that as well. So yeah, I love what you do.

Ashley: I love that he has skills that I don’t have.

Randy: We definitely don’t have the same skill set at all.

Ashley: No. But we balance each other out that way. I love cartooning, but font is not a strength of mine. So I can come to Randy and say, I just doodled this. I want this as a poster for my room. Can you work your magic and make this happen? So we get to collaborate a lot on projects and that’s fun.

Nic: Yeah, that’s spectacular. You guys mentioned that you are working out of a rural area for the both of you, right?

Ashley: Yeah.

Nic: Yeah. That’s what I thought. Okay. So we’ve heard from teachers who are in rural areas and they feel not connected. It’s hard to communicate to the families that they work with. It’s hard to communicate beyond their school. They feel lonesome. How do you work on communication and advocacy for your program beyond your rural school? How do you do that?

Randy: Well, before Ashley starts speaking, because this is really her bread and butter, it’s an uphill battle. Art to … And I don’t say this in a negative way, but art to most people in a rural community is, you know, it’s more of a craft time. And you’ll see there are some fine artists in all these little small rural communities and they have a tough time moving product. They have to venture out into some slightly larger communities. You know you go into someone’s home and you’ll see what they have hanging on their walls, and it’s not what we teach. It doesn’t seem to connect, but go ahead dear.

Ashley: When I was hired, our school district was going through a lot of change. They were consolidating schools for budgetary reasons, and that meant a lot of cuts. And I was going to be one of those cuts after my first year teaching. So I decided I was going to go out with a bang. And everything I did was big, and you couldn’t help but see it. If you don’t advocate for yourself and your program, no one will know know what you’re doing.

Nic: Exactly. Yep.

Ashley: It is so important to be seen. And it’s not that you’re bragging or that you’re not humble, you’re advocating for what you do, and sharing it with families so that they understand we’re not just gluing sticks together and putting google eyes on them.

Randy: The first thing is you have to connect with your students, so when they go home, they speak. If you don’t know your song well like the Dylan line before you start singing, you’re not going to make that connection with your students, and the students aren’t going to go home and talk about how amazing art class is. And then if you’re lucky enough like Ashley and I have, is when people enter the school is to have a large space to display things. Then the families, when they come and pick up their kids as they come for a special event, they could see what Ashley is doing by that walk into the school, and they’re smacked upside the head with this amazing mural or design that compels them to then ask their kids more questions.

Ashley: There is a huge lobby wall space at my school, and I tried to make sure that there’s something huge, colorful and impactful there, so that any person walking in our school has a firm handshake from us knowing that this is what we’re about.

Nic: That’s a beautiful way to think about it.

Randy: And you know, the music teacher gets a chorus concert or a band concert, which is often, band concert, elementary schools are often a struggle. But we have to look for those little avenues. Every possible moment where you can take someone who is indifferent and make them, I don’t know, I guess change their thought pattern a bit.

Nic: And you’re not just teaching your students, you’re then trying to teach the families that you’re working with.

Ashley: So some of the ways that we try to connect with community are that if I’m doing something extra special, like my Fall Into The Arts event, or we’re doing something big as a collaborative in my building, I will contact the local newspaper with my principal’s permission, and I’ll invite them into my classroom or into the school, so they can write about it. And that way I know the community is going to see what we’re doing, they see pictures, and then they get the background story. They understand what it’s about. It’s not just a picture on a wall.

Nic: Right, yep. Because it can just be something very pretty and then that’s it. but you’re making sure that you’re giving it a little bit of exclamation, is that what you’re saying?

Ashley: Yes, absolutely. Another way that I do that is that I tried blogging and realized quickly that my school community wasn’t reading a blog. They do read the paper, but I needed something that was maybe more consistent than that. and everyone here uses Facebook. I have an art room Facebook page where I will update lessons that we’re doing in the classroom. They can see little snippets of what’s happening in my room, and it makes them feel like they’re a little bit more included.

Nic: Right. So they get to see the kids in action using that platform, the Facebook. And I also like the fact that you tried one thing and if it wasn’t successful you gave it another avenue. You tried to figure out how can I communicate to the rural people that I am talking to, or your community. So in your community it happened to be Facebook.

Ashley: I’m constantly looking for ways to connect to my community. When I got hired, it was discussed in my interview that the previous art teacher left some big shoes to fill. And one of the things that she did that was a tradition was to make these huge set pieces for music concerts. And so I took that on and I made it really big. But it’s become something beautiful because I’ve donated those pieces to local dance studios, and Relay For Life teams, and summer camps, and churches, and I filled empty store fronts in my struggling little town to bring some life to the mainstream.

Randy: So what the cost is when if cuts are coming, and the word art teacher comes up in that discussion, I think, I hope, and I think I do believe that if that came up in our school district, we’d have quite a few people up in arms about it. And that’s what you want. That’s the goal. And that that means you’ve connected.

Nic: Yeah, absolutely. And I think you guys are heading in the right direction. The number one thing that I heard was when I heard that we might be a cut, I decided to go out with a bang. And that changed your whole entire world. Instead of turning very angry with the situation, you said, all right, let’s see what we can do here. Let’s make it big. And it changed the whole outlook of your community. Is that not right?

Ashley: That’s absolutely right. And I’m always looking for ways to share what I’m doing with them so that we’re visible.

Nic: Randy, do you have something to add about your school? I mean, if you have not visited Ashley’s Instagram, make sure that you do that because you’ll have a good visual of when she says big, I mean it is big, bold, beautiful. Right?

Ashley: Thank you.

Randy: Yeah. Some of her sets that she has designed in the past are, if you walk in and it’s … I know because I’ve had to help hang some of it.

Nic: Teamwork.

Randy: The impact on walking into the high school auditorium where these things go on, it’s really amazing, it’s amazing. It feels, you know, you feel like maybe with Mary Blair is working down in the elementary school. Awesome.

But I am a totally different human being than my wife. Again, her social media, her connecting power, I think is far greater than mine, because I don’t think I’m as outward as she is. So I think my connection has been on … I’ve had a couple projects that have sort of grown and made impacts in the community. One being this Cars Of The Future project that has had a lot of newspaper press and well it’s … I do it with fourth grade and all my third graders coming up into fourth grade, as soon as I announce we’re doing it, they’re super pumped, because everybody knows about this project.

Nic: Can you tell us about Cars From The Future, Cars Of The Future? Can you give us more of a visual?

Randy: Yeah, Cars Of The Future. It’s kind of a long story, but my mother was a advocate for yourself person back in the 70s, and if she liked your company, she’d write and tell you that your company was great. If you sold her a bad dishwasher, you heard from my mother. And I liked this exploding company back in the early eighties was Nike, the shoe company. My mom said write to them, tell them. And Nike ended up sending me catalogs and shoes that weren’t out yet. And it was really a great … Because they were still a small enough company where they would do that.

So I was thinking early in my teaching career, I’d be coming up with lessons, and this was before the professional development you could find on Instagram, you know, what do I do? So I decided, well everybody deals with cars. You know, maybe not everybody’s a sneaker geek like I am. So let’s have the kids just design cars. Now we do a little sort of backstory on what a concept car is, and we go through the website of whatever car company we pick. And I pick a car company, and then I tell the kids we’re going to box it up later and send it to that car company to see what they think. This is then an outreach that they can hopefully connect with a big corporation. And for my community, they look at things like Ford, and Chevy, and BMW as real, but you can’t connect with those big giant things.

Ashley: You don’t get that a lot from where we are.

Randy: So we have over the … I think I’ve sent out to 12 car companies, so this was about my 12th or 13th year of this, and we have had some amazing responses. Now a lot depends on how the secretary, that man or woman who gets the mail, is feeling that day. You send the box off. I make no pre phone calls. I usually design the box so it gets in the door, and then it’s up to the student artwork to then do the rest. I attach a little note telling about the project and that we’ve reviewed their company. And every drawing, let’s say I’m sending it to Ford. I went to a major American auto manufacturer first. Every drawing has a Ford logo on it, and they might put Ford thing in the car somewhere. So that helps us give them a little kick in the pants to try to interact back with my students.

Randy: And we’ve had everything from hats and shirts and Frisbees …

Ashley: Matchbox cars.

Randy: All kinds of stuff sent back, down to … And we’ve been trying to figure out how to get the video of this to go onto Instagram. But BMW drove one of their amazing, i8s, this very expensive car that the doors lift up in the air. They drove one from their corporate headquarters in New Jersey to our school.

Nic: Oh my gosh.

Ashley: They had a news crew at the school.

Randy: Then I made sure that, for community outreach purposes, that I contacted local newspapers. We have a great guy who used to do some major news stuff living in our county seat of Wellsboro, PA. He came over and put together a great seven, eight-minute. If you Google search BMW RB Walter Elementary, there’s some great video work of that. So that one project by itself has done amazing things. I kind of lucked into a really good project because my mother was an advocate.

Nic: Wow. Well, you know, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that both of you are advocating for your school, but you’re doing it in your own style. You’re doing it in your own way, and both are tremendous. Like there’s not a right way to do this. Yeah, you guys are both finding a really good balance that fits for you and still advocates for the arts. Ashley and Randy, you have given us a ton of ideas here. When we’re walking away and thinking about advocacy, what is the advice that you’re going to give to another art teacher? What’s the thing that you want them to know or think about?

Ashley: You need to be seen? I started a Fall Into The Arts night that celebrates all of the arts, and invites the community to participate with their kids, and I made sure that it’s free so that no one felt like they couldn’t come. It’s been a huge success in my school. My principal’s a huge fan. You just need to connect to the community as much as possible, to share what you’re about. I’m constantly sharing with my students about the connections that I’ve made through Instagram, so I want to give them a shout out and let them know that they’re the reason that I agreed to do this. I’m excited to share it with them.

Nic: Your students are so lucky because I have had personal conversations with you where you talk about your kids, your students that you’re teaching, and your children of course. But you do a lot of what you do in your life for them, because of them. You have shared that you’ve had fears in the past about traveling to NAEA, or being on this podcast. And then you think, well, what kind of example do I want to give to my students? And then you step out of your box and make it happen. So you’re students, let’s just talk to them right now. You guys are so lucky to have this teacher.

Randy: Yeah, that is really why you do it, because if you think of it, at the end of the day, this is why we push so hard. This is why we tr y to … Because they’re the focus.

Nic: They are. Yeah. Guys, thank you so much. You know, I have a feeling this won’t be the last time we chat on this podcast. You guys have a ton of information to share with us. But thank you so much for being here today.

Randy: And thank you. We appreciate it, greatly.

Ashley: Thank you for having us, Nic.

Nic: On more than one occasion during this interview, I got chills down my back. When Ashley was talking about her grand gestures in her school, how she creates an environment for her students that is bold and bright and beautiful, not only did I have the images already in my head from her social media, but I just was imagining what impact this teacher is having for her students.

And then when Randy started talking about the Cars For The Future project, I mean think about that. Think about this going out to a company, this drawing of a third grader going out to a company, and just feeling the power in that, that someone who’s bigger than me is going to see what I did.

Both of them have created environments of advocacy for their program in ways that fit them. If you didn’t find a way that would fit you from listening to Randy and Ashley, that’s okay. Head on over to the Art Of Education University webpage, and if you click on their pull-down options for articles and well, all resources, the very second thing, you have all, and then you have advocacy. If you click on advocacy, there is a plethora of pro packs, of articles, of resources, different ideas that you can use for arts advocacy in your own classroom. You’re going to find something that fits you. It doesn’t have to be what Ashley does. It doesn’t have to be what Randy does. It has to be what feels good for you. How are you going to advocate for your program? How are you going to advocate for the arts? A little food for thought for this week, and then I will chat with you again next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.