Connecting with the Community (Ep. 223)

Teachers are always looking for ways to connect with their communities, and today’s episode will give you a plethora of ideas on how to do so. Candido is joined by Levar Robinson to talk about understanding and being a part of the community in which you teach, how to connect with families, and how to help students bring art to the spaces around them. Full episode transcript below.

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Candido: If you’ve been following along, you know that I’m passionate about the community aspect of education. I believe that the classroom is a studio or testing space in which we can then take all of that knowledge and put it into practice in the community. Families love to see what their children are learning and I think we should help them show it off.

Our level of engagement within the community can totally change our perspective as teachers. We gain a greater understanding of the people we serve and what’s truly needed. So I reached out to someone who I admire in this regard, Levar Robinson. I’m hoping he can help us all grow a little in this aspect of teaching.

This is Everyday Art Room, and I’m your host Candido Crespo.

Hi. So people who have engaged with AOEU in the past through podcasts or conferences know who you are, but please share your current teacher status with us. Where you’re teaching, how long you’ve been teaching.

Levar: Okay. Well, my name is Levar Robinson and I am middle school teacher at Tapp Middle School in Cobb County, Georgia, Atlanta Metro. Title I School. And it’s my fourth year in the art position there, eighth year at that school, but it’s my 18th year of teaching.

Candido: So before we even move on, now I’m intrigued because I happen to think that the pre-service experience for special education teachers is probably the most in-depth teacher training programs. And I’m highly fond of all of my special education colleagues. How has that played a role in your teaching methods or your instructional methods in the art classroom?

Levar: I guess it kind of sharpens your teacher senses, just working with special needs kids and kids with different disabilities. You kind of pay attention to kids more. You’re looking at the mannerism. You find out more about background cause you always want to be able to help them more. And you kind of always just looking more I guess, and find different ways to connect because you there’s going to be some difference there. So when you get in a regular classroom, it just kind of follows and you’re doing the same thing with those kids too.

Candido: Right. I remember all those times we sit in our professional development trainings and we’re being schooled on differentiation. And then I’m like, “Mmh, I’m going to wait till this conversation’s over. I’m going to go check in with my colleagues because they’ve been doing this. So I’m going to just check in with them and I’m sure that there’s some strategies that I can implement easily from their classroom into mine.” So yeah, that’s an interesting path. What made you go into art then? Well, you were already so many years into the career.

Levar: Well, art’s always been my thing. I’m from a family of eight, and we’re all artists and creatives. So it’s been since I was a toddler. And I just came into the school system through science and special ed. I’ve been in a graphic design career and left that to go back into teaching at the school that I graduated from.

Candido: Oh, that’s cool.

Levar: So staying in touch with those folks and they brought me in through that and then somehow I just didn’t go into art until the last few years with teaching.

Candido: Hey man, I appreciate that. I have my co-worker right now that I’m split between two buildings. And one of the ladies I share a classroom with this year, she was also a special ed teacher and she changed after, I believe, 12 years.

And yeah, she’s a phenomenal teacher and I’m sure it’s because of those combined experiences. That love for art and also being able to have experienced the other classroom before, too. All right. But there’s a reason I brought you on today, and that’s because I’m very passionate about the community aspect of our profession.

Levar: Oh yeah.

Candido: And so before we get too deep, what’s your understanding of community engagement?

Levar: Kind of, I guess, going from both ends, getting out of the community and getting the kids out and getting with art. Getting their work shown and just letting them see how we connect to the community and bringing the community in to see what’s going on, to do things with us and just back and forth going both ways with that.

Candido: All right. So maybe what we should do here is kind of set the tone for an example. What is an example of, or maybe the most recent or a recent project that you participated in or created in the community?

Levar: I guess going early in our little beginning of school events, just getting out, we had one with the city. And I kind of just went out and painted a live mural, just to be out there and be seen. Had a few of my kids come out, help out.

So they’re introducing parents and getting to have some conversations and different city delegates and just everybody around. So you kind of getting these conversations, people wondering who you are, where you’re from, talk about that. And somebody said, “Well, I know somebody. I got some stuff I can send to the school.” And it just goes from there.

Candido: Yeah. Yeah. What do you think, or what have you found to be a class benefit to you being involved in the community like that?

Levar: Well, first you get some real parental support from a lot of your tougher kids sometimes, just from being out. They might see me at a football game, basketball or something, just show up. Or they might see me doing some live painting in the community. I’m at the food pantry working. So just seeing your face more, you get that support and people more willing to back you up whether it’s either dealing with kids and discipline or needing some sending donations or volunteering at school or whatever. They’re more willing, I guess.

Candido: Right. All right. So I’ll speak about an experience as well. Not exactly in my community, but in the neighboring community. So they’re pretty tight-knit. There’s families overlapping in the two towns neighboring each other. But there was a community garden and they asked me to do something similar, coming into do the live mural. And that was a great opportunity to meet families outside of parent-teacher conferences or meet the teacher conferences. That’s a whole different world. Right.

Levar: Yeah. Different environment.

Candido: There’s a certain type of pressure that’s involved with meet the teacher or parent-teacher conference. It’s almost a negative energy sometimes.

Levar: Yeah.

Candido: But when you’re out in the community, those vibes are completely different. Would you agree with that?

Levar: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Totally different vibe. It’s totally opposite.

Candido: Yeah. So during that time, yeah, I was just working on live mural. I wasn’t doing it alone. So every time I’d go up and do my piece, so I walk away and I go and engage with the families and maybe do sidewalk chalk with some of the kids. And do planting with some of the other families. And you also mentioned earlier, like just popping in at a football game. I think that’s important for us to expand on for a moment because it’s an art education podcast.

It’s an art podcast, but also community engagement also looks very different. And you don’t have to just do things that are related to art. When I was in my administrative program, it was something that one of my professors placed a lot of emphasis on. He was asking us like, “Hey, do you get coffee in the community that you’re teaching?” Because that would break down immediate barriers.

You walk in and the families who own shops and these local businesses, can identify you as a teacher in their community. And it builds incredible bridges. Like you said, when it comes to volunteers, if it comes to funding for projects in the classroom. Or just being able to give your students a safe space when they walk to work on these art projects. How do you find these things in your experience?

Levar: Oh yeah. It’s just a lot of times you’re showing up at these places and an adult will be like, “Oh, you’re that teacher my kid’s been always talking about.” Well, I’m like, I don’t know if that’s good or bad. “Oh, that’s good.” But yeah, that’s like an instant connection. And you start the conversations and it just goes more positive from there. And it’s just, like you said, totally different from a parent teacher-conference where it’s just stiff in the air and you feel the negative vibe.

Candido: Oh man. And also, you said you returned to your community though, right? So you are where you grew up?

Levar: No, no, no. Well, when I got back into teaching, that was the high school that I started out. So my first nine years was at that high school. So that was even better coming back to that. That was a huge connection right there because I was a athlete star there. And so all the older folks knew me around. And then some of the friends, their kids ended up going to school there. So it’s just being known and they know you doing positive things since you were there. It worked out real well for me.

Candido: Right. Right. All right. That’s excellent. Yeah. I wasn’t able to do that. I wasn’t able to go back home, so to say, but I’m in that neighboring district. So when I made that comment it’s because I’m teaching in the neighboring district, so just a town over here.

Levar: Oh yeah. Yeah. So where I’m at now is like that. In the next CDO, but it’s in miles.

Candido: Oh, okay. Yeah. All right. So I’m serving the same population. Like I said, it’s the same families. It’s just where their house is located. And so that gives me a pretty good upper hand in the where I am and how the students acknowledged me as one of them, as opposed to being an outsider.

But this outsider concept can easily be pushed aside if teachers take the initiative to be involved. Now, we’re not living in the exact perfect time to do these types of activities because we’re facing a little bit of limitations. Have you done any community event while we’ve been in the pandemic for the past couple of years?

Levar: Well, the biggest thing was, I guess, unplanned events was just, we started serving as soon as it started. Got with a couple of guys and one of the guys I worked with a lot and he got with some of the community leaders and we started serving lunches immediately when COVID started, like couple weeks after. And it ended up carrying over to the summer and the next year. And so we got some more churches involved. So that was the first thing they seen. These folks are willing to help out even when this is going on. They’re still making sacrifices.

Candido: Right. You have another organization. Tell me about it. Roots, expand on that for a moment. I’m blanking out for a moment, but you have, I know-

Levar: Community service?

Candido: Yeah.

Levar: Well, one of the co-sponsors for our young men’s leadership organization. So the other teacher I work with, with that, Mr. Alex Shannon, he’s the head of that. And he’s got me into the community service. I do a lot with him, mostly my service and anything I do is us working together and us get and our peoples together. So that’s one of my mentors in doing what I do.

Candido: Oh, okay. All right. And are you serving as a mentor to students that you currently teach as well?

Levar: Yeah. So we’ve got about 15 guys in our group now and we have a young women’s leadership organization too. But so we’ll have those guys and then we see them going off through high school and they still come back and work with us some. Just other kids around that. With my brothers and I, there’s six of us brothers so we do a lot of things. Just mentoring little kids around too.

Candido: Okay. And that’s all volunteer base. Are these funded programs?

Levar: All volunteer base, just given a little time. You know how they say, “The best thing you can do for a kid is just show up.”

Candido: Yeah. Yeah. I agree. I totally agree with that. So prior to the pandemic, I haven’t done any. I’ve removed myself a little bit for the safety of my little guy. But yeah, my principal at the time had received a grant from My Brother’s Keeper and from the Obama initiative. And we had implemented a program in our school called (Men Of The Future Junior. And the idea was, that was specific quickly at the time for young men and we were developing leaders.

And initially, I think the program was written as a “at risk program.” But we wanted to expand that because, well, we know that it’s not just about a single group of boys. Everybody needs guidance. And so by putting them all together we can work with them and show them that the guidance is needed for everybody and equal treatment too. I wouldn’t want to be a kid that’s singled out and it said like, “Oh, it’s one of those kids.”

Levar: Yeah. And you get that stigma on it.

Candido: Instead of psych. Yeah. Yeah. I don’t think that would be fair to them. But I missed those days. It’s been a long them since I’ve been able to connect with them. And I’ve seen the effects of them and know these students that are in college now and reaching back out to me and asking in what capacity they can volunteer because of the value that we were able to provide them.

Levar: Right.

Candido: Have you opened your classroom to some of these students before to come back in and, or through the mentorship program?

Levar: Yeah, we’ve had a couple. So there’s some that had a couple older brothers come through that program. I think it’s been going for about nine years now. I guess it started the year before I got at the school. And just a couple of them been like in the junior policeman program. So it was cool to see them come back and they’re in the community now and they’re going to be a cop and working on that. So the guys got to see them in that capacity and some have worked, come back from college and just talk to them a little or something. Just to give them a little word.

Candido: Right. Right. Let’s talk about starting this experience because I don’t think all teachers maybe have the upper hand that do when we talk about coming into a community that we have some experience with already, living close to these communities, growing up in these communities. There’s some teachers who don’t have that benefit and they’re coming from totally different experiences, totally different upbringings. Let’s seed. How would they go about starting that… Yeah. How would they go about starting becoming involved in the community?

Levar: Oh, okay. I guess first given a disclaimer that the route that I’ve taken over or the route that your taking is probably not for everybody. Right. You just kind of growing up around, like the kids can, they got that automatic connection. They just know this guy’s from where we from.

Candido: It’s true.

Levar: And then they automatically know if somebody’s from way on the other side or a whole different demographic. They know. So you got to work around it. Just kind of getting started, being it just showing up for a few things. Or your school will have things going on. They don’t have to be doing as much as we do maybe. But maybe once a semester showing up to volunteer at something where the school is directing to the community.

Or if you have, like at our school, you got the young men’s or young women’s leadership group or beta club or something, pop in there with them. When they’re doing something. We had the pick up out of Springs where different groups and different schools, every businesses, they had groups that just, they walk around, everybody takes a street.

And so everybody’s clean up together and kind of connect themselves, something like that. Just get out, the kids see you beside them caring about what’s going on and doing something, that’s an instant connection. And then parents see you getting up there. Or just making it a point, say, I’m going to show up at at least one football game, one basketball game, show face. Talk to a couple folks, something that’s simple.

Candido: Right. Let’s see. What I’m concerned about in this regard is sometimes, I guess, depending on where somebody teaches. Contractual reasons, people will feel like, “Oh, I only have to stay after school once or twice during the school year for whatever these events are.” And they feel like anything beyond that is beyond the contract.

Levar: Yeah. Pushing too much. Yeah.

Candido: Yeah. I think what I want to do is, I’m not, of course, I’m not an advocate for telling teachers they have to go above and beyond. But instead, I want teachers to recognize the benefits of these things. So we’ll come back around to that. And I think in terms of, if I was speaking to a new teacher or a teacher who’s really ready to shake up their experience.

I think working with the PTA, the parent-teachers organizations and associations is a great a way to do that too. Because these are parents already in the community who are looking to work with teachers. So if you show them and you tell them, “Hey, how can I be a part of this?” Maybe as art teachers, maybe they just need some signage. And so your level of involvement is, it looks different. Right. You could be at the event or maybe you’re just helping develop stuff for the event.

Levar: Yeah. That’s the thing. Everybody can play a role somewhere in something. Yeah.

Candido: Right. Right.

Levar: Don’t have to be a big role.

Candido: So I don’t want people to fear becoming involved. I mean, we have high expectations for our students for different things. Right. We put these expectations on our students. We make them step out of their comfort zone in the projects we ask them to do or the tasks that we ask them to do. And I think that we can do that too as teachers.

Maybe it’s not written there in a contract, but I think anybody with a decent understanding of humanity knows like, “Hey, these people are like,” especially if you’re teaching in a public school. These people who are outside out of your school building are paying your salary, show them what you do inside the classroom. Celebrate it. It’s not a horse and pony show. But like, you teach art?

We create beautiful works of art with these students. How else could you put it on display outside of the cork strips or the display cases in the building? I think also an understanding of community engagement is that there is that burden of having to create events. Now, we’ve already had in our discussion that we’ve been invited to events, but you also have to make yourself approachable. Right? People aren’t just going to invite you.

I mean, if you’re not an approachable person, it’s not like somebody from the community, from any of the local organizations are going to come up to you and tell you like, “Hey, we would like you to be involved.” So you have to put yourself in a position where networking and connections are something that are important to you.

Levar: Yeah. You got to give a little bit of yourself. You don’t have to give it all.

Candido: All right. Do you have any upcoming projects or things that you would like to do in the future?

Levar: We’re getting into our Black History Month celebration and we’re kind of focusing on family this year, which is going to be huge. So we’re thinking around something big with that with the kids, so we can really get families celebrate and get more families in. And we’re in that community where it is 44% Hispanic, 44% black and got some others moving in getting that good mix of everybody.

So you want to get that crossover, and just trying to think of ways to do that. Because you get some of these communities and niches, they just kind of stay together and you don’t get that big mix as much as you want. So I’m thinking around that. And then working until the spring, become a member of the Local Arts Association. So getting the kids out, doing some work with that. And when things warm up and hopefully we don’t have to deal too much with COVID and all that dies down a little bit, so we can get them out and have a little fun.

Candido: Right. So we just recently got kind of crushed because my seventh graders were invited to participate in a gallery exhibition by the Local Arts Council and Civic Council. They got some funds together and approached me and said, “Hey, do you have some students that can put together an art exhibit?” I was like, “Yeah, I have 55 kids. Give me all the supplies.” They gave me all the supplies for individual students. So I didn’t even have to like share anything with them, which was remarkable.

It’s the first time I ever had that kind of funding. I didn’t even have to pour paint on a tray and make sure I didn’t pour too much. It’s just, every single student had their own set of brushes, their own paint. And we were all set. One of my exchanges with these types of outside organizations who are coming into the school is, I have a very strong feeling of not wanting the students to be exploited. So if you’re asking my kids for something, I need to know what it is that they’re going to get in exchange.

And for me, it’s always, how can we celebrate this with their family? And so it was going to be an opening reception during the day. Field trip. We go to the gallery space and parents are invited, hopefully they can make it. I know the time is a little rough, but the gallery was going to be open for a month. So that those parents who weren’t able to attend the opening, they can still go in the evening because it’s actually the galleries attached to a local mall.

Levar: Oh nice.

Candido: It’s a place where that has heavy traffic already. So they were going to be able to just drop in. But we can’t take field trips because of our recent spike. And so now I’m just trying to work a way to keep the students positive. We finished a project, they did an excellent job. Man, I’m so proud of them because I didn’t even have a lot of time to teach them painting techniques.

I really just told them like, “Hey, like these are the materials. And we’re going to learn while we work. If you have something in mind that you want to try, we’ll try it out.” But ultimately, this was a community project. And we were doing exactly, what I said is, is treating the classroom just like a studio space. You get the work done and you move it out elsewhere. And let’s take this celebration to a place where more eyes can see it.

Levar: Right. I like that. I like that.

Candido: Yeah. And the reason I wanted to mention is because I think that’s the type of thing that some teachers are looking for. You’re looking for that assistance. You’re looking for the okay. For the green light. Right? You need administrators who are supportive. My favorite kind of administrator is the one who lets you know like, “Hey, take whatever risk you need. I’ll be here to support you. I’ll be here to catch you.” Because I think that’s where our teachers can fly.

Levar: Yeah. I’m finally lucky to have that these last couple years, and it’s shown a huge difference in what we’re able to do.

Candido: Yeah. You feel more comfortable as a teacher that way?

Levar: Yeah. I feel like I can move. Like you said, you could take a few risks. You can make moves and get on out there and do some things.

Candido: Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s super important when we talk about needing better leadership. I know everybody has a different understanding of that, but for me, that that’s really what it is. I love the autonomy of the art classroom. Right. Nobody comes and bothers me, but there’s a certain drawback to that because we could get super comfortable and then we’re doing exactly what we’re talking about.

We’re becoming that hermit in the classroom where all we’re doing is we’re teaching in the classroom and we’re not making ourselves available anywhere else. And so [crosstalk 00:25:28] having that type of… Yeah. Having that type of leadership is helpful. And in this case, no administrators were involved because of my standing with the community. Right? I already have that relationship.

So for me, those organizations come to me and then I go to tell my administrator like, “Hey, this opportunity came up.” And for some other people, maybe those opportunities come to the administrator and then the administrator distributes it. And that feels a little weird sometimes too. Right. Because now it’s like, “Oh, my boss is giving me something to.”

Levar: You feel pressured to do that thing. And it’s like, “I couldn’t say no.”

Candido: But that can be avoided. Right. If you become the person that these organizations want to speak to. Now you’re alleviating yourself from those pressures.

Levar: Yeah. And I’m going to have to keep, I haven’t thought about that, I’m going to have to keep your question in mind. Like what can we do to celebrate this with the families? And I like that. I like that.

Candido: Yeah. And it’s something I didn’t know right away. Of course, we constantly role in this profession, right. This is my 15th year now and there’s tons of stuff that I’m just learning this year. There’s tons of stuff that I’ve learned in the past two years, just from being connected with people over social media and attending conferences and being involved.

There’s tons of stuff I’ve learned from you. Understanding how to do different projects and being re more resourceful than ever in the classroom. And yeah. With this community engagement thing, I want people to understand the value in it. It just goes such a long way.

Levar: Yeah. Yeah.

Candido: Yeah. Give me something to leave our listeners with regarding this. What have you found to be… Why have you become a better teacher because of community engagement?

Levar: You feel like you got a whole army behind you, I guess, sometimes when you’re doing things. Like you said, you started out and you just kind of on your little island. And sometimes you feel like, “Man, I’m just stuck and I don’t really have any backing. And I don’t know if I could do this or that.” And you start get those doubts and negative thoughts.

And once you start getting community engagement and administrators backing, it just kind of builds with that positivity. Your administrators start to say, “Okay, okay, this guy’s doing a little something. We’re getting a little traction.” So now they want to push even more and back you even more to make sure… Because it’s only going to make everybody look good. Right.

And once that word of mouth starts going around the community, other people want to check out what the kids are doing. Some businesses and organizations start thinking of projects that they like to get involved with you with. So it just kind of builds on itself once you get that little train rolling. You just got to get that little push off and get it going whatever it takes.

Like you said, you don’t have to go in big like we might have done, but just giving them a little something with the PTSA or whatever you can do, and get it rolling. It might take a little bit, but any individual will see that thing start rolling and you’ll see the positivity getting bigger and bigger.

Candido: Totally. Thank you-

Levar: Yes sir.

Candido: … for making the time and with our listeners about this. I hope there’s a lot of takeaways.

Levar: I hope so.

Candido: I feel like every time I talk to an art teacher about community, my understanding expands. I’m sure it’s in part because of where we’re all coming from. The demographics of the neighborhoods we teach and the area will also help define community engagement. However, in talking to Levar Robinson, we gain insight in how we can become more active. It was especially cool to hear just how involved he is.

And in turn, we don’t always have to initiate or even host these events. We can can be guests. I’d like to think as guests we can do more. And then experience quite a bit of joy while we’re there. Your greatest resource to learn about community would be the actual community. So get out there. However, if you’re looking to celebrate the community, check out the Keith Haring Community Mural and Community Skyline lessons in the FLEX curriculum.

There’s also overlap in collaboration and engagement. So once again, episode 285 of Art Ed Radio, Looking at Ideas for Collaboration, provides a very specific look at how students can work with local businesses to create mutually beneficial experiences and works of art. I’ve mentioned a collaborative project between my seventh graders, the Local Civic Council and Arts Council a couple of times now.

And so I promise there’ll be a payoff episode where I’ll discuss how it came out, how we executed and the results. I’d like to thank Levar Robinson once again for taking the time out of his schedule to share his experience and knowledge with us. Thanks for listening to Everyday Art Room. I hope you’ve learned enough to want to know more. Catch you 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.