Getting Creative with Tech (Ep. 347)

Jen Leban is back on the podcast today to share her thoughts on technology, creativity, and why teachers don’t need to be scared when it comes to learning new tech! Listen as she and Tim discuss the state of social media and how we make connections there, Google Draw and other free tools, and Jen’s upcoming presentations at the NOW Conference in January. Full episode transcript below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the art of education university, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

I’m excited today to bring Jen Leban back to the show. She is a former art teacher, current instructional coach, or tech coach, and children’s book illustrator–she does a lot of things, basically, and I’ll let her give you the full rundown. But I wanted to chat with her about a few different things related to tech. One is the idea of social media, how we use technology to connect–part of what I talked about last week with fostering online communities.
I also wanted to talk to her about using technology in art, using technology to foster creativity, which I think is a topic worth exploring. Jen will be presenting at the NOW conference in January about how you can easily utilize tech in your art teaching (and how you can do it for free), so I will have her chat about that as well. Let me bring her on now.

Jen Leban is back on the podcast with me. Jen, great to have you back. How are you?

Jen: Thank you. I’m doing very well, actually.

Tim: Excellent, I’m glad to hear that. You’ve been on here a lot before, but for people who have not heard you or are just being introduced to you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Jen: Yes, I can give you my origin story.

Tim: Yes, that’s what I mean.

Jen: Yes, I am a 20+ year teaching veteran and I started out, AKA my origin story is that I was a visual arts teacher. I taught grade six through eight for 13 years in the same district that I student taught in, and then I transitioned to being the six through eight computer teacher basically, like elective computer class, technology class. Every school, not every school, a lot of schools have it, they just call it different things. That was me for another six years, same school. Then for one year, I actually moved to the elementary school, so K5, same district, and I was the library/media/maker space teacher. So I like to tell everyone that I have taught all grades K through eight and I was in the same school district my entire life.

And then I was offered an opportunity to become an instructional technology coach with the organization. Actually, we’re called the LTC or the Learning Technology Center of Illinois, which is a statewide organization that supports the use of technology in school districts all over the state, but my specific role is that I am a coach in school buildings. So if you have a school district that isn’t, maybe not wealthy enough or for whatever reason, you can’t afford your own full-time staff members that are coaches or-

Tim: Right.

Jen: Technology coaches, whatever, you can contract a coach out for a specific number of days. So we have coaches that do as few as 10 days over the course of the school year, more of a consulting, and then we have some coaches that are almost full-time. So my organization cobbles those jobs together to make full-time positions for us.

So I work in South Cook County, Illinois, so just south of Chicago, and I work in two school districts this year. It’s almost evenly half and half split. And I love it, because basically for people that don’t know all of the ins and outs and minutiae of the job, I get to be the fun auntie that comes into a classroom, does little tech jobs, shows them how to do things like oohs and aahs and then I get to be like, “See ya,” and leave the kids with mom and dad to handle all the other stuff. I mean, if I had to describe it to the layperson, I get to go into classrooms, do fun stuff and leave. So I’ve never had such a great fanfare is when you walk into a classroom and all the kids go, “Yay.” I wish I could bottle that, what a greeting.

Tim: Oh, that’s a great feeling, because I used to travel as an elementary art teacher and I’d just show up every few weeks.

Jen: Yeah.

Tim: Then you come in, oh man, that reception from kids, oh, it’s glorious.

Jen: I can imagine. Very similar. Very similar, because you’re coming in and you’re doing something fun.

Tim: Yeah, exactly and they love all that. So I guess one of the reasons I wanted to chat with you today is even though you are doing a lot of tech stuff now, you always have an eye on things that are creative, and you have always kind of kept art as part of what you’re doing. I guess I’m just curious about what you’re doing right now because I mean, you’ve gone through art, you’ve done tech, you’ve done coaching, you’ve done book illustrations. You have so many things going on.

Jen: Oh yeah.

Tim: So what are you working on right now? What has captured your interest? What are you exploring? What has piqued your interest lately?

Jen: Yeah, so it’s funny, because I forget about all that other stuff, I’m like, “Oh yeah, I also draw books.”

Tim: Yeah, I do that too.

Jen: So yes, everything I do has an art bent in it and some sort of creative bent in it, and I think that that’s my particular specialty and what I have to offer the schools that I work with. The other coaches I work with, some are literacy people, some are data and research people. With me, I am the art, the creativity girl, I do a lot of maker spacey things. So when I go into my buildings, we’re doing a lot of 3D printing or we’re doing even the school’s, we have a Cricket, how can we use that with the student? And let’s find ways to integrate it with the curriculum. So I get to do a lot of project-based learning. I get to do a lot of art and creative projects. So it’s like I still get to be the art teacher, but instead of using traditional media, I use tech. So that’s really cool. I mean, that’s fun.

And then as far as the book illustration stuff, that is something that I guess I always was interested in. So when you first go to college and you get your bachelor’s and your mom and dad say, “What do you want to do with your life? What do you want to be when you grow up?” I remember that I actually said, I said I want to write children’s books, not because I like writing the stories, I just wanted to draw the pictures. And there’s no degree in like, “I have a children’s book author degree,” so I got the whole drilling from the parents, “Yeah, but what are you going to do to get a steady paycheck?” And, “I’ll be an art teacher.” So that’s how that started. I mean, I know I’m supposed to have a much grander, it is a calling.

Tim: Yeah, I was going to say that’s part of the profession.

Jen: It started, I mean we can have that discussion too because yes and no on both can be, right?

Tim: Yeah.

Jen: But the initial spark was you needed a steady paycheck. But I love making art. And needless to say, that didn’t pan out when I was in undergrad. But just through working my normal job and putting stuff out on social media and networking and going to conferences and talking to people, you make these connections and these opportunities come up that you don’t necessarily expect or look for. I mean, in my case at least, that’s kind of what happened. I have a hard time saying no, which can be good and bad, but it does sometimes lead to these things. So I had just kind of put it out there, “Hey, I think it’d be cool to draw a book.”

And through my networking, I’m a Google innovator and coach through the Googling network, I got connected with someone who has a publishing company and I just kind of submitted some drawings and didn’t think anything of it. And then all of a sudden one day got an email that was like, “Hey, somebody’s interested. Do you want to do a book?” And I said, “Heck yes I do.” And it happened to be a kindergarten teacher who was doing a book about for early elementary about coding and featuring young girls that I was like, “Ooh, drawing, girl power, computer science. This is all of the things that I love,” so it just worked out. And then from that first book, word kind of caught on and got passed on. And now I’ve done a couple other books.

And those, I’ve done actually was another publisher, another author I’ve been working with Yaritza Villalba. She is one of the education leads, education innovation leads. I apologize if I get that wrong, if she’s listening to this and I didn’t get it right. But she works with Flip, formerly known as Flipgrid. So she’s the author that I work with and we’ve done several books together and I know she has plans for even more. But her books are really fun because she does her books through the eyes of her daughter so the first book was called McKenzie’s Time Machine, and we did kind of unsung heroes through time involving people of color. So maybe not people that you haven’t really heard enough of. And it’s through the lenses of McKenzie thinking, “Well, what can I be when I grow up?” And it’s a little bit, is she dreaming or is she traveling through time?

I just thought it was really cool and I was really honored that Yaritza asked me to draw her book because I had a little bit of that imposter syndrome like, “Well who am I to do this and what do I?” Because I don’t know, for lack of a better term, I’m a very white girl and I’m aware of that. And I don’t want to step on toes or speak over people or assume, but I don’t know how to put this into words exactly. I was very honored that she allowed me into that space and to do that work, and I’m really proud of it. I think we did a really good job. I know that she loved it.

Tim: I love that book, so good.

Jen: Thank you. And we did a second book that actually has two versions. There’s a full English and a full Spanish version so I got to go into that world too, too. I’ve just been exposed to so many different fun things now because of this. But the second book actually explores McKenzie’s Afro-Latina roots because Yaritza, one side of her family, they’re all from Panama so we got to do a lot of Panamanian cultures. And the best part was my art teacher background came back to me because she was like, “We’re doing Panamanian stuff.” And I go, “Do you want me to do Molas in the background?” And she was like, “Mola?” And I was like, “Yes, I know those because it’s such an art teacher thing,” one of our classic projects and things that you learn and you’re doing arts and cultures and things. And I was like, “Dude, I know that because of my art background,” so thank you art teacher world.

Tim: Hey, so you mentioned social media and making connections there, and that was something I also wanted to, I guess just get your perspective on just what’s happening with social media right now. I’ve stepped back from Twitter quite a bit recently. I know you have a, well also, have you found a good alternative to that? Are you finding other places to make connections? Are you just spending less time on social media now?

Jen: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I do think we need to talk about it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a happier, simple answer. And you’re like, “What’s happening with social media?” My first response is to be like, “What is happening with social media? I don’t know.” I do feel like I’ve stepped back quite a bit. I felt like I was doing it actually before the whole takeover of Twitter, blah, blah, blah. Just because I’ve tried to be really aware of how using technology and using social media makes me feel. So this is interesting because this is coming from a tech person. So I very much love tech and I advocate for it, but I also am struggling in my own personal life with the idea of the both and that things are neither all good or no bad and things can be both, and that includes technology.

And if I’m on social media and it’s making me feel bad and I notice that I’m doom scrolling and I’m kind of spiraling down a thing that I need to step away. I have a Facebook account, but for all intents and purposes, I am not on Facebook because I don’t go, I don’t check. There are places where you have to have it because there’s this group that I belong to, but then I never check it. It just became, in my experience, such a cesspool of disinformation, misinformation. And with my connections, for a while, Twitter sort of became my safe haven. And then that became a place where you couldn’t, I don’t know, what do I say? I actually had an incident, I don’t know when was the last time we talked? I don’t know if I told you this story last time I was on here about my superintendent came after me on Twitter because I made a comment about wearing masks. Yeah, it was a whole big thing.

Tim: No, okay.

Jen: And the problem is somebody says something and then bots and interest groups can snag onto it and dog pile and it just gets really bad really fast so the safest thing sometimes is to just not engage at all. So I felt like a lot of the times when I was on Twitter, I would spend, a lot of times I would read somebody’s tweet and I’d be like, “Yeah, right on. That’s awesome.” And then the comments would be, I’d start to see those troll-y people and I would spend a lot of time going in and being like, “Yep, block that person. Block that person.”

Tim: You can’t spend time in the comments now.

Jen: Yeah, well yeah, that’s true. That’s true. And I just realized how much where I was putting my energy and I didn’t like it and I don’t know, I’m unhappy with it right now. Do I have an alternative? Not necessarily. I have an Instagram.

Tim: I was going to say, that’s the problem I run into where there’s not necessarily a good alternative, but yet you still want to make those connections, you still want to form that community. That’s what I talked about on last week’s podcast was just, where do you find a community? And if it’s not on social media, it’s so hard for our teachers because of-

Jen: Yes.

Tim: Lack of colleagues, lack of connections. And so it’s just something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and I don’t have the answer, I don’t know what the solution is but.

Jen: I know, I think I’ve kind of taken a, for the most part, step back and see what happens. And then I created an account on Hive Social because a lot of my library friends, so I have all these different networks. I have the art teacher friends, the tech friends, and the library from my year as a librarian.

Tim: Great.

Jen: A lot of them have gone to Hive. Doesn’t seem like it’s picked up a bunch. I know Mastodon, I had heard about it even before the whole Twitter takeover and it all had sounded promising. But everything I hear is just that it’s kind of tedious and complicated and I don’t need another project.

Tim: That’s the thing. I don’t want to learn anything else, I just don’t have the time or the energy to learn another platform but anyway.

Jen: Yeah. And it’s not that you’re against learning, it’s just that I think we’re more selective about what it is that we want to put our energy towards and what it is we want to learn. And if we’re like, “Is the benefit going to be worth the effort that you put out?” And we don’t know, and if we’re just going to enter another place that feels like this existing place, then nah, maybe let’s just not go there.

Tim: Right, exactly. Okay, let me change directions here for just a second.

Jen: Yeah.

Tim: But we still want to talk about connections and community and learning. So we’re going to chat about the NOW Conference for a little bit.

Jen: Yeah.

Tim: You’re coming back to present again. So can you just chat a little bit about tying a bunch of these ideas together?

Jen: So yeah.

Tim: And what you’re doing for your presentation.

Jen: Yeah. First of all, thank you guys for having me back because I know I was thinking a little while ago, I was like, “Oh man, I haven’t done anything with Art of Ed in a while and that’s always such a good group.” I really enjoyed working with them. And then it was like-

Tim: Thanks.

Jen: Look, there’s Tim. I wished it into the world and there it was.

Tim: Yeah, perfect.

Jen: So I like working with Art of Ed and the NOW Conference because I get to combine those things that I love coming back to my art roots, but then integrating the technology. And I know that art teachers, there’s a whole spectrum. There are teachers that fully embrace and love technology and I think I would probably put myself on that end since it’s where I went anyways. I’ve worked with teachers that are very anti-tech that are like, “No, traditional media only is the only valid thing.” And then I’ve worked with teachers that lie somewhere in the mid, because there is no black or white. We have that whole spectrum of things. But I know that it can be hard because art teachers, we already have to be jacks of all trades especially if you’re not a specialized high school teacher in a certain medium. Elementary teacher, you’re doing clay and you’re doing weaving and you’re doing drawing and painting and you’re doing paper construction and you’re doing plaster and you’re doing.

Tim: Yes.

Jen: Depending on so much stuff you have to know already. Do you want to throw a tech into that? Plus, art is messy. Do you want to open those Chromebooks and get junk all over them? I mean, there’s a lot to consider.

So I know, I feel it, I understand. But there are ways, especially when we were dealing with remote learning and pandemic and stuff that you had to adapt. You were forced into it.

Tim: Right.

Jen: And there are things that you can do in visual arts using technology that doesn’t require a whole new set of tools or a whole new software and you don’t have to learn how to use Photoshop and Illustrator. I mean, I love it, it’s great. Those of you that do, you’re probably already on board with me. But for those people that are not, it doesn’t need to be that complicated. You can do a lot with the free tools that you already have. And that’s sort of what I’m going to be focusing on.

And I’m going to narrow that down even more specifically, we’re going to be talking about Google Slides and Google Draw, which they function pretty much the same. How you can use that free tool that you probably already have and you can on a Chromebook, no extra special tools needed. And if you don’t have Chromebooks, you have a computer lab, that’s fine too because this is web-based. You can actually create beautiful portraits and images and graphics that look very much like Illustrator vector images and it’s not as hard as you think. And I know as an art teacher, when you have those prod, sorry.

Tim: That’s okay, I’ll just make a note that we need to edit that out so.

Jen: Yeah, I’m in school. All right, so what was I saying? As an art teacher, having projects that have that success built in, the ones where you know they always look good. For some reason, when you draw a shoe, when you do the sneaker drawing, everybody does it.

Tim: Right.

Jen: They always look really good. Or when you teach the kids one point perspective or two point perspective, they always look really good, so it’s a successful project because the kids can feel successful. It’s got that built into it. Yeah, I feel like doing graphics with Google Drawings has that same sort of end results, even though in art, there’s very much the process versus product. You get the process, but also the product looks good at the end, and that’s one of those wins.

Tim: I was going to say, that’s a win-win situation right there.

Jen: Yeah. So I like that. I’ve done it with students in an art class setting. I’ve done it in a tech class setting where we make graphics on Google Draw, and it’s worked in both. And I’ve had students that have enjoyed it or learned enough or really it resonate with them enough that they on their own then would create other and show me, “I did a picture of my dog, check this out,” or, “I did-”

Tim: That’s great.

Jen: And I love that, when they learn a skill that they want to use on their own, that’s always another win. Win, win, win.

Tim: Exactly. Okay, so you mentioned this kind of in that last answer, and I wanted to chat with you just about the idea of tech and creativity. And I know this is probably, could be its own podcast, definitely part of a bigger discussion, but just a quick opinion from you. I’ve noticed that a lot of teachers are apprehensive when it comes to using tech in art. And I hear a lot, which you just refuted, but a lot of teachers do think that technology and creativity are mutually exclusive. So I know you are proof that technology and creativity can coexist, but can I just get your thoughts on just how teachers can use technology to help in art and how they can use tech to foster creativity in their students?

Jen: Well yeah, I mean, for sure, actually my medium of choice so in my undergrad, my major was drawing and painting, which is funny, the tech teacher was traditional media. But my medium of choices, I draw on my iPad. I do digital drawings. My drawings look like color pencil drawings, but it’s the brushes used and everything so it’s fun and I like it because it’s portable, it’s mobile. I can start at one place, go someplace else and work on it, it’s continual. I love the idea of working in layers so if I mess something up, I can just remove part of it. That apprehension that students have sometimes withdrawing where they draw really tiny, if you’re doing it digitally, you can click on it and you can blow that thing up and you don’t have to start over on a new sheet of paper or you draw a line and it’s wrong and the kids drew too dark and you go to erase it and you still see the line. So doing a drawing digitally versus on paper, so that’s just one very specific example of how that works.

Tim: Yeah.

Jen: But as a technology coach, not only am I helping you integrate it into the curriculum, but I’m helping you utilize it as a teacher because the technology doesn’t always have to be for the purpose of art. It can just be for the purpose of your workflow and your organization and making your life easier as a professional, which then gives you more time to do the art stuff too. I love the idea of using technology and art as a way to create digital portfolios and to help archive work. And then that allows for greater reflection on work.

If you’re an art teacher and you’re not using a site like Artsonia, I mean get on board, man, that’s been around forever and it just keeps getting better and better. I don’t even have an account with them anymore, but for people that know me, my husband is an art teacher too. We are that couple and he’s using it with his middle school students. And just the ability that it rolls your students over from year to year. And you can see that progression over time. I’m also a mom, and my kid’s art teacher uses Art Sonia, and I am so excited when I get a freaking email that you’ve got something new. I’m like, “Oh, what is this time?” And then I’m totally that mom where I’ll buy stuff with it on there too.

Tim: Oh yeah.

Jen: And then that benefits the school. I mean, granted, art teachers hold a special place in my heart, so when they do things like the book fair and you can buy a book for a teacher, I’m always buying it for the art teacher.

Tim: Of course.

Jen: “Everybody else forgot about you. I’m buying you this thing.” So I know that’s not always the case, because we do feel like the land of misfit toys very often, but there’s still a lot that technology can offer the arts. It doesn’t always have to be a part of the process itself of creating art. And because everything is good and bad, there are also just discussions about art that can be had in terms of the latest AI app that everybody’s using, and what does that mean for artists and how is it good and how is it bad? And again, it can be both.

How does it make art accessible to people that couldn’t otherwise maybe afford it? I mean, so there are issues, does stuff like that take money from artists? Yeah, but there’s also benefits, so it’s hard to just make that judgment, you have that initial reaction. And I think that those are valuable conversations that we can have. Even with little kids and saying, “Hey, art generated by a computer and art generated by a person, is one better than the other?” And just having them talk about it, it’s kind of cool. I mean yeah, I don’t know. There’s a lot to it. I know teacher hesitation is that uncomfortability that we always have to feel like we’re the expert on everything.

Tim: Right.

Jen: And a lot of times with tech, we’re having to be vulnerable. We’re having to say, I know how this is supposed to work, but if it doesn’t work and then you feel like you’ve wasted 40 minutes when you only get 40 minutes a week or every two weeks or whatever, it’s hard to go to that uncertainty. If your building has a technology coach or somebody that can support you and be that safety net and go into the classroom with you just in case. No, not in case. When the tech goes all wrong, that’s something that I do and something that I can provide for my teachers, but it doesn’t cover the mental insecurity, the uncomfortableness, the vulnerability that you do after show as a teacher that you’re not going to know all the answers and you will get stuck somewhere. But that’s when you literally, I would say to my class, I’d be like, “Oh my gosh, you guys, I can’t figure out how to click on this and get this to move. Anybody else having this problem?”

Tim: Yeah.

Jen: “How did you fix it?”

Tim: That was such a mindset shift for me.

Jen: Yes.

Tim: When I was able to embrace the idea of, “Hey students, let’s learn this together,” or, “Can you help me learn this?”

And it was tough for me, I’ve talked about that before on this podcast. It was very difficult for me to let go of that and not be the expert in the classroom but then once I did, oh my gosh, it was such a wonderful feeling.

It was so freeing to be able to just, like I said, learn along with the kids or learn from the kids. And yes, a lot of things with technology and just new developments allow you to do that and I think it’s really worthwhile.

Jen: As soon as you learn something, a new version is coming out, so you got to get over it. It’s not, yeah.

Tim: Exactly. Cool. All right. Well Jen, let’s go ahead and wrap it up there, it’s been great talking to you. I appreciate your perspective, your insight, and it’s always wonderful to talk to you so thank you.

Jen: Thank you.

Tim: Thanks to Jen, that was a really fun conversation for me, and I hope you enjoyed it as well. If you are interested in learning more from her, make sure you sign up for the Winter NOW Conference. It is January 27, 28, 29, and you can find all the information you need to register on the AOEU website. We hope to see you there!

Art Ed Radio is produced by the art of education university, with audio engineering from Michael Crocker.

One more call, I am asking for help with a future episode. I want to do an episode centered around joy. What brings you joy in your teaching? What are the things that make you love your job? The big things, the little things, or the in-between things that help you find joy in teaching? If you are willing to share, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at timothy bogatz AT the art of education DOT edu, or I will have a link to a google form where you can share as well. Tell me . . . what brings you joy in teaching? I would appreciate hearing your story.

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.