Learning, Expression, and Communication Through Art (Ep. 169)

In today’s interview, Nic is joined by Keisha Casiano, an elementary art teacher from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Keisha shares her inspirational story about her learning disabilities and how she has communicated through art her entire life. Listen as the discussion covers learning strategies, being an advocate, and building relationships with your students.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Nic: I invited Keisha Casiano to join me on the podcast today. She is a young teacher in Fort Worth, Texas. She is adorable and just has this positive vibe coming off from her. She’s pretty spectacular. So I can’t wait to chat with her. She has a pretty incredible story. Get ready for some inspirational speaking from Keisha. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

Hi Keisha, I am excited to have you on Everyday Art Room today. I’ve been following you a little bit on Instagram, but I want you to first introduce yourself to our audience. Can you go ahead and do that please?

Keisha: Yes, I am Keisha Casiano. I am currently an elementary art teacher here in the DFW area in Texas. This is my sixth year of teaching. I got my bachelor’s at UNT and just wrapped up my master’s this past, well, I guess not recently, but this past December with my masters in art education from Texas Tech.

Nic: Congratulations. I know that can be a challenge to teach and go back and get your master’s and all of that. You said Fort Worth, right? Texas.

Keisha: Yeah.

Nic: Okay. So these days, it’s kind of an odd question that I have to ask everyone. What is your teaching model? How are you teaching in your classroom these days?

Keisha: So we started off three weeks of just virtual learning, and then we went back to in-person. And the way that we’re doing this is that we have our kids here on campus, and then we post once a week on Seesaw. And we are so thankful for our district. They have a art committee where they are providing us our art lesson plans that we get at the end of the week. And we post those for the following week for our classes, and they’re divided up two grade levels. So it’s kinder and first, second and third, fourth and fifth, and we kind of have it broken down by, we’re using the elements of art. So right now we’re focusing on shape and then we’ll be doing that for a few weeks, and then the next unit will be color or whatever that our next topic is. And we’re breaking down the elements for our virtual learners.

Nic: Wow. That is awesome. And so you have a team working on this or are these teachers that are creating these?

Keisha: Yeah, I think it’s like three or four teachers.

Nic: Wow. That is awesome. And so this is given to you and you’re only teaching. No, you’re teaching in-person to some students as well, aren’t you?

Keisha: Yes, we’re about 75% capacity right now.

Nic: Okay. Interesting. And so there’s plenty of at-home learners as well.

Keisha: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nic: Okay. Yeah. We’re all doing it all, that’s for sure, in the art world. That sounds like you have kind of a good situation though with that art team. That’s pretty awesome. That’s the first time I’ve heard that.

Keisha: They are a blessing and they have been so helpful.

Nic: Awesome. So let’s get started with just kind of the beginning of your career. You went into art education and why? Why did you choose art education for your future?

Keisha: So I have an interesting story. So when I was born, I was born with a neonatal stroke. And for people that don’t know that, essentially I had a stroke either during the pregnancy or right before the pregnancy when my mom had me. And for the longest time, we didn’t know anything was wrong until I was about, you know, four or five years old. I wasn’t communicating, and my mom always thought that was really weird. So the way that I started communicating with my parents was by finger painting and, you know, I wasn’t talking. So I would just draw the things that I wanted and I will take trash and make little sculptures. And it’s funny because my mom always saved everything that I’ve made. So I still have these artworks that I made when I was one, two, three years old. So when I was little, second grade to be specifically, my mom knew that there was something wrong.

And that’s when we started to go into the doctors and I started getting all these cat scans, MRIs, and we discovered that, due to the neonatal stroke, it caused permanent brain damage. And you can literally see it in my scans. I have a hole that just never fully developed and it’s on the back left side of my brain. And, you know, the way that the brain is broken down, that’s my reading and comprehension. So I always knew that I struggled with reading. I just thought that it was because of me, and it took me so long to understand that. So being in school, I just remember coming home crying to my mom and just being like, why can I not learn? I’m struggling and, you know, being a second grader that can just be also very embarrassing too.

This is one thing that I’m so grateful for my mother. She literally had to teach herself and research about neonatal strokes and the effects and causes of, you know, having a learning disability. And when I was in fourth grade, I had a teacher that would call me out because of my reading and my comprehension, the fact that I wasn’t able to speak and read out loud. I can remember her doing popcorn reading, and I will count the heads ahead and, you know, see what paragraph I’ll have to read, just so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. And she’s honestly one of the main reasons why I got into teaching, but because of the way that my mom educated herself with my condition, she was able to advocate for me and find the right accommodations for me. And because of that, I was able to be successful in learning. Now, throughout my middle school and high school, even though I was still struggling with reading and writing, this is when I discovered art.

Art was the way that I just shined, and it was my way of finally breaking through and discovering something new about myself. I’ve discovered that I learned very visual. I learned hands-on. And with this, I was able to take this into my other core classes and really just benefit and discover new learning strategies that helped me. To be completely honest, when I graduated high school, I thought college was not in the future for me, just because I struggled so much in my high school and middle school. I didn’t think I was going to go to it. So I went to a community college and it was such a roller coaster just trying to set my accommodations and get my paperwork all lined up. And I failed a few classes, but I finally got through it and I went to UNT, and thankful for all the art education classes.

I was just really able to, again, discover myself more and just find new ways of learning and tying this all into my core classes. So never in my wildest dreams, I just thought I would never get my masters. And I decided to just sign up and I was looking at different programs and I saw that Texas tech offered and art education program and just winged it. I did it. And I told my mom, I was like, “I’m getting my master’s.” And she was so shocked, and I’m not going to lie. It was a lot of tears, a lot of crying. And honestly, I thought I was going to give up halfway through it, but with the help of my parents, and luckily I had a friend that signed up with it with her master’s too, we were able to help each other out, and here I am a college graduate. But the learning disability that is still struggling with reading, having a master’s degree, I never thought that that sentence will come out of my mouth.

And I use that in my teaching philosophy, you know, the first year when at the beginning of the year, when I introduce myself to the kids, I share that story with my kids. I typically tie in a Peter Reynolds book. I feel like any of his books, I can always tie in the story with it. His books are great, but typically I’ll start off with a book from him. And right after I will share everything. And I’ve been told that I probably share too much, but if anything, it builds the relationships that I have with my students. Last year, I remember I had a bunch of kids come up to me after, you know, sharing what they’ve struggled with, how they hate this because of, you know, their learning disability or whatever. And even if they don’t have special needs or anything like that, I feel like, by sharing my story, the kids feel closer to me and comfortable with me.

So I noticed that the kids will talk to me more than some of the other teachers, because they have that relationship built with me and that they know that they can trust me and they just feel comfortable with me. So it is something that I use and I feel like it just makes the environment cozier and comfortable and, you know, it’s a safe place for these kids. And I’ve had conversations with these kids where they just let it all out and they just tell me what they struggle with. And sometimes I’ve helped kids with, you know, their reading assignments and read to them and just try to help these kids in every way that I can. And that’s honestly why I got into teaching. And I tell these kids too, that because I struggled in reading and writing, I discovered art and I’m using my power to help you guys with art and discover your own self expressions and your own little things that, you know, make you, you.

And it was funny because when I got interviewed for my position this year, I told my principal that I see kids with special needs as their super power. I don’t like to talk bad about it. It’s their little superpower. And they got to find how can they help the world with this, how I’m doing it with me. I have a learning disability, and because of it, I have art and I’m using it to help you guys. So this just builds a lot of relationships, and I just really feel that no significant learning happens without significant relationships.

Nic: So it sounds like you have a really good relationship with your students, just kind of on a deeper level. I wish you could see me right now, and I wish our listeners could see me, but my assumption is that they’re doing the same thing. I’ve already almost teared up when you were talking about how art saved you and smiling from ear to ear when I’m imagining you working with your students. Let’s go into kind of your classroom. Bring us through. What kind of activities or lessons are you most proud of in your classroom?

Keisha: Okay, so this is very hard because my background is in sculpture and I love a good recycle trash project. So at the beginning of the year, I’ll tell the kids, save your Amazon boxes, cardboard, cereal boxes, anything cardboard related. Oh, toilet paper rolls, paper towel rolls, save it all. I have a corner dedicated to save all this stuff. So the projects that I’m most proud of will probably be my monster plaster heads that we made last year. And there is just so much that cardboard does. I don’t know what is it, but it kind of ties in with the whole process over product. I feel like it’s allowing students to just find new ways of creating and giving them new tools. It’s not your basic painting and paper and paint. It’s something different. So with sculpture and the way that I incorporate this in my classroom is that I have no fear. You’re probably going to freak out, but I allow my kids to use box cutters and hot glue guns.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. What age level? Let’s just go over that because people are going to be freaking out right now. What age level?

Keisha: Fifth grade, and I’ve done it as young as fourth grade. And I’m not using the box cutters with third grade, but I’m testing the boundaries with hot glue guns for third grade.

Nic: There you go, girl.

Keisha: But it’s all about setting the expectations. And I know that when I post about it on Instagram, people are always like, “What?” And even middle school and high school teachers are like, “I don’t even do this with my kids.” But it’s all about setting the expectations and being consistent with it. I know that my first year doing this, I was nervous, but you know, I wanted to have these cool projects. And I remember the student, I can still see his face thinking about this, but he wasn’t trying to make a scene, but he was just talking about it. And I made such a big deal about it in the classroom that the whole grade level talked about it. And I never had an issue since.

So as long as you’re consistent with it, and obviously the expectations and just the proper care. I tell these kids that in this classroom, it is an art tool. Outside of this classroom. It is a weapon. And, you know, as long as we’re taking proper care and keeping track of everything, we can continue doing these cool, amazing projects. So another way that I use all this cardboard too, is, I barely use my paintbrushes. Right now, we’re doing a lot of painted paper and a lot of collage and we’re using cardboard. I will make scraps out of it, and we just use the cardboard scraps to just paint all these different types of textures and, you know, paint all this different way. And it’s showing these kids just a new way of creating and painting instead of your basic, traditional painting and paper.

I typically love any good recycle cardboard project. And as a finished product, sometimes I also like to do a lot of plastering. It’s just better. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Papier-mache is good. But it’s just something about plaster. It’s more sturdier. It’s again, something different. It’s not your typical, everyday tool that you get to use for medium and the kids go crazy when they get to use the plaster.

Nic: For Sure. Now, do you pour it in molds or are you using the [inaudible 00:14:12] cheesecloth? The gauze. Okay. Yeah. Yeah. I love that stuff too. And it dries so fast.

Keisha: Yes. Which is another bonus.

Nic: Yep, exactly. So it’s ready to go. Do you paint that usually or add things to it?

Keisha: What do you mean by that?

Nic: With the plaster, when you’re doing a project, how do you finish that plaster or is that the finished piece?

Keisha: So that’s another trick that I have up my sleeve too. So with plastering and even clay projects too, I don’t have a kilns, or last year I didn’t have a kiln. So I came up with this modge podge water mixture where it gives your projects a shiny final glossy finish. So I just have a spray bottle. It’s labeled. It’s half modge podge, half water, shake it up. And I use the ultra gloss and spray them down and bada bing bada boom.

Nic: I’m trying that. Hey, I’m trying that. Wow.

Keisha: I love It. And again, not having a kiln, with my clay projects it also helps secure the pieces too, from not falling off either. So I have a few mixture pieces that work pretty well, I got pretty crafty last year. But with my plaster, finishing off with that spray was always beneficial.

Nic: Sorry, I’m like obsessed about this. This is awesome. When you set that spray bottle aside, do you have to empty it out and rinse it out or can you leave it for a couple of days?

Keisha: Just refill it, yeah. The only problem that I do have sometimes is that the spray where it comes out, it gets crusty. And I just kind of had scrape it off. But other than that, it’s been the same bottle that I’ve used for the last two, three years.

Nic: Awesome. Ooh, good tip. Wow. I love that. Hey, did you notice that 2020 was not ideal? An ideal year? Have you noticed that? Every time I look at your Instagram, you look so upbeat and so happy. Is that really how you’re living your life? Or how are you staying so upbeat with just your attitude?

Keisha: So social media has helped a lot, just being positive and seeing all these other teachers struggling with the same thing, trying to be positive and just sharing, you know, all these different ways of, you know, creating and being innovative and things like that. I’ve noticed too, that a lot of teachers have leaned on social media, specifically TikTok. And it was funny because in the spring when we first went to quarantine, I had TikTok, but it was just more of just seeing what people were posting. But I just noticed that a ton of teachers were joining it and sharing their content and just doing all these teacher appropriate, of course, dance trends and things like that. And just sharing all this, you know, what they’re doing in their classrooms and how they’re helping these kids. And I started doing it.

And with me not being able to see my kids last year when we went to quarantine, it was just such a great way to connect with these students. And it was so cool to have my kids do a duet video with me, and sharing all the things that they were creating at home. So now being at a new district, the kids found me. So they just think I’m with this celebrity walking in the building. I came up with a TikTok song for our classroom, and I took the song I’m a Savage, and I completely made it to be about art. So it’s like, I’m an artist, talented, creative, amazing. And we have a little dance that we go with it. And that’s kind of our class finisher that at the end of the class, if we have time, we’ll do the dance.

And we’ve made a video and posted it on our Facebook page and the parents just eat it up. They love it. So TikTok and Instagram has just been really helpful on just staying positive, not only with other teachers, but also connecting with the kids. And also just again, that goes back with tying it with building the relationships. Because I have TikTok and the kids find me in there, you know, dueting, I have better relationships with these kids.

Nic: Okay. Now I’m a TikTok not. I’m TikTok not is what I am, just because I can’t take anything more on yet. Maybe someday. Okay, I want to wrap this up, but I want to talk to you just finally, how are you able to do this? How are you able to put yourself out there on TikTok with those songs? How are you able to do that?

Keisha: So I’ve been asked this by multiple people, and my answer to all this is honestly, I just stopped caring about what people think. My goal in life is to share my passion of art education and share with teachers, with parents, with students. So by incorporating all these different social medias, for example, TikTok is all obviously a way to reach out to students. Instagram is to reach out to other educators, Twitter is to reach out to teachers in the district. And then I have my Facebook group page, which is for the parents. So I’m hitting all these different, you know, groups where I’m sharing and I’m posting and, you know, advocating for the fine arts. And it’s funny because with my learning disability, I used to be very shy, believe it or not. I used to not talk and very shy.

I didn’t have a lot of friends. And when I went into college, something just clicked. And my mom believes it was because I started taking art education courses and I started really discovering who I am and what I loved. And ever since then, it just, it just clicked. It changed. And I just honestly stopped caring about what people think, and I’m posting to help other people in my same shoes who are struggling with reading or, you know, a first, brand new teacher. And that’s my goal. So by posting and sharing and just having this energy and sharing my passion, that’s what honestly gets me through the day and keeps me going. And I just, like I said, I wouldn’t change anything. I love what I do. And my goal is to continue pushing myself in ways to, you know, professional development and move up and we’ll see what life takes me.

Nic: Oh, Keisha, I love you. I love your mom. I mean, she’s a very important part of your story and I can’t thank you enough for visiting with us today.

Keisha: Thank you.

Nic: I want to thank Keisha just one more time for sharing that powerful story with us. I definitely was moved multiple times when she was talking about her disability, but then also just the passion and the saving grace that art was for her. And I think it’s something that probably many of us can relate to who are now teaching that passion to our students right now. There’s a catalyst somewhere that pushed you towards this lifestyle of art education. Thank you, Keisha. And if you have not, you need to go check out her Instagram and/or TikTok. That little song that she sings, or she sang just a little part of it is amazing. And she is just so bubbly and such a powerful educator, I’m sure, in her classroom, because it was something that grabbed my attention. I know it will yours as well. So go check her out. She has some awesome content and thank you, Keisha, for sharing your story with us.

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.