Taking Risks in the Art Room (Ep. 108)

Assessment is something that rarely comes easy, but it can come a little easier when you’re willing to try something new. In today’s episode, Nic talks to elementary teacher Catie Nasser about all the amazing things she does in her classroom. Listen as they discuss the importance of new experiences, artistic innovation, and why we need to take chances as teachers. Full episode transcript below.

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Nic: At nationals in Boston, the NAEA, National Art Education convention. This last year in 2019 I was at a session learning about technology and I was sitting next to one of my besties, Mr. Don Masse. We were trying to learn this new technology pixel app and this woman came and sat beside us. She looked at me and she said, “Are you Nic Hahn?” I said, yeah. She goes, “I’m Catie Nasser and I follow you and I actually did the paper quilt lesson that you did this last year.” I looked at Don and I said, “Well actually that’s not my lesson, that’s Don’s here.” She said, “Actually, I know that.” Here it was, the three of us were sitting around talking about a lesson that all three of us did because of sharing.

Well, because of that conversation with Catie I did follow her previously, but I started paying a little closer attention, and what I saw was incredible. I learned that Catie Nasser is an amazing educator and risk-taker. That is what she’s going to talk to us on Everyday Art Room today. This is Nic Hahn and this is Everyday Art Room.

All right, we have Catie Nasser here today. I’m really excited to chat with you because we are going to be talking about risks and taking risks as teachers. But Catie, first let’s just get a little bit of information from you. Who are you? Where do you work? What’s your educational background?

Catie: Okay, well thank you. I am an art teacher and an art therapist. I’ve been juggling both of those roles for most of my career. I’m currently, this is my 11th year working in Middleton, Massachusetts. I work in two elementary schools there as their full time art teacher. It’s just north of Boston, so a Boston suburb. For a lot of that time I had been a part-time school counselor and art teacher. Then about two years ago I was given the opportunity to become the full time art teacher, which I never thought would happen there, just the way that people were working there and the roles were divided, so I took it. Part of that job was teaching what you think of as your traditional elementary art classes, which I’ve been doing and super fun. The other part is they wanted me to develop what they were calling like Art 2.0, which really didn’t know what that meant. They said they wanted some kind of new innovative art class. Well, art is always innovative, but okay.

Here I am, I’m moving to full time. I had to travel between two schools, K to six, already juggling two classrooms, and okay I have to develop this class, like what’s this going to be. I remember thinking ugh, what am I going to do, what is art 2.0. I decided that I was just going to embrace it. I gave it a fun title to make me more excited about it. I call it Artovation. Then it’s been this class that kind of integrates project based learning, and STEAM, and tech integration. Some years it’s only one section, some years it’s two, but it’s been super fun.

It ended up what I thought was going to be, not a curse, but maybe almost a curse was actually really a gift. It has really reinvigorated my teaching and how I want to teach, and it has bled out into my other classes that I would’ve thought would be more traditional. I feel like I’m trying new things in those classes and bringing tech integration into kindergarten, which I think I never would have done five years ago. It actually has been a really amazing thing.

Nic: Oh, I love the outlook that you have on that. That is … So often we do get a schedule that we’re like, we look at it and we’re like how in the world am I going to make this work. Just the way that you took that and switched it around in your brain, but then also physically and how you let it lead you in other directions.

This whole podcast is about taking risks as educators. Would you categorize yourself as a risk-taker? Then I’m going to ask a second question right away. I follow you on social media all the time. I love what you do. It seems like you are very practiced at taking risks in your life right now. What are some of the things that have caused you to take risks? It sounds like you kind of hit on that a little bit.

Catie: Yeah, I mean I think risk-taking has looked different ways for me, like throughout my life. As a child, I was always willing to try things. I don’t think I really thought, like what’s going to happen if I fail at it, which did happen, but I always gave it a shot. I tried out for endless drama club plays in junior high and high school. Sometimes I would get in, and sometimes I wouldn’t. You know, that would be hard and it was scary, but I think every time I got up there and kept trying I would take something away or learn something new so that as I kept doing it became a little less scary. That’s I think, like I said, I was always willing to see something that maybe seemed like it could be kind of fun and interesting and give it a shot.

I moved to Seattle as a young adult not knowing anybody. I think that was an example of a risk that I took at that time. I definitely think it’s always been a little bit of a part of who I am. I don’t know that I thought about it as risk-taking at the time. It was just like, I’m going to give this a try and see what happens. That kind of I think has now influenced what I do because as a teacher I definitely am really willing to just give things a try and kind of see what happens. I hope I’m modeling that for my students.

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. Do you find yourself talking to your students about that too? Like, I’ve never done this before and here we are. We’re going to give this a shot.

Catie: Oh sure. I think I tell them too, like when we introduce something new, it’s okay to be scared about this, like you might fail. I just put that out there. Sometimes we talk about well what will it look like to fail, and what will you get from that. But I think you need to put it out there and let them know that that’s a possibility and that’s okay because we’re going to work from that and pick up the pieces and then we’re going to try to be successful with it.

Nic: In what ways as a teacher have you taken risks, like specific lessons or ideas that really stretched yourself, Catie? What are some ways that you’ve done this in your educational practice?

Catie: Sure. I think in a very general way, and then I’ll talk more specifically, but in a really general way I’m not afraid to try a new material with students that I haven’t done before. For example, my very first job as an art teacher I was a longterm sub. It was the end of the school year. There were six weeks left. They hadn’t done clay yet. It was middle school. The teacher was going out on maternity leave, had her baby. I came in and I mean she’d showed me what they were doing, but I am not very skilled with ceramics. I really had not done a lot of clay at all. I had to jump into it. I think that’s how I bring risks, how I had brought risks into the classroom, giving kids new materials, again, that that I wasn’t so sure of.

But I think now, and this is another thing that came along with the artovation class that I talked about, it looks different now. I’m still bringing in new materials, but those materials might be more out of the box things that definitely the students haven’t used and I’m not really that comfortable with either, like new technologies, or some kind of new electric material, electronic material. Something like that I’m much more willing to bring in now.

Nic: I love that you’re bringing that up though. I mean that’s what I see on your social media. If you are not following Catie Nasser on Instagram or … Do you have Instagram? I’m sorry, I’m not-

Catie: Yeah, both Instagram and Twitter.

Nic: I follow you mostly on Twitter.

Catie: Yup.

Nic: You have to because did you just hear, she said oh you know I explored with ceramics, but then she also said and electricity and technology. I mean that’s why I’m so glad to have you on today. Do you want to speak about any other specific lessons?

Catie: Sure. I think, well you had asked about like in the past I think a big project that was maybe a stretch. I think that’s what you said.

Nic: Yeah.

Catie: I think, this is two years ago, part of this artovation class too where I tried to bring in some math integrated with my art. I had been seeing a lot of these string art pieces and had seen, I think it was developed by a librarian in the Midwest, but I don’t know unfortunately the name of who was posting about it, but had done this giant string art installation in the yard of the school, or outside the library. I thought that is so cool. I want to do that. I brought that into my fourth-grade artovation class. We had six sections of fourth-graders, so there were about 20 kids per section. We created this giant string art installation.

It was really, they each did a small one first so that they kind of learned about string art and learned about how geometry is a part of it and all the different components of creating these geometric-inspired designs. But then we took that and had to create this big project as a whole grade level, which is hard because we’re not all out there at the same time. It’s a special, it’s a six-day rotating schedule. We voted on what kind of design that we would like to do. We went out and measured the area. We kind of took surveillance of the area and tried to figure out where would be the best spot.

Then each class had a scheduled time to go out to, it was right outside the back doors of the school, had a chance to go out and start creating the string art. The first class went out and they had to start, the first two classes, the first two days were setting the grid and kind of creating, ours was a circular design, nailing in, hammering in, not even nailing, we had mallets out there hammering in large wooden stakes that were going to be the pegs for our string art in the ground. The second class we had to find the radius of the circle and find the center, and figure out all of those logistics, and then started stringing. We had to figure out how the kids were going to be stringing this large structure.

The first day was fine because there were no other strings in the structure yet, but as we kept going, I think we put four colors, so therefore overlaid colors, as we kept going kids are having to, it felt like Tom Cruise in that episode of Mission Impossible where he’s in those laser rays of light. That’s what I felt like. The kids were position in each of the different holes created by the strings and trying to pass each other the string to get it to the other side. It was like, it was a lot of logistical things that I don’t think I really realized until we were out there, like what that was going to be.

You can see on my website, which is Ms. Nasser’s Art Studio, you can see that project. But it was awesome and people loved it. The kids loved it. I had parents come. This was my first big whole school thing that I had ever done, and it was scary for sure, but people really I think got into it. I ended up having a whole school buy-in too where I had other grades voting on how much string they thought we used and had to estimate. That was in the main lobby. Not only were kids seeing it in the back when they went out to recess, but they were seeing reminders of it in the main lobby. It was just, it was this really big thing that just kind of grew and grew as we started working on it.

Nic: Oh wow.

Catie: Yeah. It was a big thing.

Nic: I’m imagining this. When you first started out I thought string art, oh yeah, I’ve seen that, but on a board, not what you’re describing. That is amazing. How do you choose what you’re going to take risks with? Do you have some exciting ones for this next year that you’re planning on giving a try?

Catie: Yeah, I think I choose, I don’t know if it’s a conscious choice, but I get inspiration for sure from Twitter and Instagram and different aspects of PLN. I see something and I’m like oh that’s really cool, I wonder if my students could do that. Then after mulling it over a little bit in my head I’m like okay, well let’s find out. I take an idea that I see and I’m just going to kind of go for it.

I do have some fun things coming up this year. One project, well I’m bringing, I’ve been learning about project-based learning and really diving into that this year. My district offered a course in that taught by the Buck Institute, which was really great. So I’m developing a project with the kindergarten teacher on using pattern, finding pattern and using pattern in architecture.

It’s related, it’s going to be related to the town is building a new community kind of complex where there’s going to be the fire department, I think the senior center is going to be there, the town hall, some big community branches of offices. We are going to design buildings that use pattern and we’re going to take examples that we see in the community that exist already and try to apply that to ideas that we might offer to this community center that’s being built. It’s not necessarily that the center will take their ideas and use them, but I think more that they get to be part of this process of discovery and learning that’s going to go on as these structures are being built in their town. That’s one thing, on a kindergarten level.

Nic: Kindergarten, oh my gosh. I was imagining like oh your fifth graders will do a really … Kindergarten, that’s awesome. I can’t wait to see that.

Catie: Yeah. It’s going to be obviously a different format than I would, something I’ll tell you about that I want to do with fifth grade, but I think it’s going to be fun and adorable and I think they’re going to be excited about it.

Nic: Sure.

Catie: Fifth grade, I have, I went to an amazing session at the National Art Conference in Boston this year taught by Landa Ruen. She’s an art teacher, I think high school level in the Boston area. She taught about the Museum of Tolerance I think in London. There was this exhibit called A Mile in My Shoes that was meant to teach people compassion about others through the shoes. I think you could actually put on somebody’s shoe and have this experience, interactive experience, by wearing their shoes, or kind of feeling that piece of them.

Nic: Sure. Okay.

Catie: I have been getting a little bit into augmented reality too. Very basic, I’m like a total newbie. I really don’t know what I’m doing. But, I want my fifth graders to learn about somebody through their shoes, kind of like an object-based portrait. My goal is that they will create a portrait of somebody through shoes. Then using augmented reality to actually be able to see those shoes on their feet, or your feet, so that you could actually envision yourself wearing them.

Nic: Oh my gosh!

Catie: Then there will be a speaking component to it where they will talk about the person that they created the portrait about. Again, this is like a total dream. This is an example of some crazy idea that I have that I’m not really sure that it’s going to work out and I need to learn the logistics. If you’re listening and you are an AR expert, please reach out to me. That would be amazing.

Nic: Yeah.

Catie: I could use some tips. But, I think it could be really cool if, I just think it could be a great experience and that they really would buy into it and like this idea. I think shoe portraits are a little less scary than people portraits or more figurative self-portraits. I think that I’ll touch a lot of learners that way. I hope I will.

Nic: Yeah. Wow. I love the way your brain works Catie. We are wrapping up here, but I want to just, I have a couple of, I have lots, lots more questions. But specifically, I want to know who or where you get your inspiration from? Then also what kind of support do you have? What’s around you that’s making all of this possible for you?

Catie: Yeah. I mentioned social media. I get a lot of inspiration from there. I’ve also recently in the past couple of years have been attending conferences and have realized that’s such an important thing to do. I’ve been taking a lot away from, obviously the national conference, my state conference, but also I’ve been attending and presenting at Mass CUE, which is a conference, computer using educators. It’s not a traditional art ed conference, but I have been going and really taking a lot from that that I’m excited to start using in my classroom. I think a lot of my inspiration comes from those areas.

Catie: Then also other teachers in my school, which kind of answers your question about who supports me. I think it’s really important to find that person or those team of people at your school that have your same creative outlook. I’m the only art teacher at one of my schools. At my other one, there’s one other one and she’s only part-time. A lot of us, we are the only people, so we are kind of working in isolation, but that doesn’t mean that other teachers are not doing really creative, innovative things.

A lot of innovators talk about finding your ally or your accountability partner, and I think that’s what I have been really working hard to find. I have that person at my school. Her name is Barbara [Dealy 00:20:22]. She is amazing and does amazing things. She’s also willing and crazy and will try anything too. For example, two years ago we I think had been following a lot of similar people and we started seeing on Twitter people posting about STEAM carnivals. We would share them with each other, like private message them to each other. I think I saw her in the hall and I was like would it be crazy to have a STEAM carnival at our school. She was like, no, I was thinking the same thing.

Nic: Oh, awesome.

Catie: That’s kind of like how we work. She totally, I don’t know if she knows it but I’ll tell her now, Barbara you are my accountability partner. Our first year we ran our STEAM carnival on a $200 budget, super cheap. I had no idea if people would come. I remember the night of, it was getting ready to start, I think it started at like 5:30 and I was like, okay if 10 kids come that’ll be okay.

Nic: Yeah, it’s a win.

Catie: It won’t be great, but it’ll be okay. I think we had close to 300 people, not families but counting everybody. But still, it was incredible. I had no idea we were going to have that kind of turnout.

Nic: Wow!

Catie: That was two years ago. Then this year we did it again and it was even better and bigger. It came from her being willing to say, yeah that sounds crazy, but I will try that with you. Those people are everywhere. Those people are at your schools, or maybe another place, maybe another social connection that you have that might just be willing to help you brainstorm and push you. I think finding those is really important to taking risks and doing crazy creative things.

Nic: But I like that you say that because so often we come up with excuses of why we can’t be more creative or why we can’t do A, B and C. But you’re saying even if you’re lonely in your building, you’re the only art teacher, to still find your tribe within your area, surrounding who you are and where you are. Right?

Catie: Yeah, for sure.

Nic: Okay. What other … I love that. Thank you so much for bringing that up, but what other things do you want our listeners to just take away from this conversation about risk-taking?

Catie: Yeah. I mean I think with that being said, everything I’ve said, I want to say that I recognize that I’m in a really lucky position. I teach in a district and a community that values innovation. They value creativity. We have resources. I have admin that I’ll give them an idea and they’re like, sure, let’s try it. I know that does not exist everywhere.

Nic: Right.

Catie: But I think taking risks doesn’t have to be so big, so grandiose. It could just be something small that you could do on a smaller scale, like doing a material that you don’t know how to use that well and giving it a try. I think that can be just as amazing and creative and incredible. Adam Welcome, he’s, an author, he wrote Kids Deserve It, amongst other books that we read as part of a social, not a social, what am I trying to say, a school, a staff meeting, a staff group collaborative.

Nic: Oh yeah. A book club or whatever for your professional development.

Catie: A book club, yeah. He has two really amazing things he says about getting people to try new things and be innovative. One thing that I love is that he says you may have been teaching for 12 years, but don’t teach the same 12 years twice. Every year, it’s so important to switch things up. I think it makes you more excited about what you’re teaching. Even if it’s different on a small scale, different lessons, or decorating your room in a different way, or trying a new system or logistical thing that’ll work in your class. I think for me, the artovation class totally reinvigorated who I was as a teacher. I’m definitely not teaching the same year however many. This is my 11th year. I have not taught the same year 11 times because of that for sure.

The other thing he says, and this really resonated with me last year, he actually, we had a Skype session with him at one of our staff meetings. He says, the time is now. Don’t wait to make changes. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Kids will not remember if you messed up showing them how to print make, or how to do coding, or something like that. They won’t remember that. They’ll remember that their teacher gave them this really incredible opportunity to do something amazing. I think that for me really keyed in that, okay, I just need to try these things because they’re going to be excited about it and it’s okay if it doesn’t work out. You have to give yourself permission to fail just like you’re giving your kids permission to fail.

Nic: Yeah. Right. Yeah, you’re right. That is a message that we give our kids all the time, right. You learn from your failures and take risks.

Catie: For sure.

Nic: It’s important to have it in our own practice, right.

Catie: Yup. Miss Frizzle, my other favorite person, I’ve been watching a lot of Magic School Bus this summer with a five-year-old. Miss Frizzle, she always says, she says, “take chances, make mistakes, get dirty.” I think that’s what we need to do. That’s going to be my class motto this year.

Nic: You need a T-shirt for it that’s for sure. Catie, I can’t thank you enough for joining us today. You had so many tips and tricks and just, and more so inspiration. Thank you so much for joining us.

Catie: Thank you for having me. It’s been really my pleasure.

Nic: Okay, no excuses guys. You heard Catie, take a risk. I love that she gave us permission to take a risk, make mistakes. She gave some examples that she had done in the past. But what I really like about her final message was that your risk doesn’t have to be at the same level as someone else’s. Figure out what you’re scared of, what you haven’t tried in your classroom, a medium or a process. Figure that out and then take it on. Go ahead, challenge yourself. Allow your students to see you challenge yourself. Bring them into the fact that you’re trying something new and there might be mistakes. Have them be part of that conversation and be a role model for them. Great message from Catie Nasser.

If you want to hear more about her, please go ahead and check on the notes here on the podcast. You’re going to find her website and some of the people that she talked about throughout the podcast. Just know that this is not the only podcast that the Art of Education has. I would encourage you to visit the podcast by Tim Bogatz. He is the host for Art Ed Radio. He has a lot more experience than me. He has a lot of interviews. I highly recommend if you enjoyed what you just heard today, learning from another educator other than just me talking all the time, go ahead and check out what Bogatz is doing over there on Art Ed Radio because it is pretty sweet. I’ll see you next time with a new episode of Everyday Art Room.

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.