The Lessons We Learn From Collaboration (Ep. 322)

Dr. Debrah Sickler-Voigt and Monica Leister join Tim today to discuss the many ways they have collaborated as art educators over the years. Their expertise and experiences can be educational for art teachers everywhere. Listen as they discuss building partnerships, stop-motion animation, and how collaboration benefits students and teachers alike. 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. I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

I am excited to welcome on two guests today, Dr. Debbie Sickler-Voigt and Monica Leister. Now, Debbie and Monica do a lot of great things together, and I’m just going to get out of the way and let them share those with you. I’m looking forward to hearing about some of their collaboration, some of the things they’ve done. They’ve put together some incredible stop motion animation videos with their students. They do such an excellent job of fostering collaboration, not only between themselves, but between the students they teach, between the groups of students from each respective side. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned there. I want to let them explain everything in their own words because they obviously can do it so much better than I can. We’ll bring them both on in just a second. I would recommend, however, that you grab something on which you can jot down some notes. Just a lot of expertise and a lot of knowledge coming today during this discussion.

All right. Debbie and Monica are both here with me now. Debbie, how are you?

Debbie: I’m great. I’m so happy to be with you today. Thank you for this opportunity.

Tim: Excellent. Monica, how are you doing?

Monica: Hi. I’m doing wonderful. Thank you.

Tim: Well, thank you both for coming on. I think there’s a lot that we can talk about. I think we have a good conversation ahead of us, but before we get to that, I would love to just start with some introductions. Can you both tell us just a little bit about who you are, where you teach, and I guess anything else that you might want to share?

Debbie: Sure. Hi, I’m Debbie Sickler-Voigt. I’m a professor of art education at Middle Tennessee State University. My background’s in teaching inner city schools in Miami, Florida. I’ve taken those experiences and really work towards helping teachers with their professional development. I’ve written in two books now, Teaching and Learning in Art Education, and the forthcoming one is STEAM Teaching and Learning Through the Arts and Design.

Tim: All right. Monica, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Monica: Hi, I’m Monica Leister. I have been teaching at the Tennessee School for the Blind for 24 years. I teach art education, orientation and mobility, which is teaching students how to travel independently with canes, and I also teach braille.

Tim: Oh, all right. It’s very interesting. Every time we have talked before this podcast, I’m always fascinated to just kind of find out what you do and hear more about your job. I’m hoping that more of that can make the way into our conversation today.

Like I said, there’s a lot to chat about. One thing that I was really impressed when I first found out about your work is all about how you two have been collaborating and how long it’s been going on. Can you tell us, I guess, just how you first connected and how your collaborations first began?

Monica: Certainly. We first connected around 2011. My school needed an art teacher, and so I went to MTSU to get my endorsement in art education. There, I met Dr. Sickler-Voigt and we had a lot of similar interests. We formed a partnership with her students and my students, where we would work together to create art projects. I was given permission by my principal to start this collaboration. Her students would come out to TSB to work with my elementary and middle school students. Then I would also get to take my high school students out to MTSU, which is very unique. I got to go to college for a day. We didn’t start out making stop motion animation, but eventually we did get into creating stop motion animation. I know Dr. Sickler-Voigt’s going to get into more of that shortly. But we fell in love with it. It’s just a unique medium and the students really enjoy it. I think we are just continuing to work with it and perfect it.

Tim: Nice.

Debbie: I have to say, I was so excited to meet Monica and get to know the work that you’re doing. Exactly what you were saying, Tim, just when you hear about what she does, it’s dynamic, it’s exciting. She’s someone to learn from. And for me, what was funny is that I had the experience of driving by and seeing the sign to Tennessee School for the Blind, that I was always interested in community art education. And so for me, that was interesting to say, “Oh, I’d love to have a partnership with them.” And then Monica appears at MTSU and that’s how we began.

Tim: Oh, that’s perfect. A little bit of serendipity there. So that’s really nice. Now Monica just mentioned the stop motion animation that you have your students do. I would love to hear more about that. Not only the lesson itself, like how you do stop motion, but also just the logistics of putting all of that together between the two of you. And I guess what some of the results and what some of the end products have been like for you.

Debbie: Sure. So the idea for a stop motion animation came from the artist collective The Tiny Circus, and they had done a lot of work with the public, with school children, creating stop motion animations, and one of their animations in particular elephant trap, it was created with the whole entire elementary school. And you could see how they used collage in the background. And we thought, “Well, that’s accessible to students with visual impairments.” And so we wanted to learn more about technologies like Monica was saying before. We had done different lessons like puppetry. We had one on medieval art and we wanted to take our project and continue to grow in a new direction. And so we figured, “Well, hey, let’s try this.” With that, we didn’t know what we were doing. And so we had to figure it out. So The Tiny Circus for us was just a really approachable entry point to getting started with it. And I’d like Monica just to build on how that’s developed and I’ll chime in a little bit more.

Monica: So we made three big or main stop motion animation projects over the course of the years that we’ve worked together, Be Good Beach, Arctic Blues, which is about polar bears trying to survive and keep their home in the Arctic. And then our latest one is Where Are The Bees? So it’s been a great experience along. Students love seeing their work, put together to make a short film. It’s magical to them. They’re already accustomed or to oriented seeing video games and interested in how they’re created, as well as animated films as well. So it was just natural to when we got in and started doing this, the kids really just fell in love with it every step of the way. And so I think it’s just, like I said, it’s magical for them to see all the work that they have done all put together to create these short films.

Debbie: And building on that sense of magic. That’s what it’s like going into Monica’s classroom, because she has all of these assistive technologies. And some of them are low tech, for example, drawing on tooling foil to have a raised surface so the children could feel. Or going to her classroom, I saw how she just had a simple screen and would have students put a piece of paper on top and draw with the crayon. So the crayon had the texture and then just seeing the artwork around your school and the kids are working in every media. Painting, glass. I mean, they’re just doing everything. And so that was something that was important to me with this partnership and learning how to create the stop motion animations is I wanted my students to be sponges going in there.

And Monica’s such a wonderful host because we go in and we’re going through stuff, we’re touching it, and she lets us learn from that. And so over the years we’ve taken pictures, we’ve documented everything. So we have this visual database of how our projects have evolved. And so we have to start earlier in the spring semester, because my spring practicum class is on Monday, Wednesdays in the morning. So we do that in the spring and we have to start with her early. Once the semester kicks off, I teach my students about the characteristics of students with special needs. We learn about technologies, assistive technologies, accommodations. And so having that visual database helps. And then the students go to her campus with resources in hand that they’ve built like sensory boxes or working with the apps such as seeing AI, that narrates information to students. So that’s been really helpful is having that planning and knowing how to do that planning upfront from experience.

And then we go in and one thing, and Monica could build on this, is the first day the art education majors, they’re nervous because they’ve never done this. There’s a little bit of fear of, and Monica hears this all the time. “How do you teach art? It’s art, to students who are blind or low vision?” And so there’s that natural fear because they want to do well. And they’re also going into an unknown space, somebody else’s classroom. And so for us, it’s really exciting to see that growth from the first time when they’re together to that fourth lesson where it’s just so natural and they’re like, oh, they’re kids and oh look what we’ve created. And so I know Monica could build on that. It’s really exciting.

Monica: Yeah. It is amazing for them to come out and work with the students and to be with the students every step of the way in creating the stop motion projects. One of the things I keep mentioning is the voiceovers and creating sound effects and that is something that they really enjoy doing together. And I think that’s part of what makes it very magical is putting those sounds together with the animation. And then also with the filming. I have some students who have little to no vision. And so we pair those students up with students who do have functional vision and also with the college pre-service art teachers and they’re able to do filming. And I think it really gives the kids a sense of ownership, a sense of pride. Like I said, it’s just a nice harmonious collaboration.

Tim: That sounds spectacular. Sounds like an incredible collaboration. And I guess I want to, I want to dive in a little bit more to that idea and you know, Debbie, I know you talked about this a little bit, but you know, I think there are a lot of lessons in what you two are doing about how we can build partnerships, how we can develop as teachers support those pre-service teachers, how we can work with other people in our profession. But for those pre-service teachers, for student teachers, whoever’s involved in these collaborations, can you talk a little bit more about specifically, what kind of lessons they’re learning as they do this? What are they able to take from these opportunities?

Debbie: Absolutely. And that’s important to give them these experiences at the pre-service level. And if some of your audience don’t have that, know we could always work towards them and gain them, but it is helpful for students learning this as they’re studying to be teachers. So one of the first things, two main things I would start with is number one, getting them exposed to community partnerships is so important because you see the benefits and the joys of them. It is more prep work at the beginning, but it’s so rewarding. And just like Monica was talking about her students, the pre-service teachers walk away feeling a sense of accomplishment. We’ve been exhibiting our work with the International Children’s Exhibition of Fine Arts Leditza which is in the Czech Republic, which is an international children’s exhibition that receives artworks from about 82 different countries. It’s a highly competitive organization built on teaching themes of global issues children can understand in peace.

And so when our pre-service teachers work on this and then they see that they get this international honorable mention at the pre-service level for their teaching, for their participation, that’s something that I think is addictive and exciting. So knowing how to start those partnerships. And I also tell them, be prepared to hear no. Sometimes we have a great idea or we want to partner with somebody, but maybe that person isn’t interested. That’s okay. Move forward. There’s going to be someone out there and you’re going to find that right fit. So it doesn’t hurt to ask it doesn’t hurt to put yourself out there.

Another thing that’s really important to me is I personally did not feel prepared to work with students with special needs when I first started teaching. I remember being a little bit frightened at my school. We were told, “Oh, the next year we’re going to have a class, and it’s a total class with all students, low functioning, special needs.” And so I was like, “Wow, how am I going to do this?” Because I want to do my best job for the kids. And then just like our pre-service teachers see, once you’re in it’s like, “Oh, these are the kids. We know them. It’s fine.” But I don’t want them to be in their professions feeling like that. I’d rather have them do that before going out and then knowing, okay, you can do this. Learning the accommodations, moving away from ableism, which are just natural, sometimes not meant to be hurtful, but natural assumptions of what people can do. And I know my students walk away saying, “Oh, look what they did,” or “They’re kids,” and knowing what they can achieve.

Another thing I would add to this is grant writing. So working with stop motion animation, it can get costly if you don’t have the equipment. So one of the things that we do in the class is I teach them how to write grants. They learn about the cost of materials when we purchase them. We talk about cost effective options. For example, if they don’t have a class set of iPads at their school, do they have their own, do they have a phone, can a student bring their own device? So that helps.

And then I would just add, be prepared for the unexpected. Because whenever you go into a community partnership, as organized and prepared as you plan to be, you never know. And we can give the example of the COVID pandemic. Here for years, we’ve been going to each other’s campuses and have our normal routine. We didn’t let COVID stop us. Ms. Leister and I just did an art exchange in a parking lot. Like, “Here are the kids’ works. Here are what mine are doing,” and used Zoom and text messaging and Google Drive just to share everything because we were going to keep going and we definitely prefer to be together, but preparing for the unexpected, just keep that vision and that goal in your heart to make it happen.

Monica: Yeah.

Tim: Yep. That’s awesome. I think that’s some excellent advice. And I also wanted to ask, we have all of this advice for pre-service teachers or honestly, that’s good advice for every teacher, but I’m curious about benefits for students as well. We know that our students are going to benefit when teachers are collaborating with each other and working together and just getting better at what we do. So I guess like within your collaborations, what types of benefits have you seen for these students that are in the art room?

Monica: Well, so I think first and foremost with is creating an amazing project and that they are proud and can show off to others. And it’s something that they get to work together as a team to create that has this amazing end result. Second is learning to work together as a team and being a part of the process and filling a sense of accomplishment. We have students who range from being just visually impaired, like having a no vision to having very functional vision, to students who are hearing impaired and visually impaired to students who have multiple disabilities. And so every student has been a part of the process and having the student, the student teachers there, the pre service art teachers there working alongside of the students, working one on one with them, gives it really allows a student to, I guess, blossom and be able to have that time and be able to create things.

They get to experiment along the way and see what works. And they’re introduced to fresh ideas that maybe I may not always have the time to do, so it’s really nice that they have that opportunity to work one on one with, with a pre service teacher. Just being able for the students, the high school students at my school, being able to go out to a college or to a university and work alongside of pre service art teachers in a college classroom creating, filming, editing, whatnot has been, I think something very memorable for my students and something that they have really enjoyed doing. And I think that’s something that they’ll probably keep with them for most of their life at that memory of going out to a college, whether they plan to go to college or not. I think it’s a very unique opportunity.

Tim: Yeah. I think so. I think that’s awesome. Debbie, did you want to add something?

Debbie: Yes. I just wanted to say, I want to talk about all the extra effort that Monica puts into making this happen. One thing she didn’t tell you is sometimes she drives the students herself. And so early in the morning, it’s over an hour drive, getting a parking permit on campus, getting the permissions from her school. And so she makes these experiences happen for her students. She goes above and beyond, and that’s where we are so grateful that she does this so that all of our students have this opportunity.

Tim: Yeah. That’s awesome. So kudos to you, Monica. That’s really cool.

Monica: Oh, thank you.

Tim: Just to, I guess, wrap things up for everybody. Last question here. Just, do you have any words of advice for people listening to this conversation? You know, maybe about collaboration, professional development, how they can teach themselves or how they can explore new things as teachers? Like what would you say to people who might be interested in any of those ideas?

Monica: Well, I have to say as a teacher at a residential school, or if you were in a public school, if you have a university or college close by that has an art education program, I would certainly, I recommend reaching out to them, just I think a lot of times in art, I know in my school, I’m the only art teacher. And so I can feel somewhat isolated and it’s nice to have to reach out to other professionals to get fresh ideas. And who knows, you might even form a partnership and start collaborating. And then as far as professional development, I think that’s certainly a must to go and get fresh ideas to form connections and who knows, eventually to form partnerships.

Debbie: And I would just add it’s okay. Not to know all the answers going in. That’s part of the process and embrace it. And that could be, you may not know how to work with a certain student population or in our case, we didn’t know how to do stop motion animations. We also didn’t know green screen and we added that. So we’re continuing to build, or in my case, learning some of the assistive technologies that comes much more natural to Monica working at her school. And so I learned so much from her, but I can say it’s been great doing research on this, seeing what’s out there beyond traditional professional developments, going to users with special needs, who are talking about the latest assistive technologies. That’s been something that is so helpful. You could find YouTube videos, blogs, websites that give up to date, current information.

Ask for help from knowledgeable partners. Like I say, Monica knows so much more in regards to working with students with visual impairments, she’s the expert. And so being able to go and talk to her and seeing how welcoming she is to students who have questions themselves who want to do their best is very helpful. Do your research. Get a general idea of what you’d like to achieve? Let go of assumptions and know, like in our case, our collaborations have gotten better over time, our results, our outcome have gotten better. And so if you could just continue to challenge yourself, challenge your students and say, “Hmm, what if?” and it’s okay to make mistakes and not be perfect at it. And then ultimately Monica and I both feel this way, it’s so important to us to provide our students with quality learning experiences, memorable learning experiences. And that’s something that we strive for which each collaboration that we do.

Tim: Yeah. Wow. That’s awesome. So much amazing advice. So thank you both for, for all of that. I really appreciated all of this conversation and I’m really looking forward to everyone being able to hear from you at the Now Conference next month. So I think that’s going to be amazing. So thank you both for your time. Thank you for the conversation. It has been great having you join me.

Debbie: Thanks so much. We appreciate it.

Monica: Thank you.

Tim: So many great points and great ideas from Debbie and Monica. Now I want to share just a few tidbits, I guess, a few takeaways that I wrote down while I was listening to what they had to say. Number one. It’s okay to not know all the answers and it is something that I’ve talked about a lot. It’s something that was a huge shortcoming of mine when I first started teaching. And I think if we can accept that, we don’t have to know everything. We don’t have to be the experts all the time. Hey, that’s going to help. When we are collaborating, that’s going to especially help when we are trying to do something new. So as you are exploring new ideas, as you’re trying to do new things I would just recommend keeping that in the back of your mind. It is okay to not know all of the answers.

Second takeaway, sorry, community connections are so important. And there are so many rewards that come with making those connections for teachers and especially for students. I think when you can create a community and again, this is something that I talk about a lot on this podcast, it has great benefits for your students. Belonging, being part of a team, accomplishing something together. That is a great feeling for all involved. And number three, just kind of on a related note, reach out and make those connections. Just like Debbie and Monica found each other, you can try to find someone in your school or in your district or in your community that you might be able to connect with and collaborate with. And if you can get that going, you can learn a lot and your kids can learn a lot as well. And that’s another idea that’s worth exploring.

And then finally the final takeaway is just to be prepared for the unexpected. Obviously we’ve done a ton of that over the last few years, but thinking about the upcoming year, thinking about moving forward, thinking about exploring new things, trying new ideas you don’t know what’s going to be coming and just kind of keep in mind that we’re all learning. We’re not all experts. We’re trying to collaborate. We’re trying to foster community. We’re trying to foster an environment that is beneficial to our kids. You never know what’s going to come of that, especially if you’re trying something new. So give yourself grace, give others grace as you’re exploring new things. And I think that will be very beneficial for you. And thank you again to Debbie and Monica for sharing what they do and sharing their expertise.

So if you want to hear more from them, we’ll link to Debbie’s book, we’ll link to where you can see some of the stop motion creations that they talked about. And of course you can come to the NOW Conference in July, Debbie and Monica will have a presentation in the Afterpass and the Afterpass is the asynchronous learning day on Friday, July 29th. And that presentation is all about collaboration and the projects they’ve done together. And in that presentation, there’s going to be so much great advice for how teachers can take the lessons that Debbie and Monica have learned and do similar things in their own classroom. And presentation is called Designing Community Partnerships, Using Media Arts And Assistive Technologies. And like I said, it’ll be part of the Now Conference at the end of July. You can learn more about that conference on the AOEU website. And I really hope that we will see you there.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art Of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you for listening. And we’ll talk to 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.