Welcome to our blog that features stories and musings from the people who do the real heavy lifting at PAA … our Artist-Educators.

We hope you enjoy learning  about the work our professional artists provide in our partner schools and community spaces where our programs happen.

Please share posts you especially enjoy!


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Building a Biome From Scratch

Watching students become more confident and willing to take risks made this a very memorable experience. The 2017 spring semester was the start of my PAA journey and began with a residency in Mrs. Reynolds’ 7th grade class at Michael R. White STEM School. The goal was to reinforce knowledge of abiotic and biotic factors of an ecosystem. To a 7th grader I’m sure this sounded about as much fun as watching paint dry. To make this much more engaging, and utilize 21st century skills, we decided that they would create their own animated biome presentation using Scratch. None of the students had ever used Scratch before. They had to learn the interface and the visual scripting all while presenting accurate, standards based information to their audience. This would be challenging, and they knew it. They were very rambunctious and filled with nervous energy when the project began.

One student in particular sticks out in my mind. Let’s just say he was not the most cooperative. Initially, he was often cracking jokes, having side conversations, and generally just fooling around. He seemed to have little interest in the project. However, by the last few sessions he was leading his peers in various techniques and code application. At our final session, he was visibly upset when reminded that it was our last day together. In a weak voice he asked, “So we are never going to see you again?” I told him that I would be around the school and that he could always go online and use Scratch on his own. He then told me that he wanted to start making Scratch games and be an artist.

The transformative power of successful experiences never ceases to amaze.


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Landforms, Relief Sculptures, and Topographic Maps

Say “topographic map” to a 4th grader and see what their definition is. Of course, this would be after the incredulous and bewildered look you’d probably receive, but I digress.

Topography is a difficult concept to explain without visual aids; paper drawings, foam models, and computer images were imperative for helping these students understand the breakdown of height and depth for their relief sculptures. The fourth grade at Michael R. White explored color, gradient, and three-dimensional surface application throughout this project. This gave the students a full sensory experience of their landforms in an effort to make this abstract concept more concrete.

The students were assigned landforms and  researched them using Google Earth. They created two-dimensional paper models, which were individually scanned into a computer and laser cut out of foam. I challenged the 4th grade by asking if we could use color to help people understand our topographic maps. They responded by painting each piece a slightly lighter or darker shade of one color to create a gradient. The gradient demonstrated where the sunlight would hit the top of their island or mountain thus communicating the height of their landform. The results were absolutely stunning, and the students were thrilled to put together their sculptures. We put papier-mache over part of landforms to show the surface. This allowed the students to see both the gradient layers beneath as well as the Earth’s surface on their landform.

Seeing the sculptures all together created a visual map of relief sculptures which showcased each students’ favorite part of the project. Some were carefully painted to demonstrate light and darkness on the papier-mache as well as the gradient. Others were delicately drawn out and researched with some exactly papier-mache’d to show the curvature of the surface. Each sculpture was incredibly unique with great variation in both color choice and form. In the future, perhaps the sculptures would stop at the gradient to show the full topographic map. This is the only change I would consider making to this project.

Overall, this experience was incredibly successful for the 4th graders at Michael R. White.

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Moving Connections: My Work at Michael R. White

Positive classroom experiences are the foundation for creating a passion and love of learning for both students and teachers.

As a dance educator I often have some explaining to do when I begin a residency.  Since most teachers have only had experiences with visual artists, they often wonder how PAA could use dance as a means to teach science. Teachers are also often curious about motivating students to dance and how they make up their own movements. The reactions are mixed  at times ranging from “Ok, sounds fine”, to “Wow, this is exciting.” Working at Michael R. White elementary school for the first time and also working with a new and condensed schedule, my task was to integrate the standards with dance and movement in five sessions.

Working with young children can sometimes be like herding cats, but it gets easier once you get to know your dancers. I use modern technique and creative movement games as my main methods of instruction and attempt to relate them as closely to their studies as possible. One group  I worked with focused on different habitats and their respective inhabitants.


In one instance we used swinging motion to connect with the movement of an elephant’s trunk. Swinging their arms freely and lively as if they were in the savannah themselves, the kids seemed to grasp the movement concept right away. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they’re getting the idea until much later in the residency, but this time it became readily apparent that they were obviously expert elephants and I had delightfully underestimated their pachyderm prowess. I just loved their eventual observations too. When I asked the class what their favorite movement was one boy eagerly remembered the swinging motion and shared that  doing it slowly made him feel like an elephant’s trunk in the savannah.  This particular boy doesn’t answer many questions in the classroom and is often out of his seat. I could tell by the way he explained his answer, the enthusiasm that he conveyed though his gestures and facial expression, that he really got the movement concept we were striving for. I think dancing and movement helped calm his mind and made him better able to connect with the material. That’s the kind of success I look for, and I couldn’t stop smiling.


Another group of students I worked with was the kindergarteners, and we danced about the features of the seasons. Talk about adorable! When we began they couldn’t stand in straight lines much less relate what science standard we were focusing on. By the fifth class though the vast majority knew all of the seasons and had learned new routines and movements. More importantly, the classroom teacher felt that dancing was a memorable experience for them, and it provided success for certain students who often struggled.


My favorite moments during residencies are the interactions that spark both personal and intellectual connection. The students love when the teachers join us in the circle to warm up or play our improvisation games. Watching students grasp concepts and demonstrate understanding through abstract interaction is invigorating. Students choreographing and being so excited that they want to teach their peers brings a true sense of joy to my heart.


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Revisiting the Illustrative Sculpture: The Water Cycle

img_7496 Doing this project with Mound 2nd grade was an incredibly unique experience this past semester. The grade was split up into boys and girls; the girls worked on a modern dance routine with PAA artist Amy Notley, while I worked with the boys to create illustrative sculptures that showcased the water cycle. I have made these sculptures with previous classes, and each time I find that I am able to slightly hone the project to fit each individual class.img_7438

For this specific group, we focused on medium and material exploration. The students used watercolor as their primary medium, adding elements such as tissue paper, salt, and oil pastel to their watercolor illustrations. The first session was spent creating paintings that illustrated different parts of the water cycle on paper, to familiarize themselves with the mediums. They would later use these mediums on small rectangular wooden pieces, that would fit into their sculpture to show the four parts of the water cycle. As a class, we wrote a story to go with our illustrations. What is condensation? What symbols could we use to show this? What is a symbol? These questions were discussed, and different symbols for precipitation, condensation, evaporation, and accumulation were discussed and drawn out as a class.


For me as the instructor, the most exciting part of this particular residency was putting together the wooden pieces that would be our sculptures with the class. The students loved learning about and using all of the hardware such as bolts and screws; their favorite part was using the sandpaper, to help all of their pieces successfully fit together. Some of the pieces were better cut by the laser cutter than others, which made the sandpaper necessary. Students were helping each other sand their rectangles and fit them together, through a trial and error process. This required them to work together, help each other, and sand the pieces just right so that their sculptures worked correctly. This is the STEM process in its essence, working with the elements of art to create interactive, illustrative sculptures. As a result of this work and participation, almost every student had a complete project finished by the end of the residency. Each sculpture illustrated by the students, using the various mediums to create a dynamic and educational viewing experience. The boys were able to communicate their ideas successfully, both individually and as a class.

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Focus on Material and Medium: Stop Motion Animations

I have done many residencies exploring stop motion animation, and this past semester I decided to bring the focus back to the materials more than ever. Michael R. White 5th and 6th grades both made stop motion animations reflecting different subject matters. The 5th grade focused on the earth’s movement around the sun, while the 6th grade explored principles of rocks and minerals. The different subjects heavily influenced choices of material. 6th graders primarily used rocks and jewell pieces to make patterns, whereas 5th grade focused much more on clay, paper, and foam to create their universes.

The magic students can create with stop motion can be seen in their videos below. The first day of filming is always the most exciting, as viewing and creating these animations is a very different experience. One group of 6th graders became so engrossed in the filming process that they ended up making several videos, featuring their own clay characters, in addition to their rocks and minerals film. Taking pictures to create a video allowed the students to experience movement differently than a traditional filming process.

As the 6th grade was a bit more advanced with their projects, I introduced a different form of animation to the class: Scratch animation, through the offline editor. I was very curious as to which form of creating the class preferred, stop motion(which requires teamwork and creating with your hands) versus Scratch(which is more of a solo experience animating on the computer). Most students preferred the stop motion format, and this will be my primary focus in the future for this age group.

As stop motion does allow students to work together and make creative decisions both individually and as a team, it allows students who usually don’t have to confidence in their artistic skills to showcase them. Watch the videos below, and I’m sure you will be floored by some of the simple material and editing decisions made by these creative artists.

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Illuminated Artist Books: Robots

After laying down seemingly miles of copper tape–practicing complicated bends and turns–the fourth graders at Hannah Gibbons were ready to see if their skills could be applied to complete circuits and illuminate tiny LED lights. They masterfully wired a simple circuit, and celebrated 100% success as a class on their first try, each of them rewarded with the soft glow of a single LED light. Eager to master multiple lights, they dove into their parallel circuits with equal success and much enthusiasm.

Robot creative writing template and parallel circuit planning sheet.

Robot creative writing template and parallel circuit planning sheet.

Next up, we’d really investigate the line as well as our understanding of circuits. [Remember our Essential Questions regarding the line in this semester’s artist book residencies incorporating circuits and LED lights] Students each created a unique drawing of a robot that they invented through a creative writing exercise. With their completed drawings, students identified several areas where lights could enhance their robot illustrations; think eyes, antennas, hearts, and laser hands. The robot drawings were completed on the outside surface of a folded lift-the-flap structure to allow for the creation of parallel circuits beneath the illustrations.

Planning light placement with a student on her robot illustration.

Planning light placement with a student on her robot illustration.

Students plotted out the placement of their lights, and got to work designing and creating their custom parallel circuits. This was a huge challenge, and as a result offered the greatest reward. After weeks of practice, students adapted and translated their understanding of circuits into a line drawing of positive and negative parallel but never touching tracks looping back to the power source to illuminate the lights beneath their illustrations. There was an excitement of challenge, mixed with a little head-scratching, many super tight turns with copper tape, and a few frustrated re-starts.

Student reflects on his completed robot illustration.

Student reflects on his completed robot illustration.

Completed robot fox illustration ready for parallel circuit planning below.

Completed robot fox illustration ready for parallel circuit planning below.

And then, it was absolute magic. Every student mastered a unique parallel circuit for their book spread, and then folded down their robot drawing to lay flat over the lights. “Oooh”s and “Aaah”s sounded out in a cacophony as students celebrated in both amazement and disbelief of how their robots lit up exactly where they had hoped; their smiles as bright as their lights!

See the students in action in their classroom by watching the YouTube video below:

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Illuminated Artist Books: Plugged In

With the 4th graders at Mound Elementary School, we started off our illuminated artist book residency with discussions and experiments focusing on our understanding of the line. We laid down inches and miles of copper tape for our material practice worksheets, then we moved on to create a simple and a parallel circuit. We discussed the importance of continuous lines and loops, and connectivity.

Brainstorming Illustrations

Discussing parallel circuits with students.

We discussed and expounded upon our essential questions that are navigating our Illuminated Artist Book Circuit investigations:

What is a line?

How can we use the line to both draw and illuminate our drawing?

Charged with all of this conversation about line, coupled with a good foundation of craft, as well as increased electrical understanding, we shifted our focus to discussions of technology for this residency. Specifically, to the lines of wires, cords, and plugs. We discussed the shifting ground of technology, and questioned what is now wireless, what still plugs in, and how we still have wires and chargers that plug in to recharge? Investigating the electronics of our every day experiences, each student determined an object that requires electricity to operate at some capacity for their individual contribution to the collaborative book.

Class Discussion

Class discussion of electronics.

We decided to title the book “Plugged In” employing a pun about being in touch and engaged with the current time, while taking all of our electric illustrations a note back in time by plugging them all in with lines that tethered ankle of our illustrations together. We were inspired by the illustrative style of the picture book Follow the Line.

While students brainstormed their individual electronic illustration ideas, we spent an afternoon honing our line drawing approaches and our understanding of connected drawings by creating some fabulously funny exquisite corps drawings. Exquisite Corpse is a drawing technique first employed by the Surrealists; see some examples right here.

We created class lists of our individual electronic items, making sure we had no repeats, and students got to work with their lines creating their plugged in drawings, and making them connect to the page prior and the page following.

Student Illustration

Student with completed illustration.

Next, students determined where they would place lights, and what color they desired for the lights in the various locations. Students made notes, and then transferred down the placement of their lights beneath their illustrations.

Circuit Light Planning

Student with LED light planning stencil.

Copper Tape Circuit

Student laying down copper tape for his parallel circuit.

Mapping out their unique parallel circuits to accommodate their plans was the biggest challenge in this residency, so their success there also reaped the biggest reward in earning their determined sense of accomplishment.

Students Working Together

Students working together on copper tape techniques for their parallel circuits.

For me, however, nothing beats the moment — that flicker of the quickest second in time — when student faces light up with sheer amazement in the success of their unique parallel circuits working!

Moment of Illumination

First excited moment of circuit illumination!

Then, as they fold down their illustration over top, and seemingly magically those brightly colored lights illuminate their illustrations.

Student with illuminated illustration

Student with illuminated illustration 2

Students with illuminated illustrations

Student with illuminated illustration 3

Those smiles? They are absolutely priceless, and positively beaming with the pride of their achievement.

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Illuminated Artist Books: Created Constellations

During my illuminated book residency at Paul L. Dunbar Arts Enrichment Academy, 4th graders were interested in the stories of the sky. Together, we looked at several constellations, the legends behind them, and the various ways in which they are mapped and drawn. Students created their own star stories, and then designed constellations to illustrate their creative writing. After much practice with copper tape techniques, and wiring successful simple and parallel circuits, students were ready to dive into their own illuminated constellations for the collaborative class book.

Playing again with line, we returned to our essential questions that are navigating our Illuminated Artist Book Circuit investigations:

What is a line?

How can we use the line to both draw and illuminate our drawing?

We took our inquiry of line discussions in the direction of connecting-the-dots. We discussed the constellation schematic drawings that chart out our star-filled skies with points and lines. The congruency to connecting our LED lights beneath our constellation illustrations was perfectly paired to these discussions, as our parallel circuits became quite constellation-like themselves.

Circuit Planning

Circuit planning with students.

Though several of the circuits took on a similar path as the overlaid illustrations, many circuits took an entirely different connection route as students worked out the logistics of space and connection for their parallel tracks of copper tape.

Constellation Book

Student showcasing the cover to the collaborative constellation book.

Students drew their constellation illustrations with gold pens on navy blue cardstock. They indicated the major stars of their constellations with punched holes backed with yellow translucent vellum which provided a tiny window for the lights to glow through from beneath.

Constellation Circuits

Students illuminating their parallel circuits under their constellation illustrations.

After the light locations were determined, students designed and wired custom parallel circuits to compliment their constellations and illuminate three or four LED lights, indicating their major stars, beneath their illustrations. With a little trial-and-error, several tricky turns, and and a handful of tight corners with the copper tape, all of the constellations were alit.

constellation pages

Student Constellation Drawings.

Student Constellations Illuminated

Students with their illuminated constellation illustrations.

As students folded their constellation drawings over their illuminated circuits, excitement and amazement dotted the room like stars crowded in the night sky.

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Animals in their Habitats: Decoupage Dioramas

The second graders at Paul Dunbar School are learning about animals and the specific habitats that they live in as part of their science curriculum. For our Progressive Arts Alliance residency partnership, we decided to construct these habitats using decoupage in three-dimensional dioramas. Each student independently selected an animal, and conducted several pages of research determining the various needs and interesting features of their animals. Compiling their research, students  then sketched out full-color plans for their three-dimensional decoupage dioramas where they could bring to life their animal in its habitat.

We discussed the three-dimensional opportunities that dioramas afforded, and determined which aspects of our plans would be in the background, middle ground, and foreground. We also determined that our animals should be the primary figures within the space.

Some landscapes were wide open skies with grass, others were the thick of a jungle, or a wooded environment, several were underwater, a couple were ice and snow covered regions, and one was deep into a dark cave. Students selected the respective colors for their determined habitats and got to work tearing and layering down their background first, their middle ground next, and lastly their foreground.

While the interior surfaces of their dioramas dried, students began drawing their various and specific landscape features, including: tress, vines, rocks, caves, nests, coral, floating ice, and rivers, onto cardstock that would be inserted into their space. They also drew and decoupaged their animals.

Students with Dioramas

Students with their Habitat Dioramas: Bat and Giraffe.

All of the various animal and landscape elements were constructed with folded tabs, so students could make spatial determinations for where all of the figures would layer into the space, moving them around like game pieces until they determined their final layout. We discussed activating both the middle and foreground to keep the primary focus of the dioramas on their animals.

Animal Diorama Fox and Whale

Student Habitat Dioramas: Arctic Fox and Whale.

After all this researching, and planning, and pasting — this is when the magic happened at last! Suddenly students brought their brightly colored boxes to life, completely transforming and filling them with detail. Inspired by the full-spread habitat photographs within their research books, students excitedly pored over and created all the details of  their specific animal environments.

Animal Diorama Dolphin and Bear

Student Habitat Dioramas: Dolphin and Bear

Tabbed orange coral stood tall upon the ocean floor in the foreground of the diorama that featured a long gray dolphin gliding underwater. Turtles crawled through the sand of a shore, leaving a nest that contained eggs still waiting to hatch. A spotted and stretched-tall giraffe mingled in its savannah landscape dotted with a few trees.

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Presidential Campaign Ads Supersized!

Muggin' for the camera during a voiceover.

Muggin’ for the camera during a voiceover!

Forget Cruz and Clinton, the 8th graders at Hannah Gibbons STEM were creating commercials for today’s trumped up rivals, Batman v. Superman! After weeks of instruction in English/language arts and social studies and defining and debating what makes a true hero in our lives and communities, I sat down with one of my favorite partner teachers, Leora Rhodes, to plan a video production residency. It suddenly became clear in the midst of the this crazy political season that the Dark Knight and Man of Steal needed to be reevaluated not as super heroes but as national leaders.

Students would be charged with creating commercials for a mock presidential election to be held in May. The students asked thoughtful questions: “Superman wasn’t born here. Don’t you have to be a U.S. citizen?” “Does Batman have too many demons to be a good leader?” Character became a leading factor in determining which man was better for the job. Three groups created a :30 or :60 commercial for Superman; and three groups were in the Batman camp. Of the three groups, one created a commercial for the lower grades, one for the upper grades and the third a “negative” ad against their opponent.

Like politics, video production is a team sport. Working in groups can be hard for junior high students. They get easily distracted and would rather talk about each other than the work at hand (sound familiar?!) but they thought hard about promoting their caped-candidate in a mere minute or half-minute.

It’s always so gratifying to hear their ideas and watch them use professional equipment to execute them. In the short time I work with them, I am always amazed at how they direct each other on camera, dive into editing software, and pick appropriate text and music to persuade their audience. I’m hoping this project will make them feel more empowered during an election season gone awry. If only there were more real heroes vying for the White House. At least the students of Hannah Gibbons will get to cast their vote.

Check out one of the Vote for Superman ads below:

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