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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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Telling the Story of our Landscape with the Makey Makey and Scratch


Mound STEM School 4th grader working on coding his Scratch animation.

The 4th graders at Mound STEM School in Cleveland were already well-versed in landforms when I began my residency this past fall semester. Their teachers had done an excellent job teaching the students all about weathering, erosion, and the formation of landforms. What I found lacking in this class was the ability to visualize these landforms. They could tell me how a valley or a glacier was created, but they could not tell me what said valley or glacier looked like. They could describe the weather associated with these landforms, but not the visuals of them. This is one of those key factors missing from our education system: the ability to let students experience these realities first-hand. Although we cannot take the students to the Grand Canyon or to the valleys of the Rocky Mountains, we can show YouTube videos, paintings and images to give our students a glimpse of these environments.

It took students some time to realize their visions for their Scratch animations they made as part of my residency work. The animations included drawn imagery sourced from discovered images and videos research. Once they had conquered the imagery, the students incorporated facts about their landforms to educate other students and other viewers. We then used conductive materials such as graphite, aluminum foil, and copper tape to create conductive drawings, which worked along with the Makey Makeys to trigger the Scratch projects. The conductive drawings were a result of experiments completed by the students, during which they tested various materials to find what the most conductive materials were to use for their artworks.

Experimenting with conductive materials and the Makey-Makey.

Experimenting with conductive materials and the Makey Makey.

The results of combining these various materials and methods was a (surprisingly) cohesive and exciting project. The students learned the basics of coding, digital painting, physical drawing, and conductivity, along with their landform curriculum. This was a very challenging residency to accomplish, and the results were far from perfect. I would love to do this residency again, with slight adjustments to streamline the process. The students were very proud of their work, and their projects can be viewed here. I enjoyed my time with the 4th graders at Mound STEM, and I look forward to seeing what these enthusiastic learners create next.

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Interactive & Illustrative: Sculptures that Spin


I have found that interactive artworks are conducive to a kinesthetic learning environment; as a student, I learned through research and hands-on activities. As an artist, I learn through experimenting and peer critique. The third graders at Mound STEM School in Cleveland, Ohio served as both the students and the artists in our Fall 2015  residency. The students created three-dimensional interactive sculptures, using components of illustration to communicate life cycles of different animals. The sculptures were designed to appear as the set of a play, with a stage set to showcase the illustrations. The illustrations themselves sit upon a wheel, which is spun by the viewer to experience each particular phase of a life cycle.

The words “illustration” and “drawing” were absolutely terrifying to the students when I first introduced our project. “But what if I can’t draw?! I can’t draw anything!” resounded throughout the classroom. Yet over the next month or so, I witnessed the confidence levels rising as we researched and planned our drawings, practicing basic shapes and patterns, and discussing color theory. The class spent one class creating still-life drawings from flower arrangements; I have never seen a class so young so intent on observing their subject. At the conclusion of the class, the students lined up for a “gallery walk.” We walked around the classroom looking at everyone’s drawings, the students quiet and concentrated. When we sat down to discuss the work, I was astounded to hear a student say, “Izzie’s composition is really nice, I like hers a lot.” I have never heard a student say the word “composition” before without first commanding them, as I did at the beginning of the session: “repeat after me guys, a composition is how you arrange an image.”

When I was first designing this residency, a friend told me I was “crazy” to expect the level of attention needed for successful observation drawing from 3rd graders. I was thrilled with the results of their drawings, and the attention to detail came through in their final sculptures. Every student put time and effort into their works, and the result was phenomenal. I will be doing a similar residency this upcoming 2016 semester with the third graders at Michael R. White STEM and Hannah Gibbons, both schools in Cleveland. The subject matter will be sustainable energy as opposed to life-cycles, and I am looking forward to seeing the results of this residency within a completely different context.

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Exploring Conductive Creativity in the Informal Classroom

Photo Apr 23, 7 39 50 PM

Experimenting with LEDs with a student at the Southeast Branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library.

Winter can be a cold, harsh season here in Cleveland. To get everyone out of the house and into creativity, my colleagues and I have been teaching Conductive Creativity workshops at the Cuyahoga County Libraries over the past several months. These workshops focus on teaching students how to make an LED circuit and how to create a piece of art in the form of a light box. We provide them with all of the materials, give them a brief introduction to circuits, and let them explore. As a fine artist in the education field, it is incredibly fascinating to observe my students as they explore and create with artistic and scientific media that I am just beginning to understand. The freethinking attitudes present in these workshops contribute to communication, as well as innovation amongst peers, students, and teachers alike.

One student's light box.

One student’s light box.

There is such inspiration to be found in the informal classroom. In our most recent workshop, I gave students a variety of multicolored plastic film, LEDs, and foil, with which to decorate their light boxes. Students gravitated towards the various supplies, creating light boxes that I would never have visualized. They were all unique, despite having the same initial box and circuit structure. For example, two sisters of similar ages participated in the Middleburg Heights Library workshop. One sister gravitated towards the visuals, creating elaborately decorated light boxes with only a few circuits. The other went on to create an elongated series circuit, choosing to focus entirely on the electronics and the LEDs. It was exciting to see two dissimilar and opposite projects come from two very alike individuals.

Lighting up LEDs is always exciting.I try to encourage advanced students to assist their peers during the making process. At one point, I began noticing that when one student struggles with his or her circuit, another student will instinctively offer assistance. This exchange of knowledge and seamless collaboration and experimentation is something that has naturally occurred in the Conductive Creativity workshops, and it is something I wish to perpetuate in all of the programs I facilitate at Progressive Arts Alliance.


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Filed under After-School Programs, Artist-Educator Experimentation, May 15 feature

Photo Essay: Glimpses of Family Arts Nights

This spring, Progressive Arts Alliance hosted two open-house family arts nights demonstrating to parents and the community how our arts integration work supports deeper understanding in other areas of the core curriculum. These events were held in association with our Cleveland Metropolitan School District partner schools and allowed us to engage families in our collaborative learning experiences. The first open-house at Michael R. White STEM School focus on arts activities that supported content understanding in chemistry and explored the concepts of volume, liquids and bubbles.  The highlight of the event was the “hula-hoop bubble encapsulator.”  This consisted of a “kiddie” pool, a hula-hoop, and a mixture of soap and water.  Stephen Phillips, PAA’s program assistant, and a rotating cast of student helpers pulled bubbles around whoever was standing on the footstool.  Reactions were priceless.  Even Principal Hayes took part.


Principal Hayes showing how it’s done.


Bracing for the inevitable bursting of the bubble.

While the students (as well as a few parents and teachers) were experimenting with large bubbles, other students were intuitively learning the ways bubbles interact with each other by printing them on paper.  This involved blowing air with a straw into a cup of paint and pressing paper onto the resulting foam.

Getting the proper bubble blowing technique down was essential to experimenting.

The last of the bubble stations focused on building your own bubble wand and noting how the different materials effected one’s ability to create bubbles.  This particular student cleverly devised a method of blowing bubbles using only his hands.  After dipping his hands in soap and rubbing them together, he slowly and carefully stretched a bubble between the aperture of his thumbs and pointer fingers, as pictured below:


The Most Creative Wand Award Winner

The last of the four stations did not include bubbles but allowed students the opportunity to create colorful bottles of liquid, while understanding the relative densities of common household items.

Carefully pouring the “Dawn” layer of his color spectrum bottle.

The colorful end result after students and their families experimented with the density of liquids.

One of my favorite parts of this open-house was seeing students in the context of their families. At PAA, we tend to only see students in the context of school. In addition to that, we also only see them with students of their same grade. During these varied age events, I have been able to see how tightly knit the student body and community is.  The student on the left (in the photo below holding his younger brother) always says hello to me in the hallways. We have a few running inside-jokes too.  It was an honor to see him interact with his younger brother and see his actions as the older brother. It was so obvious the important model he gives to his brother and his comfort and proficiency while in that role.


Like brother, like brother (matching shoes)


A few weeks ago we traveled to Cleveland’s Patrick Henry School. We were all interested to meet the students and community for the first time. A great number of parents, students, and community members showed up and participated in three activity stations. The themes was of our art activities connected to cultural and global awareness, mathematical fractals and proportions, and recycling and reuse.  The first station was a tile-painting project in which participants painted small ceramic tiles with flags of different countries to end up in a larger mural. Laser-cut stencils aided painters with stars and other common symbols and fact cards gave each participant some context about the country’s flag they were working on.

Initial planning included learning how to use the laser-cut stencils for the design of each person’s flag tile.


This young artist was proud of his painting of the Hungarian flag. We were also excited that he had fun experimenting so much so that he had some paint on his cheek as part of the process.

The most engaged participant was a community member who spent most of the evening working on a singular flag design, showing everyone else how it’s done in the process.  This event had by far the best turn out of parents and community members of any parent/student night I have attended.  Seeing how well the students are supported makes me excited about working with the school in future endeavors.

Deeply focused: our most diligent painter of the evening at Patrick Henry School.

Another station consisted of designing banners while learning the concepts of fractals and proportions.  This roundtable activity promoted teamwork and collaborative effort with great results. Popsicle sticks, bottle caps and other common household items were placed on the taped off fabric square. Once the designs were completed, a bleach solution was sprayed onto the surface to lighten the fabric where exposed.  After a few minutes, the items that resisted the spray were removed and the flags were rinsed to halt the bleaching process.

A Patrick Henry student carefully places each item on her banner to create a symmetrical design.

One of Patrick Henry School’s families shows off their banner pattern they designed.

The last activity station used repurposed styrofoam trays to build long chains while challenging students to think about recycling and repurposing things as creative outlets.  Certainly a great demonstration of “the whole is greater than its parts.” The styrofoam trays were collected from the school’s cafeteria.

I think he might have known the camera was on him!

I felt honored to be part of these two fantastic nights. Everyone involved did so much to create an inspiring atmosphere.  It takes an amazing amount of coordination and contribution from everyone at PAA to pull off events like this.  I’m thankful to be able to be part of it all and witness incredible moments that I was able to capture (as best as I could).  I look forward to participating in the next one.

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Filed under Family Nights, Photographer Insights

Bringing the Seasons Together with Ebooks and Images

Read about the start of this project here.

Malik enjoying his Fall Background!

Malik enjoying his Fall Background!

The green screen residency at Orchard STEM finished up beautifully, with each kindergartener typing and creating their own ebooks about the seasons as displayed in their green screen photos (as seen above). The students typed sentences about each specific season’s weather, such as “Winter is very cold.” The ebooks served as a challenge to the kindergarteners, as very few of them had typed with an iPad before. I also noticed that several of them were confused by the iPad’s font and capitol letters, and those students subsequently had more trouble with the spelling than those who had used iPads or Apple technology more frequently. We were very lucky to have 8th graders come down and assist each team individually with the intricacies of spelling and grammar during the final session.

As this was my very first in- school residency as the instructor as apposed to the assistant, I was nervous to complete the project on time! The addition of a fire drill on the second to last session was a bit nerve-wracking, but the students were exceptionally eager to learn about and create their ebooks using their own images, and the results displayed the focus they gave to this project.


An 8th grader assisting several students with completing their ebooks

I could not have completed this residency without assistance from Stephen Phillips, who saw the project through to the end with myself and the kindergarteners. Also, many thanks to the PAA office for printing all of the images and ebooks for the class. These kindergarteners are bright and thoughtful, and I have learned so much about teaching from them. When I first started the residency, the students had not yet learned their seasons. It was an amazing thing to have students coming up to me in snow boots towards the end of my residency, telling me how it was really winter outside because of the cold and the snow! Orchard STEM School has recently won a grant for each student to receive an iPad, and I am looking forward to seeing how the kindergarteners use this technology in the classroom beyond this project.

Assisting a student with his Ebook.

Assisting a student with his ebook.

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