Anacostia Senior High School has a newly renovated, state-of-the-art, eco-friendly building. It boasts a new media center, a parent resource center, a child care center and a health and dental clinic. The school also has artistically motivated students thanks to an innovative new art teacher named Chelsea Schmucker. Students at Anacostia High School are creating art that they can be proud of. Clearly, Anacostia students love art class as evidenced by the amazing artwork displayed throughout the school building.
Chelsea Schmucker’s classroom looks more like an art studio than a classroom. Colorful brushes hang from the ceiling creating a chandelier of sorts. A Christmas tree made entirely from yarn displays intricate and detailed ornaments. A blue gesture sculpture which Ms. Schmucker made sits on her desk while the students’ sculptures are displayed throughout the room. The classroom looks and feels like a bright, vibrant and creative playground. The stools, painter aprons worn by the students, art tables, crocheted scarves and hats, paintings and sculptures all come together to create a cozy atmosphere of fantasy and tranquility which inspires creativity.
Student self -portraits line the hallway of the newly renovated High School. Students created the prints using carved linoleum plates. The results of their effort has yielded bold colors and strong lines that layer and distort the self-portraits in a way that produces an image that looks almost digital. This intriguing artistic display invites the curiosity of visitors as they pass the school’s main office ultimately revealing the students’ love affair with art. More spectacular art is displayed on the second floor of the building near the media center.
I had the pleasure of visiting the students and the art teacher to get a better idea of the creative processes that are transforming the art community at Anacostia High school this year. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Ms. Schmucker has bigger goals than fundamental art education and shies away from spending nine weeks talking about art in her classroom, she says, “I want to blow open the box of what students think art is.” Her students participate in more mixed media and atypical kinds of projects; after all, many students learn to draw and paint in primary school, but in Anacostia High School’s art program, students do not use pencils or brushes; their hands are their tools, they weave, crochet, carve and work with clay. Schmucker says, “I do not want my students to miss out on the experience of creating with their hands”. Every student art project also includes studying the work of either a contemporary or classical artist. For example, this year her students have been inspired through historical research and the study of Mexican artisans who live in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Students studied the work of Oxcan artisans who create traditional wood carvings, known as alebrijes. These wood objets d’art have been created for generations in several small villages on the outskirts of Oaxaca city.
Students also create collages, mandalas on vinyl records, paper-mache masks, and have access to a kiln to create clay tiki pots.
It is no secret that art is often and unfortunately underfunded in public schools but I was happy to discover that Anacostia’s students don’t allow that to stop them. They use as much creativity to find ways of funding projects that they love as they do in creating the amazing artwork displayed throughout the building. For example, Schmucker’s students do a lot of recycling within the building. They broke down all of the card board boxes that remained from the school’s recent renovation to use as plates for their carving projects. Also, the yarn they are currently using for weaving came from an elderly woman’s home who recently passed away. The vinyl records all came from a dump (gathered by a friend of Schmucker)and the paint brushes that are hanging in the back of the room were headed for the trash before students took them and created hanging art.
Schmucker, like many DCPS teachers chooses to supplement her classroom budget through an organization called, “Donors Chose.” The organization provides grants to to teachers to acquire the supplies that they need such as clay, glazes, aprons and tools.
Schmucker is a first year teacher. She graduated with a degree in art education from Virginia Commonwealth University in December 2011. She has always had a calling to become an artist and an art teacher for DC public schools. She explains, “I could have spent my life as an artist, but to me it would be wasted time if I could not get others to embrace and appreciate art the way that I do.” She has had a passion for art ever since she can remember but never thought of it as a career. She just loved to be inspired by people through creation. She says, “I love the way that life influences art and my decision to become a teacher was more about my love for the city of DC which is where I grew up and wanting to give back to my community.”
Schmucker considers herself lucky to have attended schools where teachers loved, nurtured and supported her. However, she has also had the reverse experience where teachers made her feel like a burden. These experiences have made her understand first hand how much influence a teacher can have in making or breaking a student’s learning experience.
Schmucker fundamentally believes that Art is essential in that it encourages creative thinking and problem solving and wants to encourage students to think creatively and not just do as they are told. While undervalued, Schmucker believes these skills are essential not only in the workplace but in one’s life as well. As such, Anacostia’s students are truly being prepared for the future. On the subject of her students, Schmucker says, “I want them to forget that they are taking a class and create. I want them to make a personal connection to art and know that art is always relevant.”
Of course there are challenges in the classroom at times. Some students complain throughout the completion of a project but in the end, the same student who complained is surprised that they enjoyed the class and all that they explored artistically. As I walked through the halls photographing the students’ work, they were eager to identify their work for me and many expressed to me that they really enjoyed art classes at Anacostia High School. Schmucker wants her students to leave her classes with a deeper understanding of their inner-self and to have confidence in their ability to understand and create art.
She wants students to be able to speak about art and relate it to life. She teaches students to know unequivocally that the inner workings of their minds contain valuable, meaningful and useful tools which will prepare them for life’s experiences regardless of whether or not their work will make them famous one day. The most important of all lessons of making art is to have fun and enjoy the process. As I look around the classroom, the students have learned their lessons well- they are having fun and enjoying the process of creating art which fills the immediate space, spills out into the hallways and the school bringing a sense of wonder and joy to all those who enter.