Teachers use summer ‘vacation’ to hone their craft

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

In 14 years as a teacher, St. Simon the Apostle art teacher Suzi Wilson has spent summer "vacation" with quote marks around that very word.

Yes, Wilson, husband Tom and daughters Betsy and Katy have enjoyed family trips in her summer hiatus from the classroom, but it's a misnomer to describe all of her time off in summer as a "vacation."

Like athletes who train in the offseason, Wilson spends her offseason honing the teaching craft, picking up ideas and enhancing techniques for the upcoming school year. And she isn't alone in that regard. Many teachers and administrators from schools throughout the archdiocese take time for professional development in summer.

In the fast world in which we live, they have to keep up, lest students leave them in the dust.

"People think (summer vacation) is sitting by the pool ... 'Uh, no; it's not,'" Wilson said, with a laugh. "It's my 14th year and I've spent almost every summer doing something."

Whether taking courses for a master's degree or religious certification, or attending seminars or workshops — in town and out of town — she's there.

"If there's a little something or opportunity that comes along, I'm going," she said.

This summer is a case in point. In mid-July, Wilson and friend Cathy Barnes, who teaches at a private school in Clayton, attended the Teacher Institute at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The institute consisted of two, one-week sessions of six days each, with only 25 teachers at each session and each day packed with activities — lectures, presentations, and hands-on training.

"It was kind of like having a job at the art museum, where you're there from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. for six days," she said, adding that she and her classmates concluded, "It was the best professional development we've known. We were all very impressed. It was amazing the level of quality that they brought in."

Among the highlights of the week was a presentation by Washington-area artist Robert Liberace, who has work permanently displayed in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. He has a series of carved marble reliefs there, and his design was the basis of a life-size marble statue of St. Teresa of Kolkata. Another sculpture, a 15-foot crucifix, hangs above the altar in Our Lady of Mercy Church in Potomac, Md.

He gave a presentation on Renaissance art and demonstrated his technique, painting in the style of the masters.

"It was real exciting to see that," Wilson said, adding, "Renaissance art is a favorite of mine. It was so fabulous to really immerse myself in Renaissance art for an entire week, looking at this great collection of art – saints, and souls and so many paintings of Mary."

Now, Wilson is eager to bring back to her classroom what she learned. Though the iPad Generation seems to fancy their devices for games such as Minecraft and Pokemon Go, in the classroom they use technology in many ways, taking in new information and applying it to their technology.

"It gets them doing a lot of creative things, taking what we teach them in the classroom, and they have that technology so they're kind of working it from both ways," she said, though she's old-fashioned in some respects. Like note-taking, with old-school pencil and paper. "There is something to be said for taking notes by hand. It engages them more if they have to put it in their own words."

Likewise, art in general engages students; it's a hands-on discipline requiring critical thinking and creativity to put thoughts into works. Ironically, that is the basis of STEM, which is all the rage now, but the process of putting thoughts into action has been around for ages. People doing stuff in new ways.

"With art and STEM, you're fully-in because you have that idea in your head and somehow you have to figure out a way to get it to work, to be that visual piece," said Wilson, whose students last year created suits of armor based on her summer experience in a trip to the great museums of New York City. "It's nice to find something that we find inspiring and then we bring it back to the kids."

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