Teacher Stories: Creativity, Hope, and Community

Teacher Stories is a quarterly blog highlighting the experiences of educators practicing creative engagement  in New Mexico.

Laura Sanchez, First Grade Teacher Atalaya Elementary School in Santa Fe, NM, shares a story of creativity, hope, and community. After visiting her father at a nursing home, Laura felt that space needed more warmth and bright colors. Her community-minded, empathetic first graders volunteered to help Laura create a welcoming, encouraging space in her father’s nursing home dining room. In this Teacher Stories, Laura shares how her idea came to fruition with help from her students, colleagues, and teacher community at the Academy.

This interview was recorded, transcribed, and edited by Lisa Faithorn and Hanna Negusie for readability and a more in-depth overview.

My dad was put into a nursing home for physical therapy last year. I have a hard time with those places. I remember having to go there in 2nd grade and it was traumatic to walk into a place like that. When I went for the first time [now as an adult] to see my dad, he was in the cafeteria area. When I walked in [to the cafeteria] there was a wall that was just empty. I thought this was a sad situation: to go in there and there was nothing on the walls, just blank walls. That was my first impression and it was really devastating to me. So every time I went there I kept wondering what could we put on these walls, something to make the patients feel better, or people walking in to visit someone feeling better. Something needs to be on those walls. Something about those blank walls really bothered me, so I thought what if the kids at school [students that I teach] created something to put on those walls.

I brought my idea back to the kids and I told them the story about my dad being at the nursing home: how sad it was for me to go visit him and how sometimes the people there are sad. I asked them what could we do to help the people there feel better? They said we could draw them pictures. I asked them what if we did something more permanent? A picture that would actually stay on the wall and then everyone could enjoy it, not just the person you gave a picture to. They wanted to create such pictures, so we did that.  This group of kids and this class is really empathetic. They want to do things to help others and make others feel better. We talk a lot about positive things.

I asked the students what’s something positive we could put on [the picture]. We do a lot of mindfulness practices and exercises at our schools, so we talk about positive words. They brainstormed a lot of positive words like amazing, loving, hope, or caring to put on the picture.

After brainstorming positive words, I thought I’m going to need a lot of materials and the art teacher, Cassandra Romero, came to mind. I asked Cassandra if she would collaborate with me to do this project and help us make something. We brainstormed with the kids what they’d want to put on canvas and we talked about colors. Cassandra talked with the kids about which bright colors would stand out in the art pieces. She gave the kids a palette of different colors and showed them some abstract paintings. Then they colored what they imagined on the canvas. They did the background. Some of them made designs on there but most of them just painted colors. After painting the canvases together, we talked about what the kids wanted as images on their canvases.

They brainstormed different themes like frogs, lizards, hummingbirds, or butterflies. Cassandra asked the kids if they wanted to create little images or one big image. The kids worked in groups and some groups chose to draw one big butterfly. Other groups chose to draw lots of little birds. Cassandra and I worked with each of the groups. The kids really collaborated with each other, which we already do a lot of the classroom. Collaboration isn’t new to them. When the students were done drawing and painting, Cassandra brought the students back to me and that’s when they put the words on the canvas. Again, they brainstormed together and when they were in their little groups, they had to talk about which words they wanted on their canvas.

In the meantime, I talked with the person in charge at the nursing home about what we wanted to do. I told her that we’d like to make some paintings for the walls in the cafeteria and she agreed. When we were finished, she came to pick up the art from the kids at school and they presented their pictures to her. The kids were really excited about it. They knew how much it meant to me, because I was really emotional at the time, since my dad had to live in the nursing home. A couple of the kids had gone home and told their parents about my dad’s experience, so their parents knew. One of the parents told me she was really happy to hear from her daughter about the project and that I was able to show emotion to the kids, because a lot of times as teachers we hold that back. She’s a teacher as well, the parent, and she said the kids need to know that teachers are real people. These first graders don’t think of their teachers as people doing real things. When I see them at the store they are always like oh you are buying food! You are shopping! I think the kids think teachers live at school.

When I’m not teaching, I come here to the Academy for Wisdom Circle (a monthly meeting group for teachers and educators). Hearing the other teachers talk about the different things they are doing and changes that need to happen in their schools and classrooms, [it made me think] who is going to make these changes? The more I thought about this, the more I kept thinking that there have to be paintings on that wall! A lot of times I’ll think about things but I won’t act on them. I think coming here [to the Academy] and hearing everyone else talk about what they are doing and taking action made me decide: I am going to do this. I’m going to follow through with it. I’m going to get these paintings in the nursing home.

[After we finished the art project,] I felt really good about following through and accomplishing it. The principal at my school was all for it too. She was happy that I completed the project and made contact with the nursing home. She’s supportive of doing a project with them again.

Hopefully, the art in the nursing home will help somebody else feel better – someone in a similar situation. That’s what I told the kids: if I had seen something like our art project when I first walked in, like a colorful picture or the word amazing or hope, would have made me feel better than to just go and see blank walls.

The kids were really proud of their work and thought the pictures were just amazing. They were proud of being able to work on them and present the pictures to the nursing home director. She was really gracious with them. This group of kids are the kind that say “let’s save the earth” and pick up trash and recycle. Their thoughts are already there in first grade – to reach out and help somebody. They already think and know we can do this and make a difference.

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