New teacher: Art vital to education, draws from many subjects


October 25, 2016

STUDENT Colby Montigue, right, watches as art teacher Autumn Almanza works on a pottery piece.

To Autumn Almanza, doing art is a comprehensive process involving nearly every element of what students learn in school.

Almanza, Sweet Home High School’s new art teacher, says that makes it a vital component of education.

Art class is an ongoing scientific experiment, she said, that involves hypothesis and experiment and understanding scientific fields like chemistry. It connects to history in a way the written word may not as victors write the history books, yet it remains wedded to language arts, while applying mathematics on the technical side.

The 32-year-old teacher passionately and enthusiastically explains these connections and the importance of art to a well-rounded education allowing students to explore and learn new skills.

Almanza came to Sweet Home this year from Eureka, Calif., where she taught for three years, to take over the high school art program after Gelindo Ferrin retired last spring.

She took the job here because this is where she wanted to live, she said. Sweet Home is similar to where her husband grew up.

Almanza discovered Sweet Home because she was looking for a job. When she interviewed for a position in Albany, she looked around the area for a place to live. Had Albany hired her, this is where she planned to live.

“I’m settling in very nicely,” she said. “I have never felt so welcome or so cared about in any school I’ve ever been in. Community’s fantastic.”

The teachers are “fantastic” as well, she said, and since many of them new this year, they’ve bonded quickly.

“I definitely feel right at home living in Sweet Home,” Almanza said. “This is the place we want to be. This job wasn’t an accident.”

She had been laid off and was looking for work in Oregon. She interviewed at different schools across the state, including Albany; but it was Sweet Home that captured her attention. When the position opened in Sweet Home in June, she researched the school and applied quickly.

“I looked at every single staff member to see if there might be an internal art candidate,” she said. She found just one, junior high art teacher Trey Hagen. He told her wasn’t applying for the position and that he would be on the hiring committee; and she took her shot at it.

Sweet Home is the kind of place where she can have a “hobby farm,” raising alpacas and sheep for their wool. She and her husband, Alexander Golston, are amateur mycologists – studying mushrooms, which she seeks to make dye for her wool.

Almanza graduated from the School of Art Institute of Chicago at the Art Institute of Chicago Museum in 2007 with a bachelor of fine arts degree in art education.

She grew up in Chicago and graduated from high school in 2002, she said.

“I was an honors and AP student in high school,” she said. She did all of her work early so she could spend her senior year taking art classes, with independent study of ceramics; she made an 18-piece focused body of work that year.

She received a $15,000 Presidential Scholarship in academic excellence at Lewis University. She intended to become a history or English teacher.

“Even though I was dedicated to my artwork, I never felt it could be a career or viable,” Almanza said. “I never thought art school would accept me.”

She spent a year there getting straight A’s, she said, but she was quickly bored. She dropped out and went to work on a portfolio she could submit to art schools and then enrolled at the School of Art.

Her parents moved to Phoenix, Ariz., in 2005. When she graduated, she followed them. There she worked her first teaching job and met her husband. They moved to California’s Central Valley – her husband grew up in the Fresno, Calif. area – where she worked for a year before moving to Eureka.

She has remained passionate about her art and teaching it to students.

“It’s communication about an idea or concept,” Almanza said. “It can’t be anything without a human experience.”

It is one of the most interconnected subjects, she said, drawing from math and science to the humanities.

A few days ago, Almanza needed to divide a circle into 12 equal circles. She didn’t have the math in her head to do that. She headed for Youtube and learned the math, which can be useful for such tasks as making a paint wheel or a clock.

When she was in school, if the connection between math and applications like this for trigonometry, for example, she thinks it would have been easier to understand and learn.

Almanza is interested in a variety of subjects, from history to literature, but she credits art for taking her there.

Art is about constant improvement. As a potter, “I’m not going after a concept,” Almanza said. “I’m going after a skill set I refine every time I work.”

It’s about honing craftsmanship, she said, and that’s what she is sharing with her students.

Doing art builds a sense of self-esteem as they learn and improve, she said. A student may know nothing when enrolling in an art class, but after 10 weeks, the student will learn something, grow and get better.

The high school art room is a place where students can experiment with their ideas, she said. They can hypothesize and then test it. Then they can evaluate what they’ve done.

The students learn to critique art based on objective criteria, evaluating the aesthetics, feelings and ideas associated with a piece of art. That opens a classroom discussion where they learn to support and talk about their opinions and exchange ideas – all valuable across the board in a student’s education.

Almanza said she would ultimately like to extend art and its advantages through every grade level, a tool teachers can use in a variety of subjects.

At the elementary levels, art education seems inconsistent, she said, as schools rely on artists in residence. In the longer term, she would like to see a staff member dedicated to elementary school art. As an alternative, she thinks she might be able to serve as a consultant to help teachers incorporate art into their curriculum.

At this point, long-term ideas are just ideas, she said. She has a lot on her plate right now, and she’s just beginning. Her goals will take planning and patience.

“I’m trying to build the program,” she said. “Trey and I are working together to make some consistencies between what we’re teaching. We want these kids to take art in middle school and try new things.”

Ideally, students continue studying art in high school, she said. She plans to earn the accreditation she needs to teach advanced placement art.

“Really, my goal for the next three to five years is increasing enrollment and getting the student body interested in taking art classes,” Almanza said.


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