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How One Art Teacher Empowers Students to Tell Their Stories

By Yarima Ariza, NBCT, EdM, Art Teacher at Mario Umana Academy


It’s been 17 years since I embarked in this wonderful path of teaching visual arts. It wasn’t my calling at first. It was a matter of need. After graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997, I found myself in graduate school and recently married. Holding a student visa, my only choice was to work on campus. At the time, the only job available was becoming a teaching assistant for an adjunct faculty teaching papermaking to high school students. I never imagined I was about to enter a life-changing path.


Since my early years as a TA, I found joy working with my hands, sharing what I knew about drawing, sculpting, and designing with young minds. It was not until I graduated from Columbia College, with a masters in Interdisciplinary Arts, that I entered the classroom as a full time visual arts teacher.


I worked for three years at an alternative high school in the south side of Chicago, followed by four years at the second all-girls charter public school in the US. During my years as a teacher in Chicago, I learned that the arts were a catalyst for social change. I used the power of new technologies, such as digital photography and video, to empower my students to create and tell their stories. A balanced combination of low and high tech tools and media allowed my students to express their ideas in digital collages, video, music and mixed media projects that focused on personal narratives.

"I used the power of new technologies, such as digital photography and video, to empower my students to create and tell their stories."


I relocated to Miami in 2006, where I accepted an art teaching position at Miami Edison Senior High, located in the heart of Little Haiti. The school’s unfavorable reputation as one of the lowest performing schools in the state didn’t deter me from creating an art program that was responsive to my students’ reality. During my time at MESH, and as the sole art teacher, the art program showed tremendous growth. This resulted in an unprecedented positive reputation among other high performing schools in the district. While at MESH, my students entered multiple state and district-wide competitions, successfully participated in prestigious exhibitions, and received multiple awards.


Students making arts and crafts In 2012, I graduated with a masters in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. After graduating from HGSE, I became the art teacher and teacher leader at Mario Umana Academy in East Boston, leading the work of all specialties around data monitoring of student progress in our content areas, implementing inquiry cycles, preparing visual and performing arts showcases year round, and supporting learning opportunities in the arts across the curriculum. While at the Umana I have taught all grade levels K-8, including inclusion and students in substantially separate classrooms, English Language Learners and Students with Interrupted Formal Education.


Inclusion provides students with disabilities with the opportunity to learn with their non-disabled peers in general education classrooms. A substantially separate classroom, is a classroom environment separate from general education classrooms that serve students who need highly modified curriculum, smaller class size, and lower student to teacher ratio.


It’s been 17 years since I began teaching art full time, and my last 5 have been nothing but the most memorable and fulfilling. Since 2014, I have been teaching mostly elementary school students. In 2015, I made an effort to wed my theories of teaching and learning in and through the arts with what was really ‘happening’ in my classroom. How come was I so uptight about the process of making art, while also believing in the joy of being messy but not letting my room become a beautifully orchestrated mess?


I allowed myself to fail...or so I thought. It was Friday. I had not been able to plan my day the night before. I came to school and found myself trying to come up with a strong lesson plan. My first class was coming in a few minutes and I had nothing. NOTHING! I greeted my students as usual. They all sit down quietly in circle, as usual. All those eyes were looking at me saying: so, what are we doing today, Ms. Ariza? And there  I was, speechless, almost frightened.


My whiteboard stood blank behind me as evidence of my unpreparedness. Then, as if regurgitating nonsense words I said: It’s “Free Choice Friday!” Do what you want as long as your minds and your hands are on! They looked at me, puzzled and motionless.


Students making arts and crafts

The first courageous hand went up. “What? Free choice what? Ms. Ariza, are you OK?” The only words that came out of my mouth were: Just let me know what you need, go make art and let’s clean up the mess before you leave…


It’s been three years since that serendipitous moment. One that changed me as a teacher, and one that changed my classroom culture forever. Why didn’t I give myself permission to do this before? Up until that moment I had espoused many instructional beliefs about the importance of learning in and through the arts without realizing that such practices were far from the reality of my classroom experience. I found that although my students, past and present, had learned an abundant array of art techniques, I had focused my practice on teacher directed, product-focused art experiences, rather than process-focused, student directed, and open ended, art experiences. Although my students were eager to enter the art room, I realized that my classroom culture resembled a traditional academic classroom, one of extravagant accountability measures that left almost no room for “creativity;” that my students were still receiving teacher-directed instruction, with very limited time to devote to child-centered activities that allowed room to be messy.


As if things couldn’t get any better, at the end of the year, and while attending the BTU Professional Learning Conference, I learned about a book titled “Beautiful OOPS” by Barney Saltzberg. This book, and its framework, promote resilience, and give permission to embrace the messiness of making art while instilling in students the joy of the creative process-without the fear of making mistakes.


In my fourth year at the Umana, I used Beautiful OOPS! to frame the basis of what happened in the art room and I formally instituted what I spontaneously called Free Choice Fridays (FCF)—or Viernes Creativos within the school’s dual language program—as part of my curriculum. And, in November 2015, I started documenting my students’ work every Friday. I took pictures of their creations and took anecdotal notes of conversations, experiments, negotiation sessions, problem solving sessions, etc. It wasn’t long before Fridays became the most popular day in my classroom. However, I soon discovered that it was the day that, paradoxically, required the most planning. I had to make tools and art supplies available for all students. I had to be in five places at once trying to assist a student glueing a butterfly catcher, teaching another student how to macrame, showing the steps of an origami crane to a group of students, and finding a specific type of pink marker for an apprentice fashion designer, at all once. My room became the most beautiful and organized chaos of all. Every student was fully engaged in their creation like never before.

"My room became the most beautiful and organized chaos of all."

After documenting over 1,300 pieces of artwork created during FCFs, I was convinced that allowing students to drive their own creative process had monumental positive consequences in the way they were able to express themselves and translate complex ideas into artwork. I observed students problem solving skills at work, while exercising perseverance and creating a culture of sharing ideas and helping each other. I enjoyed watching them negotiating the use of tools and art supplies and how they celebrated each other’s creations.


I have recently interviewed my students about their experience in my room. The great majority noted that their favorite day of the week in art was Friday (I have them three times a week; on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays). When asked why, they almost unanimously said that it was fun because they got to make what they wanted without the fear of making anything wrong.

"They got to make what they wanted without the fear of making anything wrong."


Almost two years later, I am exhausted at the end of every Friday. Students are very upset whenever I am absent on a Friday. The art supplies are consumed at higher than normal rates. I am happy and fulfilled to see my students create the most magnificent art concoctions I have ever seen. I love witnessing the next generation of astronauts designing a spaceship, or the future jewelry and accessory designers in action. I love the conversations and feedback about each other’s drawings, while developing bonds, friendships and camaraderie that may had never happened if it wasn’t because I had the courage to find the way to connect research, theory, and practice in my classroom.


Yarima Ariza, a native of Colombia, emigrated to the U.S. in 1994, where she began her educational and professional journey. After obtaining her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she also earned her MA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Columbia College, and a MA in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she was honored with the ‘Leadership in Education Award.’ Following her graduation from Harvard, Yarima became an Education Pioneers Graduate School Fellow and worked at the central office of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) with the Chief Academic Officer. 


Yarima is a National Board Certified Teacher in Art, who has taught for 17 years and currently teaches at the Mario Umana Academy K-8 School in BPS. She is currently the lead designer and program coordinator for the BPS Accelerated Community to Teacher (ACTT) program, an initiative of the Office of Human Capital to recruit and support members of the community in their endeavor to become K-12 teacher; she is also a member of the BPS ALANA Executive Planning Team. Yarima will be returning to the Harvard Graduate School of Education in August as a Conant Fellow recipient. She will be pursuing a master’s in School Leadership in the Principal Licensure Strand.