Lessons with Miss B
Durango art teacher honored as 9-R ?Teacher of the Year?

Eli Kopp-Duvall works on his Stabile while Sandy Bielenberg laughs with another student. Each of Sandy Bielenberg's fifth grade students is currently working on a freestanding, three-dimensional sculpture that uses toilet paper rolls, pipe cleaners, wire, glue and colored paper./Photo by Jared Boyd

by Jules Masterjohn

hen one walks into the art room at Animas Valley Elementary School in Durango, it's obvious why kids look forward to art class. The names of the colors and their Spanish translations, maps of the world, and oodles of children's art adorn the classroom walls.

Floor to ceiling, covering one wall, are posters with images of art and information about this year's "table artists" - Picasso, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Chagall and Matisse, all modern European painters. Hanging above each of the student's five worktables, which occupy the center of the room, is one of each of these artist's names. These table artists are used as a classroom-management technique - "Matisse table, thanks for working so quietly" - and as a tool for teaching cultural literacy.

Sandy Bielenberg, the art specialist for Animas Valley and Needham elementary schools, changes her table artist each year so by the time a student finishes 5th grade, they will have been introduced to at least 20 influential artists. She asks of the students, "Do you think these artists knew each other?" and shows a map of Europe to help the students learn where France is located in relationship to Russia. While they are learning art history, they are also studying world geography. "I integrate cultural, scientific and historical context into the art projects. This is really important to me," Bielenberg told me as she prepared for the first day of class last week.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Bielenberg, a 23-year veteran teacher and an art specialist for 10 years in the 9-R School District, was selected as the district's elementary school "Teacher of the Year" for 2006. This honor, bestowed upon her by the nonprofit organization

Durango Foundation for Educational Excellence, is one of the ways that remarkable teachers are recognized within the school district. Bielenberg feels honored to receive the award and she believes it does more than recognize her teaching ability. "The award acknowledges the importance of the arts in education."

Much of the appreciation Bielenberg receives comes directly from her students. Things like being given a drawing that says, "I love you, Miss B" from a first-grader or being told by another student that she should be on TV, let Bielenberg know that her teaching is directly affecting students.

Other praise comes from those she has taught. Earlier this summer, a former student approached Bielenberg on the street to share her excitement over recently being accepted into a gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyo. "I was her first art teacher," said Bielenberg, with pride, "and I know she went onto high school here and probably studied under Jan Yost - what a lucky girl to have been a student of Jan's."

Yost taught art at DHS for 10 years before dying of a rare heart condition in 2002.

Bielenberg's respect for others, her modesty and a willing enthusiasm for another's success are just a few of the qualities that make her an excellent teacher. A child-like excitement surrounds her as she talks about the online art gallery, Artsonia, where her students' work is on display. As she navigates the website and stops at specific art pieces, she offers comments like, "Oh, Sally is such an excellent artist," or "Jason really worked hard on that project."

A fifth-grader puts the final touches on her stabile./Photo by Jared Boyd

Bielenberg's respect for others, her modesty and a willing enthusiasm for another's success are just a few of the qualities that make her an excellent teacher. A child-like excitement surrounds her as she talks about the online art gallery, Artsonia, where her students' work is on display. As she navigates the website and stops at specific art pieces, she offers comments like, "Oh, Sally is such an excellent artist," or "Jason really worked hard on that project."

It is remarkable in itself that, with more than 550 students each year producing 12 to 16 projects each, Bielenberg remembers Jason's trials with a specific piece of art. This is a sign of a truly engaged teacher. 4

Many of Miss B's cheerleaders are parents of her students. For Barbara Heinrich, an artist and parent of two Animas Valley students, Veronica and Jacqueline, the Teacher of the Year award was no surprise. "Sandy really is an exceptional teacher because she helps students eliminate their fears and any other barriers to their self expression and guides them to their best work. Her students get excited by the art-making process and produce amazing projects. She is wildly creative in how she uses materials. Sandy is the real deal."

Sandra Butler is an artist, art educator and the parent of Alicia Whiteman, who was a student of Beilenberg's at Needham Elementary for the last couple years. As a sculptor, Butler is interested in three-dimensional art works and "has been blown away" by the 3-D projects that Bielenberg assigns to her students, like making paper moccasins. "What she wants to instill in the students is a lifetime love of art," she said. "I think that's huge." Most encouraging to Butler is Bielenberg's focus on self-expression. "Success is a guideline in Sandy's projects, but what she really supports is freedom of expression."

Bielenberg feels blessed to be working with children and seeing them grow through the years. She loves most aspects of her profession, she said, however, there are challenges to confront. Facing annual cuts in her art-materials budget, Bielenberg has gotten really creative. Last year, she was able to supplement her budget with an extra $430 from sales of her students' work through the Artsonia website.

Beyond budget, Miss B finds teaching kindergarten most challenging. She tells with a smile on her face, "This year, with 25 four- and five-year-olds in my Animas Valley class, when one child asks to go the bathroom, I know it's all over - they all will want to go!"

In between bathroom breaks, Bielenberg will instruct the youngest students in important life skills such as respect for art tools. Teaching how to care for paintbrushes, she offers little stories like, "Mister Brush doesn't like to be upside down in the swimming pool." Bielenberg was delighted when a fifth-grade student, remembering the kindergarten tale asked, "Why isn't there a Mrs. Brush?"

This kind of spunky inquisitiveness is just what Bielenberg looks for in evaluating her impact as a teacher and mentor. "I want to offer students opportunities to problem solve and think outside of the box - these are signs of their creativity as much as making a great painting." Her teaching philosophy radiates from her outlook on life. "My goals for the students are that they have fun, be creative, and see things in a new way, always."

The bigger picture perspective is paramount for Bielenberg: it is absolutely clear to her that she is teaching life lessons through art. "Students don't have to grow up to be artists as a profession to be creative. It's a way of seeing and a way of being that's important to have in life. I want kids to carry with them an appreciation and love for art and to make it a part of their lives forever."

To view examples of Durango area elementary student artworks, visit www.artsonia.com. Reproductions of any student's work can be purchased on mugs, T-shirts, note cards, tote bags, and mouse pads. A percentage of each sale through Artsonia is donated to the student's school art program.

 

 

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