DEXTER, MI – After getting a job in advertising and working at an art center in Southern California, Jane Montero got an unexpected request from her senior art director to teach his class of college-aged students.
Montero had no formal teaching experience, but she created her own assignment on the spot and fell in love with the profession, prompting her to enroll in the University of Southern California, where she earned a master’s degree in education.
More than three decades later, Montero is in Dexter, teaching art at Creekside Intermediate School, where she had to adjust on the fly again to teach digitally when in-person classes were shut down last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Montero went to work assembling at-home art kits so her students could still have a hands-on creative experience, and she created two-minute videos on the elements of art and principles of design for students to view from home.
“They’ve really learned a lot of independence,” Montero said Thursday, Sept. 16, as she watched her class of sixth-graders make digital mosaics in an in-person class. “Sometimes I’m not available to help them if they were doing things at home. More than that, what they have really learned is to advocate for themselves.”
Montero’s adaptability and flexibility has earned her the Middle Level Art Educator of the Year award from the Michigan Art Education Association. The honor goes to exemplary art educators who increase public awareness of the importance of quality art education and set standards for quality art education.
With the new school year kicking off with in-person classes, the balance between digital learning and hands-on activities, like sculpting and painting, is more apparent than ever. For instance, students take their Chromebooks to peers’ desks to show them their progress and offer suggestions.
Ask Montero’s students which types of learning they prefer, and you’ll get a resounding, ‘both.”
“A thing I loved about the digital was even though we weren’t there, she gave us these kits with a bunch of supplies,” said sixth grader Alexis Gramling, who has her own art channel on YouTube. “I love how we don’t do just one thing the entire day. We get a nice variety of things and you do a bunch of different projects that you wouldn’t do normally.”
Montero has taught art to Creekside’s fifth- and sixth-graders since 2001. She’s also been the department chair for special areas at the school since 2008.
Artwork from her students over the years decorates Creekside’s walls, including clay tile work from a 2011 class depicting ancient civilizations. Large murals, created collaboratively by her classes, are throughout the building’s front entrance.
Montero’s goal, now that students are back in the classroom, is to teach students life skills that graphic design offers, while giving them time to delve into their own creative pursuits. Students in her classroom work on multiple assignments, taking a few minutes to free draw toward the end of class.
“It’s just about allowing kids to have choice and create,” Montero said. “If they want to paint rather than oil pastel, in the past I might have said, ‘No, no, this is painting only.’ This year I’m about giving more choice.
“It’s really to feel safe expressing their creative ideas, because if you are fearful of anything, you’re less likely to do it. If they can feel comfortable in the art room and comfortable with each other, that’s going to help them express themselves better.”
Throughout the 2020-21 school year, Montero spread her ideas on teaching virtually at several virtual state conferences, including being one of two keynote speakers at the second Online Art Teachers K12′s summer professional development conference.
Montero is a 2019 graduate of the National Art Education Association School for Art Leaders and serves as the elementary division chairperson and a region liaison for MAEA. She’s been teaching since 1989, with the first 12 years of her career being in her home state of California.
Throughout her career, Montero said she’s gotten the most satisfaction out of seeing art foster creativity and expression in her students.
“I like when they feel good about their work and they show their homeroom teacher and show their mom and dad,” Montero said, taking a break from teaching students how to create digital mosaics in Google Draw. “That, to me, is promoting a creative spirit.”
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