The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

The best and worst day of teaching art in the first year

My blog posts lately seem to be somewhat on the negative side lately… I thought I might lighten the mood a bit by describing some sparks of hope in that first semester that helped me remember the reason why I went into teaching in the first place.

Best Day of the First Semester of Teaching:

I remember a day just before Thanksgiving. Volleyball had just finished up (Did I mention that I also coached volleyball that first year? Busy busy!), so I had a moment to breathe before the end of semester. 

My art students were finishing up value study project where they used many different pencils to to create an abstract drawing of sorts. (It was called “Shattered Values” here is a link to a lesson plan that I found for it. My example is posted here.) One of my male students had just about finished it up and I remember him saying, “This is really cool Mrs. Lewis! I didn’t think I could ever do anything this good.”

Awwww, I think I lived on those words for a solid week! It is so gratifying when you actually get proof that what you are doing is making a difference! We don’t often get these little nuggets when we need them. And I need to remember them when things get tough!

Worst Day of the First Semester of Teaching:

Since I described the best day of that first semester, I thought I would also give you the worst day of teaching, which actually makes me laugh today. Funny the way that looking back at something tragic can be comical…

My worst day needs a little context: about a week before this unexpectedly terrible day, I was doing a “Frosting Color Wheel” with the intro class. I know that it seems a little juvenile, but kids of all ages love frosting and cookies! 

Anyway, I started the project by handing out Nilla Wafers and little cups of frosting. Then one of my paras who was with one of my functional special education students pulls me aside and asked me if I had anything alternate for her student since she had a condition that restricts her diet, so I pulled out some colored pencils and had her draw a color wheel and color it in on that paper. 

So the main portion of the students were mixing frosting colors and eating cookies while she colored here color wheel. No problem! Nobody complained and it seemed like a perfectly fine class period.

Well…apparently, she (the student) had a bit of a break down after school in the middle of the street and wouldn’t even get into her mom’s car. She had a lot of pent up anger and energy!

About a week later, I am summoned to go to a meeting that took my whole plan period and a little of my lunch time in which they had a specialist from New York talking to me and her other teachers about the necessity to NOT have food of any kind in the classroom. My art project was brought up several times and I was on the verge of tears by the time I left the room.

When I finally was released, I rushed as fast as I could to my room, picked up my bike and started for home (I lived close enough to bike, an excellent perk for working in a small town). I was riding as fast as I could so that I could scarf something down before I had to go back to school again. 

But before I got home, I got stopped by a cop. "Can I help you?" I said.

“You sure can!” he said with as much contempt as he could muster. “You ran that four way stop back there! You need to make sure that you stop and look for cars. Don’t be a danger to yourself and others!”

He may have said more, I can’t remember. I think I mumbled an “Okay,” and then went inside to cry through my lunch period. The worst part of it all was, I had to go back to school, AND go to volleyball practice after that!

Wow! It takes a lot longer to go through a bad day than it does a good day…I guess details are just still very vivid. But like I said, it is comical now. I mean, where but a small town would you get stopped on your bike by a cop!

Do you have any inspirational first year stories you’d be willing to share? Or can you top my no good, terrible, very bad, day? Leave me a comment! I’d love to hear them!

For the Overwhelmed Art Teacher's First Month

For the Overwhelmed Art Teacher's First Month

I have spoken about my graphic design and digital photography classes in previous posts, in this post I want to give you a full picture of what the rest of classes looked like in those first few weeks (because I taught MANY classes).

Art 1, 2 and 3

These were the classes that I felt most confident in. I actually had them make a sketchbook and started weekly sketchbook assignments on top of the projects I had them doing. I had them sketching out complex concepts and techniques that would correlate to their projects…but that kind of backfired on me. 

The sketchbook was not something that they were used to, so when I came in and told them that they had to do one every single week…it went about as well as asking a chicken to sneak through a bubble wrap covered cornfield.

I think I also had higher expectations than the previous teacher; raising expectations will always come with pushback. I asked my advanced class to fill out a project proposal to explain what they wanted to do for each of the 5 projects that they wanted to complete that semester. Between that and the sketchbook, you would have thought that I was asking them to run a marathon!


Ah, and then there was yearbook. I’m not sure that anything stretched me more in that first year than my yearbook class did. It was completely beyond me. I had never worked on a yearbook in my life. Ever. I really had no idea where to start, and while our Jostens rep was incredibly kind and helpful, it always just seemed like too much. I wanted to do it right, but I didn’t know how to go about it. 

The kids didn’t help, they were mostly concerned about making it look pretty and making sure that their pictures (of themselves) looked good. *sigh* Looking back at that class makes me grimace! 

So that’s all my classes and the overall feeling of that first month or so of school. I was barely treading water, but treading I was. I felt like I was constantly getting dunked and gasping for air, but I was surviving. Sometimes, unfortunately, that is the best you can hope for.

I thought I might share some of the things that I think really helped me through this first hurdle of my first teaching job:

  1. A very understanding, listening husband. If you don’t have friends or family that you can reach out to, reach out somehow and find some. Even if it happens to be virtual. There are several Facebook groups geared toward art teachers that can empathize, offer advice, and “be there” for you when you feel particularly overwhelmed.
  2. Prayer. Seriously, some days it was all I could do.
  3. Chocolate. Lot’s of chocolate. I am surprised that I didn’t gain 20 pounds in that first month alone!
  4. Reminding myself of why I was in this in the first place: I love art! I love inspiring creativity in others! I love to teach people how to do art! Don’t forget that crucial point!

Does anyone have anything to add? Do you have any stories of that first year that you don’t mind sharing?

That First Month of Digital Photography

That first month of school can be a real kicker! Especially when you've never taught the subject before

In my last post, I talked about my experience with graphic design in that first month of school. In this post, I will talk about how my digital photography class threw me for a loop.

Luckily, I actually did know how to take a quality picture, I had grown up doing photography for 4-H and knew a couple things about composition at least. However, I quickly learned that knowing how to take pictures didn’t mean that I knew the best way to teach someone to take pictures!

There was also the fact that this class also used Photoshop…which I knew nothing about. So now, I am trying to teach kids how to use their cameras, how to take a quality picture and how to use Photoshop…AND for some reason, students really didn't want to take pictures for their photography class (I really don’t understand this). Even today I have some students who simply do not take pictures for me. (You are in a photography class for crying out loud! Does anyone else have problems with this?) Weird.

Anyway, my one saving grace in this class was my very first project. I decided to do something experimental called the “camera in a room”. Here is a link to the lesson I created and here is a link to an example of it on YouTube. It went off really well and the kids truly did enjoy it.

After that, things kind of went downhill. I mentioned my difficulties with the computers in the last post, but it wasn’t just that, it was also that I just couldn’t get kids to take pictures, I couldn’t understand it! Looking back now, I think it was partly lack of motivation on that (there will always be lack of motivation when it comes to high school students), and partly my inability to explain what I was expecting from them.

It was just a huge circle of confusion that I am not sure was ever broken…those poor students in that first year …well, let’s just say that things have improved exponentially since then- for all parties involved! 

If you want to check out my digital photography lessons, here is a link to the library. Again, browse the videos for free! 

That First Month of Graphic Design

Surviving that first month of teaching graphic design.

I already briefly went over my first day of school, but I wanted to talk about the first month or so some of the specific classes that I taught. I already briefly went over my first day of school, but I wanted to come back to it again and discuss some of the specific classes. Looking back on this has really shown me how much I have grown and learned in the past 7 years. It has really been an enlightening experience for me.

With nearly every class I taught, I would play the "what if" game.

  • “What if they ask me something I don’t know?”
  • “What if I mess up and they find out I don’t know what I’m doing?”
  • “What if I fall over in front of the class and get embarrassed?”
  • “What if there’s a fire and the building caves in while I am teaching?”
  • (ok, the last one is fictitious, but you get the idea.) I let my mind wander to great lengths before reeled myself back in and took a deep breath. 

Let’s talk about Graphic Design first. I was way over my head on this one! Not only did I not have any experience with the Adobe suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc.), but the last graphic design class that I had taken was in my 1st year of college and it was mostly done on paper, not computer!

I mentioned in my last post that my computers started to go on the fritz after just that 2nd day. I was having lag issues, I wasn’t able to make some of the functions work in the same way as I could on my teacher computer, and I had not one but 2 classes of graphic design that first year.

I even had an advanced class in graphic design that I felt completely inadequate to teach. They knew more about the programs that I did and they didn’t mind telling me so! They did not, however, know much about graphic design. I think last year’s teacher just let them play around on Photoshop and pretty much left them alone.

During that first month, I would spend every evening trying to figure out what in the world I could teach and learn how to do it myself, and during the day I bumbled through trying to teach them what I had learned and run around like a chicken with my head cut off to try to troubleshoot and make sure that the whole class had learned the concept before I moved on. Not an excellent existence, I assure you.

If someone had offered a readymade graphic design curriculum to me that first year I would definitely have taken it! (Though, I probably would have struggled through the first couple weeks or so before my stubborn personality would have allowed me to consider it.)

I certainly felt confused and defeated, and if this sounds like you, too, feel free to check out my library of lessons (browse the videos for each lesson for free). If you like them, go ahead and sign up for the free resources below. There is no obligation to buy from me, just check it out and see if it is right for you.

There are bumps and bruises to be expected along the way for all careers. If it wasn’t a challenge, then it wouldn’t be worth pursuing! 

Getting prepared: The summer before that first year teaching

Getting prepared: The summer before that first year teaching

As I entered the summer before my first year teaching, I was excited and I thought that I was prepared. My schedule was full; I would be teaching graphic design 1 and 2, digital photography, Art 1, 2, and 3, and yearbook. Writing it all out like that sounds overwhelming, but by the end of the summer, I had done some research and made some plans for the first month or two of class and I felt relatively confident.

The first day of school arrived sooner than I would have liked, but as I said, I felt fairly confident in what I was doing. After day one, I was doing ok (that was mostly going over the syllabus, after all). After day two, I knew that more than half of the plans that I had made for that first month needed to be scrapped. 

My first digital photography lesson was pretty much finished; I had planned a week for it. My first graphic design lesson didn’t even get off the ground because half of the computers were not working and I couldn’t teach my lesson due to troubleshooting issues. And yearbook, well, to say that it didn’t start off well is an understatement. The yearbook from the previous year was basically a scrapbook with mediocre pictures. I had hoped to change things for the better, but it was going to be a long road as I was already meeting resistance. My art classes went well enough, but I was pretty stressed due to all the other craziness of the day.

The truth was, nothing could have prepared me for what lay ahead. Not only had I never even heard of Adobe Illustrator, but I had never been in yearbook class or worked on a yearbook before. The most I had ever done with yearbooks is flip through the index of my own high school yearbooks to see what page I was on, glance at the pictures, and then flip to the back with a pen for my friends to sign.

Your experience may be different, but two and a half months was not enough for me to prepare for that first year of school. I probably could have had 365 days to prepare and I am not sure that it would have been enough. There was simply too much to learn, and most of it, unfortunately, needed to be learned through experience.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a very encouraging post for those of you just starting out, but fear not! I will not leave you hanging! Below is a list of MUST DO’s when preparing for that first day/week of school. Some are things that I wish I had done, some are things that I am glad I did do.

  1. For high school classrooms: have a SOLID syllabus for each class. Include what you expect from them, a brief section on “rules of the class” and how you will be grading them throughout the semester. I also have them and their parents sign and return the last page of the syllabus for 5 points. The nice thing about that is that you have your first grade in the grade book without having to grade anything! (BONUS! I have linked my graphic design syllabus here for you to use as a reference!)
  2. Have a general plan for the semester. No matter what grade level you teach, a plan that maps out where you think you want the semester to go. Don’t try to do the whole year, that can be overwhelming! You can guess if you need to on how long you think a given lesson will end up being and you can change the plan as needed. (BONUS! I have liked the simple excel document that I use in the notes here!)
  3. Breathe! If ever you feel stressed or overwhelmed about the coming of the first day of school, just step out of planning/lesson creating and take a walk, have a drink, make some art, or whatever else you do to relax and come back to your work after an hour or a day. Remember: this is why you went to school and you will be awesome!

Don't forget to check out my free resources here, and if you are a veteran, I'd love it if you would share your experience from your first days of school! If you are just starting out and have some questions, I'd love to answer some for you!

How it all started

how it all started: Tips for your first interview for the art teacher hopeful

I want to back up a little this semester and talk a bit about my first years of teaching to encourage those of you who might be in that situation currently and provide a little nostalgia for my veteran teachers!

I’d like to roll the clock WAY back for you, let me take you before my art teaching career, to the beginning of my journey. I always knew that I would be doing something in the arts after high school. I thought about being an actress, then a vocalist, finally finding true passion in the arts. I have always valued creativity and I love the way that art can allow people to release and create something that they maybe didn’t think they could previously do. Thus, my clear choice was art education.

I had a typical college experience, the university taught me how to technically become an art teacher, but when it came to actually teaching…let’s just say that I think I can speak for many teachers of all fields when I say that I learned more in my semester of student teaching than I did in 4 years of school. They should really get teachers into the classroom sooner, I think, but that is a topic for another day…

Toward the end of my college career, I entered the completely foreign land of job searching! I got the suit (and/or borrowed one from my sister) and started sending out my resume. I interviewed at every possible opening that spring. It didn’t matter if it was somewhere I specifically wanted to teach; every interview was an opportunity to get some experience.

Maybe it has not been your experience, but I found that art teaching jobs were few and far between, although, there were some jobs that stayed open for a while due to the fact that the school was located in the middle of nowhere…which was undesirable, to say the least.

I finally did get a position after about a month and a half of searching at a small 3A school about 30 minutes south of where I was living. I was really excited, even if it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, I’ve really enjoyed working there for the past 7 years.

So since this is the time of year that people might be job searching, I thought I might put my thoughts out there for best tips in an interview (even if my experience might be a little limited). Here we go:

  1. Be professional. I know that this is one that they always say, but it really makes a difference. Not only in the eyes of your potential employer, but also for you. If you feel the part, you will be more likely to act the part.
  2. Map out how to get there at least the day before. Not just the location on the map, but also which door and room that you need to meet at. I was almost late to my first interview because I didn’t know which building in which I was to be interviewed. I wandered around the wrong school for about 10 minutes before someone found me and helped me! I felt so silly!
  3. Know your strengths and come with visuals. I put together a little portfolio not only with my artwork, but also with student artwork that I had compiled from my student teaching.
  4. Lastly, be yourself! They want to know who they will be working with for the upcoming year, make sure that you don’t promise things that you can’t perform on or pretend that you are more or less than you are. Be truthful, but be confident.

I am sure that my list is not the most professional of lists that are available, but these are the things that I believe landed me my first position in teaching and I hope that you find them helpful! 

Stay tuned for my next installment next week when I talk about how I prepared for that first year of teaching. I’ll discuss some dos and don’ts and what I learned along the way.

If you found this post helpful, leave a comment below, I would love to answer any questions that you have or even hear some of our stories (horror or success) when it comes to interviewing for a teaching position.

SIMPLE Portrait Photography

Simple portrait photography for beginners

portrait examplesIt’s ALIVE! So you have taken still life photos, are you ready to delve into photographing something that moves?!

For portrait photography, we will be using similar lighting techniques as we did with the still life photo assignment. You’ll take a photo outside, inside in front of a window, and in studio light. Check the Still Life Photography blog or lesson for a few lighting tips. For starting off, I use the same techniques for both Still Life and Portraiture.

Below are a few points for taking successful portrait pictures. This is not exhaustive by any means, but it should be a good list to get you into the door.

  1. Do whatever you can to make your subject comfortable. Choosing someone you know will help you with this.
    • As much as possible you want their smile and movements to seem natural. Making them laugh would be the best way to make their smile most natural.
    • You could give your subject some gum or something to hold in his or her hand to make them feel more comfortable.
    • They don't have to look at the camera. You could give them fixed points to look at in the room/wherever you are.
    • Remember that the more relaxed you seem to be the more relaxed they will feel. 
  2. Check the background. Make sure that you check the surroundings so that nothing will distract from your subject. If there are bright colors behind them, shift yourself or them to omit them. Check for mergers.
  3. Check your camera. If you are just using a point and shoot camera, set your mode to portrait. If you are using a DSLR, try setting it on the manual mode Av and use a low F-stop. This will make for a fast shutter and a shallow depth of field (so your background will be out of focus. You should also use a longer focal length lens if you have one available. You will have to back up from your subject a bit more, but it will also help to blur the background and control the light.
  4. Set the white balance. Be sure that your whites are white so that your colors are true. Use a white card and have your subject hold it in front of him/her to check for a good white balance (HINT: the card should be white :).
  5. Focus on the eyes. This is essential. The subject’s eyes must be in focus. They say “the eyes are a window to the soul” and as such, they are incredibly important to your portrait. Their eyes should not only be in focus, but they ought not to be shadowed because we want the focus to be on the eyes, no matter how you choose to pose your subject.

Keep all these points in mind as you take your portrait pictures and remember all the lighting tips given for still life photography can be used here too. Take pictures outside, in front of a window, and in studio light with one lamp and a good reflector.


This Week’s Assignment:

Take 3 good pictures or your subject using 3 different lighting situations: Outside (either in the sun or in the shade), inside next to a window, and in a darker area with one studio light. If you feel proud of your pictures, choose your best shot and post it to Instagram with #DigitalArtTeacher. Take at least 10 photos for each subject. Remember, focus on the eyes!


Capturing Texture

How to use texture to both show surface detail and give background information about an object.

texture examplesFinding texture in photography adds a certain appeal to your images. Everything you see has a texture, and photographing to capture that texture can make your images much more relatable to the viewer.

For example, instead of taking yet another cute picture of your nauseatingly cute house cat, what if you zoomed in on the nose or eye to capture the texture there. Or instead of taking pictures of the brick wall, try focusing in on the metal grate that protrudes from the side of the wall. Would that make for a more interesting image?

There are two topics that we will discuss here: capturing only the detail of the object and using the texture to convey information about the object(s) in the scene.


This type of texture photo is focused entirely on the texture of the object. The viewer may not even be able to tell of what object you have taken a picture. It is quite similar to the macro-mode challenge I wrote about in an earlier blog post.

When you are simply capturing surface detail, the object itself is unimportant, the texture is the main thing. You will need to use your macro mode for this shot. (see examples 2 and 4)


Another technique for capturing texture would be to choose an object with a texture which gives the viewer information about the object. For example, the tiny edges of the edge of a feather blowing in the wind or an abandoned rock query used for light rock climbing and hiking. In these examples, the texture is helping to tell the story of the object. It tells us what it has been through and it's purpose.


In order to capture the texture most effectively, you will need to consider the light you use. Usually, a side light helps to emphasize the texture. The shadows cast across the texture helps to emphasize the details in it. Whether you use hard or soft light is up to you, it depends on how dramatic you want the end result to be.

Texture really is everywhere, but you may have to look closely to find it. Remember to use your macro mode! Try to find texture in unlikely places!

This Week’s Assignment:

Take 2 good pictures demonstrating texture. One should focus entirely on the detail and the other should use texture to give information about an object. If you feel proud of your pictures, choose your best shot and post it to Instagram with #DigitalArtTeacher. Take at least 10 photos for each subject. Feel out some texture!

Still Life Photography

How to choose items to photograph for a still life photo.

Still Life ExamplesStill life photography can sometimes be seen as an ancient, lost art, but you see still life photography everywhere today. Whether you are trying to sell your own homemade items (like at or looking for a specific still life stock photography website (like still life images are still widely used in marketing and advertising.

For our purposes, let’s start with some basics. First, you need to choose some items to photograph. No…they do not have to be a bowl of fruit and a vase of flowers! Not that it’s bad, I just want you to be willing to stretch yourself and to know that still life photography can branch away from what might be considered “traditional”. 

Choosing Subjects

You want to choose items that tell a story. They should be related in some way. One tip to help you choose a song or a book title and find items that would illustrate said title. Another tip might be to walk around your house and choose related items, such as a bible, a pen, and an old lamp. Or you could look for sentimental items, like items that belonged to your grandparents. You should also avoid reflective objects when you are starting out, as they can be hard to work with.

In the example to the left, I have chosen to center my items based on the song "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by the Byrds. The song is about the passing of time, so I used items that were/are used by my children, me, my mother, and my grandparents.

Choosing a Background

Your background should be SIMPLE so that all of the attention can be given to the subjects of your still life. If you use a cloth background, be sure to iron it, nothing drags the attention away more than a wrinkly mess behind your subjects. It is also usually a good idea to choose a muted color for the background, again, so that we don’t steal the attention away from the subjects.

Choosing a Location

You can take a still life image anywhere, but we will talk about 3 general locations that you can take pictures. First, remember that natural light from last week? Well, we aren’t going to forget it anytime soon. You can take your items outside and place them in a location that makes sense for them, for example: if you brought tools for your subject, you might place them on a workbench. Whether or not you put them in the sun depends on whether or not you want that hard or soft light. 

Another location would be that natural light next to a window. Again, you could go for hard or soft light. You could set these items on a side table and have a wall as your background, or you could construct a lightbox with white walls so that you can have a completely white background. (more on constructing a light box in the still life photography unit)

Lastly, you could decide to completely control your light by placing your items under studio lights in a completely dark room, which actually isn’t as hard as you might think. All you need is a lamp and a reflector (again, more on this technique in the still life photography unit)

So gather up some items and shoot yourself some still lives! Just remember, look for related items, simple background, and complimentary lighting locations.


This Week’s Photo Assignment

Take 3 good pictures of your still life objects using 3 different lighting situations: Outside (either in the sun or in the shade), inside next to a window, and in a darker area with one studio light. To get more information on these three lighting situations, see the PowerPoint on still life photography (LINK). If you feel proud of your pictures, choose your best shot and post it to Instagram with #DigitalArtTeacher. Take at least 10 photos for each subject. 

Using Natural Light

Learn why using NATURAL LIGHT is an excellent option for beginner photographers.

Natural light examples Being as the definition of photography is literally “to draw with light” (in Latin), you better believe that controlling light is really important! There are lots of different directions we could study when talking about light in photography, but for now, we are just going to study one category: natural light.

Natural light is the easiest light for a beginner to master. Below are a few different conditions in which you might take pictures and why you might want to take pictures there. 

Full Sun (Hard Light)

Taking pictures when the sun blaring down on a subject can result in some pretty dramatic photos, but sometimes it can be a little harsh. Perhaps that is why taking pictures in full sun is considered hard light. To an untrained eye, full sun may at first be appealing and would be appropriate for some situations, especially when you are trying to capture some texture (more on that in a later post). However, when taking pictures of people, the harsh shadows on the face can create the “raccoon effect" around the eyes, not to mention the likelihood that your subject will squint.


Shady/Cloudy or Dawn/Dusk (Soft Light)

Cloudy weather is a highly desired time to take pictures for most photographers because the lighting will be softer on their subject. The light will look different based on the time of day (due to where the sun is) and there are a lot of factors that might impact the way that light is portrayed (including your white balance). Taking pictures at dawn or dusk is considered the “Golden Hour” for most photographers because the light can really be magnificent in photographs. The color tends to be warmer and due to the placement of the sun, certain details can often be captured that may not normally have been caught. (This link gives excellent examples of the Golden Hour:


Indoors by a window (Soft or Hard Light)

If you want to take pictures indoors, an excellent option is to find a window so that your subject can still be bathed in natural light, even without being in the great outdoors. If you place the subject correctly, you can get some excellent soft light with this technique. However, if the sun is streaming in, you could have a lot of hard light falling on your subject as well. When you take images next to your window, be sure to turn off your lights, that way your subject isn’t getting any artificial light mixed onto them.

A tip for directing light: An excellent tool for directing light is to use a reflector. This could be a large piece of white paper or a piece of foam core poster board covered in aluminum foil. Which one you choose will depend on how much light you desire to have in your shot. The reflector is used to reflect the light of the source (for natural lighting: the sun) onto the opposite side of the subject. This is how you can get an excellent even light on both sides of your subject.


This Week’s Assignment:

Take 3 good pictures using different locations (or times) to demonstrate natural light. Take one shot for each of the locations listed above: full sun, cloudy/shade/dawn/dusk, and indoors by a window. If you feel proud of your pictures, choose your best shot and post it to Instagram with #DigitalArtTeacher. Take at least 10 photos for each subject. Go “draw with light”!