Art: another way to learn at Oakleigh Elementary

Grade 1 students Karley Miceli, Zoe Ragland-Haines, Anders Peterson, Jordan Mackey, Nafia Blackshear, and Cameron Zeiler with teacher Laura Patacca-Kerr

Inspired by contemporary artist Jasper Johns, Oakleigh Elementary School art teacher Laura Patacca-Kerr had a group of kindergarten students create oil pastel and watercolor wash pieces based on their birthdates.

Reinforcing their classroom lessons on numbers, Patacca-Kerr and her students talked about the sequence of numbers and how the months correspond to numbers. Using her birthday, October 11, Patacca-Kerr created a sample painting and then the students began working on their own. As she moved about the room, Patacca-Kerr noticed that six or seven of the students were also using October 11 as their birthdates, too. After a visit to the front office to find the correct birthdates for all of the kindergarten class, the students were able to finish their work.

Teacher Laura Patacca-Kerr assisting grade 1 student Nathan Fitzgerald
Grade 3 students Julianna Rossi, Chelsea Lacy, and Travis Shurman with teacher Laura Patacca-Kerr
Teacher Laura Patacca-Kerr assisting grade 3 student Holly Lafferty
Teacher Laura Patacca-Kerr with kindergarten students Jacob Bieschke, Jordan Riley (raising hand), Jacob McEntire, Isaiah Powell, and Sade Blackwell

Art is integral

Patacca-Kerr is very clear that instruction in the arts is not “an extra.” She sees it as an integral part of the overall educational experience.

“At the beginning of each school year,” she explains, “all of us – art, music, library, and physical education – send a request out to the classroom teachers to tell us what they will be teaching and when. I know that it takes the teachers a lot of time, but it really helps us.  It gives us time to do research and plan lessons that support and enrich the same concepts and information.”

The benefit of this, Patacca-Kerr notes, is that “when children learn about the same subject or ideas in different ways, they learn more and they take more ownership. The knowledge sticks with them.”

It also helps students who learn in different ways. For example, Patacca-Kerr says, “My son can just hear something and understand it. I have to see it and do it to learn.”

Linda Popp, visual arts coordinator for Baltimore County Public Schools, elaborates on this subject: “Educators need to be able to address the diverse learning styles of students.  Teaching students the core curriculum through an arts integrated approach provides opportunity for students to express their comprehension through a variety of modalities. The arts are recognized as a serious subject in its own right, and as a part of a proven strategy to improve student performance in the other core subjects.  Arts integration is one of the most effective ways for a wide range of students with a wide range of interests, aptitudes, styles and experiences to become active learners taking responsibility for and ownership of their own learning.  The arts produce a genuine synergy between content areas by engaging multiple modes of inquiry.”

“While learning in other disciplines may often focus on development of a single skill or talent,” Popp continues, “the arts regularly engage multiple skills and abilities.  Engagement in the arts nurtures the development of cognitive, social and personal competencies.” 

According to Oakleigh Principal Sylvia Lemons, what goes on between the visual arts teacher and the other subject areas reflects a schoolwide approach to learning. “All of my teachers and staff here – including library/media, technology integration, music, art, and gym – collaborate and combine classes and subjects to reinforce learning. They go far beyond the call of duty, often working with students before and after school. Their efforts are greatly appreciated by the parents, who support our students by getting them here to take advantage of additional learning opportunities.”

As examples, Lemons mentions that the gym teacher works with a fifth grade teacher on an afterschool basketball program that also ties in mathematics and character development. Student members of the library club get together with librarian before and after school to learn how to shelf and catalog books and to participate in book talks. Students come in before school for jazz band rehearsals.

In addition, Lemons notes that the arts are well recognized at the school. “The band sometimes plays in the lobby as students enter the building. Artwork is displayed and rotated throughout the school, and we note, on students’ report cards where their artwork has been displayed.”

Inspiration found everywhere

In addition to finding inspiration for her lessons from the classroom teachers and the BCPS curriculum, Patacca-Kerr says she finds inspiration everywhere – “from conversations, things I see, workshops, other teachers, the Internet...”

Below Patacca-Kerr describes some of the projects her students have created this school year – many of which were recently on display at the administration building of the Baltimore County Public Schools headquarters, known as Greenwood.


Wrought iron. During spring break, Patacca-Kerr took her first trip abroad to visit Italy, through an international art teacher exchange program and Arts Education in Maryland Schools. Inspired by wrought iron she saw in the Liguria region of Italy, she used a technique learned at a conference to have her students to create wrought iron-inspired pieces using glue, cardboard, gold paint, and black shoe polish.


Feathered masks. This project was created by a student teacher working with Patacca-Kerr. As part of a larger project for the Very Special Arts Festival, students in the intermediate Functional Academic Learning Support(FALS) program studied pictures of birds and used those pictures as inspiration to create birdmasks using textured painting techniques and then adding embellishments. “The music teacher taught them a song and dance about birds, and they performed it while wearing their masks at the festival,” Patacca-Kerr says. “They were really good.” The primary FALS students got involved, too. They made hats in art class – using cardboard planters, faux birds, twigs, and goggles, and they participated in the performance as birdwatchers.  


Birdhouses. This was another project for the intermediate FALS class, as a part of their study of birds. After the students finished their bird masks, they painted birdhouses. “It was an opportunity,” Patacca-Kerr says, “for the students to practice using the ruler to measure, find the midpoint, and create triangles.”


Parade. “This was a project that was introduced to me at an art education workshop,” says Patacca-Kerr. The project allowed students to practice their listening and visualization skills. There were given verbal descriptions of each character in a parade. For example, the first character needed to be the student holding a flag with his or her name on it, and the fifth character needed to be similar to one of the creatures from “Where the Wild Things Are.”


Polar bears. The first graders looked at pictures of polar bears in lots of different positions and had to come up with their own compositions and environments for the polar bears. “I taught the students how to draw using basic shapes and how to use the overhead and do tracing,” Patacca-Kerr says. The lesson took place right around winter solstice so the class also studied the northern lights and used shaving cream and water color to try to illustrate that phenomenon.


Native American ledger drawing. One day when she was online, Patacca-Kerr saw an item about an exhibition in Washington, D.C. about Native American ledger drawings. The exhibit turned out to be too small to be worthy of a field trip, but Patacca-Kerr was inspired to learn more about the artwork that 19th century Plains Indians created on ledger paper. “Working on this project included learning more about Native Americans,” Patacca-Kerr explains. “We read a few Native American stories, and the librarian helped the students write haiku based on what they had learned.”

Reading and writing are often incorporated into Patacca-Kerr’s lessons, according to Lemons. “Mrs. Kerr will often take her students to the library to research history and culture related to art projects and will often have them do short writing assignments to accompany and be displayed with their artwork.” 

On becoming an art teacher

A graduate of Perry Hall High School, Patacca-Kerr has been teaching for 20 years and has been with Baltimore County Public Schools since 1996. Although she always wanted to be an art teacher, she took a slight detour in college, earning a degree in fashion and then working in the field. After becoming a mother, she returned to college to earn her certification in arts education and had the opportunity, when she came to work for BCPS, to work alongside two teachers who she had as a BCPS student – Charlie House and Vera Causey.

Patacca-Kerr is always searching for new ways to teach students the important concepts they need to know, and for ways to use the process of making art to teach life lessons. One of these, Patacca-Kerr says, is to use art as a way to practice revising and editing, “teaching them that that is part of the process.” One of the sayings she teaches them is “Make a mistake? Make it great!”

Lemons also notes that Patacca-Kerr continually seeks opportunities for students to display their artwork and participate in art competitions, including having their artwork on display at the statehouse in Annapolis and as part of the Blooming Artists Youth Show in Salisbury, Maryland.

Story by Diana L. Spencer, communications officer. Photos courtesy of Oakleigh Elementary School.
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