Education Through Art

Pam Stephens, an associate professor of art education at Northern Arizona University, is passionate about training art teachers how to do two things well:

  • teach any subject through visual arts, and
  • teach art so that everyone can enjoy it

As an author, Stephens employs a similar approach. She has produced ten books and videos in the widely-praised Dropping In On series, which provides relevant art education materials for elementary school classrooms. After nearly two decades of teaching art education, Stephens has developed and expanded a network of professional art educators who rely on her as a mentor. Stephens says her real work begins in her role as a mentor.

"I learn all of their names," Stephens says of her Northern Arizona University students. "And we stick together long after they are out in the field because I care about each one of them. We talk, we meet, and we travel to conferences. We work out problems together. When students witness an instructor searching for answers right along with them, their own learning processes are validated."

Innovations in teaching


Beyond her role as a mentor for her university students, Stephens has also developed a critically- acclaimed video and book series that offers teachers and parents an innovative approach to educating young people about artistic masters and their work. The Dropping In On series provides lesson plans and guides, and brings to life famous artists, from Raphael to Warhol, through animated interviews and storytelling. Stephens conducts workshops across the nation on how to use her books and videos in the classroom, and is a regular speaker at professional conferences.

Stephens developed the series in collaboration with friend and artist Jim McNeill shortly before relocating from Texas to head up Northern Arizona University’s art education program. As she prepared to make the move, Stephens sized up the scope of art education materials available. She discovered that teaching materials, especially for K-3 teachers, were sorely lacking. "What I found was very outdated," says Stephens. "I also saw a need and value of teaching other disciplines, like science or math, through art instruction. So I developed materials that incorporated these ideas."

Through her series children learn to interpret and find personal meaning in works of art. "It's like playing detective, and they love it. A learning situation is created that empowers them in their own cognitive development. They'll 'get it' for the rest of their lives," she says.

In addition to the Dropping In On series, Stephens has written a book that links art and math entitled Tessellations: The History and Making of Symmetrical Designs, as well as a teacher text that is now in its second edition, called Bridging the Curriculum through Art. She also writes a regular column for the national online publication, Art Teacher Round Table.

Advocating for the arts


Stephens is confident that her integrative approach to teaching art is what sets Northern Arizona University students apart. In fact, Stephens notes that Northern Arizona University art education graduates are in high demand throughout the state and around the world, teaching locally, in other states, and in countries such as China, India, and Great Britain. Stephens believes her students' success comes partly from mentoring, but also from her insistence that students be advocates for the arts.

"It underscores my whole program—if you're not going to be an advocate, if you don't have that energy, then you're in the wrong place," says Stephens. "The visual arts are a hub for all learning. If we can put art at the core, everything can stem off of it. I can literally teach anything through the arts."

Stephens also regularly heads out into community schools to see the latest methods, resources, and technologies being used. According to Stephens, she returns with ideas for her classroom, and for Dropping In On. The goal, she says, is to stay current so she can better serve students.

“Technology is central to today’s art classroom,” she says. “Art education students learn to use electronic equipment, such as document cameras and interactive digital whiteboards, to better engage their future K-12 students with art.”

Going forward, Stephens says she will remain committed to education through art and helping others to learn. "Even after I leave the field, I see myself as always being a mentor," says Stephens. "I will always be there for my students."