Arts Education Education Reform Personal Teaching

A Tribute to Laura Chapman by a Former Student

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A former student who all’s him/herself “ArtTeacher” left the following moving tribute to our beloved friend and frequent contributor Dr. Laura Chapman. I wonder if she knew how many lives she influenced, how admired and respected she was? I learned from everything she wrote here.

ArtTeacher wrote:

I was an art education student of Dr. Chapman and her life partner, Patricia Renick from 1974-78 at the University of Cincinnati. We called Patricia “Pat,” and she was vivacious, loving, and upbeat. Her nickname was “Mother Art.” Even as adults, my classmates and I had difficulty dropping the “Dr.” because we held Laura in such high esteem.

I was the first Art Education major to graduate summa cum laude from the school of Design, Architecture and Art, and I still have her letter of recommendation that described me as one of the “brightest and best.” I felt as if I had failed them both when I quit teaching after being RIFed from 2 schools in 3 years.

In 2000 when I became an art teacher again, NCLB was in full force in Ohio, and I boldly phoned her to meet and catch up on current education trends. She laughed when I told her how she struck fear in our undergraduate hearts if we showed up unprepared for her class. She was interested in hearing that two of my 8th graders filled in their scan-tron sheets to create a smiley face and a penis. When I asked what on earth they were doing, one of them said that he was only there so he could attend the dance that Friday. “I happen to know this test doesn’t affect my GPA,” he told me, pointing a finger at my face, “It affects YOU, and I don’t care about you. You can make me come to school, but you can’t make me try.” I told Laura that surely the principals and superintendents would protest the obvious flaws in forcing a school in a rural, low-income area to improve scores on such a test each year, when students’ home lives were such a struggle. The next year I was hired by a surburban elementary school to teach art to over 600 fourth graders, many of whom became physically ill on testing days because they wanted so much to do well, the opposite of the other school.

In 2012 she sent an email asking me to describe how I’m evaluated, how many students I taught, budget, schedules, etc. for a research paper. She said, “The evaluation of teachers by standardized test scores and principal observations is going in the direction that hit the teacher at Oyler (a public school in a low-income area near U.C.). In fact, more standardized tests are in the works and scheduled for administration in 2014, grades 3-12, as a condition for schools receiving federal funds from the ESEA. New state mandates are getting on the books regardless of the governor’s political affiliation. Since 2009, Bill Gates who thinks he is qualified as an expert on education, had been funding many projects that converge on more data gathering and sruveillance of teachers and the overall performance of schools.” So you can see that even as a retired professor, Laura was right on top of everything that was happening, who was doing it, and why.

I started meeting her for breakfast every month or so, to fill her in on what was new at school, and she explained the agenda behind it all, and warn me about was was coming next. I used to awaken in the wee hours with the chlling thought that it was like the plot of a bad sci fi movie, where there seemed no way to effectively fight the evil forces that had taken over. I joined BATs about a month after it began, full of hope that all we had to do was reveal what we knew was going on, and our communities (and unions) would shut it right down. I had even greater hope listening live to the first NPE convention from my home as I prepared art lessons. I remember our union presidents promising Diane to stop accepting Gates’ money, then reneging on that promise three days later.

In 2014 Laura gave a lengthy slide presentation at the Ohio Art Education convention that was titled “The Circular Reasoning Theory of School Reform: Why it is Wrong,” explaining in part why SLOs and VAM were invalid measurements of learning. It was, as you can imagine, annotated like a Master’s Thesis. Her voice was weak because was suffering from COPD and recovering from a cold, but her presentation had an enormous impact. Immeditately afterward we art teachers attended a workshop by the Ohio Dept. of Education intended to train us to write SLOs for our K-12 art students. We nearly rioted. Yet, the following school year, I had to give a test to my fourth graders the first day of school over a list of art vocabulary words I was certain they would not already know. At the end of the year, I tested them on the same 15 words, and nearly every one of 850 students passed with flying colors. Yet most were upset to see their low scores from the beginning of the year. “I can’t believe I was that stupid,” one girl said. I told her that I had to show that she learned something from me, so she was supposed to fail the test the first time. “WHY would you DO that to us?” she gasped. Now we have opted for shared attribution, where 50% of my evaluattion as an art teacher is based on 4th grade math and reading scores.

My students look forward to art class, and I have lost no enthusiasm for teaching them. This is my 20th year at my school, and every year I have something new to try, something marvelous to experience with my students. I rarely miss a single day of teaching. My way of fighting back is to absolutely refuse to let anything dampen my love for teaching art. I actually feel lucky to be an insider during these years, to see and know that even with the most misguided of mandates, my colleagues and I show up every day for the children who come through our doors.

The last time I saw Laura was in late February 2020 when it was becoming obvious that teaching in a building with 2400 fourth, fifth and sixth grade students was putting me at risk for contracting COVID, and that our Saturday breakfasts must stop to protect Laura’s health. I held my breath and hugged her. My school shut down mid-March, and I was allowed to teach online from home last year — to about 900 students in grades 1-4. I sent long emails describing what that was like, and she was fascinated by my reports. She said she was picking up groceries, staying in her condo, and of course, continuing her research and advocacy. In the spring I asked if we could get together again, and although she didn’t say no, she closed by wishing me and my famliy good health and happy lives. I knew that it was her way of saying good-bye.

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