Enriching Our Scholars: 5th-8th Grade Arts Teacher Holly Sutton Shares Why The Arts Are Important

January 11, 2021

Holly Sutton’s 5th-8th Grade Art students learn about how to channel their creativity and their identities through the arts

Can you talk a bit about your background and what brought you to Alpha?

I’ve been in education for the past 8 years. As a child I was very much into the arts. I would get into trouble because I’d doodle into my notebooks instead of taking notes. I decided to study art history in college and loved learning about the history of visual cultures and the implications. After that I wanted to get into education and taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in Vietnam for over a year. I became homesick and decided to continue to teach ESL back in California. While this was extremely rewarding, I missed the arts and knew that I needed to receive my credentials in order to teach art.I need to get my credentials. I was given a position at a similar charter school and now at Alpha, I’m excited to continue my passion for bringing the arts to lower social-economic communities.

How much art instruction do our students get?

I teach my 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays for a 30 minute block. It’s been awesome that I’ve been able to see them so much consistently. Electives have become this place for students to become themselves and we’re able to build community in that way. 

What has it been like joining a team in a virtual space?

I moved to San Jose from San Diego. Not only am I joining a new team but I’m also in a physically new place. I never realized how special those physical connections with colleagues and those moments were. Despite never having met my team physically, there have been so many positives. I’m amazed by how creative and adaptive the human spirit is. People reach out to me when I look like I’m having a tough day. Those small actions mean so much. I love that we’re still finding ways to build community and connections even if it’s all through a screen. Two or three of my coworkers that I’ve never met in person, I would consider to be my close friends because of how much we’ve checked in with each other and supported each other. 

What has it been like to teach art in a virtual space and how are you keeping students engaged?

I knew the first thing I needed to secure was materials. My students need art supplies if they’re going to receive a quality education. I made sure that they received everything they needed to stay engaged. I’ve gotten creative with students showing their work through video or taking a picture and sending it to me. I would also have my doc cam to show different techniques. Despite not being able to walk around a classroom to give pointers, I am completely blown away by the work that my students have produced. 

You have had a lot of success with fundraising campaigns and have another one on the way, where did the motivation came from and how did that process work?

There’s always been this stigma around the arts – that it’s “free time” work. In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The arts directly involve critical thinking skills and an understanding of mathematical concepts. There are so many ways to interconnect the arts with other core content areas. 

I knew that because I wanted to instill a high quality art instruction, I needed to raise money to get supplies for my students. I put up a fundraiser on Donor’s Choose for $1200 worth of supplies and through my amazing community of friends, family, past coworkers, I was 100% funded in less than 24 hours. I also received additional gift cards and have been using those to send art care packages to celebrate any academic achievements they’ve had or even birthdays. I have this opportunity now, thanks to Donors Choose, to provide my students with access to a high quality education and an outlet to express themselves. 

No matter my students’ backgrounds or socioeconomic status, they deserve the right to have these materials. 

This is a challenging time for our students and their families, in what ways do you see the connection between creative enrichments and mental health?

Our classroom culture allows our students to express and share their feelings. We recently worked on a self identity water project to express who we are. I had the students in the chat express themselves with three words with some type of identity. One particular 5th grader privately messaged me about her sexual orientation. She’s so proud of it and doesn’t care what the haters say. She’s going to continue to be who she is. I’m honored to be able to provide these opportunities for students to share what they are cognitively going through and also to build community. 

Any final thoughts?

Arts tend to have this thinking of being a perfectionist. Students and adults are afraid to try the arts because they might think “I’m not good at it.” Whenever I’m teaching, I might make a mistake on the video and I say “hey that’s okay. It’s part of my process”. I consistently remind my students to embrace and approach the arts with a growth mindset. One person can think something is beautiful and another person can think it’s hideous. One specific piece can have so many interpretations and meanings. The arts and enrichment opportunities really give students a place to be themselves. 


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