Connecting Through Art
Pamela Stephens: PhD
Assistant Professor of Art Education
College of Arts and Letters
Pam Stephens, an associate professor of art education at Northern Arizona University, is passionate about teaching art teachers how to do two things well: to teach any subject through visual arts, and to teach art so that everyone can enjoy it. As an author, Stephens employs a similar approach: to date, she has produced nine books and videos in the widely praised Dropping In On series, which provides relevant art education materials for elementary school classrooms around the country. And, after nearly two decades of teaching art education, Stephens has continued to develop and expand a network of professional art educators who rely on her as a mentor. It is in her role as a mentor, says Stephens, that her work begins.
"I learn all of their names," Stephens says of her NAU 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."
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 great 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 NAU'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 teacher, 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 "What I found was very outdated," says Stephens.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." The series has been very successful in getting children hooked, and she is about to start production on her ninth book and video.
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."
In addition to the Dropping In On series, Stephens has also written a book that correlates art and math entitled Tessellations: The History and Making of Symmetrical Designs, and a teacher text that is now in its second edition: Bridging the Curriculum through Art. She also writes a regular column for the national online publication, Art Teacher Round Table.
Stephens is confident that her integrative approach to teaching art is what sets Northern Arizona University students apart. In fact, Stephens notes that in one week at the end of last year, six out of seven of her spring graduates received job offers, and one of them was offered three jobs in Arizona. 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 is also known to leave the university classroom, heading out into community schools to see the latest methods, resources, and technology 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.
"The younger students are so used to technology—it is engrained in their lives," she says. "In one class, for example, I let the students use their iPhones to play 'name the artist.' They texted one another to try to figure out the image, and I know they will remember the images we looked at."
Going forward, Stephens says she will remain committed to education through art. She will also remain passionate about her role in 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."