Helena Magazine

School Q&A: Michelle Branson, Helena High School art teacher

Published 10:47 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2024

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Michelle Branson, Helena High School art teacher, talks the role of art in the classroom and about her winter painting experience lesson taught at the high school.


Can you tell us how long you have been involved in education as an arts teacher and what inspired you to pursue this career path?

My first teaching job was with Shelby County Schools in 2012. I was an elementary art teacher split between 2 schools which was really hectic, but I knew immediately that I was in the right profession. I made the switch to high school in 2015 and it was a perfect fit. As far as why I ended up in art education, I have always loved art and been a little bit of an idealist. I need to feel useful and I get bored easily when things get too monotonous or quiet. Obviously teaching art to a room full of teenagers is anything but quiet and monotonous so no worries there. I’m a practicing artist and passionate about my own work so it is just totally fulfilling to be able to be there to foster that in my kids. I feel so lucky because I get to support them as they figure out what their place is in the world and what kind of human they want to be. Sometimes that is through art specifically and other times it is just through being a supportive presence. I say I have the best job on the planet all the time and I mean it.

Could you describe the winter painting experience lesson and its objectives for our readers, as well as the types of techniques that were utilized in the class?

The main objectives were just to give more students an opportunity to paint and to give me an opportunity to get to know them. I have found that doing a step by step paint-along increases confidence and decreases ‘painters block’ so that people can just enjoy the act of painting without fretting about ‘doing it wrong’. For this class, I broke down the painting into very specific, small steps so that students could work more independently. We talked about how to create the structure of a tree and how to blend paint to create a gradient. This painting class offered the opportunity to create that perfect balance between structure and choice that results in a successful painting that has original touches. Each painting had personality and the kids were so proud.

What feedback, if any, did you receive from the students who participated in the class?

During the painting process, every student was on task and happily painting. I think that the effort students put into their artwork is really the biggest testament to whether or not they are enjoying the process. I took photos of each student with their work after the class and they were just so obviously pleased with the results and ready to show them off!

While overseeing the class, what would you describe as your favorite aspect of teaching the groups and seeing the students work?

One of my favorite parts of teaching is seeing the moment where someone just locks all the way in and truly is just focused on making their vision happen. Seeing students have fun and take pride in their work is just the best. I really think that moods are contagious and it was a joy to just see all that positive energy seeping out into the school.

Is this an ongoing lesson program or is this winter painting experience the beginning stages of new work with these students?

We plan on doing another paint-along in April or May. It is hard to do regular sessions with this group because it has to take place during my planning period. For now, the plan is 2 days of painting in the fall semester and 2 days in the spring semester.

In general, how do you encourage the creativity and individual expression of your students and how do you feel generating art affects these qualities in your students?

I believe that visual art is just another language that I am trying to teach my students to communicate fluently in. Sometimes words fall short and that is where the magic of art lives. We start with learning the building blocks of technique, so at that point I am just asking them to pick things that reflect their general interests in aesthetic preferences. Eventually though, I am asking them to combine what they know about things like color association, visual symbolism and specific techniques to really send a message. I try to consistently ask my students why they are choosing things, what are they trying to say, or what vibe are they trying to evoke. Sometimes they just want to make something that looks cool and that is ok, but sometimes they are really trying to send a message about how they view the world and those are my favorite pieces!

How have you addressed making art accessible to all students regardless of their different learning styles and various abilities?

I am a firm believer in the fact that you do not have to be super talented or great at drawing realistically to benefit from art. The great part about the visual arts standards is that they encourage artistic behavior and thinking. I think that most people think that art classes are all skills based, and don’t get me wrong, we hit technique really hard in those beginner levels, but that is just so the students have as many tools as possible to get their vision across. I rotate from table to table as kids work so that I can jump in and re-demonstrate skills or help students talk through a problem they are having with their project. I also encourage each table to think of themselves as a team and offer advice and reminders to each other when needed.

How has teaching art to a variety of students impacted you personally and professionally?

Professionally, it keeps me on my toes. I learn more and I stay sharp by having to change how I present a lesson or explain a skill. I never want to stagnate and teaching a variety of students with a variety of needs makes me a better teacher and communicator. Personally- It just brings me joy. I love helping people make things that they are proud of or that they didn’t think they could do. I love being close by when a student makes their first piece of personally meaningful art. I love getting to see those technically talented students hone their style and find their voice. There is just so much inherent value in each type of achievement and I’m super lucky to have a job that is so varied and never dull.