Art teachers exchange ideas to inspire students at annual conference

BY Lauren Wanko, Correspondent |

Some paint while others cut and glue. Their creations eventually come to life on the canvas.

“This is really where innovation happens, where you are using your imagination,” said Kristy Lopez, state co-chair of Youth Art Month.

More than 600 people participated in the annual Art Educators of New Jersey conference. The AENJ is a professional organization for art educators from public and private schools, museums, universities and more. It’s an opportunity for teachers from all over the state to share new ideas they can bring back to the classroom.

“You always learn from each other, and whether you’ve been teaching for 1 year, 10 years, 20 years, there’s always something new,” said Youth Art Month co-chair Karen Mannino.

“I want them to be energized and for them to have a sense of community and have a sense that they have an abundance of materials that they can now explore with their class, and that they can execute it and then showcase,” said Lisa Conklin, president of Art Educators of New Jersey.

There’s a variety of lectures on research, curriculum development, student assessment and more. There’s also hands-on classes where teachers can become the students.

“You actually learn how, step by step, to make the project. And you know the procedure for it, so when you go back to your school and turn key it for your students, you know what worked for you, what didn’t work well for you, what you would have to adjust for your students,” Mannino said.

The theme of this year’s conference was “Made in New Jersey.” All of the presenters have a Jersey connection. Artist Mel Leipzeg lives in Trenton.

“I think art is very good for all students,” he said. “First of all, everybody can create art. It’s not an elitist thing; you don’t have to be great or anything. It’s just the doing of it that’s important.”

There’s also a workshop for college students from a variety of different schools who are all studying to become art teachers. They learn how to write the lesson plan and then they practice teaching that lesson to their peers, like illustrations for fourth graders and weaving for sixth through eighth graders.

“Writing the lesson plans is very important because not only are you doing a process of art, but you’re learning how to make it measured and structured that students are able to have a take away of not just the process but critical thinking behind that,” said Krystle Lemonias, a student at NJCU.

“I want my students to get a passion for creativity, looking at something a different way in no matter what they like, dealing with a situation and trying to problem solve,” Conklin said.

“They’re building their confidence in the art class. It’s not just about whether they can replicate a van Gogh. It’s whether they can mess up and try again. Or, if they messed up, how did they fix their mistakes, or what ideas can they take to their next project,” Lopez said.

As for the teachers’ next project, they now have a number of new lessons to choose from.