It’s day one of Ms. Kammerer’s annual collage self-portrait project and a room full of first graders looked stumped. The assignment: Represent yourself using construction paper and scissors. The catch: No pencils allowed.
“The kids are used to engaging with materials in a very specific way,” she explains. “Draw a shape. Follow the lines with scissors. Glue it all together. Take away the pencil and suddenly they’ve got to really think.”
As the kids stare at rectangular sheets of paper, doubtful the blank pages could ever take the oval and round and heart-shaped contours of their own faces, Ms. Kammerer sprinkles clues. “I’ll eventually clue them in that they can cut the corners off a square to make a circle,” she said. “It blows their minds. Then the creativity starts to bubble up.”
It’s no surprise that creative sparks fly in Ms. Kammerer’s classroom. Her school, Success Academy Harlem 5, is short on space, which means she has to provide an outstanding art education to her 402 students without the luxury of a dedicated art classroom.
So, like cutting off the corners of a square to turn it into a circle, she makes it work. Ms. Kammerer floats through the hallways as a sort of traveling teaching artist, pushing into classrooms with a cart full of paintbrushes, wet wipes, construction paper, and all the other supplies each class of scholars will need for that day’s project. The best part? There are two of her.
As Ms. Kammerer zips around each classroom setting up materials for her pint-sized artists, a recording of her explaining that day’s work plays on the screen at the front of the room.
“Anyone under 12 is obsessed with YouTube,” she explains, “so I basically made myself into a YouTube star. I record my lesson launch in the art closet, then play it for the kids. And I try to really ham it up: ‘Hey guys, what’s up, welcome to the Art Closet.’ At this point they may actually think I’m famous.”
By the time the demo is over, scholars turn back to their desks, where materials have miraculously appeared, and dive right in to the day’s project. The idea to operate this way was inspired by Ms. Kammerer’s colleagues, who often capture their lessons on camera, then send them around for quick feedback from fellow teachers or the school’s principal.
“Art is all about seeing the extraordinary in the mundane,” she explains. “You see an art closet. I see a recording studio.”
The other things Ms. Kammerer sees? Extraordinary growth in her students.
When the students are in third grade, they do the same portrait project again. “The first time around, it’s so beautiful to watch them experience a new material for the first time, and master news skills,” she said. “It’s like watching a moving documentary. Then we do it again and I’m so blown away by how much their skills have grown,” Ms. Kammerer said. “It’s a very charming and personal project, and it says a lot about the specific scholars in the way they represent themselves.”
Though Ms. Kammerer gives the credit for all that growth to the kids, the school’s principal, Molly Cohen, says Ms. Kammerer’s work has made a difference that the whole building can feel. “Ms. Kammerer is such a special force,” she said. “Her creative, engaging touch extends from her classroom to the hallways at our school.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Many of the kids practice their art on the weekends, transforming kitchen tables and home office desks into makeshift art studios, just like Ms. Kammerer does. “They’ll come to me and say, ‘Look what I did over the weekend. I was practicing how to draw eyes,’” she said. “It’s inspiring to see them so engaged with their own artmaking and having that motivation to practice the techniques on their own. That’s what I’m most proud of — not necessarily the products they’re making, but that dedication to to their own progress.”
This is the inaugural edition of our “Teacher Feature” series, where we’ll highlight the stories of teachers who inspire us with their brilliance, passion, and dedication to their students. To nominate a teacher, email Elora Tocci.