Artful expressions

Southwest High School art teacher named Teacher of the Year for Minneapolis Public Schools

One car in the parking lot at Southwest High School stands out from the rest. It belongs to longtime art teacher Cecily Spano.

Several of her students painted the vibrant car with their interpretations of multiple famous paintings for a &#8220crazy quilt” stretching across the car's exterior.

That's just one example of how Spano, whom the children at Southwest fondly refer to as &#8220Spano,” extends art lessons beyond the classroom. The popular 12-year veteran at Southwest was recently named the Minneapolis Public School Teacher of the Year for 2006, along with Amanda Martinson, Randall Hanson, David Hill, and Scott Kahanek. The winners receive $1,000.

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) high school seniors submitted teacher nominations along with essays explaining their choice for the award at the end of last year. Many students heaped praises on Spano, who they say inspires them, treats them like equals and makes them laugh.

Spano, a Longfellow resident, leads five classes including two painting courses and three International Baccalaureate (IB) art classes (IB is a program known for its academic rigor) or 140 students altogether. She also directs film club after school.

&#8220Right when I found out about it I was excited,” Spano said of the award. &#8220But then later I felt guilty because there are so many other people that deserve it. I know I work hard and am happy to find out that something is getting through for students.”

Southwest students have created an online community devoted to Spano on that reads, &#8220We HEART Spano.” One child's posting states, &#8220Ugliest cake in the world is baked. Hopefully, being an art teacher, she will see the beauty in it or pity me.”

A room full of art

The floor of room 114 at Southwest is streaked by paint marks. Cupboard and cabinet doors are wide open. Artwork is shelved, on display and stacked haphazardly all over the room, while bookcases are overstuffed. Miscellaneous objects such as plastic dinosaurs, Legos and a ballet tutu are scattered here and there.

Chairs in the room are hand-painted by students in bright colors and all different styles. Each year, the senior art students paint over undecorated chairs in the school. Over the past six years, about 150 chairs have been painted. The garbage can in the room is also adorned with pictures.

Even though the art department's budget is nearly nothing, Spano's room is a supply closet for random needs. People are constantly ducking in to borrow various items such as a TV or tape.

She's having fun while also striving to find ways to draw out talent. &#8220The main thing is just appreciating the kids. They're so funny, enjoying who they are and what they have to offer. In most assignments, I try to figure that out,” she said.

&#8220Art is important to me but not as important as giving them the experience of community with each other and working creatively,” she said. &#8220I'm using art to teach what's important.”

Often, her students can be found roaming the hallways, eyeing objects or scenes to depict. They've created snow angels outside; painted rapid strokes on monumental sheets of paper mounted from the wall (with a projected image on it); and installed video art in the halls.

They use house paint and other inexpensive mediums. &#8220I think it makes them more creative,” said Spano. &#8220We try not to see [lack of a budget] as a stumbling-block. They make stuff out of nothing.”

Her work

Spano's car includes images of the iconic farmer couple in &#8220American Gothic,” the poignant &#8220Girl with the Pearl Earring” piece, and other prominent works from Edgar Degas, Piet Mondrian, Leonardo da Vinci, Amedeo Modigliani and Henri Matisse, among others.

Spano's student-brushed car took six months to complete. One artist, Courtney DiPaola, a 12th grader at Southwest, said the idea was to put art in a place where nobody expects to find it.

Spano is married and has two young children. She has a B.A. in painting from the College of St. Benedict and a master's in education from the University of Minnesota. Most recently, she painted monumental canvases for a meditation on rippled waves in abstract swirls and dabs of light.

However, she doesn't paint as much as she once did because, &#8220I can get that kind of floating feeling from teaching. It's a creative process. That really keeps me going. It's very much an art form,” she said.

Right now, students in her fifth-hour painting class that lasts from 1:05 p.m. to 2 p.m. are incorporating text into artwork to achieve visual and verbal meaning. Tyrell Stewart, a 10th-grader, is portraying the familiar phrase, &#8220I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!”

Stewart said that before he arrived in Spano's class, he didn't know how to paint. Spano showed him how to use different brushes and improved his technical skills.

Similarly, Zak Christenson, a 12th-grader, said he's learned to think more deeply. &#8220Before this, I didn't take art seriously,” he said.

India Johnson, 9th-grade, summed up, &#8220For some teachers, teaching is a job. For her, teaching is really something she loves to do.”

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected].