Unless you discovered the internet in the past five minutes, you already know about Cassie Stephens. Cassie is a powerhouse within the art education world. In addition to being active on all of the social media platforms, she has a frequently updated blog that showcases her highly original projects, vibrant classroom setup, and various fashion statements. Even though she is one of the most popular figures in our field (her Instagram account has over 50,000 followers), she seems to possess a very down-to-earth sensibility. It is easy to infer from her videos and blog posts that she is an extraordinarily energetic, ambitious, and inspiring teacher.
Cassie earned a BFA in painting and a BA in art education from Indiana University. This will be Cassie’s 20th year teaching. She has taught at a few different elementary schools, all located in or near Nashville, Tennessee. In 2017 she authored a celebrated book on ceramics entitled Clay Lab for Kids: 52 Projects to Make, Model, and Mold with Air-Dry, Polymer and Homemade Clay. Be sure to stay updated via her blog and social media accounts: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.
I don’t know about you, but when summer arrives, I totally switch gears and do things unrelated to teaching (camping, gardening, etc.). What did you do this past summer?
This summer was a bit unusual for me...normally, I’ll travel. Like last year when my mom and I went to Italy (if you really wanna find out how much your mama can wear out your last nerve, take her on an overseas trip). Or usually, I’ll lead a PD. But this summer, honestly, I just wanted to veg out and declutter. If that doesn’t make me sound like a party animal, I don’t know what does. But 20 years of thrift shopping, art teacherin’ and, honestly, hoarding, means you literally can spend an entire summer dejunkin’ your life. So that’s pretty much all I did...I DID do something super fun and exciting but I’m not allowed to talk about that for a while...so NEXT QUESTION!
When I first discovered your blog and Instagram account, it was immediately clear that you love fashion. You actually make a lot of the clothing and jewelry you wear. Have you always had this passion? Which fashion designers have particularly inspired you along the way?
Since high school, I’ve always wanted to stand out. My goal was always to be different and weird...which wasn’t very hard to do in rural Indiana in the early ‘90’s. Back then, everyone was wearing Guess jeans and ESPIRIT t-shirts while I was rockin’ some mens polyester plaid golf pants and 70’s style platform shoes. Not my best fashion moment but I didn’t care. As long as I was different, I was happy.
When I got my first art teaching gig, however, I started thinking I needed to dress the part. So, I’m sad to say, there were a lot of pleated khaki pants and jean jumpers. It was a really low moment in my life (ha!). But I couldn’t keep the crazy underwraps for long. I started with fun artist shirts, unusual earrings, a funky necklace...and I noticed that the kids really responded to it. And I felt more like my “weird” self.
I’d always wanted to learn how to sew. ALWAYS. But it wasn’t until my 30s that I finally got my kitten mittens on a sewing machine. I remember it sat in the box for nearly 6 months before I opened it and made my first item of clothing: an apron crafted from a vintage sheet I found at the thrift store. It was truly love at first stitch.
From there, I made more aprons, the sillier the better. One that made me look like I was a turkey, another that had me looking like I was wearing a guitar with a pair of jeans that had an “Art Rocks” patch on them. My confidence grew as I sewed more and more. I knew I had no idea what I was doing and I knew I didn’t care. I was having fun.
A game changer for me was going to the Christian Dior exhibit that was here in Nashville. I’ve always loved 1950’s style clothing...but these garments were breathtaking works of art. Would you believe that people HATED his designs when they first came out in the late 1940s? It was considered uncouth to use so much fabric as he did for his large circle skirts in light of the fabric shortages during World War II. People threw paint on models wearing his dresses. His fit and flair design is my constant inspiration.
Do your students get excited about the outfits you wear? Have you found a higher level of engagement because of this?
Oh, man. My students are my BIGGEST critics. First of all, they’ve informed me that for Wacky Tacky Day, I should just wear a pair of jeans and a t-shirt as that would be “wacky” for me. Recently, I wore a couple of artsy t-shirts with skirts and I had a student pull me aside and say, “Are you not dressing up this year?!” I have to bring the crazy for them. They definitely inspire me everyday!
Fashion is, of course, an art form. I also notice that your clothing is often art-themed. Do you put an emphasis on fashion because of its educational potential, or is it more of a personal interest (or a combination of the two)?
So here’s how I approach my lesson planning/personal art making: When I think of a lesson or an artist or a process that I want to share with my students, I also start thinking of a fun outfit I can create to wear. I do this for selfish reasons: I love to create clothing! And I know I’m a far happier teacher if I’m creating. I like to imagine it like this: if I am planning a lesson, I am traveling on a path towards the end goal of a great project for my students. If I can also have my creative path running parallel to this, meaning I am creating an ensemble that I’ll wear to teach in, then all of my creative juices are flowing towards the same end goal...a fabulous lesson for my students! I get excited as I plan and as I create...which means I’m super stoked and passionate when it comes time for me to introduce my lesson.
For this reason, I always try to mesh my creative path with that of my teaching path. I’ve noticed that, for me, ideas are like a ball rolling down a hill. The more push I can give it in my creative life, the faster that ball will start going...and the more ideas will come to me. Whether that be in teaching or creating. This may all sound super crazy...but it is what I’ve learned works for me. And that’s the key: finding what works for you so that you are creating and teaching, both!
I feel like you possess a really big persona. Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, and Yayoi Kusama all had or have unique personas along with a singular sense of style. Maybe there is an interesting connection there. When I talk to my students about these artists in particular, I often mention that it takes a lot of courage to put oneself out there like that. Uniqueness is celebrated in the art world but is not necessarily celebrated in other areas of society. I think you also have a lot of courage, but I’m curious if you’ve ever encountered moments in your career when you’ve been met with criticism or negativity from people who just didn’t understand you.
OH MY GOODNESS, you don’t even wanna know. Well, I guess you do or you woudn’t have asked. Yes, yes and yes! I recently read a quote that I think of often: “You will be too much for some people. Those are not your people.” This is so true. I once received a very unkind email from a fellow art teacher in my district questioning my dedication to art teaching. In a large art teacher Facebook group, I was continuously “shamed” by another art teacher who called me an “art clown” (still not sure if that was an insult or a compliment...I’m going with the later). And, worst of all, there was once an entire Facebook group that tore me to shreds, going as far as to say things about me that were so personal and unkind it was shocking. I was hurt. I cried a lot. I found friends who let me know that it was okay...that those were not my people. Being who you truly are is never easy. Not everyone likes different, likes folks who they can’t label, likes “extra”. And that’s okay. Just like they always write in your high school yearbook: Don’t Ever Change! With lots of hearts and swirls, of course.
When I see pictures of your classroom, I think of these words: bold, bright, saturated, lively, playful. Could you explain why the classroom environment is so important?
Because I gotta live in it day in and day out! Last summer, I walked into my art room and it was like I was seeing it for the very first time. There was so much visual clutter! Meaningless posters! Junk everywhere! On a whim, I started tearing things off the walls until I was left with a blank slate. My custodian buddy, Mr. Joe, said to me, “Now what, Stephens?!” And that was the beginning of a new art room for me. I decided no more cute clutter...I was going to decorate to educate. And I slowly started transforming my art room into what it is now. Rainbow Brite Meets Lisa Frank on a Lucky Charms Marshmallow Cloud...or something.
It seems like you are always coming up with new, ambitious lessons. Do you think it’s important for art teachers to challenge themselves with new projects every year, even if it requires extra prep and the possibility of failure?
I really like sharing new lessons with my students and I really like trying new things. It’s what makes going into my art room exciting! YES, it does require more prep...but I don’t mind most days. Those days I do mind, I’m kicking myself for sure! There is always the possibility of failure. It’s then that you can turn the bomb into a teaching moment for the kids. I COMPLETELY forgot all of the sewing supplies for my fourth graders just last week. So I decided to try out a new toothpaste batik method with them. It was a total BOMB. The stuff never seemed to dry, the bottles kept clogging and yet...we had a blast. We just rolled with it and I told the kids, look! Mistakes happen! All the time, even to old crazy art teachers.
Do you make your own work? Do you think it is important for art teachers to maintain a studio practice?
I try too...but I’m currently working on a couple of projects that are keeping me out of my creative space and it’s driving me nuts! My own work, as you can imagine, is usually clothing. I love sewing, needle felting and applique. Basically, fashion. That’s what I love.
You seem incredibly busy. Do you have any advice concerning work-life-balance?
I literally have no balance. My best advice is to put down the phone (I’m working on that!), get rid of cable, stop cleaning your house and consume insane amounts of coffee. Suddenly, you’ll have more time than you ever thought possible!
Seriously, carving out creating time for yourself is the most important thing. It will help you unwind, generate ideas for the classroom and just feel good. Creating is why we got into this field...it’s important to try to do it daily, even if that means making a nice meal for the family or a cute poster for your art room!
What advice would you give to a first year art teacher?
ENJOY EVERY MOMENT and write it all down. You’ll never have this first year back! You’ll have the most fun, be the most frustrating and feel so rewarded by the hugs and the love from your students. Get lots of rest, take lots of vitamins and wash your hands CONSTANTLY. Kids are basically oversized germ balls. With witty comebacks and cute faces.
Who are two art educators that you find particularly inspiring right now?
I’m constantly inspired by my friend Lauralee Chambers. She’s a veteran teacher like me and does some amazing things with her students. Like, amazing. Like, throw your phone across the room and say “DANG, LAURALEE! STAHHHHP!!”
Also, my super sweet friend Ginger Pacer. She’s a good friend of mine and just an incredible middle school art teacher. She also makes me wanna throw my phone but I love them both for it!
What are your two all-time favorite projects that you teach? Why are these your favorite?
FIBERS! FIBERS! FIBERS! I love sharing my passion with my students. So anytime I can share weaving, sewing or fabric painting/dying/application, I’m excited. I’ve got a TON of vidos on my YouTube channel featuring my fibers lessons. It’s such a practical skill and that all of my students love learning.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve encountered within this profession and how did you navigate them?
Bullies. It’s tough working in an environment where you are surrounded by women, I’m not even gonna lie. What no one tells you is that it’s gonna feel like junior high all over again some days. But you gotta rise above it. Stick to the reason you are there: to teach art. It’s okay to say NO to supply, poster-making and other random requests. You don’t have to be everyone’s best friend. You do have to to your best to teach those kiddos to live and think creatively. Steer clear of the drama and the bullies and you’ll be fine.
Do you think assessment is important in the art room? What does this look like in your class?
I have 30 minute art classes for my younger students...so assessment is tough. I want them to get in and get to creating. So I assess as they are working. I walk around, scoot in their chairs, remind them how to correctly hold a paintbrush, a pencil, a whatever. And as I do that, I assess. Who needs to sit near a peer model? Who needs a little more time being reminded how to mix colors? Who needs more practice with those scissors? Our students are all different learners. It’s so important to get to know them and their needs. For me, assessment is more than just what is required of us by our admin. It’s getting to know our kiddos as growing artists.
Is there an exciting trend happening right now in our field?
I dunno. I’m gonna sound real jaded here: I’ve been at this gig for 20 years. New trends are sometimes just repackaged goods with a new name and a splash of glitter to get everyone excited. Find out what is exciting to you and your students and set your own trends!
Within the profession, what issues do you think art teachers need to be talking about most right now?
I feel like we need to be finding ways to connect more with our students. To tie their interests, passions, concerns, etc. into our lessons. We need to dream up ways to engage our kiddos on their level...so that art becomes a vital form of self expression for them. I’m also passionate about instilling kindness, understanding and an open mind in our students. How can we tie those vital life skills into our lessons? That’s what is on my mind lately.
There has been a huge push in education over the years to implement prescribed curricula with little or no room for teacher-driven content. This seems to be more apparent with classroom teachers than with specialists, although the trend among the latter is growing. What are your thoughts on this? Do you believe art teachers should have total control over the curriculum, or should there be an established curriculum put in place by the district?
What’s this thing called a “curriculum” you keep mentioning?! Seriously...what bothers me most about curriculum is that it’s usually written by folks so far removed from the classroom that they’ve not a clue. NOT.A.CLUE. You know your students. You know what they need to learn in order to be creative thinkers. Take that curriculum with a grain of salt. It’s important...but you, the art teacher, you are vital. Don’t forget it.