This month’s interview is with the Taipei based art teacher, Stephanie Lee. Stephanie is a very inspiring educator for several reasons. When looking at the projects she posts on Instagram, one can see that she crafts her own, singular projects. Additionally, most of these lessons fall under the theme of environmental awareness. The projects exude a charming, youthful spirit, and I can only imagine how much fun the students are having in her class.
Stephanie has been teaching art for over nine years. She taught one year at a middle school in Singapore and has been teaching at the Taipei American School in Taipei, Taiwan for the past eight years. In 2008 she received her B.F.A in Painting, with a minor in Art History from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2010 she received her Master in Teaching Art and Design. Be sure to check out her Instagram account to stay updated on all of her awesome projects!
Stephanie, you are currently teaching in Taiwan, and before that you were in Singapore. However, you went to college in the states at RISD. Can you tell us about your art ed experiences growing up in Asia?
I was born in California and my parents decided to move back to Taiwan when I was eight, and it was a culture shock but my parents did their best to make it better for me by sending me to an international school. I think at the time when I was growing up, most Asian parents encouraged their kids to work towards a more practical profession like doctor or engineer. Luckily, my parents were the type that would send me to art classes instead of cram schools.
I didn’t attend a local Taiwanese school growing up, but hearing stories from my cousins who did, art was basically taught by the homeroom teachers, you had to bring your own art supplies to class and the way you really learned art was to go to a private art studio or art school. There aren’t any regional or national art standards in Taiwan, you were assessed based your technical skills which I found to be rigid, boring but fundamental. I also went through the same training, and that’s definitely affected the way I teach art now days. I try to find a balance between keeping things fun while introducing important art skills.
I was never a math or science person in high school so ending up at RISD was the best thing that happened to me. I loved the idea of being able to make art everyday all day! And I totally went crazy signing up for as many courses as I could which have really helped broaden my knowledge for art and I often draw from these experiences to develop art projects for my students.
You teach at an American school. Does this mean that your students are American expats? That sounds exciting, given their unique backgrounds. What is it like?
Yes, we have kids from many different cultures here and there are also kids like me whose parent were originally staying the America and decided to move back to Taiwan. It feels the same as going to school in America but with some Asian culture mixed in.
I love how you incorporate the theme of environmental studies. Has this been a passion of yours for a long time, or is it a specific theme at your school that you have to embed in your curriculum? If it is a passion, how did it come about, and when/how did you start incorporating it into your practice?
I love choosing different topics to tackle every year, and this year we decided on an environmental theme. Kids get to study the theme in more detail and discover all kinds fun ideas that can be derived from the theme.
The latest project I saw you posted on Instagram involved making fish from plastic bags and straw wrappers. The results are so stunning and vibrant. In the post you state as a caption: “Plastic bags are one of the main causes of marine pollution. It’s often mistaken as food by marine animals and fatally ingested”. This statement is very direct and alludes to the dire ramifications of pollution. However, I love how you strike that balance between the appealing aesthetic of your projects with the more serious conceptual messages. They both depend on each other: the aesthetic beauty of the work gives the underlying concept more gravity. Is this an intentional aspect of our teaching philosophy? Can you describe your approach to writing lessons?
Yes, I think it’s important to grab the viewer’s attention first as a part of getting your message across. I didn’t want our environmentally related projects to seem too depressing in a way that might scare the kids, so I tried to make the lessons fun and meaningful at the same time.
My lesson plans look more like inspiration boards with lots of notes, pictures, lists and basics steps jotted down. I think writing and drawing my plans on a sketchbook/ teacher planning book helps my brainstorming process. I can keep going back to it to see what I was planning in the beginning and see how much is has changed in the process.
Some of your projects incorporate issues around climate change. As you know, here in the US, climate change is, unfortunately, a political issue where people are divided over its causes or whether it is a problem at all. I am not sure what it is like in Taiwan, but have you ever had to navigate criticism concerning this issue?
Here in Taiwan, air pollution is an important debate topic for our upcoming political elections; some people believe it is not that serious but many people complain about having to live with it on a daily basis. I haven’t gotten any criticism for our projects so far in school only a few from my instagram account, and I welcome what critics have to say because that creates great learning opportunities for my students. I think it’s important we teach kids how to use art as a platform to discuss and think about important society issues instead of avoiding the subject all together.
Do you have any exciting plans or goals for the future in regard to environment-related lessons? Any big projects you are scheming up?
In March, we’re inviting a pair of artists that create environmental themed art to work with our kids but we’re done with our environmental theme and moving onto clay projects now. As for big projects I’m scheming up... to be honest I don’t have clue yet, I’m still brainstorming for our next art theme, it usually takes me all school year to decide on a theme and then I do most of my research in the summer when there’s a lot of free time.
Do you think it’s important for art teachers to challenge themselves with new projects, even if it requires extra prep and the possibility of failure? Do you remember at time when you have failed teaching a project?
I think it gets boring for everyone if we always see the same projects every year. So having a new theme every year is also a great way to expose students to different perspectives and ways art can exist in our world. It’s definitely a lot of extra work to plan new projects so I also throw in a few old projects to give myself some breathing space. I think making a teacher sample before teaching a project can help limit some failure but I do encounter failure even after lots of preparation.
During my first year of teaching, we were making straw blowing paintings in 1st grade and I didn’t expect the kids to mix all the colors up into brown, luckily we were able to turn the brown straw paintings into trees.
You have a B.F.A. in Painting from one of the most prestigious art schools in the US. Do you still make your own art, and if so, do you think it is important for art teachers to do so?
Yes, I love creating giant oil paintings especially of koi fish. I’m currently busy pursuing another degree so my time for making personal art has been limited to small paintings and sketches in my sketchbook. I do believe it is important for art teachers to be making art and it’s a great way to stay in tune with the art world and find stories and ideas to share with students.
What advice would you give to a first year art teacher?
Try everything, and definitely teach things you are passionate about.
Who are two art educators that you find particularly inspiring?
@2art.chambers- love the style of her projects and how easy she makes it for other teachers to understand her lessons.
@art _with_mia - love her colorful take on everything from her outfits to classroom to art projects!
What are your two all-time favorite projects that you teach? Why are these your favorite?
I teach this seashell project every year to 1st grade. We start off by drawing seashells from observation and then the kids learn to blend watercolors on their seashells.
I taught this gem and crystal project to 4th grade for our STEAM themed exhibition one year. The kids started out by drawing geometric shapes with a ruler and pencil. They learned about analogous colors and applied half of the spaces on their gem with tempera paint. Then filled in the rest of the spaces with watercolors while using different watercolor effects such as adding salt and blending colors. For the last step, the gems were traced with gold or silver pens.
What about technology in the art room? Do you think it should be a focus?
No, I think it’s a great tool for researching, making or enhancing art but I don’t believe all projects should be centered around technology. I think the traditional skills such as drawing, painting, and sculpture are valuable hands-on art learning experiences for kids that can’t be replaced by technology.
What has been your most rewarding moment as an art teacher?
A graduating student made me a card with a piece of her art project from her time in my class in Kindergarten.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve encountered within this profession and how did you navigate them?
I have a long list and some of the things I would include are… working with difficult students, being bullied by older art teachers, self taught myself ceramics when I first started teaching, having limited art resources, almost blowing up someone’s hand when we were figuring out how to connect lights on a lantern, and working up the courage to invite professional artists to work with my students. I’m always looking forward to seeing how projects turn out and the learning experiences they bring to students so I tend to stick through difficult situations.
Is there an exciting trend happening right now in our field?
Is there a trend that you disagree with or have mixed feelings about?
Not really, I think all trends are great! That’s what makes teaching art so much fun and full of possibilities!
Within the profession, what issues do you think art teachers need to be talking about most right now?
At times, I feel like schools don’t value art as a subject worth learning. When people talk about the STEAM curriculum, art is a subject that often gets left behind. I saw an educational book that had been as labeled as “STEM” learning while it contained activities teaching kids how to make projects involving art! I think they need to start changing the label from “STEM” to “STEAM.” And I also think there could be more collaborative work done across different subjects at schools to highlight the equal importance of the A in STEAM.