Alexis Zaccariello, an art teacher at the Rochester Alternative Learning Center, made her way to Rochester in 2015. Zaccariello had taught in Ohio, her home state, since 1996, after beginning her journey in the Central African Republic as part of the Peace Corps.
“I always wanted to be an artist and actually never wanted to be a teacher because I thought it would be the hardest job,” she said. But after incorporating painting into her lessons as a science and environmental educator, Zaccariello never looked back.
Here, she discusses her time at the RALC, sharing student work, and teaching art online.
What drew you to the Rochester Alternative Learning Center?
I had always heard great things about the ALC. ... After applying for the position, the principal asked me to come on a tour, and honestly, I was sold when I saw the art room. It is really big and full of natural light. I also thought that it would be an amazing experience teaching art to students who are struggling with school. … What I ultimately ended up falling in love with was the students. They are bright, curious and so down to earth. They accept me and each other exactly how we are.
You share student work online frequently. Why?
I first started using social media as part of my job when we had a district-wide workshop where the speaker introduced us to Twitter. I found an amazing group of educators on Twitter who caused me to grow tremendously. But my students weren’t into Twitter. Instagram, on the other hand, was something that they did like and it is a great vehicle for the visual arts. I encouraged my students to share their artwork on social media and I encouraged them to search for other students and artists who they can relate to and learn from them.
There is a whole network of amazing artists throughout the world who are willing to share knowledge of their craft and lift other people up. I want my students to get hooked into that network and use Instagram as a tool for learning and evolving as creative individuals, not just using it as a place for posting selfies and following celebrities.
Does anything surprise you about what they create?
I am constantly in awe of the work my students make. I want it around me in my home and I want it to be all around our school. It represents the process of overcoming struggle. It is a release of tension and stress and can incorporate violent or graphic images which come from inside of them and is eases as it comes out onto the paper. It illustrates the desire they have to educate the community about social justice issues and unfairness. It reveals the beauty and imagination that is inside of them, even though they may not recognize it yet. The first year I taught at the ALC, I was caught off guard with some of the content the students incorporated in their art, but I am not shocked at anything anymore. If a student is perseverating over something, I would much rather that it come out in their art than stay locked inside, even if it may be considered “inappropriate” by some. I post student work on social media because I want them to see their work showcased and I want them to see each other’s work. I think there is something special about seeing your work in a public forum like that. That is why I also display student work in the skyway (Art in the Sky).
How has the pandemic forced you to change your teaching strategies?
This last year has really caused me to grow a lot as an artist and as a teacher. I also found that I incorporated more structure into my teaching which is very different from the way I teach in person. ... I would model strategies and techniques for them and coach them, but ultimately they had to figure it out on their own.
Have you learned anything you can use even outside of the pandemic?
I hope to continue letting students problem-solve more on their own. Of course, though, I will be happy to be able to understand their struggles more and demonstrate in a more immediate way some ways to solve their problems. I think that the pandemic has made me a better teacher. I am more aware of what students’ home lives are like. I feel like I got to know a different side of my students and I am grateful for that. I really want to be able to keep some of the best aspects of online teaching and integrate them into the best parts of in-person teaching.
What do you wish more people knew about art or art education?
Art is something that we cannot live without. You may not think it is important to your life, but really it is everywhere and life would be unimaginable without it. Think about clothing, packaging, cars, buildings, not to mention wallpaper, greeting cards and the art that we typically think of that adorns our walls and public spaces. Art is everywhere. When students come into my room and say that they don’t like art, I don’t accept that. I just don’t think that they realize everything that art encompasses. So one of the first things we do in class is explore the reasons why people make art and I hope that they can connect to at least one of them. Then with that why as part of their awareness, we begin our explorations.
Also, each person’s creative process is different and should be honored. Of course, we can all learn the same skills like how to shade an object to make it look three-dimensional, but the voice that we bring to the work and the manner in which we make the marks on the paper is individual and authentic. There is not a right and wrong, there is just doing or not doing. Those that take that first step to create something will get something in return and grow and learn as long as they continue doing it. As soon as they shut down, as a result of fear, boredom, stubbornness, or harsh criticism, the learning stops. It’s a teacher’s job to keep encouraging the doing and hopefully be witness to the magic that results when authentic voice is expressed through art You also never know when this process will literally save someone’s life. Over the years, the art room at the ALC has become a safe haven where students can delve into a creative project and take a break from life’s daily stressors.
Asked & Answered is a weekly question-and-answer column featuring people of southeastern Minnesota. Is there somebody you'd like to see featured? Send suggestions to email@example.com.