"Hi, Miss Art!"
This friendly call can be heard from children through the halls of Pickett's Mill Elementary School. The youngsters are greeting the art teacher, Laura Purcell, who was named Pickett's Mill Elementary's Teacher of the Year for 2010-11.
"The younger ones can't remember the name Purcell, so they just call me, 'Miss Art,'" Purcell says with a smile. Purcell has been at Pickett's Mill for all of its three years of existence; in all, Purcell has spent 10 years as an art teacher, shuffling between Blackwell, Acworth and Frey Elementary Schools before landing at Pickett's Mill.
Purcell is a Cobb County native and a graduate of North Cobb High School. She was at West Georgia University studying to become an artists when she decided to "give teaching a try." She hasn't looked back.
Purcell's approach to teaching art was inspired by her own childhood education. "I was inspired by great teachers that I had," she said. "They had a passion for learning and life." These teachers constantly inspired their students to find their own passions, she added. She mentioned a favorite teacher, Ms. Price, whom Purcell said "always did more than she needed to for her students."
"My favorite part of the job is interacting with the students," she said. At Pickett's Mill, each grade level visits Purcell's art class once a week for a 45-minute session. Although Purcell admits it's tough to get projects done in such a short time span, the works of art of her students she proudly displays on her walls tells a different story.
The watercolors of farms on the whiteboard are from the Kindergartners, who are learning about Grandma Moses and farm life. The hand-woven bookmarks, one still on the tiny paper loom, are being constructed by the third grade. The fifth graders are working on silkscreen prints; one such print, on the whiteboard with the watercolors, reads "Art" in white cursive lettering behind a purple background.
All of these tiny masterpieces can be traced back to Purcell's guiding hand. "I try to provide enough structure and guidance to give a starting point," Purcell says. "But I still want to allow each student to come up with their own creative responses."
On one of the various cupboards jammed with art supplies, is a poster advertising the Salvador Dali exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. This gave a hint to her personal artistic preferences.
"I prefer modern art," she says. "An artist shows you what's in their mind as opposed to what is in front of them." To this end, Purcell has shared her love of artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miro with her students. Purcell says her students are particularly fond of Goldsworthy, who creates art in nature, photographs his work, then allows the physical components of it to blend back into the environment.
It would be very difficult to emulate Goldsworthy's work in an elementary school environment, so Purcell has other artists whose work she can inspire her students with. Along the hallways of Pickett's Mill is more artwork. The flowers are in the style of Eric Carle, of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" fame. The students painted on a sheet of paper, cut out petals on the painted paper and assembled them into the flowers now displayed in the hallway. Further down, more Carles-in-training have made Very Hungry Caterpillars of their own.
The pièce de résistance of Purcell's Pickett's Mill portfolio is painted directly on the wall of the cafeteria. Pickett's Mill has intertwined Stephen R. Covers "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" into its teaching curriculum; it is hoped that graduates of Pickett's Mill will be more successful in life because these habits have been instilled in them from a very young age.
At the end of each school year, the departing fifth grade class paints a mural depicting one of the seven habits on the wall of the cafeteria. Habits one and two have already been painted; the first habit is depicted by a pirate ship, with the word "Pirate" used as the base for an acrostic. It reads "Prepared, Inqusitive, Responsible, And, Totally, Engaged." The second mural depicts a treasure map, symbolic of the second habit, which is, "Begin With the End In Mind." The current fifth grade class will complete the mural for habit three at the end of this year.
Teaching can be trying, though. According to Purcell, the hardest part about being a teacher is being fair in giving out attention to the students. Some children need little more than some positive reinforcement, while others, that do not get much adult attention at home, need almost constant supervision. Despite the difficulties, the little Louvre that is Pickett's Mill Elementary School is a testament to just how well Miss Art has been doing.
At the end of the 2009-2010 school year, the teachers at Pickett's Mill voted on Teacher of the Year amongst their peers. Purcell learned of her nomination over the morning announcements near the end of that school year. It seems as though Purcell's approach has not only earned her the esteem of her students, but her colleagues as well.
The perks aren't bad, either. The most immediate is the convenient parking spot at the school marked for the Teacher of the Year. In addition, Purcell received an invitation to a luncheon at the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce, where some of her students cheered her on. The best gift of all, though, is a red boa given to Purcell by the previous Teacher of the Year, which Purcell will in turn give to the next honoree.
"I leave that at home," she says. "Otherwise, the kids would tear it up."