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Michigan art teacher of year makes all subjects ‘artful’

Students tie artworks to social studies, history

Rockstar Teachers Series: There’s just something about certain teachers that draws students to them in droves and keeps them checking in years, even decades later. Here, we highlight some of these rockstars of the classroom.

In art teacher Adrienne DeMilner’s classroom, a ’60s era-themed mural is taking shape, with far-out events, peace-loving beatniks and iconic locales coming together through painted expressions of the groovy decade.

A dreamy Bob Dylan sits inside the thought bubble of a head-banded hippie. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X appear on what could be interpreted as the road to progress.

The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, space navigation and popular culture are all memorialized. But an addition is needed, DeMilner and her students decide. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul who died Aug. 16, will soon croon from the canvas.

The mural is not just a righteous art project, but a visual history to be used by social studies teachers at East Kentwood Freshman Campus, where DeMilner has worked for 15 years. “I think it’s going to excite kids and make them think more deeply about what happened during that era,” she said.

Her students have also created a World War 1 mural connecting major events to artistic imagery.

“I love social studies. I love learning about history. I don’t think we would know as much about history if it wasn’t for art,” she said.

It’s a statement that shows how DeMilner connects art to everything, a reason she was named both 2018 Michigan Art Educator of the Year and Secondary Art Teacher of the Year by the Michigan Art Education Association.

She will receive the awards at the MAEA fall conference in October in Kalamazoo, and a state award at the 2019 National Art Education Association convention in March in Boston.

Sophomore Kaitlyn McNally paints the ’60s-themed mural in Adrienne DeMilner’s classroom

Making School ‘Artful’

DeMilner opens students’ eyes to the presence of art in history, science, nature, literature and just about everything else. In the school courtyard, her students have added wooden Michigan fish among the native plants; in forensics class, they painted a crime scene, detailing a shoe store forever marred by murder; and in the FIRST Robotics room, they’ve made the landscape of wheels and gears pop with color.

“Making things artful” aligns with the way students best engage, said DeMilner, who teaches Introduction to Art, Drawing and Sculpture and, beyond that, leads a weekly after-school Art Club for students who want extra art.

Many English-language learners attend the district and benefit from learning English through pictures. But, really, all students can use art to learn about other subjects, DeMilner said, noting, “Sixty-five percent of the population are visual learners.”

Sophomore art student Daylona Jackson, who is in Art Club, agreed.

“Some people are definitely visual learners and it really helps to have murals like this,” Daylona said. “Some people like to join Art Club because of these murals and to learn the history and what we’re doing. … It brings the school together.”

Art teacher Adrienne DeMilner explains how forensics students investigate a crime scene, enhanced through art

Art Aids Academics  

Science teacher Nicholas Bihler has seen the cross-curricular impact DeMilner brings to the school. The two worked on a project with Groundswell, an initiative through Grand Valley State University, creating a rain mitigation garden to capture water runoff and hold it in the soil with native plants. Wooden fish and a painted bench were among DeMilner’s students’ contributions.

“Adrienne reaches out, not only for students, but teachers as well,” Bihler said. “She seeks ways to bring in art and enrich our lives. Art is one of those components that heighten things, that gets us to look at things differently. Science with the absence of art is not as beautiful.”

DeMilner’s students have also created a mural of a world map, which hangs in the cafeteria. Students from dozens of nations have put their thumbprints in white paint and their initials on their home countries. DeMilner often sees them touch their spots as they wait in the lunch line. “There’s a lot of pride in that,” she said.

She’s also involves students in community art projects. They’ve painted murals at Hamilton Early Childhood Center, Bowen Elementary and Kentwood Public Library.

“She is the best art teacher I’ve ever had,” said sophomore Kaitlyn McNally, also an Art Club member. She recalled how DeMilner submitted one of her pieces for display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. “She just livens the place up and teaches in a unique way. It makes it memorable.”

The ‘60s were a time of intense global affairs

Molding Minds Through Art

Teaching art is a second career for DeMilner, who grew up in Detroit. She was a graphic artist who worked freelance and stayed home with her three sons.

She realized the need to volunteer as an art teacher in Grand Rapids Public Schools 21 years ago when the elementary art curriculum was greatly reduced. But she wasn’t interested in just leading little art projects. DeMilner taught students about masters of the past, like Picasso, Rembrandt and Monet. “I knew what I would like my sons to get from an art experience and what I thought was important.”

Volunteering led her to enroll in Aquinas College for an art education degree and, from there, she discovered her passion for making art accessible to all. She began working in Kentwood Public Schools in 2000 at Explorer Elementary before moving to the Freshman Campus in 2003.

DeMilner’s main goal is to unleash the artist in her students, and provide an outlet for self-discovery. “I think there’s an artist in everyone and I feel like I’m freeing that creative spirit when they are in my classroom,” she said.

She sees students build confidence and skills. Art Club is a fit for some students that don’t find one elsewhere.

“You’ve got kids who are not athletes and there is nothing else for them after school,” she said. “A lot of artists are shy. It’s all about them getting together with like-minded people.”

‘Labor of Love’

East Kentwood High School art teacher Le Tran, who works closely with DeMilner on many projects, said DeMilner helps the art program grow and flourish.

“(She) is an example of total commitment and service to her profession,” Tran wrote in a  nomination letter for Art Teacher of Year. “Whenever I need a helping hand, a different perspective, or a learning partner, I can always count on her. Working with her has made teaching more exciting in part by her enthusiasm, knowledge and willingness to take risks.”

Calling her job “a labor of love,” DeMilner said she enjoys her time spent after hours in the classroom.

She literally and figuratively is leaving her mark.

“I’m not ready to retire. I love what I do and I love the impact it has. I will do it until I can’t do it anymore.”


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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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