Teacher Interview: Sarah Strong

Sarah Strong teaches Second Grade at PS 15 in Manhattan, working with students with special needs.  She has collaborated with Arts For All’s Literacy Through the Arts program for years as a classroom teacher and partner. This year, she generously chose to support an additional day of LTA workshops in Grade 2.  Thank you, Sarah!

How did you get to know Arts For All?

AFA was present at PS15 when I switched to second grade in 2011-2012.  The upper grades had another arts organization, LeAp, and AFA has generously provided theater and arts to our school for a number of years.  So my students have grown up with AFA since kindergarten!  Shawn is our AFA Teaching Artist, and has worked tirelessly with me and the grade-level teachers to reflect on each week’s lesson, reinforce cross-curricular connections, and plan.  This year we built upon and refined what worked last year.

What made you want to be a classroom teacher?

I became a classroom teacher so I could give back and be on the front line of education, where the good stuff happens.  Much time, talent, money, and sacrifice went into my education.  I have been lucky and privileged.  We do not get here alone, and I wanted to pass on what had been given to me.   I also have satisfaction knowing my overtime profits children, my taxes pay my salary, my dollar earned is 100% gender equitable, my organization has a transparent payroll structure, and my union has a history of protecting women from age discrimination.

I am a Cohort 6 Teaching Fellow, and volunteered to meet the needs of the city’s most vulnerable students.  I started my career at a special education middle school in Brownsville, and have served needy children since.  At the end of the day, I know I earned my keep and it has been a good excuse for a life.

That’s beautiful.  What have you learned in your work as a Grade 2 teacher at PS 15?

Second graders are capable of deep and meaningful discussions and social interactions.  Keep your expectations high and prepare to be amazed.

Wow.  Thank you for sharing that.  What made you decide to support Arts For All financially?  In your opinion, what does Arts For All add to the classroom?

After paying off my capitalized-interest student loans this May, I didn’t want to get too used to having  pocket change, and AFA was my first priority.  Shawn and I did not get to our trips this year because the children needed more time to practice our Skyrella performance, a Cinderella story they wrote that took place in the Empire State Building.  I wanted them to see the sculptures and tableaux they had studied

Contributing to AFA helped extend Shawn’s stay, and he put together the most wonderful tours of community and sculpture gardens, a gallery, and a theater, all with the founders or directors.  Shawn’s lessons included acting out negative space with hands and bodies (imagine a 40-person ensemble in a sculpture garden really looking like we belonged there), and facilitating a gallery talk with the children about how they related Jackson Pollack’s techniques to the lines, style, and colors of other prints and paintings.

I wanted to support Shawn and AFA.  How do artists and actors afford NYC?  Let’s keep art in NYC for everyone, and long live AFA for helping.  You do such good work, AFA.  We are far from a rich school, yet we have AFA.  We are a small school, and the arts education from your talented artists makes a big impact.  AFA provides us weekly art support and accessibility, and all for free!  You also have generosity of spirit.  It is a true pleasure to support you.

Congratulations, Sarah! And thank you! What is your favorite type of art to work on with children in your classroom?

I have a fiber arts club and teach kids how to make yarn, weave, knit, felt, sew, and make tassels and pom-poms.  We write books about the process.  I’m also a fan of the culinary arts, have been to cooking school, and next year plan to make a classroom cookbook.  We’ll also do some gardening, which ties in nicely with the horticulture classes I take at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden — what is not to love about arts, crafts, and hands-on activities?  Art is so expansive, and one wants to pick all the stars from the sky and put them in a basket for the children.

That sounds like so much fun! How has Arts For All affected your ability and comfort implementing art or art-based projects in your classroom?

I consider my AFA Teaching Artist both a colleague and a co-teacher.  I often ask myself, “How would Shawn do this?  How can we act this out or show it with our bodies?”  Drama is a presentation that helps teaching stick, and I use it.   Special education teachers like myself have been luckier than most in justifying different presentations to meet students’ various learning styles, and I draw from the expertise of the teaching artists I have worked with.   I cannot underestimate the importance of the dedicated collaboration Shawn has provided.  Professionally, AFA takes learning out of the box, and facilitates creative expression for students and teachers.  Drama is a great vehicle for learning and teaching.

What advice do you have for aspiring educators; classroom teachers, teaching artists, or any other kind?

You are in it for the kids.  It’s about them; you serve.  If you forget that you will never make it in this broken system, with its politics, unfairness, invalid assessments and evaluations, and this culture that vilifies teachers and has no concept of the extra hours and paperwork we do.  And for you special educators out there, no one will know how hard your job is.  Again, you signed up to help the kids.

What an honest, thoughtful, and inspiring answer.  What is your favorite piece of art (it can be any kind – theater, music, visual arts, poetry, literature, dance, etc.)?

Impossible to answer for the dreamers!

Thank you so much, Sarah!

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