Teacher excels in art of education

May 14, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On a recent morning, Michael Bell's art class at Southern High School in Harwood was working on metaphorical still life drawings.

The students' assignment was to bring items from home to use as the subjects. One group of three students had a large Winnie the Pooh bear, a small stuffed animal and a plastic horse.

Although they looked at the same scene, no two drawings were the same.

"As the teacher, I could pre-select what they use for the still life, but if they can't relate to it, they won't like it," said Bell, in his 10th year teaching full time at the school. "If they choose their own items, and their own way of portraying the items, they'll create a drawing that means something to them."

Over the past decade, that attitude has earned Bell county, state and national accolades. He also built the art program at the school along with art teachers Jean Teitelman and Marlene Kramer, helped start a gifted and talented summer program, and holds a student art show in the spring.

The evolution of Southern's art program began shortly after Bell started teaching part time at the school after graduating in 1995 from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa.

At that time, enrollment didn't support three full-time teachers. Bell taught art, world civilizations and architectural drawing.

During his second year, he initiated a school art show called Art Quest.

At the first exhibit, about 20 people came to see about 50 students show their work. This year, more than 400 people attended, and about 500 students competed in several categories including, drawing, painting and 3-D, for cash and prizes totaling more than $1,000.

Art Quest has been a conduit for the students to have their work featured in galleries and in shows across the county and state.

"By the time the students are juniors, they have a portfolio for their college applications," Bell said. "Now my goal is to get them some exposure in some major art galleries, by letting them tap into some of my resources."

Recently, representatives of the MFA Circle Art Gallery in Annapolis contacted Bell about establishing an art show for some of the Art Quest participants.

"They have expressed an interest in selecting some of the best works shown at Art Quest and doing a show afterward in their gallery," Bell said. "People see the quality of work the students are putting out, and it opens doors to them everywhere."

In 2001, Bell and Jo-Ann Howard, a teacher at George Fox Middle School, began teaching the public schools' Gifted Visual Arts Enrichment program for students in grades six through 12.

To apply for the program, students must complete a credentials packet that includes three nomination forms and four portfolio requirements.

Bell said that in addition to the special programs, a revamped curriculum and freedom of expression are other reasons for the program's rapid growth.

The turning point came for Bell when he enrolled at Towson University for graduate school.

"My time at Towson opened my eyes to a whole new way of teaching art," Bell said.

As he worked to build and strengthen the program, his efforts were recognized with awards including the 2002 Maryland Art Education Association's Most Outstanding Art Educator, the 2004 Anne Arundel County Teacher of the Year and in 2004-2005 he was named one of 24 Maryland State Teachers of the Year.

"I don't do this for the recognition," Bell said. "I am very appreciative of what I get, but the biggest reward I get comes when a student gets a scholarship to an art program or gets accepted to every art school they apply to."

As was the case with senior Ashley Collinson of Friendship, who enrolled in Bell's classes as a seventh-grader in the gifted visual arts program. She said Bell's classes have taught her more than how to draw or paint.

"Mr. Bell knows how to get me to learn, and he doesn't limit what I want to do," said Collinson, 17, who aspires to be an illustrator. "He also lets us do college-level things like painting with oils on canvas. I feel very well prepared for any college program."

Senior Alexandra Crosby of Harwood said Bell challenges her to focus on new things in her work. For example, recently she had to complete 30 works in 90 minutes.

"It may not sound hard, but it forces you to work quickly and do whatever comes to mind," said Crosby, 18.

Senior Janine Bobby, 17, said freedom of expression is what appeals the most to her in Bell's classes. And also the challenges he imposes on students to get them to venture out and try new things.

"He tells us what to do, but not how to do it," Bobby said. "He's more of a friend and a mentor than a teacher."

For example, Bobby created mostly small pieces when she started. But during this class she was working on a larger-than-life-size woman.

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