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Let’s Get SmART— Inside the Studio at SA Bronx 1 MS

Step inside a Success Academy school, and you might think that you’ve taken an impromptu trip to the art museum. Our hallways feature extraordinary mixed-medium works, and often seem more like brilliant galleries than mere passageways between classes, a credit to the creativity of our scholars — and dedicated art teachers. As Success Academy continues to scale at a rapid pace, we are looking to hire hundreds of inspiring educators like Matthew Pisacano, founding art teacher at SA Bronx 1MS.

Matthew spends his days guiding middle schoolers along paths of self-discovery. Also a professional artist, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in studio art and education from Marymount Manhattan College and a M.F.A. in fine art from the Pratt Institute. Before joining Success, he taught as a substitute teacher for the Department of Education, and was a paraprofessional for special needs students.

As a deep believer in the importance of educational experiences that serve the whole student, Matthew became interested in Success Academy two years ago when the opportunity arose to build the art program at Bronx 1 MS. Encouraged by SA’s commitment to instilling self-expression and creativity into education, Matthew decided to join the SA community and help our scholars connect with themselves — and the world — through art.

Why did you become interested in teaching art at Success Academy?

Art has been the catalyst of my entire professional career, and is a major part of my identity both in and out of the classroom. The idea of directly shaping a new art program in one of the Success schools seemed thrilling. I wanted to have a direct influence in determining what happened in the art room; what skills, topics and themes could I teach that would be relevant to young people and would help enrich them as humans?

Since I work across various media such as sculpture, video, performance, and painting, I knew I could establish a wide-ranging and dynamic experience for the students at Success, if given the opportunity.

I found an incredibly supportive and encouraging environment here, and am happy to say that the Bronx 1 MS program has grown exponentially. This is due in large part to the receptiveness of my principal, Britney Weinberg-Lynn, and the fact that art teachers here have the freedom to bring their own expertise to the table. Just as I’d envisioned, we’re able to experiment with new, engaging topics with our scholars.

What’s so special about art classes at Success?

We really value art at Success. Middle school electives are considered essential to our scholars’ education, so they take these classes every day and not just a few times a week. In art, the ultimate goal is to create a judgement-free space where kids can explore their creative ideas in a healthy way. This becomes particularly powerful in middle school, as scholars reach an age when self-identity can be difficult to navigate.

There are also incredible levels of critical thinking and technical skill development that take place in our art room. We hone time management skills by asking scholars to balance creative flow with looming deadlines; we explore new perspectives on old subjects by making visual representations (like symmetry in math); we finesse interpersonal skills by asking scholars to diplomatically manage group critiques. Art class offers an incredible opportunity to develop scholars holistically, in addition to producing compelling artwork.


A new take on math: Symmetry in design

My favorite moments in the studio are when my scholars learn to take pride in the creations they build with their own hands. I love watching them realize that they have the power to make something that is truly their own. Many of my lessons are very challenging for a middle school art program, but are designed to empower scholars by establishing this sense of ownership. We launched a unit on gesture and the body, asking our 7th graders to sketch fellow classmates using charcoal.


Charcoal sketches of gesture and the body

Then, the scholars chose a favorite pose from their gallery of sketches, and used this as inspiration to create 3-D sculptures of wire and plasticine. The results were beautiful, illustrating a range of human motion: the grace of dancing, the power of boxing, the calmness of sitting. Not only did the scholars successfully manipulate the materials into the intended results, they also demonstrated the commitment needed to see these projects through from start to finish.


From sketches to sculptures

How do you make art meaningful for your scholars?

Art enables us to connect with and explore our own identities, as well as the world around us. With this in mind, I design my lessons to engage scholars on multiple levels, even drawing on current events. This past November 9th was a particularly surreal day for both teachers and students, and I knew it was crucial to build a meaningful discussion about the election in my art room. I decided to offer an open forum for the scholars to talk about the results, share how they felt, and express their worries for the future. I prompted everyone to write a letter to the country and to use it as source material for drawings. The results ranged from comedic relief, to utter frustration, to profound fear; I was so moved that our scholars felt comfortable expressing these emotions in the studio.


Visual interpretations of the election results

I also strongly believe in the power of art to strengthen and build a sense of community for scholars. By sharing and celebrating their art — whether in the hallway, at our annual Visual Arts Showcase, or during open studio days where parents come and explore their child’s work — we spark conversations and uncover shared interests, which might not have otherwise taken place. I decided at the last minute to include some of the election day reaction pieces in one of our open studio days, and watched proudly as these garnered positive attention and became the talk of the school.  

What do you hope the future holds for art at Success?

I would love for the program to continue developing as one of the most robust and innovative in the country. Hiring working artists to teach their craft, and establishing even more opportunities for cross-curriculum collaboration will be so exciting. We’re still growing, and by next year SA Bronx 1 MS will serve grades 5 through 8.

What advice would you give to someone considering teaching art at Success?  

I would remind them that this is a place where you can, and should, be authentic. We want teachers who are personally stimulated and invested in art as a subject; you can’t spark interest in your students if you aren’t inspired by a project from the beginning. If you’re looking to hone your own passions side-by-side with students, this is the place to be.

Written by Success Academy May 19, 2017

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