Teacher sees art through a child's eyes

January 02, 2000

Editor's Note: The Herald-Mail is featuring one high school teacher each month through May. The eight-part series highlights excellent educators on the first Monday of each month. Coming in February: North Hagerstown High School.

Jeanne NorrisBy BRUCE HAMILTON / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

When her son, Tony, was a toddler, Jeanne Norris found herself on the floor seeing things through fresh eyes.

"I got to get on the ground and explore with him," she said. "All of a sudden you become aware of your environment."

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Adults tend to look straight down the road and wear blinders, Norris said. Looking at things from a baby's perspective changed the way the Hancock Middle/Senior High School art teacher looked at the world.


It also shaped her teaching style.

Tony is now 22, and Norris, 42, tries to give her students new views. "I'm trying to get them to think creatively, not just do things creatively," she said. "I want them to explore and go beyond what I give them."

She will ask students to think how they can use a paper clip. To her, that's better than just making things with it. It encourages another level of thinking. "They are not just looking now, they are seeing what they are looking at," she said.

But Norris takes an academic approach to art. She discusses how perception influences culture, asking students to imagine how archeological objects were used. One class had to create an entire civilization.

She teaches art history, criticism, elements of design and color theory. She blends them into lessons in subtle ways the students won't resist.

"Students think, 'This is art. We shouldn't have to read,'" she said. "I try not to lecture." For a line drawing lesson, she used pictures of insects. To make it more fun, she taught students how children eat insects around the world.

Norris uses images to help students consider composition. A Degas painting with a red stripe serves as a visual aid to explain implied line.

To create an abstract image, she asks students to first draw something representational. In later drafts, they break it down.

M.C. Escher, Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp prints decorate the walls. Solid geometric shapes such as pyramids, spheres and cubes are piled on a table. A newspaper dragon and papier-mch Egyptian artifacts sit like still lives.

Norris is a fairly new teacher. The 42-year-old Shepherdstown, W.Va., resident used to work at the Pentagon, where she met her husband in the Office of Naval Research.

She went to copy something at the Xerox machine and found Donald Norris, then a yeoman, using it.

His assignments took them to Jacksonville, Fla., and later Norfolk, Va. Norris went to Tidewater Community College there and got an associate's degree in fine arts.

She liked to draw since her youth. Her mother gave her a love of learning, she said. Her father, John Hessenauer, is an artist. "We argue to this day about painting techniques," she said.

Norris has won awards for her work and shown it in several galleries.

Hessenauer gave the Norrises property in West Virginia, and the couple moved there. She worked as a secretary at Shepherd College, where she decided to get a bachelor's degree in education and become a teacher.

She was a long-term substitute at Smithsburg Elementary School from October 1996 to June 1997. It is now her third year at Hancock. "She's got an energy and enthusiasm and love for the fine arts," said Principal Robert Myers.

"She has encouragement for kids and the work they do. She always has well-prepared, relevant lessons. She is an excellent teacher who wants those kids to be successful."

In a recent sixth-grade class before Christmas, Norris began by defining the word "illustrator." She used the Frayer model, a boxy chart that explains an idea through examples and characteristics.

"You're going to be an illustrator," she said, and handed out different pictures of Santa Claus from around the world. The American image was actually an advertisement for Coca-Cola in the 1920s, she explained.

They discussed what each Claus had in common. "As time changes, so does Santa," Norris said. She gave the class its assignment, asking, "How is Santa going to look in the year 2050?"

To help them, she gave examples of robots, space ships, planets and aliens. Soon the students were scribbling away. "How about an alien dog biting Santa's leg?" asked one. "Does this look right? Do you like my sun? Does that look like fire?"

Norris did her best to help them think independently. "You are the illustrator. It's your idea," she told one student.

The teacher said she's not looking to foster a master artist. She sees her role more simply. "Basically, I'm a communicator," she said. But Norris is also a coach who helps nurture every child's creativity.

"'Can't' is not a word in this class," she said.

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