Friday, November 22, 2013

From Dirt to Pixels – One Art Teacher’s Journey with the iPad

Post by Hillary Puglisi: Hillary is in her 15th year of teaching art, all of them at Bettendorf High School. You can follow her on twitter @HPuglisi.

With education comes change.  Anyone who’s been in our field for any length of time knows change is a part of the process.  Change in ideologies, change in philosophies, change in schedules, change in acronyms.  You name it and it will probably change at some point…and then change back again.  Just give it enough time.  It’s kind of like fashion in that sense, although I sure hope we don’t return to the 80's.  I just can’t build time into my morning routine to spray my bangs into a triangle again. (there are just some things that, once gone, should stay gone).

 But I digress.  As I see it, change really isn't bad. For me, it implies a need for new direction, a search for continuous improvement.  I make many changes over the course of a year, tweaks here and there to curriculum, units, lessons, projects, lecture delivery, new demonstrations, etc.  I’m never stagnant, but I can say over my 15 years in education, various changes have come and gone, some my own, some through building or state initiatives but fundamentally most haven’t impacted what I do directly in my class room.  I can say however, one thing suddenly has.  One thing has been vastly different in terms of impacting my entire way of thinking, my quest for knowledge and personal growth and actually, just my passion for teaching in general.

 At a point when, honestly, I was feeling stifled and rather alone, my administration handed me an iPad.  Weird, I know.  Weird that, of all things that could be life-altering, it’s this gadget that has changed my thinking; but give me a chance to explain.  I don’t want to imply that it instantly changed my life. Actually, as I was learning how to function with it, I had way more games on it than I had productive educational apps.  In my defense though, I just didn't know the availability of educational resources back then but my kids knew all the cool games.  I was certainly okay with getting a new iPad, one for which I didn't have to pay for.  I just was not sure how it applied to me, in art…in ceramics. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn't devoid of technology, quite the opposite actually.  I also teach Multimedia Art. I have always had a great computer graphics lab, fully equipped, graphics tablets, color printers, both laser and deskjet, up to date software.  In essence, I had the best of both worlds and still do.  I use technology and then I play in the dirt (did I mention how much I love my job?).  What I was lacking was ongoing education.  It was so frustrating to me that I had all of this enthusiasm, equipment, and essentially a curriculum open to whatever I wanted students to learn but yet I felt alone. I felt alone in trying to improve my technology skills, alone in my search for current software & trends, alone in my pursuit to be the best art teacher in the planet. I constantly searched to create projects that not only taught technique but inspired students to think creatively, problem solve and express themselves in ways that surprised even them.  It was tough.  I always felt like I could do better and the kids deserved better.  I certainly collaborated with my fellow art teachers but all of us taught different courses so we were all rather alone in our individual pursuits.  Let’s face it.  On any given day it is difficult to get your own issues solved much less take on anyone else’s.  I didn't bother them with my inner turmoil. 

The iPad though has changed all of that.  As I received training, I once again encountered a few, “but what about art” moments; but they were brief as I discovered a whole new world of artistic possibilities.  This was the epiphany I was looking for.  The art apps were and are amazing and I began to feel like the iPad was made for me, for art, for my students. In teaching technology, I know students are coming to us with more and more experience with computers, iPhones, and other gadgets.  Their worlds are vastly different and not only from students of a few years ago, but from ours, as teachers, as well.  With the iPad, I am very much back in the game. I feel confident again that I am up to date on technological advances, including Twitter and Facebook and have at least a fighting chance to keep up with it all. Twitter alone has given me a chance to connect with art teachers, and people in all levels of education.

On that note, I recently attended a tech conference and the session of an art teacher I follow, Tricia Fuglestad @fuglefun.  Let me just say, this woman isn't just an art teacher, she is the art teacher when it comes to using technology in the art room.  I was so excited I was going to get to hear her speak I could hardly stand it, almost giddy! A few years ago, it would have taken a good rock concert to evoke the same response, my how times have changed.  When did I become so old and nerdy?  Clearly a side effect of the iPad.        

This week alone I had a Skype session with my digital photography class and a digital photo class in California.  The students got to talk to one another and we are setting up a partnership so that they can see each other’s work and give each other feedback regularly, kind of virtual pen pals if you will. Thanks to Jen Wagner @jenwagner and April Estoch @cmcsart! The next day my multimedia art class had a Google hang-out session with Christopher Baker, an art graduate student from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in which he explained some of the requirements of college, portfolio creation and pursuing an art degree.  I have had my students creating stop motion animations using iPads and my digital photo students are experimenting this week with a new app that allows them to take longer exposures to capture night-time photography.  They can use glow sticks, flashlights and essentially paint with light. Again, I can’t wait to see their results! We revamped our photo department and made the switch from film to digital because, with students walking around with iPads and therefore a camera, it no longer made sense to teach kids the art of film photography (especially since Kodak stopped making film cameras in 2007).  Now we go to art shows with large format prints of student photography and it’s fabulous. (this week, two of our students won awards at the Festival of Trees High School Exhibition.) We have also held an interactive art show in which QR codes could be scanned and linked to audio of the student describing his work and the message behind his art.

All of this has been in the time since I was handed the iPad. I must say though, my journey into technological bliss wouldn't have been nearly as blissful without the help of our tech specialist and our teacher librarian Leanne Wagner, @BHS_TL.  They are awesome and put up with all of my technological whims.  Now, when I approach with “hey, I have this brilliant idea,” I first get the “look” and then it’s all-out help until we get it done.  I couldn't do it without them, wouldn't even try.  Our next art show will involve Aurasma and linking images to video and I can’t wait! With all of this change comes a price though.  Is it time-consuming? Absolutely!  Do I feel overwhelmed at times? Yes.  Have I ever been this busy with barely a free moment? Never! Do I spend a little less time at home with my own kids because I am preparing for the next day or answering Twitter or finding the next new project or downloading the next new app? Occasionally, but do I feel exhilarated at work and excited by the new possibilities? Certainly! Are my students benefiting and creating and better prepared for life beyond BHS?  Yes!  And now, am I going to try to sneak the use of iPads and technology into the ceramics room? Probably. There’s even an app for throwing pottery on the wheel!  Sometimes you really do need to get back to basics and play in the dirt.  I’ll do that too. I’m sure I’ll settle down at some point.  I just had this great idea though for creating a virtual 3-D museum using Minecraft.  I’ll dust first though…I promise.



  1. Hillary - I so appreciate your honest reflection on your journey, especially when you described your isolation as a teacher. I hope you know you are not alone. I am proud of the way you have connected with other educators on SM & how by doing so, it has invigorated you to become the best art teacher on the planet! Now that is striving for excellence. Our kids are so blessed to have you as their teacher and I am blessed because I get to see the impact you are making with our students first hand on a daily basis. Keep being great Hillary! - jimmy

  2. Wonderful! I feel so many of those same ways as an art teacher. I agree change is exciting. So many great ideas amd thank you for sharing!

  3. I wanted to take the time to THANK YOU for the conversation you and your students had with April's class. The conversation we had, the excitement of perhaps peer critiques and collaboration projects really was thrilling to see.
    I hope that you and April take the time to connect and truly make this 'connection' last throughout the year.