Illinois State University art education faculty, students, and alumni traveled to New South Wales (NSW), Australia, this summer to visit the visual art education classrooms within nine Sydney secondary schools.

The group viewed how visual arts teachers and students use the NSW Syllabi’s Conceptual Framework to explore the roles of the  artist, the artwork, the world, and the audience as they look through various lenses called the Frames. The Frames (Structural, Subjective, Cultural, and Postmodern) serve as different ways of thinking and talking about art as well as for making art.

Among this group was Illinois State art education alumna Kimberly Varner ’94, a 19-year veteran Chicago Public School (CPS) art teacher, who was eager to bring these new educational approaches to both her school and to the Chicago area. In the true spirit of Illinois State University leadership, Varner has been an active leader in art education within Chicago.

Varner is beginning her eighth year at Walt Disney Magnet school, a lottery-based fine arts and technology magnet that serves over 1,600 students from all over Chicago. She is the art teacher and arts liaison for the school, as well as a Magnet School Liaison, and the Local School Council Teacher Representative. Varner is the lead teacher for a team of 14 teachers in art, music, digital music, dance, film, library, gym, Chinese, 21st Century Solutions, and Science/Arts. She connects students, schools, and communities to resources and opportunities to grow and expand arts programming for their school.

Varner also plays an active role in the formulation of arts education within CPS. She worked collaboratively with the CPS Department of Art and Assessment to create REACH Performance Tasks in Art, Grades 1, 4, and 7. The Tasks are one of two measures used by CPS art teachers to assess student growth. She is currently working with the Terra Foundation in Chicago on the development of arts-based curriculum in partnership with museum educators and classroom teachers. The Terra Foundation’s goal is to ensure that schools across the country have access to a collective set of rich museum resources and high quality teaching units to help teachers address Common Core Standards in English language arts and mathematics, along with other standards and frameworks. The units will be published online after the beta-testing process is complete.

When asked why she wanted to be a part of the College of Fine Arts Art Education Australian visit, Varner stated:

As the Walt Disney Magnet School Arts Liaison and Network Lead Arts Liaison, I felt that it was my obligation to expand my knowledge of best practices as I work with schools to help develop their arts programming. I am very interested in how the NSW schools use the Frames and the Conceptual Framework in the classroom. I had read about it in theory, but to fully grasp the implementation, I felt it was imperative to see it done firsthand. I also wanted to see how their Visual Arts Process Diaries, sketchbooks that contain both students’ research and art making, supported the development of students and the artwork and how this could be used as a communication tool.

When asked what advice she would give to current art education students and art education alumni, Varner said:

My advice would be to network with other arts professionals and partners as much as possible. I’ve learned so much from working on various projects with other arts professionals and the CPS Arts Team and from traveling abroad to Sidney and meeting NSW arts professionals, along with the fabulous group of pre-service teachers, graduate students, teachers, and professors. The classroom can become extremely isolating as you become caught up in your own program. My program and my students will benefit from my new perspective and experience in Sydney. I have expanded my network of arts professionals that I can collaborate with to enhance the programming for all of our schools.

The Illinois State University College of Fine Arts and the School of Art alumni continue to bring innovative ways of teaching and learning to their broader communities. The Art Education Area looks forward to continuing and building upon its international collaboration to create more of these opportunities for their students and alumni.