'Art is expensive'
Tulsa teachers work overtime for their students
Julie Thomas and Amber Harrington teach studio art and theater at Edison High School.
Students drape prom decorations on the auditorium stage in the style of Brian De Palma’s 1977 Carrie adaptation in Amber Harrington’s advanced tech theatre class at Edison High School. Their Halloween variety show, Creeps, has a different theme every year. For 2019, the department will present Stephen King adaptations through comedy, dance and music. Baby blue streamers and stars hang from the ceiling. Students ask Harrington about drill bits, microphone cords and stage lights.
“We’re still working on how to get the blood to drop,” Harrington said. “But we’re going to figure it out.”
Her students competed in the state’s 6A one-act play competition in Oklahoma City the previous day. In 45 minutes, the students had to assemble their set, perform a play and take down the set. They won second place, returned home and immediately began work on their next production.
Down the hall in Julie Thomas’ room, Edison students ask her opinions on clay consistency, yarn colors and photography subjects. Freshman students’ colorful portraits of classmates greet visitors at the door. Thomas’ freshmen often continue into her upper-level Advanced Placement Art and Design classes.
“We are really lucky we get to bond with our kids over four years,” Thomas said. “That’s one of the beautiful things about art classes.”
Both Harrington and Thomas teach introductory and advanced coursework. From teaching freshmen portraiture to overseeing AP portfolios submitted for college credit, Thomas leads students through a full exploration of their talents.
AP art is individual, according to Thomas. Students pick their own medium and themes to explore. Every week, they stand in front of the class with their work and take critique from peers. The portfolios represent the skills students develop over the course of their high school career. These portfolios are then graded by the College Board for college credit. Thomas’ AP students consistently score higher than the national average for their work.
That opportunity—to introduce students to art and watch them grow in their talents—is why Harrington became a high school teacher. Her students begin by learning the terms for stage left and stage right, but by senior year they write and perform their own monologues.
“When you’re a freshman in high school, you may think, ‘I’m not talented. I’m not creative or athletic or great at math,’” Harrington said. “But you can find theatre, really excel and have a family.”
Thomas also combats students’ low art self-esteem. She relishes the opportunity to open students’ eyes to their talents in weaving, pottery, photography and abstract art. But all of this creativity comes at a price.
“A lot of people think we’re just waving paint brushes back here,” Thomas said. “But art is expensive.”
Harrington spent $6,000 on this year’s one-act play competition—money she raised from boosters and a social media crowdfunding platform. To save money, students repaint and repurpose set and costume elements. A trophy might become a light fixture, Harrington said. Her father also provides free labor. Harrington began acting in his dinner theatre productions, and the duo has competed in one-act together for 14 years.
The 2017 teacher strike won pay raises for educators, but did little to move the needle on general education funds slashed by 28 percent over the last decade. The state used to reward money to art programs based on AP art portfolio scores, but that money stopped coming in recent years.
As a result, both teachers hustle to find resources. A to-do list of grants to write rests on Thomas’ desk. She also dedicates time outside of the classroom to teach other art teachers about grant opportunities in order to build robust programs around the state.
Thanks to grants, bonds and social media, Harrington and Thomas keep art classes alive at Edison High School. Harrington said that after 20 years of teaching, she fears burnout—especially amid the negativity surrounding Oklahoma’s education funding crisis. But her philosophy is to keep her head down and keep working, she said. She continues to stay after school for rehearsals and travel to competition each year because she believes in the unique lessons theatre teaches.
“Even if my students don’t go on to do theatre, they’re affected by it,” Harrington said. “They’re a part of something, and they learn lessons.”
Thomas echoed Harrington’s beliefs, explaining how her students learn to handle criticism, work hard and hold themselves accountable. After years of being told what to do in the classroom, students start to make decisions on their own in AP art, and they put a lot of heart into their work.
“When you don’t pass AP bio, it stinks,” Thomas said. “When a kid doesn’t pass AP art, they cry. It’s personal. It’s part of you.”
Whether Harrington’s former students are managing theater props on Broadway or decorating their baby’s nursery, they use lessons from her class. They value commitment, know how to make do with what they have and work with people who are different than them, Harrington said. She’s also teaching her own son these lessons.
“It’s important to show my kid that he can have passions, and it doesn’t have to feel like work,” Harrington said. “I never feel like I’m working. If I won the lottery, I’d still be teaching.”