Magnificent Sketchbooks

After four years of trial and error in finding the right sketchbooks for my students I think I may have finally cracked it! I order them these beautiful ProArt hardbound sketchbooks that are only five and a half by eight inches. They are easy to cary and somehow incredibly pleasing in their small size. The girls seem to love them, and have already started to customize them.

I use these sketchbooks as a place for warm-ups, note taking, homework and general doodling, but I also want the girls to make them their own. They are not just a classroom tool, but a safe place for experimentation and expression that feels less formal. I have been encouraging them to put them to use in other classes as well as draw in them at home.

Here are some examples of note taking and free draw so far this year:







Many Perspectives

This Year Interior design projects have become a somewhat permanent addition to my curriculum. While I am always tweaking and changing my lesson plans each year, this one feels fully developed and I think it’s here to stay. What I might change next year would be small things like what artists I introduced during this unit, and what examples of their work we looked at. I am also open to suggestions as to how this unit in particular might relate to physics. While other units have a direct connection, this one feels like it’s missing a potential cross-curricular element. Maybe it isn’t Physics, maybe I need to look at the math or English curriculum?

Last year I debuted our new and improved interior design project. I decided that a simple one point perspective study of a bedroom was not a dynamic enough assignment for my brilliant young women. So I created a two piece project. The first piece was a focus on one point perspective as a drawing technique. (This can be a tedious and painfully slow drawing technique for some young high schoolers.) The second piece was a focus on interior design. This involved choosing a theme, fabric samples, a color scheme (color theory!!), and creating a Pinterest board. In the end the final product was a mood board with a rendering of the proposed room. Something like what a real interior designer might bring to a pitch in order to show the client.

Like So:

20151122_140239 20151122_140232

Either way the results this year were fantastic!







My thought process here was that if I could alternate between beginning or ending each class with a formulaic drawing technique, and begin or end with open ended design, it would keep students more engaged. This proved successful when I received far fewer groans and moans about one point perspective drawing than I have in years past. Everyone was so excited about creating an imaginary room, with a limitless budget, that I think they hardly noticed they were learning. I was even more impressed with how confidently my young women asserted their individual tastes and styles, without any apparent hesitation of being judged by their peers. However, it shouldn’t surprise me that much since self confidence and industriousness are definitive traits of Stone Ridge girls.

You can read more about the assignment from last years post here: 




























Bookmaking with Studio II

“For our last unit, Ms. Cowan introduced our Studio Art II class to the craft of bookmaking. Not only were we creating books to physically use, but our creations were something I had never associated with books before: sculptural works of art. Well-crafted books serve their practical purposes well, but in this unit, we stressed the importance of craftsmanship. We were taught two different kinds of bookmaking through accordion books and binding books with thread.
The theme we focused on when creating was “duality”, which is also the theme of Callithump (our school’s literary/art magazine) this year. Some of my classmates used their newfound knowledge of bookmaking to express duality through the physical books themselves. Others, like me, confined the theme to the pages of the books we created.
In all, it was quite a unique experience! I don’t think anyone who signed up for this course thought that it would include bookmaking. At least, I didn’t, but I’m so very glad we were able to do this unit. Not only was it creative, but also educational in how books are typically traditionally made. I’ve got to say, I have a newfound appreciation for the work that went into any hand-bound book.”

Getting STEAMy

So, STEAM. It’s my cross-curricular curriculum of choice. I’m doing it now, as we speak, I even presented with my colleague down in Richmond this summer at the NCGS convention, but I haven’t mentioned much about it this past year. It was my, or I should say our, first year last year. So, STEAM, who, what, when, where, why?

engineering process

I need to begin with a little background information about what truly started my foray into cross-curricular work. It was a discussion over beers, after work, with my colleague LaShonda Torbert the Physics teacher at our school. She was explaining to me how one of her students had opted to make a video instead of giving an oral presentation on her group’s energy audit project. This was a physics assignment that entailed auditing energy usage in different parts of the school. What struck me was that the student was using her video making skills, from my class, in the physics classroom. Besides being like, “Oh gosh! I’m so proud…” I also thought, “Hey! How do we make this happen again, and better, and more often, and more intentionally?” A Physics to Art connection!

So LaShonda researched artsy science projects and I did research on cross-curricular education. I mean, I think we all know it is best practice for educators to help students make connections with other subject matters, but before we went and presented this to the administration we figured we would probably need to be able to articulate why.

So there is some great research out there, and whether it’s called cross-disciplinary, cross-curricular, or interdisciplinary it’s all good! There is a wonderful quote by the British philosopher Lionel Elvin that states, “When you are out walking, nature does not confront you for three quarters of an hour only with flowers and in the next only with animals.” Another more modern scholar, Mary L. Radnofsky reminds us that, “One of the ways in which we can help to enlighten our students is by giving them the opportunities to see and hear things in different ways from those which they are accustomed. This could mean studying science from an artistic perspective – something Leonardo [DaVinci] did frequently in his life, as he saw vision, light, stars, and the production or reflection of light from the aesthetic perspective – or studying art from a scientific point of view – something Leonardo also did throughout his life, as he strived to prove that painting deserved to be considered a ‘qualitative science.’”

And as it turns out, my biggest, most successful, cross-curricular initiative so far, has been my STEAM initiative. Which I am currently tackling with my partner in crime, LaShonda the Physics teacher. So I’m going to tell you more about it in detail, along with a few other cross-curricular initiatives I am working on. My collaboration started when LaShonda and I, we started the same year at Stone Ridge, began to go for a happy hour drink after work. We don’t actually do this frequently anymore, back then we were unmarried, and more carefree. I now have a fixer upper, and husband. I mean the house I just bought is a fixer upper, not my husband. LaShonda is busy with her life outside of school, too, so anyways I’m getting off track.

We realized, through talking about work that we had a HUGE overlap of students. Foundations of Studio Art is the prerequisite for all other levels of visual arts, and visual arts is our biggest arts department compared to orchestra, choir, and drama, so long story short my four sections of Foundations of Studio Art are attended by 75-80% of our Freshman class. LaShonda teaches four sections of Physics; our required ninth grade science class. There are 5 sections total with another teacher taking one of those Physics classes, and so LaShonda teaches about 80% of the freshman class and 100% of them take Physics.

So as we researched Art and Science cross-curricular stuff we had to accept that what we were embarking on could easily fit into the current educational trend called STEAM, standing for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math. A lot of what we wanted to foster was similar to the goals of the Maker Movement, things like using the engineering process in both classes. So instead of trying to reinvent the wheel we looked to these movements for inspiration. Unfortunately, Pinterest and the rest of the internet is so full of elementary age appropriate artsy science projects that it was hard to steal other people’s ideas directly. Instead we’d have to design our own projects.

Our first brain storm session went something like this:

LaShonda: “What do you guys learn first?”

Me: “The color wheel and movie making, what do you learn first?”

LaShonda: “Sound waves and the electromagnetic spectrum!”

Me: “Oh cool, we should focus on the sound happening in the videos to reinforce their sound waves unit.”

LaShonda: “Yeah, and Physics can compare the light and pigment color wheels, we can talk about visible light and color in both art AND science!”

Me: “We’re brilliant!”


More ideas came up and we lined our units up side by side. LaShonda even let me have access to her excel spreadsheet that broke down each of the required Physics Units even further. It is worth pointing out here, that while her curriculum was fixed, mine was not, so I was free to move things around to suite potential connections more easily. However, I then had to work backwards as far as planning my incorporation of different artists and their movements. So it was still pretty tricky. I was trying to bring physics into art just as much as I wanted to bring art into physics. I can imagine, if you don’t have the flexibility and autonomy that I do, you could easily remove half of the initiative I’m explaining here and imagine that you could modify it to be just art enhancing science. So we embarked, with our administrations vague approval to try something new.

Curriculum Line-Up

To begin the school year LaShonda asked me to help her kick off the year with an art project. And like I mentioned before they begin the year with a study of waves and sound. She wanted the girls to create visual representations of sound waves and illustrate how they vary. So we brainstormed all of these great ideas: Bracelets with beads to represent different wavelengths, paintings of sound waves, posters about sound waves, videos of sound waves, and even large scale recycled art sculptures about sound waves… Unfortunately, LaShonda liked ALL of these ideas, so after purchasing a large number of art supplies she explained the concept to the girls and said, “Go!”


See this didn’t really work out great as far as classroom management and cleanliness was concerned. There was junk everywhere, and she could hardly keep track of who was doing what. One student made a poster shaped like a violin with each string mimicking the sound waves of some series of notes, and another student was making that bracelet I mentioned, while another just hung out in the corner and splattered paint. Literally. She was making a splatter paint on canvas, representing a soundwave. And the most important thing to mention is the Rubens tube. See this link:


Now after all of this the Physics classroom produced some pretty quality works of art, but it was clearly a bit stressful on the teacher’s side, including the classroom management, time management and grading aspects. My suggestions were the following: Limit Materials and let the students use their creativity and ingenuity within the limits of those materials. Create sample projects so that you the teacher have an idea of the time limit you should place on the project, and finally, use vocabulary that they have already learned in the classroom. There is no reason that color theory should be forgotten just because they’ve left the classroom. However, for vocabulary LaShonda and I would need to spend even more time together, working, and coordinating. And as you all know time is precious during the school day. So it was difficult.


On my side of things I was encountering similar successes and pitfalls. As I began my light and color unit I had my students sketch and take notes in the same notebook as they were using in Physics, except some days they had turned it in to be graded, and other days it was home because they had too much to carry every day and Physics fell on the opposite day of the rotation… But not to worry, we still charged ahead with our color theory unit and painted our single object still lifes with objects that interacted with light. Unfortunately, while these two units fit beautifully together in our minds, we saw little to no connections being made.


By the end of the year, we saw it wasn’t enough just to leave room for coincidence, but that we would have to ask our students to literally verbalize any and all connections, and also require them to try, and support them in this. A great example can be found in LaShonda’s end of the year project last year. It was all about coding using the arduinos. These are small computers I barely understand. Instead of leaving it up to the students she gave them each an arduino, LED lights, copper wire tape, and cardboard, paper and glue. Then she assigned them a Physics concept and assigned them another class. They had to make a work of art that did something based on the arduinos programing, that had to do with the assigned subject.


I don’t want you to think our project was a bust, it was quite the opposite. These are some photos from my unit on recycled art, that coincided with LaShonda’s energy audit unit, her unit that inspired this whole thing. For this project students actually spread awareness about material waste by creating sculptures from recycled materials, and installing them around the school. You can see exampels here: The green dragon is made of old green soda bottles, and the tree is made out of old cans and covered in our old table cover sheets of butcher paper. I had wanted to create recycled sculptures with my class for a long time, and this was the first time I had been able to really do it, and our Physics connection was a huge success on this project. We asked students to verbalize connections and they did! They could!

Here are some of the BIG lessons we learned. Our Do’s and Don’ts:


  • Expect Perfection, the Common Core wasn’t written in a day…
  • Rush (Rush to tell your admin, so they can start to facilitate, but don’t actually rush the planning process)
  • Expect your school to facilitate time for collaboration
  • Forget to schedule time for collaboration later in the year


  • Document! – have your students do this as well
  • Remember to get your students to verbalize the connections
  • Communicate with students and colleagues you’re working with – consistency is big
  • Schedule time to collaborate, and then schedule more…


LaShonda and I had the distinct advantage of liking each other, and sharing a friendship outside of school. However, If collaboration isn’t necessarily an option, I’ve also had great success sharing art with colleagues on professional development days. I’ve done a step-by-step portrait lesson, you’ve probably all taught this one before, it;s a classic, but you’d be surprised how many of your fellow teachers haven;t tried it! Fair warning the adults behave just like the kids. In other words, “Is this good!?” “Can you help me” “WAIT! WAIT I’m erasing my circle!” I would do this and then suggest that this is a fun example of proportion and ratios and might be useful in the math room. It also has the potential to become a history lesson with portraits of historic figures or portraits of a fictional characters in literature.


I have also facilitated other teachers in my school by just letting them audit my class on certain days. This is actually fantastic if the schedule allows it. Now, whether or not you can do this depends largely on your school’s culture, but at Stone Ridge we had a Drama teacher take an entire year of Spanish one classes. She took the exam and everything! When it has worked best for me is inviting teachers to visit me on a day when I am introducing a new program like Adobe Photoshop or InDesign. I have also let other teachers know that the large sketchbooks that I give my art students are fair game for drawing based lesson in their classes. I mean, there is no way they are going to use every page of that thing otherwise, there are like a million. (Although there is always that one kid who halfway through the year is like, “Can I have another?”) Finally I have also facilitated other teachers by doing the simplest favor you can imagine. Helping them figure out what art supplies to buy, for a certain art heavy project in their class. This is Usually one they have already developed, but want to improve on.


I feel like I’m trying to sell you something, but I am convinced that you can do this too! (For my art teachers reading this.) The benefits of creating or facilitating a cross-curricular initiative are vast, and the process is simple. You could do this with another colleague just by sitting down, laying out your curriculum, and seeing where connections could be made and emphasized. If it’s possible, look at how you could re-arrange units in order to make connections. Or think about enhancing an already existing unit. See what your colleagues are teaching and make suggestions. If you have a standardized curriculum with less flexibility, study the curriculum document for potential overlap and connections. Keep in mind, the more enthusiasm you have in your cross-curricular initiative the more awesome it will become. The more awesome your department becomes the more valuable your department becomes to the school as a whole, and then BAM! more money for your classroom…maybe. Either way the positive attention from administrators can’t hurt and it does put you in a great position to ask for more supplies. So in conclusion, if you’d like to spend less of your own money in the Target $1 discount bins, and more time enjoying yourself, cross curricular.

And So It Begins…

I know, I know, it’s October, but September is a busy month for teachers, especially this one. I have been very busy adjusting for the exciting new changes that came with this year. To begin with, we have two new teachers in our upper school visual  art department. That makes four of us. We have yours truly, our foundations of studio art teacher, and Katya our photography teacher, and new this year are Tom, our ceramics teacher, and Lee, our advanced studio art teacher. Second thing that’s new this year is that I’m teaching not only Foundations of Studio Art and Yearbook, but I am adding a section of Studio II. This means I’m dropping one of my four Foundations of Studio Art classes and handing it over to Tom, our new ceramics teacher. I am thrilled to be adding a class, but it has kept me busy with syllabus planning, and making sure to communicate my lesson plans and objectives with another teacher. This also means that the classroom is now being shared by not two, but three teachers at a time. This has kept us very busy, since I saw this as a great time for total classroom re-organization! Finally, LaShonda the Physics teacher and I have been collaborating and lining up our curriculum for the sake of cross-disciplinary learning for two years now. This summer we presented our development of this program at the NCGS conference. However, this year, for the first time, we have to share our initiative with an additional physics teacher and a new foundations teacher. (More on that later.) So big changes, but good changes, and all bode well for the fantastic year ahead.

So Lets begin with Foundations of Studio Art. A wonderful place to begin. We are once again starting slow and steady with our unit on Light and Color. We began with Color Wheels and are going to work our way up to single object still life paintings.


In Studio II we began our year with a unit on line. Line is a fine place to start. Our plan is to  move on to book-making as a short break from drawing as well as a focus on craftsmanship, and then re-visit drawing through value, and eventually paint!


And Finally, in Yearbook we are charging into the year full steam! Our three student Editors, and our staff are running the show. They have already chosen our theme for the year (TOP SECRET) and our color scheme, fonts, and many other pieces. We’ve even started designing the senior pages. These are entire pages of the book, one dedicated to each senior, with photos and quotes selected by them.

Screenshot 2015-10-06 16.05.32


Looking Back

What drives me crazy every year is the conflict between my compulsion to document and the impossible task of doing so. It is not feasible for me to record, and keep track of, every single wonderful thing that happens at my wonderful school. But I try. To fill in some of the gaps here is a quick look back at this past school year.

I skip some months, but don’t think it’s because they weren’t full of happenings.


The first big event this year was that my name at school changed from Ms. Stevenson to Mrs. Cowan in October. 10616111_10154783096810182_6714591310601694360_n



Then, me and my favorite Physics teacher, Ms. Torbert, went with our Junior on their annual retreat. The Loyola Retreat Center is beautiful, and the spirit of the place really sets a wonderful tone. It was at this retreat that I gave my first witness talk, and I have to say, I think it went pretty well. I spoke about forgiveness, and withholding judgement through a story from my own life. I was so moved with how well it was received by the girls. Here we are enjoying the view of the rushing Potomac River.20150316_090158


Then it was time for months of behind the scenes work(A.K.A. lunches and after-school) to come to fruition. Our students, with the help and encouragement of faculty and staff, put on a TEDx event! My team of students, as you might have guessed, was in charge of stage design. 20150321_112241







March was a busy month… It ended with a trip to the National Art Education Association (NAEA) in New Orleans, Louisiana. I took my husband and his nice camera along for the ride. It was a wonderful networking experience, and the inspiration I gleamed from the hundreds (probably tens) of presentations I saw, is continuing to inspire my lesson planning. I’m still going through my notes even now.







April was a busy month as well. Starting with our Annual Spring Festival of the Arts. This year, unlike last year, we had performances, food, live painting, and interactive activities all going on at once and the opening day activities went on into the evening. This is a particualary amazing event because it comes together after months of planning. Each student has at least one work of art in the show, and parent volunteers help in mounting and displaying, so that the effect is a school just covered in art. It’s fantastic!20150427_073820









And that very same day we released a years worth of work in our literary arts magazine: Callithump! An English teacher, Ms. Whitmore and I are co-advisors to this publication. However, it truly is student run. For most of the year artwork and written works are collected, curated and then put onto pages by our student staff members. The result this year was breathtaking.





Then of course there was the yearlong collaboration between my Foundations of Studio Art class and Physics. We lined up our curriculum and shared a design process that encouraged our students t make cross-curricular connections. Ms. Torbert and I even presented our year of collaboration at the  National Coalition of Girls Schools (NCGS) conference: From STEM to STEAM, this June. We plan to continue our efforts next year with even more new and improved connections. Below are some photos of students putting their art skills to work building functional objects with the Arduino in their physics class. 20150506_132257



20150506_132308And then of course there was the yearbook… Did I mention that I am the yearbook advisor? It’s a lot of work, but luckily our yearbook is assembled during a class period and not after school as a club. (THANK GOD!) This year, our theme was “Change. It’s good.” This was inspired by new staff, new roads on campus, and the gigantic turf field that was being built in front of our school all year. The yearbooks looked beautiful this year, and they were a big hit!

Also, look at whose student was featured on the front page of our schools magazine! (It’s one of our amazing recycled art sculptures.)20150601_160024


And finally there was this! … This is why I teach, and this makes the whole year worth it!



Four Weeks with Sound

Fall has finally really begun, and the leaves are beginning to change. In Foundations of Studio Art, for the past two weeks, and the next two weeks, we are dedicating our time to creating sound art. We defined sound art as “a term for a diverse set of art practices which utilize sound and listening as the subject matter and material… Among the wide variety of forms that might be grouped within the category of sound art are: kinetic sounding sculpture, automatons, experimental radio, sound installations , guided sound-walks, instrument making, graphic scores, sound poetry, and video art,”  as defined by experimental sound artist Chris Reider. This project is titled Sound collage: A Garage Band and iMovie project. 

This project was designed to be a follow up to their most recent unit on sound waves in Physics, a class all freshman take. It is a built in part of our STEAM initiative to connect art with other Science, Technology, Engineering and Math classes. Art and Design are the key to STEAM, and I will write more on this later. But for now, check out Rhode Island School of Design’s website on this fantastic initiative here: But, our project wasn’t just inspired by the goings on in science class. We also had a little art history, and examined some of the works of John Cage, the famous sound artist and composer. He was very avant garde for his time and I wasn’t exposed to him until half way through collage, but these girls are incredibly intelligent. I saw no reason to not give their soon to be avant garde projects some real context. (Below is one of the videos we watched in class.)

As far as limitations and guidelines I was very specific in how I would grade each project. However, after each of these guidelines were met the students were encouraged to take their sound art in any direction they wanted. My expectations were as follows. Each group of two or three students had to create a 2-5 minute long video with their sound art as the soundtrack. The were expected to use garage band, itunes, and imovie to create their works of art. (These are all programs pre-loaded on their mac laptops) They were expected to focus on the elements texture, and space, and include at least one example of how sound can create the feeling of texture and how sound can create the illusion of space. They were also asked to focus on the principles variety and harmony. Variety so that it had audible interest, and harmony between two separate sounds. They were asked to include a moment of silence or meaningful silence as well as one found sound, and one sound they created themselves: a womanmade noise. Within these boundaries they were free to focus on whatever theme they liked. Although, with Halloween coming up, I’m afraid (literally) that many of these works of art might be scary.

Alternately, the fact that my students are connecting the power of sound with horror movies, just warms my heart. It means they are really paying attention and diving into this project head-on! I can’t wait to see the final results.






Here are some more of the videos we watched in class (John Cage) (John Cage) (Caught a Ghost) (Sound Art Instilation) (Sound Art Instilations)

Pop! Goes the Summer

I am taking on a summer course at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart. It is called Multi-Dimensional Studio. My explanation of the course for our school website goes as follows:

“An exploration in the decorative and fine art, Multi-Dimensional Studio will challenge students to find new meaning in art through studio work and museum visits.  The course is designed to introduce various art mediums, techniques and styles including acrylic paint on canvas, soft sculptures, mixed media collage, recycled/upcycled art, charcoal drawing, digital photography and film.  Multi-Dimensional students will study the basic elements and principles of art and design, and use these elements and principles to guide and assess their work.  There will also be multiple field trips to area museums including the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, as well as the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshorn.  Students will develop their critical thinking skills while they assess their own artwork as well as famous works of art.”


As I suspected things have started off brilliantly! I am teaching to a small class of three young women, and they are a lovely and quiet bunch so far. However, if years as a summer camp counselor has taught me anything, they wont be quite for long…

To begin with we are taking a look at Pop Art from Great Britain and the United states. We will be exploring art through the movements and working our way back in time. This backwards investigation will find each movement and it’s inspirations and origins. This will guide our backwards travel through time. And what better place to start than Pop Art?

On our first day we took a look at the “father” of pop art Richard Hamilton and his famous definition of Pop Art,



and some of his early ironic social commentary collages. We then used his work as inspiration to make our own ironic collages, inspired by social commentary. I say “we” because I made one along with them. While irony and social commentary were our themes, I challenged my students to focus on two elements and two principles of art. In this case I asked them to think about shape and color (elements) as well as movement and unity (principles).

20140617_104025^ “America the Brave”

20140617_104044< “Every Girls Dream”

20140617_104006^ “Experience the Wild”

20140617_103950< “Fighting for Peace”

The Best of Glen Echo


The summer is finally over and I am two weeks deep into work at my new school, which we will call “The Girls School.” I have been busy with my move from Philadelphia to Washington, DC and the transition to my new job, but I feel like it is important to get some documentation from this amazing summer in Maryland up, before I forget. Below are some of my favorite gems from this summer at Glen Echo Park, Decorative Fine Arts Camp.








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