Thank you for another fantastic year. On behalf of the students and staff of Russell Lee Elementary School, we appreciate your support so much. The collaboration between our families and our amazing staff makes our school the special place that it is and I am so grateful for the educational experiences we were able provide for our Roadrunners. Next year we will be celebrating our 80th anniversary and we are already getting ready for a great year. I want to leave you with a final installment of our We Are Lee series. Clayton Maxwell sat down with our favorite art teacher about her 29 years at Lee and what’s next for Ms. Kennedy.
Has your Lee kiddo ever sang the drying rack song for you? Ask them about it. It’s just one of the cool things that Ms. Kennedy has had going on in her art room for the past 30 years teaching our kids how to create. As Ms. Kennedy leaves us, an integral chapter in Lee’s evolution as a fine arts school is coming to a close. But Ms. Kennedy has new adventures ahead—from writing to playing the saxophone to painting (she likes to paint trees, partially inspired by Vincent Van Gogh), her next chapter is going to be fun. We’ll miss you, Ms. Kennedy—thanks for putting your heart and talent into making Lee a great place to be.
We Are Lee: After 30 years at Lee, you’re retiring for real? You don’t seem old enough to retire.
Ms. Kennedy: I’m 53. I started at Lee right out of college. I got my BFA from Southwest Texas and then I got my teacher’s certificate. I did my student teaching through UT, which was great, which was part of why I got this job! Because I did my student teaching under art icon Ann Worley who had been my own second grade and sixth grade art teacher.
We Are Lee: Wait. Who’s Ann Worley?
Ms. Kennedy: She was my second grade and sixth grade art teacher. She was like a dynamic force in the art teaching world in Austin for years. And so I got to do my student teaching under her which was really amazing. Her recommendation really helped me get a teaching job here. And my mom had been a teacher and my dad actually had taught for a bit too. But my mom taught for 35 years. She taught elementary school.
We Are Lee: What has been one of the most rewarding parts of this job here?
Ms. Kennedy: I really love just simply teaching art to the kids. There’s a lot of things that can happen that interfere with that because there’s this or that, dealing with behavior, things like that. But when you see the lights in their brains just come on and they’re excited about creating things… To see how they get on their imagination wagon and dive into their creativity. It’s just fun!
We Are Lee: Are there particular types of art that you see that with more than others? Or does it just depend on the kid?
Ms. Kennedy: It depends on the kid. Some kids really love drawing. Some kids really love painting. Some kids really struggle with those things but then we get to a sculpture project and they’re like, “Wow!” and it’s really their thing. I just love it.
We Are Lee: Why do you think it’s important for kids to take art still?
Ms. Kennedy: Oh wow. I think part of the reason the tests scores at this school have always been so high for so many years is because it’s always been a fine-arts-focused elementary. When I came here they were already doing programs. A lot of drama, a lot of dance. It really helps the way kids’ brains work. They learn to think better. They learn to problem solve. All of those high-level thinking skills. Just creating a picture on a flat piece of paper, they’re putting a lot of those things into their picture and using them. I think it helps them be smarter and think better. I also think it’s really important for their self-concept that artwork goes up in the hall. Because they walk by and see it and people say, “Wow! That’s really cool!” And they get feedback. And when they realize these things are going in the hallway pretty regularly, it makes them take a a little more care with what they’re doing too…
We Are Lee: I like that. Their self-concept is enhanced by seeing themselves as creators.
Ms. Kennedy: Yes. And I think one of my strengths is that I create criteria that really ensure them success. Not that there’s not ever frustrations, but if they follow the criteria, their picture is going to work out well in the end. It really will.
We Are Lee: You set them up to succeed.
Ms. Kennedy: I do my best. I also teach Art skills to them before they use the supplies so that they are able to control their materials in a way that increases their satisfaction with their artwork. Because they’re so naturally creative….And I’ve had some kids come back and tell me not all their art teachers do that and how much they appreciated that.
We Are Lee: When you look back to when you started this job, what was one of the things that surprised you that you didn’t anticipate then?
Ms. Kennedy: So we have always been a fine-arts focused school, and I know in my interview that Dr. Clayton talked about the programs, that there were visiting artists, and a lot of other fine arts things which I found really exciting. But the reality of it was that the programs require a lot of work outside of the classroom. That was a little difficult at first but then I saw what the kids got out of it. And having a speaking part in the programs and getting to act and learn dances on stage was such a big part of nurturing who they are as a whole person. I really saw what they got out of it and I remembered back to my college classes where there were so many people that couldn’t even stand in front of the class without shaking to speak to a group of people. I understood that the programs were such a gift for those kids. And it was great for me because I’m also a musician. I play the guitar and drums. One of my things I’m going to do after I retire is I’m going to learn how to play the saxophone because I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the saxophone.
We Are Lee: That’s so cool!
Ms. Kennedy: So, I think that it’s been really fun for me to be able to use those other skills also in my teaching…props, the backdrops. It’s different from what I thought I was going to be doing. But in the end, it’s really made me a better art teacher. I see what those things have really done for the kids over the years. A lot of kids come back and that’s their favorite thing about this school– the fine arts focus. I hope that that is something that is a lasting legacy regardless of what the subject of the program is.
We Are Lee: I love what you said about the confidence it creates in the kids. I’ve seen that. And how it creates important shared memories.
Ms. Kennedy: I’ve always thought that it was part of what made our school seem like a big family. I think kids and adults, too, we really look for connections. It’s part of what makes us stronger.
We are Lee: What are you going to miss?
Ms. Kennedy: The kids’ faces lighting up with understanding of what they’re able to achieve, even if it’s something so simple as putting blue and red together. Wow! It’s just so exciting. And I think it’s brought a newness and a freshness to my life every year, no matter how old I get.
We Are Lee: What do you want to do next?
Ms. Kennedy: I have so many ideas about things that I want to do: Write a book, make my own art, traveling. Those are the three biggies. I love to paint trees which is why the tree project I do with second grade is one of my favorites.
We Are Lee: Cool, what will your book be about?
Ms. Kennedy: As part of my teaching, one of the things that I do is I write silly little songs to help the kids remember things. I love to rhyme. It just kind of comes out of me. So, I think that there’s definitely some kids books in there for me….
We Are Lee: What’s a rhyme that you use often?
Ms. Kennedy: Oh gosh. I have so many. Some of them are really silly. I think the drying rack song is one that almost all the kids know.
We Are Lee: Really? The drying rack song?
Ms. Kennedy: Oh yeah. Because when you’re taking your art to the drying rack, if everybody’s not going the same direction, it’s kind of a nightmare. Because then they’re running into each other’s paintings and everybody’s got these wet drippy things they’re carrying. So, I have a song about the drying rack and it goes like this, “It’s a one way street to the drying rack. You gotta go one way and you don’t turn back, or you’ll bump into your neighbor, SPLAT!”
We Are Lee: That’s so great!
Ms. Kennedy: And the kids love it. I’ve used music in my classroom to make it more fun and help them remember things. Because they definitely remember things if there’s a little more of a song and dance to it.
We Are Lee: Is there anything I’ve missed?
Ms. Kennedy: It’s always been a really fabulous group of parents and community here at our school for so many years. And it’s part of what always made it so worthwhile– all the appreciation and all the amazing parents from so many different walks of life always here at our school. I think it’s a great place to be.
Have a wonderful summer,
Principal – Russell Lee Elementary School