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NEA News

More Than Drawing and Coloring: Art (and Art Teachers) Has Power

Art teacher Allison Richo is not afraid to bring social justice and other challenges into her classroom.

“What are you going to do with that?” It’s a question college students and newly minted college graduates often hear from family and friends. For Allison Richo, who finished college in the 1980s, the that” was an art degree.

Today, she holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., and for the last 25 years has helped high school students in Prince Georges County, Md., see the world through artistic eyes.

“It’s been the best thing ever,” says Richo, who once owned an architectural design business with two friends.

When the business folded, Richo started to substitute teach.

“I did so well as an art teacher, I got a call [to return] and that started my career.”

Multiple Hats

It’s been nonstop for Richo, who teaches at Oxon Hill High School. Despite her love of art, and her long list of personal awards and recognitions, her attention is squarely centered on her students. So much so that she takes on a mammoth amount of responsibility: visual arts chairperson, interactive media and production coordinator, and academy and national art society sponsor. She also teaches five prep classes that include AP Drawing Studio, AP 2-D Design Studio, Basic Design, Drawing and Painting, and Art 1. Richo also earned National Board Certified status while battling a health crisis.

From your shoes to your cell phone, everything is connected to the arts.” - Allison Richo, art teacher

“I know it’s a lot, but I’m determined to give my students the best art education I can. If that means taking on more than what I need to, then I’ll do it.”

Richo is unafraid when it comes to looking directly at societal challenges, and bringing them into her classroom. Her students have examined issues like the murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was killed by police in Ferguson Mo., during August of 2014, and the Louisiana communities that were neglected following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The discussions help to fuel installation pieces the students create afterward.

By connecting art with everyday life, Richo helps her students understand art’s relevance. “From your shoes to your cell phone, everything is connected to the arts."

Otherwise, students think it’s like it’s being in kindergarten, ‘Oh, we’re
just drawing and coloring.’ No. There’s more to it than that.”

The More

Art isn’t just painting a pretty picture and learning fundamental skills, explains Richo. Art builds character and critical thinking skills, and because of the giving that creativity requires, art also teaches empathy.

While Richo wants her students to achieve mastery and evolve in their technique, she also wants them to use their art to give back to their community.

To achieve this sense of selfless generosity, Oxon Hill High School students have participated in The Memory Project, which invites young artists around the world to create portraits as special gifts for children facing challenges in countries like Haiti, Syria, and Madagascar.

“Art teachers have so much power. We have the tools to equip students with the skills they need to go out into the real world and be successful and it's up to [us] tp help them get there."

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National Education Association

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.