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Hillside Art Teacher Named Outstanding Teacher

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Ballard works with two students as they begin their projects.

Pam Ballard, full time Hillside Elementary art teacher and Jordan Creek kindergarten art teacher, was recently named the Art Educators of Iowa Outstanding Elementary Teacher for 2014. The award is presented to teachers who have a “stellar dedication to the craft of teaching art to children.” Ballard, who has been teaching for 16 years, was nominated by Barbara Caldwell, her mentor at ISU.

“To me, that meant a lot because working in West Des Moines, we have a lot of [Professional Learning Community] time, so we get to build a strong staff,” Ballard said, “but it was nice to see recognition from outside the district.”

Ballard started out as a studio artist, specializing in clay and fiber art at ISU. Her master’s degree is in sculpture. While working as an artist, she felt there was something missing. She figured out what that something was when she spent some time teaching English to non-native speakers. She returned to school and earned a second master’s degree in art education. She has taught at different levels of K–12 education, but eventually chose to work in elementaries.

“I really enjoy working with younger artists because they come as experience visual learners,” Ballard said. “They haven’t learned that they can’t do anything yet.”

That appreciate for visual learning became even more useful as Ballard spent eight years as the West Des Moines Community Schools’ art department chair, developing creative, new curriculum strategies for the entire district. A self-described “curriculum geek,” Ballard emphasized that education standards matter because they help prepare students to enter their future field with depth and breadth. Because teachers today are training students for jobs that do not even exist yet, Ballard focused on developing curriculums that would teach teamwork, problem solving and adaptability: skills that would be useful in any profession.

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A Hillside student gets inspired in one of Ballard’s classes.

“It’s just that I consider art to paramount to community culture, whether it’s here in America or even as a species,” Ballard said. “Art gives students a voice and gives them an understanding that they are a part of something bigger. It’s empowering.”

Ballard has since returned her focus to teaching in the classroom and is a major champion of the Artful Learning program used at Hillside Elementary. Artful Learning, based on the ideas of Leonard Bernstein, operates on the belief that any subject can be learned from any discipline. Every trimester is based around a main concept, and each subject anchors that concept with a masterwork. The concept is threaded through every subject, from art to science, math and language, helping the students learn to make connections and form inquiries of their own.

In Ballard’s art classes, the students study a masterwork and then create their own artwork inspired by it. There may be many steps in between, like learning more about the concept or studying different inspiration connected to the concept, before the physical creation process begins.

One of the concepts earlier in the year was “innovation.” Ballard had students study David Smith’s famous Tanktotem II and the works of Giacomo Balla, discuss and study innovation and how it connected to art, and finally create their own pieces. First grade artists studied Balla’s “Flight of Swallows,” watched video clips of birds in flight over Balla’s Italian hometown and the various stages of flight, and practiced flying with different wing positions outside before drawing a sequence of birds in motion.

Ballard’s unique approach stems from her ability to see her students as fully-formed artists capable of powerful creativity, while also recognizing them as children still learning about the world and how they fit into it.

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Ballard discusses a project with one of her students.

“I’ve got the best job in the world,” Ballard said. “I come in and get to work with these incredible young artists. They come up with ideas I would never think of, and they push themselves harder than I would ever ask them to. That’s when you know the spark is alive in them.”

Ballard credits West Des Moines as the place that nurtured that same spark in her as a child. As a teacher in that same community, she still sees the appreciation for all areas of study, including the arts, and thinks the “legacy of the arts” is one of the things that sets the district apart.

“I think that’s something we need to be proud of and continue to be proud of,” she said. “I’m the product, and now I’m the producer.”

Students learning from Ballard will not be surprised to find that she was named the outstanding elementary teacher for 2014. Her background in curriculum and her unique views on learning and art are just the beginning of what makes this teacher a great one. The rest comes from her view of leadership as service and her ability to bring passion, enthusiasm and that creative spark into the classroom and share them with her students.