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An Intriguing Conversation With North Haven's Teacher of the Year

Agnes Cornwall, Montowese Elementary School art teacher, says art instruction enhances student problem solving skills.

“Symmetry is a kind of balance in art,” Agnes Cornwall told her first grade art students at the Montowese Elementary School at the beginning of a class on Wednesday. She went on to describe how they can create symmetrical drawings starting by folding a piece of paper and marking a dot in the center.

“It sounds kind of cool,” one student said, before the class sat down at four big tables to begin their work.

About twenty minutes later a number of students had completed expressive drawings and made sure they marked their names on the backs of their papers so they wouldn’t get lost.

It was one class in the life of the successful elementary school art teacher, recently honored as this year’s teacher of the year for North Haven.

Ann Cappetta, art coordinator and facilitator for the teacher of the year program, said Agnes Cornwall, “exemplifies all the qualities of a good teacher in preparing lessons and employs all state standards. She offers a great art education program for all students and also provides the opportunity for them to belong to an art club. She does enrichment activities with art history. She embodies the qualities you look for in exemplary teachers to be a role model for the North Haven school system.”

Cornwall has devoted most of her professional life to art education in North Haven and shares her experience with Patch readers in this detailed interview:

 

Patch: How long have you been teaching at Montowese?

Cornwall: I’ve been teaching for 27 ½ years. During that time I spent time
traveling between two buildings, Green Acres and here, but most of the time it’s
been here.

P: Have you always been teaching art?

C: Elementary school art. When I gradated my degree was in K-12 at Southern
Connecticut. I taught in Stamford and Watertown and came here when this opened.

P: Do you live in North Haven?

C: I live in Wallingford and grew up in Northford.

P: What’s your schedule and how many classes do you teach?

C: Everything. Kindergarten meets twice a week for thirty minutes. The other
students meet once a week for 45 minutes. Five classes a day sometimes six, it
depends on the schedule.

P: Tell us about some of the different kinds of art you
teach.

C: Our curriculum is very extensive so we teach drawing, painting, clay, crafts.
Second grade did foil relief covers and made boxes out of them. In clay we’ve
done mirrors and sculptures, papier mache, everything.

P: What kind of art skills do your students have and what do
you do to encourage them?

C: A child comes in at all different levels and fortunately in art you can develop
lessons that can reach children at different levels.  I might design a lesson hoping for or thinking of the highest way it can be created l but I also make the modifications so that children who have more difficulty can reach them. I’m always thrilled at what my students do. I think they accomplish a lot. Our program is based on discipline art education. We look at art. We create art and we talk about art
and assess it. In the older grades they might do written assessments. Some of
the lessons have written components. We did trees in second grade this year so
they had to create lines that they felt represented them. And they wrote about
why they chose their lines and about themselves.

P: When a student creates a work of art what happens to it?

C: Either I keep it for display or I send it home. Usually I’m telling them to
roll them up carefully so they can take it home. We have an annual art show
every year Art Beat at the high school which is a K-12 show. A lot of students
don’t get a good amount of work home until after that show because I save it.
But I think they do fabulous things. We don’t do a lot of quick lessons we do
long term lessons. There are a lot of skills involved. In my older grades
students might bring home only three or four projects throughout the year because
there are many steps to get to that final outcome.

P: How important is art in terms of personal development at
the elementary level?

C: I think it’s very important. It gives them a way to express themselves. We
do a lot of problem solving and we talk about other ways to do it. If you make a
mistake in art it’s not a mistake it’s how are we going to turn it into something else. What can we do with it and how can we be successful even if it may not turn out the way you originally intended it to be. It gives them the basis for a lot of problem solving and we do a lot of vocabulary and connections with the classroom lessons. They do ants in the classroom and talk about ant parts so we did a play on ants and combined farm animals so they created what we called “antimals” out of clay. They put them together so it was a lot of creative problem solving. They had to pre-draw how they were going to combine the animal and we did drawings of what the ant farm would look like. Before that we looked at Cows on Parade where artists decorated cows and talked about how artists get inspiration from other places and I created a PowerPoint on farm animals and we looked at them to brainstorm and give them a lot of ideas on how they could do it.

P: Do you communicate with parents frequently?

C: We have an eboard but we’re changing our website and I keep that up to date,
I have email and I attend open house and conferences if anyone needs me or they
just call.

P: Do you do any community activities outside the school?

C: I am Jazzercise instructor so I teach that and through that and I’ve become
very active with American Cancer Society Relay for Life. In my town I coach
soccer for boys because I have two boys. My husband runs in the Pan-Mass
challenge another cancer research run so I helped him with all his fundraising
for that.

P: Have you ever won a teacher of the year award before?

C: I’ve been nominated four times, I guess the fourth time was it.

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