Birchwood teacher named ‘Outstanding Art Educator’

Birchwood teacher named ‘Outstanding Art Educator’

Birchwood Middle School art teacher Laurie Batek, named Outstanding Middle School Art Educator of the Year, is pictured here with Supt. Joseph Goho, principal Brian Gilmore and Asst. Supt. Louise Seitsinger.

NORTH PROVIDENCE – Birchwood Middle School art teacher Laurie Batek asks a class of 6th-graders on their first day of art who likes to draw. Hands go up in the air. “Who likes to paint?” she asks, as more hands shoot up into the air.

“In this class, you can draw, paint or use any other materials available on your projects. I’m not concerned with your level of talent – only your attitude and your effort," says Batek.

Batek has been named the 2020 Rhode Island Art Education Association’s Outstanding Middle School Art Educator of the Year for her dedication and service to art education.

In an award letter, the RIAEA thanked Batek for implementing a “model art education program that has increased community awareness of the importance of art education for all of Rhode Island’s school children.”

Batek runs a “choice-based art room,” where she encourages her students to engage in creative practices and use their imagination. She offers them guidance on their projects, but gives them the freedom to independently decide what they’ll create.

This, she said, is the key to creating personally meaningful art.

“I was finding that students coming into middle school art would often shut down,” she said, calling middle school a “whole other animal” compared to elementary. “Students brought with them a variety of socioeconomic issues and other factors. They did really, really well with the little art they did, however it was difficult to engage them.”

Realizing students don’t fit into neat boxes, Batek began to give them more freedom in their art projects. Having them focus on things they like and are passionate about made her students feel more comfortable, she said.

As part of an exercise on the first day of class, Batek instructs her 6th-graders to draw a box on a blank sheet of paper.

“It doesn’t matter what size or where you put it,” she said. “There are no requirements. In art there are no right or wrong answers. Remember, you have an eraser, you can always erase.”

Their eyes shift down, pencils to paper. Next, she asks her students to expand on the box, creating a drawing of anything they’d like. Their imaginations take hold. The boxes transform into houses, cartoon characters and robots.

“I want my students to think more, and to imagine more. Our imaginations are not used as much anymore,” she said. When she asks her students to reflect on their work, there is one question they may never ask: Is this good enough?

“Are you satisfied with your work so far? It’s OK if you’re not. Where can you improve? There is always room for improvement,” she said.

A poster on the wall of her classroom reads, “Don’t stop until you’re proud.”

Batek, who attended Birchwood herself, has worked as an art teacherin North Providence schools for 33 years.

“I know I’m here for a reason,” she said.

She’s grateful to be recognized by the RIAEA, an honor she said came as a surprise.

“I’m not doing the same thing I did when I started. I’m constantly learning from these kids,” she said, adding that teaching is all about being a lifelong learner. “I want to find new ways to motivate my students and have them be successful."

Laurie Batek works with students in her art room at Birchwood Middle School.