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Using art to teach other cultures

Even as a young child, Christy Gill knew she wanted to be a teacher. At the end of each school year, the daughter and granddaughter of teachers would ask her elementary school teachers for their used textbooks and workbooks and “take them home like treasures,” she recalls. Over the summer, “I’d gather the neighborhood children on a blanket and play school till I wore them out.”

Christy Gill video

Today, Gill is a 30-year veteran teacher. For the last eight years, she has taught art at Divide Elementary School in Lookout, W. Va., a rural town about 60 miles from Charleston, the state capital. She teaches five classes of 20 to 25 students each day in her own classroom dedicated to art. Students have an abundance of supplies to use in each 45-minute class, thanks to Gill’s commitment to seeking grants to fund student projects. The National Board Certified teacher has been so successful at writing grant proposals that administrators have asked her to write one for new playground equipment, a challenge she readily has taken on.

Gill combines her passion for art with a love of travel. A longtime participant in the People to People student ambassador program, she has spent many summers leading groups of students from across the state on trips abroad. Among the countries they’ve visited: Hungary, China and England. And a decade ago, a Fulbright Memorial Fund teacher scholarship allowed her to visit Japan. Gill shares pictures and souvenirs from her travels with her students to spark their interest in other cultures. The trips also inspire Gill to create art projects that relate to different countries. For instance, she spends an entire month teaching about Japanese culture. Students learn about kimonos and fans, rice paper and ink stones, and how to write their names in Japanese. Thanks to Gill, says kindergarten teacher Sandra Coleman, “this little rural West Virginia community has knowledge of what the world looks like in its art.”

Christy Gill

Coleman has observed Gill in the classroom many times and “can’t praise her enough.” Coleman says her colleague never raises her voice and uses positive reinforcement to keep children on task. If Gill notices that a student has focused particularly well in class, she will write the student’s name on a card she has made to praise various behaviors such as being a good listener. Gill hands these cards to students at the end of class. Coleman says that students’ classroom teachers will post the cards on their classroom doors before sending the cards home to parents. Students are excited to receive Gill’s cards, Coleman says. “The kids respect her.”

Gill still wakes up every day excited to work with her students. “I love being with them and seeing them learn new things.” Besides teaching artistic skills, Gill believes she helps students become more comfortable with themselves through art. Not “everybody has to be skillful to be successful,” she says. “As an artist, you don’t have to be the best drawer to have the best piece of art. You have to reveal yourself. What makes art special is that it is so individual.”