When the 23 children in Mimi Walker's joint kindergarten and first-grade class left for lunch Friday, their tables were blanketed with painted paper and some paintings were scattered on the floor.
That didn't leave much of any surface in her classroom at Riverbend Elementary that wasn't covered with art.
Walker, named Outstanding Early Childhood Educator of the Year for Southeast Alaska, said she integrates art into class every day.
"I love it, first of all," Walker said Friday morning before school began. A caged dove courted itself in a little mirror, a rabbit snuffled around its own cage, and an aquarium burbled in the background.
"Creativity, to me, is really important," she said. "It's a way of communicating. It's a way kids can learn about things differently from reading and writing. They use all their senses. They can express themselves."
Joy Lyon, director of the Southeast Alaska affiliate of the Association for the Education of Young Children, which gave Walker the award, said she remembers as a parent walking by Walker's classroom at the old Capital School. Even then, the walls were filled and art dangled from the ceiling, she said.
"If you just walk in her classroom, you can see how she supports children's art," Lyon said.
On Friday, children tried to put together paintings something in the style of Eric Carle, a writer and illustrator of children's books. Carle cuts abstract paintings into pieces and turns them into representational collages.
Walker's children already had made some abstract paintings in splatters and swirls, or with sponges, or with their fingers. Walker kept track of piles of preliminary paintings and handed them out to each child. On Friday, they began trying to put them together in their own painting of sea life.
"Let's create some masterpieces," Walker told the children. She put some classical music on the CD player.
First-grader Samantha Thompson began by drawing a star with a crayon and cutting it out. She made a star for another girl at her table.
When a younger girl said, "All the papers are tooken," another girl corrected her. "It's not 'tooken.' It's 'taken.' "
Walker, who in the past has taught kindergartners and first-graders separately, said she likes a combined classroom because the older children serve as role models and help teach the younger ones. When the kindergartners sit at a table and see other kids writing sentences, they want to do that, too. The first-graders gain confidence by helping kindergartners, she said.
Walker also likes the combined classroom because she sees the first-graders for two years, and has some time alone with them at the end of the day, after the kindergartners have gone home early.
Samantha meanwhile had cut out a thin shape from a piece of a richly textured, dark-green abstract painting.
"Oh, that looks awesome. Look at that kelp," she said.
At another table first-grader Garret Snyder pointed to a piece he had cut out, which swirled with yellow, blue and red streaks.
"It has electricity in it, and it shocks people," he said of the yet-to-be-named sea life.
"You know what I'm going to make? A shark." Garret drew an outline on the blank white side of a painted piece of paper. "These are the teeth. Their teeth are very mean - bad," he said, searching for the right word. "Yeah, bad."
At the same table, kindergartner Bradley Aukon looked over at a hermit crab on first-grader Doug Harris' painting and pronounced it a turtle. They called over Walker.
"I like it," she told Doug. "Look at how it goes with your background color."
"Everyone says it looks like a turtle," Doug said.
"If you say it's a crab, it's a crab," Walker said. Privately, Bradley was unconvinced.
Walker, raised in Juneau, has been teaching for 14 years. She holds bachelor's degrees in elementary education and secondary art education.
Friday's schedule was read, snack, story, recess, art, lunch, recess, watching a video of a whale, choice of activity, kindergartners go home, snack, story, spelling test, recess, math, clean up, and first-graders go home.
But the work day doesn't end at 3:30, and it isn't limited to week days, Walker said.
"My head is full of children and they never leave my mind," Walker said. "I relive the day and how I handled whatever situation. ... It's kind of a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week commitment that actually I love."
A committee of specialists in early childhood education selected Walker for this year's award from about 12 nominees, Lyon said. She praised Walker for supporting children's creative experiences, "recognizing their uniqueness, respecting them as individuals and drawing out their strengths."
Walker's room is stocked with bins of plastic animals and cars and trucks, books about art, piles of puzzles, boxes of fossils and geodes, a toy kitchen, a closet of costumes and wigs, a bin of stuffed animals, a reproduction of a human skeleton wearing a smock, bookshelves of building blocks, and rows of books. Two plastic Chinese-style decorations stretch across part of the ceiling.
A clothesline, from which some children's art is hung, reaches from wall to wall. Another wall is partly covered with children's pastels based on a Mary Cassatt portrait of a mother and daughter. Six tables are scattered around the room.
Let's just say there's no empty space on her desk, either.
Walker has broken down many of the books into 16 increments of skill level, so she knows exactly what to teach from each book. Most of them she has bought herself. She spends at least $4,000 a year of her own money on books and supplies, Walker said.
During the children's reading session in the morning, Walker called over two or three or four students at a time and gave them books and assignments. She told a boy and a girl that they would read a book about a person, which is called a biography. Because the book was about Helen Keller, Walker explained what a disability is. She had folders prepared for each child giving the instructions and questions to answer.
"It just makes a lot of sense to teach them at the level they're at rather than lump them all together, so they're all being challenged," she said.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind act, schools are focusing more and more on tests and measures of achievement, Lyon said.
"You look at classrooms like Mimi's and you see how much more depth there is than fill in the bubbles," she said. "It's about who we are as human beings that teachers are out there supporting."
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.
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