Early each morning, almost two dozen students wait outside for Claire Smullen to open the art room at Washington, D.C.’s, Stuart-Hobson Middle School. During this optional “zero period” class, middle schoolers design, build and decorate elaborate sets, props and costumes for the school’s twice-yearly musical productions. Smullen studies the sets of student and professional productions, formulates a loose plan, then turns students free to explore, create and lead the way. The students have painted 1,000-square-foot backdrops, reproduced the magical rooms of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, built the Beast’s glorious castle and created a Pinocchio costume complete with extending nose. When the curtains part on opening night, audiences gasp at the scale, detail and professionalism of the sets, hardly believing that middle school students get the credit.
Smullen can turn even the most reluctant artist into a young Picasso. She builds students’ confidence and cultivates autonomy so they can direct their own artistic journeys. Students explore different stations, learning to use all the materials and tools responsibly and to their fullest. Smullen finds talent in every student and experiments with innovative techniques. The elementary students she taught before moving to Stuart-Hobson created Chihuly-inspired chandeliers using plastic water bottles, which Smullen showed them how to distort using a heat gun. She teaches a full-year art elective for students in the school’s Independent Life Skills & Communication and Emotional Support programs, of whom all have intellectual disabilities or severe autism and many are nonverbal. Smullen greets them with a high five or fist bump and creates a warm, safe environment where they can express themselves. The students’ creations hang outside the classroom; a woven tapestry made by a nonverbal student who struggles with fine motor skills is displayed prominently in the principal’s office.
Smullen chairs the school’s electives department and sits on the school leadership team. She leads professional development for the district’s art teachers each year. During schoolwide family nights, children and parents do art projects together in her room. Certified as a master gardener, Smullen is helping the school transform its outdoor areas into teaching spaces that incorporate student artwork like painted stepping stones. Smullen encourages students to participate in local art contests and projects. After the 2016 presidential election, Smullen’s students participated in D.C.’s “Unity Through Art” project and displayed their artwork in local businesses.
Smullen earned a Bachelor of Arts in studio art and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design from Marietta College in 2008. She received a Master of Arts in Teaching in 2012 from the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at The George Washington University.
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