For Michael Zaba, teaching art is about more than drawing and painting: It’s a cross-curricular opportunity to help his students at Louis Toffolon Elementary School in Plainville, Connecticut, build important skills that help them succeed in every part of their education. When Toffolon targeted growth in mathematics as a schoolwide goal, Zaba introduced grids and arrays to reinforce multiplication skills as students worked on Picasso-style portraits. His lessons include science and math concepts like patterns and mixing colors. When Zaba discovered that only a third of Toffolon’s kindergarteners were able to identify and sort shapes, he incorporated the content into their art periods; in the end, 93% of the students built proficiency. Zaba challenged students to create new fitness routines and capture them in their artwork for a unit he designed with a physical education colleague. The art teacher goes to great lengths to make learning fun and accessible, leading authentic colonial crafts projects during a fifth-grade unit on early America and making a science-themed video where he and a fellow teacher played the parts of “Force” and “Motion” in full costume.
Zaba holds high expectations for his students, and they work hard to meet them, knowing that he sets them up for success. He worked closely with his colleagues to teach skills in the art room that translate to the rest of their day. Zaba has introduced checklists and rubrics to help students evaluate and critique their own work, identify potential improvements, and share suggestions with their peers, assessment skills they now use in other classes. Parents praise Zaba for helping their children discover hidden talents and interest in the arts, particularly meaningful for students who struggle with academics, social skills or athletics. He shares his expertise freely with colleagues in Toffolon’s professional learning community and as a mentor for student teachers.
As Toffolon’s Head Teacher, Zaba helps with scheduling, purchasing and general building management. He is involved in every major school initiative, including the after-school program, Positive Behavior Intervention Support Committee, wellness initiatives, an annual student art show, field trips, fundraising events and assemblies. When a colleague needed a last-minute activity for adults and children, Zaba pulled together a painting lesson for 100 people and sent participants home with their new masterpieces. He worked diligently on Toffolon’s MakerSpace, where students explore electrical circuits, score cartoons, create public service announcement videos, crochet, take apart toasters, code, and create multimedia presentations to share their work. Zaba created the school’s Day of Play and Cardboard Challenge, where students and parents create toys out of cardboard, including play kitchens, lemonade stands, targets, foosball tables and mini-cities. In Toffolon’s Kindness Garden, inspired by a book, children paint inspirational words and sayings on rocks for all to enjoy. Zaba believes that the teacher’s role is to inspire the next generation—a philosophy he lives every day.
Zaba earned a bachelor’s in art education from Central Connecticut State University in 2001, a master’s in art education in 2012 from Boston University and recently received his Intermediate Administration and Supervision certification from Sacred Heart University.
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