Vickroy: Longtime art teacher hangs up her palette
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy June 8, 2014 9:08PM
Nancy Calkins plans to spend more time with her husband, Ed, and their two grandchildren now that she is retired. | Donna Vickroy/Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 10, 2014 6:14AM
Nancy Calkins had three rules for her art students: no stick figures, no corner suns and no saying, “I can’t.”
Abiding by that mantra, the 700-plus students she taught each week at Brodnicki School in Indian Springs District 109, delved into the right brain world of self-expression. While there, the K through sixth graders learned about colors, techniques, patterns and famous artists.
Mostly, though, they learned about themselves and their own ability to create.
“Art is a different kind of education. It encompasses everything — reading, writing, math, history,” Calkins said. “It’s a totally open book.”
And it was totally embraced by the students in her classroom, so much so that on the day she retired, May 22, the entire school gave her a standing ovation.
“You can’t make a teacher,” Calkins says, sitting at the dining room table of her Willow Springs townhome last week, a bowl of Ring Pops, vestiges of a sweet career, between us. “It has to be a calling.”
And perhaps the surest proof of that passion is the teacher who puts off retirement because she can’t imagine a life away from education. Calkins could have hung up her color wheel years ago but every time the subject came up, a voice inside her said she wasn’t ready.
“It’s surreal,” she says now. “I’ve been working since I was 16; I’ve always had a job.”
For 40 years that job was teaching grade schoolers how to draw, how to paint, how to interpret art’s effect on the world.
“I never dummied down the language, not even with first graders,” she said. In fact, she always worked alongside the students, enabling them to see first-hand the process.
Colleague Mary Kay Weir said, “Nancy is known for her ability to whip up any drawing you may need in just a few minutes. Student Council held a Talent Show in May. Nancy walked in during our practice of the song ‘Roar’ by Katy Perry. The next thing we knew she was drawing two tiger heads to hang in the gym. After the show two parents made sure they took them home.”
When teaching art, she said, you provide a concept that has to be incorporated into a final project. The student’s grade is based on the application of that process, not on the perfection of the piece, she said.
Though art brings out the best in all children, Calkins said, it also affords an opportunity for some who struggle in academic subjects, such as math and reading, to shine.
Concrete thinkers like to be told what to do and how to do it. They can get confused by freedom, she said. Art invites them to think outside their comfort zone.
Tactile and visual thinkers, on the other hand, may struggle with concrete rules and expectations but love the opportunity to come up with something on their own.
Art encourages all students to think creatively, she said.
“If you look at any math or science achievement or discovery, it is almost always the path less taken that brought us to success,” she said. “Art causes this kind of thinking, it stretches the mind to look at something in a way outside the ordinary.”
For years, Calkins said, schools struggled under the weight of the federal No Child Left Behind mandate, which made teaching more difficult. She said the nation seems to be moving away from those rigid expectations that everyone should be at the same point in their academic development at the exact same time.
“The new thing today is project-based learning,” she said. “But art has always been that.”
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Calkins’s career is that it ever happened at all.
She grew up in Bridgeview and after attending public schools in District 109, moved on to Mount Assisi High School in Lemont.
“I never had an art class in high school,” she said. But she was good at music and held the position of “prince” cellist — first chair.
When it came time to pick a major in college, she went with math and quickly became bored. Then she took an art class just for fun.
That changed everything. She asked to change her major but, because she didn’t have a portfolio, University of St. Francis officials put her on probation. They also made her choose a minor.
She chose education. And after she student-taught at Hufford Junior High, she fell in love with the profession, so much so that when she was offered a job at a design studio after graduation, she turned it down in order to be available for a teaching job when one opened up.
A year later, one did. At her alma mater.
And thus began her stint at the “best job in the world.” She began at the junior high and then settled in at Brodnicki.
“There was no curriculum back then, no books, no mentors,” she said. “I had to create everything myself.”
Things, of course, are much different now. Not all of it for the better.
In many districts, art and music are threatened by budget shortfalls. Calkins said she’s grateful District 109 has always been a big proponent of fine arts.
“We may not be rich in monetary terms, but we’re rich in culture,” she said. “We’re one of the few districts with arts specialists and with both an orchestra and a band for fourth through eighth grades.”
The culturally diverse community demands it, she said. In addition to parts of Bridgeview, the district draws students from Justice and parts of Hickory Hills.
Calkins also helped to organize the teachers union in 109, working her way up to union president. “Our original contract was one page,” she said. “Now, it’s 68.”
Teachers are better because of the union, she said. It eliminates unequal treatment and favoritism and assures that all will be treated as professionals, she said.
Though much has changed in the world over the past 40 years, particularly technology, Calkins said, children are still children.
“They’re still wide-eyed, beautiful, hopeful, expect-to-live-happily-ever-after little people,” she said. “And that is what I will miss the most.”
Well, that, and the occasional brush with celebrity status. Calkins’ husband, Ed, said they can hardly shop at a store without someone recognizing her with enthusiasm.
That happens even in the most unexpected places. They were boarding a plane for Disney World for their honeymoon 25 years ago when someone shouted, “Miss Jarosz (her maiden name), is that you?”
Indeed she has taught long enough to have instructed many of the parents of her current students. Even her principal, Dr. Kelly Doogan, was in her class years ago.
She plans to spend her newly found free time painting, reading and enjoying time with her stepson, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.
To watch a video of
Nancy Calkins saying goodbye to the students of Brodnicki, visit