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Shaler Area art teacher's creativity earns her award

| Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, 6:54 p.m.
Monica McElwain
Monica McElwain

Receiving an award for her creativity in the classroom came as a surprise for Shaler Area art teacher Monica McElwain.

She was near the end of a year-long maternity leave with her third child when she got a phone call notifying her she was named a winner in the 2015-16 Unboxed Teacher initiative.

“That was a little bit of a blessing in disguise,” McElwain said. “That brought me back into focusing on school and what I'm good at... It was very unique and exciting.”

McElwain, 38, an art teacher at Shaler Area Elementary School, was one of eight Allegheny County teachers named an Unboxed Teacher by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and Leadership Pittsburgh, and will receive a $2,000 grant to continue creativity in the classroom. The grants were given with support from The Grable Foundation and the Pittsburgh Foundation.

The grants were awarded to educators who demonstrate the ability to create authentic and relevant learning experiences. Aradhna Oliphant, president of Leadership Pittsburgh, said supporting problem-based learning at every level is essential in preparing students for jobs of the future.

McElwain teaches art to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Shaler Area Elementary and has been with the district for 12 years. Her goal is not just to teach children how to paint or draw but to give them a creative and thoughtful look on life in general.

“I always start out the year by saying ‘I don't expect you to be amazing artists… but I want you to grow and appreciate life… and look at objects in an artful way,'” McElwain said.

The key is getting students to see art as more than just a painting on a wall. McElwain often uses kinesthetic learning, or learning through physical activities, and brings in artists-in-residence to work with her students.

One class project involved taking old stuffed animals apart to create new animals with unique names and back stories.

“They were able to be very whimsical and create fantasy-type objects that became loved again,” she said. “Then, the kids could take them home.”

McElwain has also been working on a large mural in the halls of the elementary school that focuses on each of Pittsburgh's three rivers and explores the history and notable objects of each region. Students are working on the last portion of the mural this school year.

“This year, we're going to finish up the side based on the student's community,” she said. “We're going to think about neighborhoods and what their community means to them.”

As for what to do with the $2,000 grant, McElwain said she's still considering options.

Her main goal is to get the mural done this year, so money will first be allocated to that, then to other ideas.

“That's been a really big, wide project that I've been doing and it touches different age groups,” McElwain said of the mural. “There's a lot of hard work on that mural. I'm really excited to complete it.”

Rachel Farkas is a contributing writer for the Tribune-Review.

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