Fort Riley Middle School art instructor Catherine Coughlin has a passion for art that she has tried to pass on to others.

She won the Master Teacher Award from Unified School District 475 for her efforts at her school and in her community. Coughlin has done projects, she said, that have increased the community’s exposure to art and stressing its value.

The value of art, in and out of the classroom, is apparent to Coughlin, she said, and she wants to help others to understand this as well.

“Art is a footprint for mankind,” she said. “It’s an expression and its a reminder of the truth and beauty that we leave … It’s a mirror of the inner person and it’s just expressive and it’s a communication. It’s man’s communication to one another in a visual way. And so without that, there wouldn’t be a lot of communication going on. You can only go so far with words and then we live in such a visual culture that it’s critical that we keep the arts healthy and strong. My fear is that we’re cutting it, without realizing the value of it to students and their human development. That’s what the importance of art is in community.”

Art, Coughlin feels, is a direct reflections of the society in which it is formed.

“It’s an expression of the inner person and the expression of a society and a community and the world,” she said.

To bring this to the community, Coughlin said she has invited others into her classroom. She has worked with Kansas State University’s art education department, she said, to bring internationally-respected artists to the local community. Coughlin said she tried to expose students and teachers from across USD 475 to these artists by inviting them to come take part and learn from these artists. She collaborates, she said, with other teachers, including those outside her subject.

Coughlin said she worked with the choir teacher at her school in a lesson, choosing a song that reflected visual imagery and having students create art to go with the choir’s song. When the choir performed, the art Coughlin’s students created was displayed on the big screen.

“You try and spread what you can out there,” she said.

She involves students families by hosting a non-alcoholic cork and canvas with cocoa in place of wine.

“People can come and they can make a beautiful picture and be with their family, so we do those things too,” Coughlin said.

She said she takes a classical approach to teaching. Coughlin said she was trained in college as a teaching artist and so she tried to impart to them what she learned when studying for her degree.

“(Middle school students) are able to do these very challenging things and to meet the high expectation that I have,” Coughlin said. “I get them to think about more than just creating or making art. It’s about the design process. And there’s one structure that is very beneficial to high-order thinking and that is teaching artistic habits. Teaching artistic habits and what an artist does and how an artist thinks are things that they can take away from this classroom and things that they can apply in other classrooms. And I think that art education is unique in that way.”

It’s a discipline, she said, that can be applied to almost every other subject, because creativity and problem-solving can be used in every aspect of life and learning.

“My focus is very much how students can think outside the box, how students can problem-solve and make their art extraordinary rather than just an ordinary art project,” Coughlin said.

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