Today we’d like to introduce you to Anna Davis.
Hi Anna, it’s an honor to have you on the platform. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us – to start maybe you can share some of your backstories with our readers.
This is my seventeenth year as a teacher in Alpine School District. For the last 12 years, I have been teaching AP Art, Painting, and AP Art History at Timpanogos High School. I teach half time and I also am the Secondary Visual Arts Content Specialist for Alpine SD, which means that I work to provide professional learning and mentoring for art teachers at the junior high and high school levels.
Earlier this year, I was approached by administrators in our district to find a high school that would be interested in doing a residency with a poet and professional artist to create a mural. This was to be done in partnership with the Center for Documentary Expression and Art (CDEA). As I learned more about the project, especially aspects of telling the story of the school and representing minority and underserved populations, I really wanted to take on the project myself at Timpanogos.
Part of the reason that the timing felt right is that I really wanted to highlight the Latino population, which is about one-third of the student body, and my AP Art class was at the same time as our school’s Latinos In Action class taught by Marcus Draper as well as the THS Design Team taught by Claire White.
I envisioned students from different ethnicities, political parties, religions, sexual orientations, and other backgrounds sitting around a table sharing their stories and connecting with each other. With the support of these other two classes, we moved forward.
CDEA arranged for the poet, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and comic book artist, Dimi Macheras, to come to Timpanogos for a week. During that week, Jimmy told stories about the hardships in his life, such as growing up in an orphanage and going to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He told each class that he found his power when he learned to write his story, and he encouraged the kids to share theirs as well.
We gathered stories, doodles, and even videos of students sharing their own stories, trying to figure out how to capture the collective story of Timpanogos High School. We brainstormed with students to get to key images and stories that we wanted to use in our mural. As I had envisioned, we did have a class period where approximately 75 students from the three different classes sat around the table sharing their own stories, learning from each other, and connecting to someone they didn’t know before.
Dimi and I worked together on the final design, but we tried to integrate as many student ideas and images as possible. One of the best images was contributed by junior, Anna Penrod. She depicted a person in a cave symbolizing going inside oneself and confronting the dark of one’s fears. We took this symbolism to depict the psychological and emotional “inner student”.
We also played off of our proximity to Timpanogos Cave and depicted the Great Heart of Timpanogos. (I worked for seven years as a park ranger there, so Timpanogos Cave imagery was very familiar and personal for me). On the other side of the mural, we chose to represent five different students that exemplify excellence at our school.
We tried to also represent diverse groups by choosing a non-binary student, a student who is an immigrant, a student who struggles with mental health issues, etc. Each represents different “faces” of Timpanogos, and each has a story that goes far beyond skin deep. Dimi was able to bring to life a student’s idea of hiding wolves within the contour of the mountain.
We also used sego lilies as a repeating motif to represent the pioneer heritage of settling in this area. There are SO many symbols hidden within the mural. To help our viewers understand the iconography, three students helped (well, they are helping- it’s still a work in progress) create an interactive website.
On the website, you can click hot spots on the mural and it will link to an explanation of the ideas, stories, and artworks that are being represented. We had a student film crew create a short documentary about the mural, and we also documented stories that students wrote to share their own experiences with others. In particular, we wanted to also highlight members of the LGBTQ+ community that often feel ostracized or alone here in Utah County.
We only had Dimi with us for four weeks, including that first week with Jimmy. After creating a final design, we worked long hours during our AP Art class time, into the night, and on weekends and holidays with as many students as would volunteer to paint our 15’x5′ mural. We gathered around 200 stories and had approximately 30 students help us put paint on canvas.
Professional photographer, Kent Miles, who works for CDEA, came often to take photographs and document our journey. After only 10 days, our mural was finished, mounted, and ready to present to the school. We had all three classes (and a few others who joined us) as well as parents, administrators, media, and teachers come for the unveiling.
We celebrated our journey, the amazing talents of the students, the vulnerability and willingness for kids to share their stories, and left a mural that is the centerpiece of our commons area. I am really proud of how we were able to teach our kids real-world applicable skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, citizenship, and creativity as well as how to be better artists. This experience was definitely one of the greatest experiences of my career so far as a teacher.
I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
Being a teacher is hard in general. Being a teacher in a global pandemic where the entire world has shared collective trauma, where no student has had a “normal” education has been extremely difficult. Although this past school year was a little more “back to normal,” in some ways the 2021-2022 school year was even more difficult than 2020-2021.
Although we taught a class in person, teachers were still expected to maintain the same online support and resources as before but without the previous allowance of time dedicated to online learning. Many of us teachers have also been very concerned about our student’s mental health and resilience. We have seen increases in students feeling isolated, lonely, and struggling with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
In January of 2022, there was also a massive surge of COVID cases again creating teacher shortages, sub shortages, bus shortages, and of course, students missing as well. It also seemed particularly discouraging seeing the state legislature sponsor bills that show a tremendous lack of trust in teachers. We felt like during the pandemic, we had been heroes for finding creative solutions to keep educating children.
In contrast, at that time in the media, reports of CRT and other troubling trends such as politicized animosity against the most vulnerable student populations, such as LGBTQ and transgender students, were deeply troubling and discouraging to me. On top of all of that, we were dealing with the rising inflation making food and gas more expensive as well as exploding housing costs that made me very worried about teachers being able to live in the communities where they teach.
I was at a low point personally and professionally. For the first time in my 16 years of teaching, I was really wondering if all of the hard work was worth it. Many of my colleagues felt the same way. Many educators left at the end of last year. Doing the mural project was like being thrown a life preserver when I was drowning in disappointment. It was so inspiring to hear the stories of my students.
They were brave and vulnerable, and they were willing to open themselves up and connect with others. My passion for art was rekindled. I love making art myself, but I sometimes find teaching takes so much energy and creativity, that I don’t always make time to create art myself when I get home. This mural project helped me feel the excitement, passion, and creativity that I try to help my students feel in the art classroom.
I met people I never would have been able to. I saw my students rise to the challenge and feel that pride in completing a difficult task. We created a thing of beauty that will be a legacy for generations to come. I feel really proud of not only the mural, a physical manifestation of our creative process but also of my students, who, I hope, also built an identity and confidence of being artists themselves.
Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
In addition to teaching art, I have enjoyed being an artist as well. I have always enjoyed painting landscapes best. I have always felt a deep joy in nature, and I travel and hike all the time, taking photographs everywhere I go. I really enjoy turning those photo references into finished paintings, whether in oil, watercolor, gouache, pastel, or printmaking.
I have had my work exhibited in art shows, but I haven’t made the time to pursue selling my work professionally on a website or through galleries. A niche I have found in the past year, however, has been combining my artistic interests with my passion for education. Last summer, I decided to make posters for my classroom illustrating the Engagement Continuum.
This engagement scale was developed by Australian researcher, Amy Berry. She helps students realize that being engaged doesn’t just mean that you show up to class, your eyes are open, and you do what the teacher tells you to. Students can choose to not only passively participate in their learning but also actively invest and even drive their own learning.
Conversely, students sometimes passively withdraw from engaging in learning, but they also make choices to avoid learning (oftentimes by getting stuck on their cell phones) and even disrupting learning for others. I loved the idea that we can help students recognize that they have control in regard to how much they learn, despite what the teacher may be in front of them.
I created six drawings, one for each of the levels of engagement, and created colorful posters that describe the Engagement Continuum. As more of my friends saw them, they wanted a copy of the posters, and I realized that maybe I should sell them.
However, this was something totally new to me. I have always freely shared my lessons, images, and ideas. I reached out to Amy Berry because it was her research, and she was thrilled to see what I was doing. She showed my posters to two of her colleagues, esteemed educational researchers John Hattie and Doug Fisher, and the three of them gave me very helpful feedback that I used to improve my designs.
Since then, I have figured out how to start a website, engagement posters.com, and have started selling my posters to teachers all over the country. I showed the posters to my principal, and he purchased a site license for our entire school. It has been awesome to have my students have engagement reinforced, not only in my class but in almost every class they go to.
I really believe that these posters can help students realize how much power they have in their own education. It has been fun seeing people purchase my posters, but I also hope that they spread because they are such a powerful tool in the classroom.
What do you think about happiness?
One of my life’s mottos is “People are more important than things.” I have always been an extrovert. I love being around people, meeting new people, and strengthening relationships with those around me. Although I don’t have any children of my own, I have been an “art mama” to hundreds of kids.
I also love traveling and learning about different places here in Utah and all over the world. I have been to 29 different countries and have even taken students on international travel trips. I have taught AP Art History for sixteen years, and I love learning and teaching about history, culture, religion, philosophy, and the stories behind great works of art.
There are few things better than eating good food, laughing, and playing board games with friends and family. I also love nature, and I try to be outdoors as often as possible, hiking, camping, kayaking, biking, backpacking, cross-country skiing… It makes me feel at peace.
- Engagement Posters- download all six posters for $10. Site licenses for schools are also available.
- Website: engagementposters.com
- Instagram: @artistannadavis
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWzIhTEu1Q8
Hanna Gemperline and Kent Miles