Fharis Richter didn’t intend to become a middle school art teacher.
She just happened to take a lot of art classes in college as electives on her way to an education degree and to be certified to teach history and English. With three credits shy from being certified in art education, she decided to go ahead and take the classes at the University of Alabama at Huntsville.
She taught some art appreciation and studio classes at Wallace State Community College as an adjunct professor. Then an art teacher position opened up at Cullman Middle School. Even though her mind and heart was still set on teaching English and history, she took the job.
For the past eight years, she’s been unlocking the creative and artistic talents that students didn’t even know they possessed. She said she teaches them the same way she learned how to draw and paint: breaking it down and going slowly, step-by-step, until they look up and discover what they’ve done.
That “ah-ha” moment is why Richter said she loves teaching.
“At the first class, I ask the students ‘Who here can’t draw?’” she said. “Ninety percent of the hands go up in the room. But after we start, it only takes about two weeks to change their minds. I tell them, try for your personal best. You can’t compare your work to others. I tell them, anyone who has the ‘gift’ has just been doing it longer.”
One of the first lessons is having students draw a picture upside down. Literally flipping things on their head causes the human brain to work a little differently, allowing the right-side of the brain — which is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful, and creative — to take over, Richter said.
“You’re drawing what you see, not what you think is there,” she explained. “Normally I’ll play a book (on tape), and after a few minutes, the class gets really quiet. That’s when they start drawing and get serious.”
When the students finish and flip their work over, they see it matches fairly closely to the picture. Next, Richter moves on to shading, teaching them how to get the right form and contours.
“Once they see what they can do, they really get into it,” she said. “I have students that don’t finish up in class and want to take it home and finish.”
That same thrill of accomplishing something once thought impossible was what got Richter interested in art to begin with. Her sister insisted she come with her to an art class hosted at Bookland where Richter worked. The teacher showed participants how to draw a little yellow flower and a green flower. Dreading the class, Richter said she wasn’t optimistic.
“But then it turned out so good, it made me feel like, ‘yeah, I can do this. I can paint and draw,’” she said. “That’s the same thing the kids in my class go through. I’ve been there before. It’s fun to watch them get it.”
Richter’s classes go beyond paint brushes and pencils. She utilizes technology in her lesson plan to give students experience using photo editing programs and other software.
This semester, eighth graders at Cullman Middle School are creating a stop-motion animated movie in Richter’s class. The boys in her class are using action figures they brought from home while the girls are opting to create their own characters with clay.
Students will take at least 400 pictures, manipulating the figures’ each movement with each picture. After animating the photos, they will render them using the computer program GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP). A white background sheet will be replaced with a digital background, and then using a movie making program, they will put the images and music together.
“They’re really enjoying it,” Richter said. “It’s great because they’re staying focused on the project and working well together as a group.”
Another project has students taking photos of themselves and using GIMP to morph themselves into the blue other-wordly creatures that look similar to those in the “Avatar” movie. Then students will crop out the background and drop in a new background for their Avatars. One student’s completed project has his Avatar fighting a fire-breathing dragon while another is jumping out the window of a burning house.
“We go back and forth between drawing and painting and the computer projects,” Richter said. “The more experience they get on the computer, the better they’re projects are.”
In addition to teaching art to students, Richter has been giving lessons to her fellow teachers.
“One teacher said she thought I was crazy when I showed her the different things we were going to paint,” Richter said. “By the time we got to the last one, she said ‘Look, we’re doing it! We can do this!’ ”
Tiffeny Owens can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.