Smiling John Calvin – A father’s day present

It is the 500th aniversary of John Calvin’s birth. My father had a T-Shirt idea that he wanted to create and sell to his equally nerdy enlightened pastors, seminary students, theology buffs and John Calvin groupies 🙂 . So as a father’s day present I created a t-shirt design for him. Apparently John was a serious guy and did not smile in his portraits, thus the inspiration for a “Smiling Calvin”. My father is in the final stages of proofing t-shirts so if you want this must-have give me a quick email and I’ll make sure you can get one!

-Shalanah Backus

Tips for Teachers Rookies and Veterans

I just finished teaching at Crosswinds Middle School in Woodbury, Minnesota and I have learned a lot from this summer. Inspired by how much I have learned I thought I would compile some of the best practices and best pieces of advice I have heard from teachers over the years. I will try to update this as I remember more of them or learn new ones! If you have any to add, please comment.

“Leave school remembering the faces of the sweet students in your classroom.”
Wonderful advice from an art teacher at Crosswinds. I’ve heard for every negative you need 3-5 positive affirmations to cancel it. As teachers, it is easy to focus on the challenges but remembering the vast number of positive influences in your classroom can help you keep a happy attitude. I have even heard one teacher say that she keeps a notebook and writes down one good or funny thing that happened during the day.

“Do not leave school until you are ready for the next day’s lesson.”
Some organizational tips I learned are to have all your supplies ready the day before they are needed so you are not running around and you can be relaxed teaching. I have also learned if you keep your supplies well kept and organized the students will treat the supplies with respect as well. For an art teacher I enjoy being neat.

“Eat lunch with other teachers.”
Teaching is actually a very solo profession. You need to make sure you are connecting with other teachers and lunchtime is a perfect time to relax.

“Be calm and cool.”
It is said often that if a student is having a difficult time it is not personal and this is very true. Students are still growing and learning correct behavior (and we all have our off days) so projecting calm and collected demeanor pays off not only for you but calms other students.

“Be involved.”
If you have any opportunity to chaperon a dance, coach, attend a game, watch a play, attend a recital, put up an exhibit you gives you opportunities to see students excel, connect with parents, and connect with other teachers too. You become a teacher and a part of the community.

Midway Driving School Website Design Completed


Check out Midway Driving School ( which I have been working on to design and code for the last month or so. I’m excited for its unveiling. Our last step is working with some SEO experts but we’re hitting the home-stretch.

Midway specializes in teaching nervous drivers and ESL services. They help prepare adults for taking the road exam, provide vehicles, and pick drivers up for free for their lessons. Midway serves the Twin Cities Metro area and could not be run by a nicer person. I had the pleasure to work with Tony Ryan on the site taking feedback and having fun coffee meetings and not to mention he has the ability to make the most amazing shots with the smallest angles in broomball! Check it out!

Aaron Douglas – Harlem Renaissance Collage Lesson

aaron-douglas-collage-07 aaron-douglas-collage-13
To see more student examples click on the image above!

I taught at Crosswinds Middle School in Woodbury, Minnesota as a part-time long-term art substitute teacher for this summer – a mouthful I know.

The 6th grade classes cover African and Egyptian Art and the 7th and 8th grade classes cover Greek and Renaissance Art – which is a great way to make sure students are getting to see a lot of art without a lot of overlapping while at the middle school. When brainstorming project ideas, the other art teacher suggested covering the Harlem Renaissance since they often quoted (artistically quoted 🙂 ) images from both African Art and Egyptian Art. After a bit of searching I found the incredible graphics by Aaron Douglas. His work was typically ink and paper but really it translates well to collage or woodcuts.

6th graders completed this projected, but I would not introduce to younger ages because of using exacto knifes. This can be a great exercise for students probably 6th and up. Scissors are an alternative to exacto knifes that students may also use.


  • 2 white sheets of paper per student and one black
  • Exacto knives
  • Cutting boards or cardboard
  • Pencils
  • Masking tape

To produce Aaron Douglas inspired artwork by using a person/animal, simplified shapes, filling up space (I say black needs to be on all for sides of the paper somewhere), using at least one pattern, and large and small shapes. The first day I show Aaron Douglas artwork, we analylize and read a biography then I launch into the art making. My biggest recommendations is to discuss designs that may be too complex before starting assignment – perhaps even limit number of shapes to be cut – so that students don’t bite off more than can chew 🙂 . You should also show them that the black pieces or printed work should generally not “floating” but connected to another element in the artwork.


1. Students first draw two thumbnail sketches
2. One design is OKed and student may go onto a white piece of paper. The student’s design is made up of closed shapes and marked with paper with B’s and W’s to show which shapes will be black or white. I also show to to draw a shape that overlaps your drawing to reverse the blacks and whites.
3. Students tape paper with drawn shapes onto a black piece of paper and use an exacto knife to cut black shapes out of the paper. (Don’t forget to talk about safety and how to use an exacto knife effectively.)
4. Students use glue sticks to paste the black shapes onto a fresh sheet of white paper.
5. Students fill out assessment sheet.

Stay tuned! Coming soon!

-Shalanah Backus

Bestiary Assignment

Click on the image above to see more students’ work from Crosswinds Middle School.


Work here is done by 7-8th graders but I believe almost any age loves mixing up animals!

Paper (Size is up to you! I did 9 x 6.), Pencils, Erasers

To combine at least 3 animals from a packet of drawn animals in either body parts or texture. You may also do this online (finding animals). Students first decide on what animals they will mix up by writing them down. Then they do a rough light sketch with circles, rectangles, and triangles to fit the animal to the whole piece of paper. The student then draws outlines of animal more carefully with details. Texture in the form of hair/scales/or even smoothness is added along in the direction of the animal’s body and with a sun to dictate where the texture will be darker or lighter.

1. Lightly sketch (using the whole paper) 3 combinations of animals
• These can be parts of animals, eyes, noses, texture, horns, tails, or even people!
2. Finalize sketch lightly adding detail like texture
3. Use shading and a light source to make the animal come alive!

Graded on:
Filled up space well
Used three animals seamlessly
Added Value correctly
Had at least one texture (hair, smooth, feathers, scales)
Neatness (no smudges on paper)
Answering reflection questions thoughtfully

Bestiary PowerPoint – Brief PowerPoint on Definition of Bestiary and some images.
Animal Packet – Mix of online animal images for students to draw off of. Make your own if you wish.
Absolute Astronomy Bestiary Page – Brief definition of bestiary and encyclopedia article website
The Medieval Bestiary – Great site with images, definition, stories check it out!

-Shalanah Backus