What color is happiness? What shape represents anger? If stress is a texture, what does it feel like?

Thoughtful questions like these are part of how art teachers Mary Chapman and Amanda Neuwirth are connecting visual arts with social and emotional health. Neuwirth, who has taught at Nimitz High School for six years, and Chapman, who is in her fourth year of teaching at Singley Academy, have taken the remarkable challenges of 2020 as an opportunity to reach their students like never before.

“Of all classrooms, especially at the high school level, ours is probably the most flexible to being able to include and incorporate social and emotional learning (SEL),” says Chapman. “We decided to roll into this year knowing that [students] are going to be stressed out, readjusting to taking classes online and everything. A lot of times they will come in and just be so tired. But I get it, we’re all exhausted. It’s been nice to validate that for them.”

And the teachers have done just that. Understanding that stress can evoke unique responses from each student, Neuwirth and Chapman help their students recognize and understand their emotions at a fundamental level, then express them in new and creative ways. For Neuwirth, this starts with teaching her students how their body and brain change in response to stress.

“It can impact the development of the prefrontal cortex, which is going to make it difficult for students to be what is traditionally seen as ‘successful’ in school,” says Neuwirth. “[We want to] find those interventions for meeting students where they are in their brain-state, and understand that they may have trouble regulating their emotions, they may struggle to be organized and think about due dates or timelines.”

Chapman and Neuwirth also help their students gain a deeper understanding of their emotions and thoughts through artistic expression. Chapman saw powerful responses from one project that challenged students to create a work of art that expressed one or more emotion solely through the element of line. During another lesson, students were asked to consider where they experience emotions like anger, stress or anxiety on their body, and then express those emotions using texture.

Creative lessons like these have inspired fine arts teachers across the district to connect with both remote and in-person students this year. Recognizing Chapman and Neuwirth’s passion, Director of Visual Arts Gayla Lawrence invited them to develop a curriculum that incorporates SEL into daily fine art lessons.

“[Chapman and Neuwirth] are both so passionate about truly caring for the student that they have met the needs of their kids at a totally different level through this season,” says Lawrence. “They are a team and have met in the middle and done some beautiful curriculum work.”

At the core of Chapman and Neuwirth’s curriculum is an understanding that to care for students requires teachers to first take care of themselves. That’s why, every Monday afternoon, Neuwirth hosts a “Mindfulness Monday” session that helps teachers better understand and care for their own health before engaging with their students. 

“We understand that it’s not enough just to say ‘go take care of yourself.’ We have to really embody that by engaging with other educators together in that experience,” says Neuwirth. “We’re really working on engaging in neuroplasticity, restructuring how our brain responds to stress, which is so empowering.”

For more information about the “Mindfulness Monday” sessions and SEL classroom resources, contact Amanda Neuwirth at aneuwirth@irvingisd.net.