Alexa Overby: Transforming Art Education across DPS

Dr. Alexandra (“Alexa”) Overby is in her third year as the photography and Advanced Placement (AP) Art History teacher at East High School and she absolutely loves her job. Several years ago, she moved from Huntsville, Alabama, where she was a university professor at Alabama A&M, to be closer to her family and was immediately intrigued by the prospect of being part of Denver Public Schools. “DPS seemed like a really interesting place to work, especially given the student diversity and the district’s goals.”

Alexa has a deep passion for the arts and sharing them with her students. She especially loves the immediacy of photography and how it helps students communicate their own ideas and feelings. “We live in a visual world and this is the language that students speak; and to be able to help them to speak it better is really exciting.”

Her AP Art History class (one of the only ones offered in DPS) approaches art from a more academic and analytical perspective but has been no less inspiring for her to teach. Alexa shared how amazing it is to watch students make connections between the art they are studying and what they are learning in other classes like literature and history. “When we’re talking about an art piece, it’s incredible to see them connect the dots with what was happening in the world at the time, why this artwork was created and what the response was. All of a sudden, you see that lightbulb go off.”

Throughout her years teaching art at multiple levels, Alexa has learned how critical the subject is for student development and growth. “The arts are extremely important for kids – it’s part of the whole child. We know that many kids come to school because of their arts or physical education experiences – it’s just such an essential part of being human.”

This strong conviction about the power of arts education is one of the reasons Alexa is so invested in her Teacher Leadership & Collaboration role as a regional team specialist. In this role, she meets with a group of art teachers from across the district on blue/green days several times a year for the purpose of collaborating and developing their practice as specials teachers in a way that may not be available to them in their own buildings. “Our job is to get the visual arts teachers together and dig deep into our content area so the pedagogy of teaching art and the possibilities of instruction are fully explored,” she said. “We talk about the patterns that we’re noticing with student work and how to push our programs even further. It’s also a time for us to take all the DPS initiatives and put it into our language.”

Many art, music and physical education teachers are the only teacher in their particular subject area in their school. Through Teacher Leadership & Collaboration, schools can opt-in to allow their beyond the common core (BCC) teachers the opportunity to join a team led by a regional team specialist like Alexa. On blue/green days, Alexa and her team facilitate a variety of activities including curriculum mapping, critique and sharing discussions designed to help with LEAP indicators, as well as data calibration workshops. “This is really our time to get together to brainstorm and figure out how to best serve our students,” Alexa said, noting the value of making connections with and learning from one another to really understand what “K-12 art education looks like in DPS, so we can make it more consistent in quality.”

Connections between teachers and learning from one another are central to strong arts education across the district. As Alexa pointed out, art education varies by building and art teachers comes from different backgrounds and work in very different circumstances. The strengths of the teachers she works with have been key to building the capacity of the entire team. “One of the nice things about being a regional team specialist is that you can pick up on who else has strong leadership qualities and nurture them… Sometimes, I think as elective teachers, people just don’t get that encouragement that you know what you’re doing and you’re amazing and it would be great if you could share skills with other folks.”

Teachers from Alexa’s team stop by often, even outside of blue/green days, asking each other for advice, sharing lesson ideas and problem solving together. The importance of building leadership capacity and forming a strong team even if you’re not in the same building has been eye-opening for Alexa. “It’s made me realize how much more we have to work on as a team of art teachers to really meet the demands for student achievement and making sure that we’re giving them the best education they can get.”

Alexa Overby