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Meet Kathleen Tieri Ton of Batavia High School Graphics in Western Suburbs

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kathleen Tieri Ton.

Kathleen, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I have been working in education for 12 years as an art teacher, media support, and now graphics teacher. This school year will be my fourth year teaching graphic arts at Batavia High School, about an hour west of Chicago. I came to teaching after spending year’s waitressing, being a projectionist and manager in movie theatres, lots of customer service jobs, and volunteering with the arts communities in the Chicago neighborhoods where I lived. Whatever I was doing, I loved being where people came together about something they were passionate about – music, art, movies, photography, books. Even in high school, in a small town in Indiana, I started a coffee shop in my parents’ store. I realize now that I have always believed in the impact we can have with our communities and our passions. Outside of teaching I try to keep up my own art practice, and collaborate with my husband on his bookmaking business.

Over the years teaching art, I transitioned into teaching solely digital based arts, and at Batavia teach beginning through advanced level graphic arts. Graphic arts education has changed so much in the past few decades. When I studied it in high school, we printed the school newspaper and our favorite independent project was designing a notepad and printing it on the offset press. But the technologies have changed so much, and with that the jobs available in the field. When I started at Batavia, the teachers had begun transitioning the program into a more contemporary take on the content. So along with my incredible colleague Andrea Schindlbeck, I was able to come in with my experiences in both the art and career background experiences to continue to build the program. The graphics program is part of the Career and Technical Education department, which receives state and national grant funds to support the program in its goals towards both career-readiness and post-secondary schooling. We take that to heart and do a lot of foundational work with the students towards graphic design and visual communication using professional level softwares and equipment. As students advance in the program, they add to their design skills with production work like screen printing, vinyl design, and more.

There are so many graphics related careers, so we do our best to support students in exploring possible career options and discover what they love about creative professions – and what they don’t! Each year, as part of our coursework, we do actual projects in communities near and not so near. The students have used graphic design to transform an unused space in the school library into a student study space, then building on to that the next school year with environmental graphics and signage throughout the main area of the library. Students have created a healthy eating campaign for one of the elementary schools in our district. Every other year, the graphics students create banners for downtown Batavia. They have created stage designs and animations for our high school’s theatre department. Students have created countless flyers, posters, and logos for use by departments within the school. And early this summer we installed results of our collaboration with Amy Ewaldt of Maplewood and Lucy Flower Park Council in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, including screen printed flags, banners, and illustration work at Lucy Flower Park.

From understanding the role of graphics in our world, to producing actual large scale, projects, I hope that our students discover the impact design and art can have on the community and people’s lives, and become more critical and responsible producers and consumers whether or not they go on in the field.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
There are always challenges when you want to take your students’ learning beyond the classroom. Time seems to be the biggest one for us. The community based projects take a LOT of time. We could do a lot more in a semester with individual projects, but I feel the community projects give them so many more learning opportunities that are connected to the real world. Still that is always a balancing act and struggle. We are very lucky to be able to use the funding to support the professional level equipment and resources, the project-based learning, and have succeeded in using our funds in ways to give back through our work as well. Vocational and career education is so very important, and with the current cost of post-secondary education, it has even more validity for high school students.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Batavia High School Graphics – what should we know?
The thing that sets the Batavia High School Graphics program apart is probably the synthesis of old and new, art and business, learning and working, collaborative and individualized instruction. Students are on state of the art computers but can also do letterpress and relief printmaking. Students can advance in the program and define their own learning pathways based on their interests in the field, whether it be animation or identity design. I am as equally proud of the students in the first graphics class who told me they didn’t think they were creative until this class, as the graduating senior with a professional level portfolio that could compete with a college grad.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
Our success is a result of the incredible people involved. Andrea Schindlbeck has been teaching in the art department at Batavia High School for 19 years in each discipline and has done wonders bringing together the different areas into one art and media department. Historically graphics programs were a shop class in all schools, and removed from the fine arts. That does a disservice to both areas of education. There is thankfully a renewed renaissance growing towards the value of vocational education both within the schools and nationally. It’s my hope that this grows to match the potential for vocational education in contemporary educational practices.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Personal photo is by Pawel Kowalczyk.

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