Having just earned her master’s degree during her AmeriCorps year of service at KIPP DuBois Collegiate Academy, our most recent Phreq of the Week is now on a very important mission. After learning about the cancellations of many art programs in the Philadelphia school districts, she is trying to create a movement to save art education in Philadelphia, starting with one single classroom.From giving up her B.A. in Film to go back to school for teaching, to working 80 hours a week to be able to afford art supplies for her students, calling her a hometown hero might be an understatement. Meet Deva Watson.
Phrequency: First off, you’re a young professional. How do you apply your personal style in a classroom setting?
Deva : This is really funny. I feel like I read all of these fashion blogs that ask their featured person this question and someone is finally asking me which makes me feel awesome! Yes! I read Natalie Off Duty and Eat, Sleep, Wear where you see all of these people who are so put together and I’m just like, “how do you do this?”
I guess my personal style is very much grounded in Northern Liberty hipster culture. I’m very okay with saying that I’m a hipster, I’m fine with it. Yes I did have a fedora last year, yes, I listen to punk music like Minor Threat. I go to Forever 21 because that’s the most affordable right now! I like to wear stuff that’s comfortable but then at the same time showing my style to my students and not wearing a pant suit outfit, which I see other teachers wear. I think the really cool part about being an art teacher is that you get to be a little funky and people don’t mind. I couldn’t pull off my look in a math room.
I follow trends but I make them appropriate for my teaching. I can’t wear a romper or show my tattoos very much, but I think I’m that hipster that is trying to be in an acceptable system of teaching.
P: You used to work in film but went back to school for teaching, what made you decide to do that? D: I was working in really bad reality television, and when you edit a lot of Snooki and Jersey Shore you want to kill yourself. I read that a lot of schools were closing and I wanted to come back to Philly and make a difference in some very small but punk rock way, like “yes, we’re going to fight the system and yes, everyone is going to learn”.
However I realized that it’s very different. You have to go through very bureaucratic systems. Working and teaching is like being in high school all over again and you kind of have to be able to go through the same channels of “playing the game” which I have learned the hard way. I dress differently, I think differently, I want kids to think differently, but you have to make it like it’s your school’s idea.
photo by Deva Watson
P: Can you tell us about your most recent project?
D: Yes! I contacted Greensaw to see if they would be interested in doing pro bono work by creating an art classroom for my students (current art room shown above). They got back to me, and Dave, who is brilliant, came to the school, saw the kids, met me and we just had a really long conversation about how we want this to work. If we didn’t have the same general feeling about everything, it probably wouldn’t have happened. We decided that something needs to change and if it doesn’t we are not helping kids at all. After he met with the kids he decided, “Ok, we need to make a functional art room that is going to be sustainable and will at the same time promote companies that are willing to help us.” For instance, if a company donated a lot of wood, we will put their name on the wall in addition to doing everything we can to let people know about their presence.
Helping out right now are Kirsti, Dave, and Jeb-who is an architect that just wants to help out. We’ve all had art teachers that we loved and we want to do this out of respect for where we are now because of them.
P: Very cool. What do you expect to get out of this classroom once it’s finished?
D: I want it to be run like a kitchen because all I’ve worked in is kitchens. In a kitchen you work clean, you work hard, you work fast, with respect to what you’re doing. I’ve learned from serving and working with really great cooks, to be like, “this is how we work and this is how we work efficiently and this is how we become great.” After learning how to function in a kitchen, I applied that to running a classroom.
I hope that it can be a functional space that makes kids want to learn as opposed to a crappy whiteboard in this bad room that’s falling apart that nobody takes care of. I remember I had one student pull a piece of the wall off and just look at me. That is an unacceptable learning space.
We’ll make it beautiful and then make it the kids responsibility to understand that this is the one space that we have to take care of or it’s never going to work. This is our shot to prove to people that we are adults and we are going to make this happen.This is our chance to inspire kids that are so often failed by the system. I think once you ask kids what they want and if they want it to stay this way, it makes them take more ownership, as opposed to you saying that it has to be this way and that’s it.