CETL Podcast - Episode 22 - Hala Swearingen

Tony: Good morning friends at Tony Pellegrini here with teaching and learning at SUU, and we're very pleased this morning to be able to reach out and connect with Hala Swearingen here at SUU and she has received this last year, the Distinguished Educator Award, and we'd love to know a little bit more about her and about some of the wonderful instructional and learning activities that she's engaged in, in participating and engaging in earning that reward. Hala would you take a moment or two and maybe, introduce yourself. Tell us a little about yourself.

Hala: Sure Tony, I can do that. Let's see as far as introducing myself, I have been teaching here this will be the start of my sixth year. I started my career as a freelance illustrator for book publishing and children's books and gradually worked into teaching, beginning with getting my MFA at Art Institute of Boston, and then teaching at Cal State Fullerton for six years before I came to SUU. I've been teaching illustration ever since.

Tony: I loved what you shared about gently getting into education or, or you didn't use this word but incrementally getting into education. What piqued your interest there what pulled you away from maybe full time using your artistic skills to helping or encouraging or nurturing learners.

Hala: Well, Tony, I was working as a freelance illustrator full time. And I loved what I was doing. It had been my goal to work full time as a freelancer. Once I was there, I got lonely. I really did. I was working, you know, and I put in a lot of hours so like 24 seven work and all alone in my studio, day after day, I got very- I just needed people and I started to question my purpose in life. So, getting into teaching, it not only helps me be around people but it helps me to have more purpose because I find that I'm happiest when I feel like I'm making a difference for other people, and doing artwork is great but you don't always- in fact, you rarely see the influence that it has on others directly. So, teaching is one of those things that can help me feel fulfilled.

Tony: That is exciting and not surprising at all to me. Many, many of my associates, people that I bumped into really need that human connection. We're in a weird time in our life right now where we have to accept that connection via distance but it's a part of our human nature. I did want to pose a question to you regarding you know the work with your learner's. I can sense and, and hear the passion that you have both for your art, but also for those human connections that you make. Certainly, from time to time, you have a reluctant learner. Maybe- is looking for that passion. How do you- what are some of the things that you do to engage, encourage and motivate those that may be a little bit reluctant to the courses in the coursework that you share.

Hala: Yes.Well, for one thing I'm hoping that my own excitement is a little bit contagious. I'm hoping that because I am genuinely excited about what I teach. And I can't help but let that come through as I as I teach and I hope that that brings others interest into it and you know when I'm when I have a reluctant learner I'm thinking about last week when- this isn't at SUU- but I'm trying to work on teaching my sons how to play the piano.

Tony: Good luck!

Hala: They are very reluctant learners, I have to say so I tried a strategy with my son. And that is just prick their curiosity. So as I was working with him on the piano he immediately gets frustrated and doesn't want to play anymore. And so I just had this thought come. Okay. I said, Tim, why don't you go in the bathroom and get a washcloth, get it full of cold water and just put it all over your face, and he looked at me like it was very strange. Anyway, he did it. And he came back and said, "Wow. Mom, why am I doing this?" I said, "I'm gonna try to help you snap out of it, we're gonna snap out of it." And so, it piqued his curiosity. And he started playing some more and he just had a better attitude and I don't know that that is a strategy you can use all the time, but sometimes I spontaneously try to come up with, just something that can get them thinking in a different way, bounce them out of their reluctance get them curious.

Tony: That is wonderful, you know, as teachers or professors we think well you know we're here to lecture to impart this great information. And often we do that head on but maybe, as you've identified with Tim, your boy, maybe you have to come at it from a 90 degree angle and come at it from the side and and say, hey, I've never thought of it that way before I've never seen it that way before I think that's exciting. I think that's exciting. Let me take a little bit of a different bend now, you work with other artists in the art department you work with administrators in your department of course there are artists as well and, and administrators from other content areas beyond that, and you work with students too that hopefully are feeling your passion and drawn to you. Because of that passion. Give me three words, would you please that you think that those artistic peers, those administrators, and your learners might describe you? How would they describe you if they had a chance to be with us today.

Hala: Well, I'm not sure how they describe me but I thought about- and there's something I really want to share so I'm going to say- the first two words that come to my mind are organized and spontaneous, like a almost contradictory-

Tony: Well that's a dichotomy isn't it!

Hala: So, organized and I do tend to be very organized, I like things to be organized like my notes are organized, I've got to plot out the whole semester class by class I have the whole semester organized, before I go in. I used to type up all my class plans and have them all ready to go, and I realized that I had to do it a little differently so spontaneous allows me- okay the spontaneous side, I can just throw away all of that in an instant. Is that weird?

Tony: It's nice to be prepared, but if something catches  you on the way to work maybe something you see or smell or feel or touch. You can go a different direction. I'm sorry it's about you go right ahead.

Hala: Yes. So what I've found is over the last few years I've stopped typing my notes up for my lesson plans and all my lesson plans are done with sticky notes. So my whole book, it doesn't look particularly clean and beautiful my lesson plans but the sticky notes, allow me to change on a dime. So I have my days planned out ahead of time, and I have my topics and I have my examples and activities but when I walk into class, or if I feel there's a need. I just take- I can take that sticky note and move it to another day. And I just jump into something totally, totally based on the needs of the day or an experience that happened to me that I really want to share. And so, with that organization I also allow for being really flexible. So I think those two things can be contradictory but I'm trying to make them work together. I feel like both of those things are my strengths, and I combine them.

Tony: Wonderful. I'm sticking my neck out a little bit here just a little bit because you may not have this experience but what are some of the things that you may do as you come into class to engage your learners and saying, "Where are you coming from today? Where should we go today with the learning that we're going to do?"Do you have any of those?

Hala: Yes absolutely, because my class is being face to face and really hands on one of the ways you walk in and you do sense an energy of the morale like, are people feeling down, are people feeling excited? And, if there's a mood in there that's a little bit lacking in energy, I just try to throw something new in the class that day. Maybe we'll just do a spontaneous group activity that gets us all doing something totally new. For example the other day, I said, you know, it's a  drawing class we were drawing heads and hands. So let's just see what it would be like to trace each other's heads and hands on the window so half the class went outside the building, and the other class was inside, and they held the pose and we traced them and what did we learn from that you know what, what did we learn about silhouette, and gesture. So, things like that will kind of hit me. And then also, sensing the mood of the class, along with that. I look at their drawings so I walk in, they pin up the drawings or they have their drawings on their boards in front of them. And I walk around and look at them and I see, I always- I never cease to see a need, that's not just in one place, I might see six or seven or eight or even all the students, whoa, we need to address this issue because obviously they're not getting it or they extra help. And so then I just go right into the need that I see that's displayed in the drawings that they've done.

Tony: Thank you so very much and I kind of wanted to delve just a little bit deeper with those learning activities, whether they're group activities or course activities. What are some things that you do- and you started with that but maybe we could go just a little bit deeper- how do you help your learners really acquire those concepts that you want to share in class. You can see a need in your learners. How do you tie that need to the knowledge that you have of what they want, what they really need or the next step in groups or maybe even individuals where they need to go.

Hala: Yes. Well, sometimes it's really important that I sit down with a student and maybe five others are needing the help, but I might sit down with one in particular and have the other five look over my shoulder, and I draw right on the students drawings- well sometimes I'll put a tracing paper over the top so I don't mess their drawing up- but I try to just address it right there and draw right in front of them. That's really, really helpful. That's how teachers helped me in the past, and it's really helpful but there's, you know, so there's so much of this draw, look at it, see what needs to be improved, draw again. And so that's very individual because everyone's doing their own drawings. But I think a lot of times something that can help with a class is to get them out of their little isolated space and have group activities that can get them all excited about things and get them all learning. So whenever I can work in activities that would not only help their own art but help the group as a whole, then I try to create those activities and I've done things from- I try to make them really ridiculous. So-

Tony: They'll remember that won't they?

Hala: Yes. So, and that's the whole point. So years and years ago when I listened to this book on tape on a cassette tape and I wish I would have written down what the tape was, but it was all about how to memorize lists. And when you memorize a list. The easiest way to actually remember it is to attach one item on the list to another with a ridiculous visualization so I can remember that I need to go to the store and buy bread and eggs, because I imagine, in my mind, that  you could make up a scenario like my bread is having a fight with the eggs. Okay, so the more ridiculous you make the connection in your brain, the more you remember it. So I've carried that into my teaching because I've because it's just kind of me too, but also because I think it makes people remember things. So for example, this week- i've been teaching my students the line quality cheer. Now, basically the idea is that there's certain ways to draw lines in such a way that they will appear to come forward and stand out on your drawings. So I invented a cheer, and I put these kind of ridiculous actions to it, and then I had all these students who are used to kind of sitting and drawing their drawing and having their own personal spaces "Let's stand up and do a cheer." And so we did the line color cheer, "Dark lines come forward and light lines go back" and I put in these moves to it and it's so ridiculous I know I looked like an idiot. But I think they'll remember, and that's the whole point. So, things like that, or I might sing them the song of their drawing and sing in a very strange way or I might- one time we did a whole class where I did a game show. So they had to read this book and remember certain things from the book. So I provided them with a study guide. I said after you read this book you need to remember all this stuff and we're gonna have a special test. So when they came in I had them choose teams, and then I had got these buzzers that were like animal noise buzzers, like cows and chickens and stuff. And then when I went through the questions and they had hit their buzzer and answered the question. It was probably the most fun review session I've ever had. And I was amazed because the students actually took me seriously and memorized the information ahead of time. It was a great competition. So, anytime I can put something crazy in there. Something strange in kind of a fun loving way I'd love to do that. That makes class fun.

Tony: That is wonderful and really does very much address the last question I was going to address to you regarding unique approaches- a cow buzzer- that is a very unique approach. You know what unique approaches that you use to help- to really scaffold for your learners- to say, this is where you are, let me put up a support to you and get you where you need to be. Any other unique approaches that you'd be willing to share kind of to wrap this up for us in regards to how to take your students from where they are to where you really would like them to be.

Hala: Yes, I'm thinking about where I want them to be. The students, they need to be able to acquire or develop, build the skill to be professional artists, they can't just know about it, they have to be able to do it. So, any chance I get to push them past the assignments. So for example, one of my thoughts is a student who is- they're pretty advanced and they're maybe kind of bored- I say, "Hey, here's three competitions, we're going to enter. These are international, national competitions. I don't care what the assignment is for class. Let's get you entering these competitions." And I feel like if I can push them past seeing the classroom as the end all be all, we're going to move past that and I've had students get in these competitions, it is so exciting. So I don't know if that's really a unique approach, but it's definitely something I emphasize, all the time, and moving past the just what the class requires.

Tony: I see it as very practical. "Hey, next year when you're out there illustrating, you're going to want to participate in these. Why wait until then, let's do it now." Life is real, it's going on now, let's have you participate and engage. I love that approach. I think it's very unique. Any last words of wisdom for us Hala, anything else that I have not covered or asked you that you were prepared to share? Anything at all that you would like to share with our listeners?

Hala: I think two things. And that is- one of the things I was thinking about was my teaching philosophy. And I want to add something to that because usually I talk about empowering. Okay, I want to empower my students and I just mentioned that they have to be able to do this when they're done with school, they can't just know about it and it's, it's hard. It's so competitive. So along with that teaching philosophy, when I walk into class, I want to be able to empower them with whatever it takes. Is the teaching to their needs, because I feel like, you know, I've created a whole class based on needs I'm teaching a drawing three class but the class, though, all the things that I'm teaching in there were based on me looking at student drawings from across all of the classes and saying you know what these students need to draw heads better. We're going to focus on that and Drawing 3 because I could just say, "Drawing 3" I mean it could be anything. But let's focus on weaknesses. And then the other assignment is 100 hands. There's a tendency to draw hands in pockets or, in other words to not draw the hands because they're tricky. So let's do 100 hands. Everyone's got to draw 100 hands. So, teaching to their needs and empowering them. Those are two things I really, really try to do.

Tony: Thank you so very much Hala, thank you for taking these few minutes with me to share your passions. Friends, I would encourage you if you've been inspired or intrigued or curious with what Hala has shared, please reach out to her. She's very open and, and she's  love to maybe even trace your hands on her window. So get down to her class and pick her brain and pick her mind. Hala thank you so much. We're so proud of having you here at SUU, and please keep doing wonderful things you're doing okay?

Hala: Thank you Tony, I really was excited to share this today.

Tony: Thank you so much.

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