On a school day at Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School, fourth graders stream into Pamela Armstrong’s art classroom—or studio, as she calls it. To begin the session, Armstrong brings out Felix, a komodo dragon puppet, to greet the children and explain the art project for the day.
The students create puppets of their own, with bodies molded from paper mache pulp and clothing made from scraps of cloth. As they bring their projects to life, the classroom fills with the likenesses of dogs, cats, horses, hedgehogs, unicorns, and even an elephant.
“I always incorporate an element of play,” said Armstrong. “Puppets are creative and therapeutic. They can talk to kids in a way that people can’t.”
Armstrong’s intentionally playful approach to art education—something that the late Fred Rogers would have no doubt appreciated—has earned her national recognition. She was recently named the 2019-2020 Elementary Art Educator of the Year for the Eastern Region of the National Art Education Association (NAEA). Armstrong had received the 2019-2020 state-level title and went on to receive the regional title that year.
For the past 30 years, Armstrong has taught art education at the Falk School, which is affiliated with the Pitt School of Education. She currently teaches kindergarten through fifth grade.
With a membership base that spans the United States, NAEA is the leading professional membership organization exclusively for visual arts educators. The award is based on a peer review of nominations and, according to the NAEA website, “recognizes the exemplary contributions, service, and achievements of an outstanding NAEA member annually at the regional level within their division.”
”This award recognizes excellence in professional accomplishment and service by a dedicated art educator. Pamela Armstrong exemplifies the highly qualified art educators active in education today: leaders, teachers, students, scholars, and advocates who give their best to their students and the profession,” said NAEA President Thomas Knab in a prepared statement.
Armstrong remembers the shock of receiving the award notification. “I was bowled over, I was so surprised,” she said.
However, Jeff Suzik, director of the Falk School, was not nearly as surprised to learn of Armstrong’s award.
“Pamela Armstrong is hands down one of the most progressively-minded educators I have ever met,” he said. Her work in the Falk art studio is enhanced by her deep understanding of child development, her appreciation of children as full, creative partners in their own learning, and her honoring of childhood itself as a special, and very meaningful time in everyone's lives. She is a keen observer of children, listens intently to them, and weaves their passions and interests into the multi-dimensional projects that they create with her. Everything she does with and for children is both magical and meaningful.”
Armstrong is an alumna of the Pitt School of Education, having received her EdD in Arts Education and MEd in Special Education, in 1985 and 2004, respectively. Before becoming a teacher at Falk School, she taught art at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children and worked in the Children’s Studio at the Carnegie Museum of Art. She says her various experiences taught her to support children through art education and help them explore their interests and feelings.
At the end of each class, Armstrong wraps up by asking the children, “What was this experience like? Were there any struggles and how did you overcome them?”
With gentle support, Armstrong aims to help her young students develop their full potential as creators.
Visit the Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School website.