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updated: 5/13/2013 7:18 AM

Second career a serendipitous fit for Geneva art teacher

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  • Video: Top Teacher Al Ochsner

  • Geneva High School art teacher Al Ochsner works with his students last week. Ochsner believes art instruction improves real-life learning skills.

       Geneva High School art teacher Al Ochsner works with his students last week. Ochsner believes art instruction improves real-life learning skills.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Geneva High School art teacher Al Ochsner started out as a substitute teacher to make some extra money but went back to school to get his certification after enjoying it so much.

       Geneva High School art teacher Al Ochsner started out as a substitute teacher to make some extra money but went back to school to get his certification after enjoying it so much.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Geneva High School art teacher Al Ochsner is a Daily Herald choice as a "Top Teacher." He came to the career in middle age, after first working as a professional artist.

       Geneva High School art teacher Al Ochsner is a Daily Herald choice as a "Top Teacher." He came to the career in middle age, after first working as a professional artist.
    Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 

Al Ochsner didn't set out to be a teacher. He is a professional artist.

But in the early 2000s, he was also a single father to two boys, and needed more cash. He became a substitute teacher for the Geneva school district, "with no intention of becoming a teacher," Ochsner said.

But a funny thing happened. He discovered, "This is a lot of fun. I should get certified (to teach permanently)."

And thus an artist who lists his specialty as "everything" on the Geneva Art Guild's member page now encourages Geneva High School students.

"I want to be the teacher I would want to have," Ochsner said.

That means helping students figure out answers on their own, rather than supplying them answers when they ask how to do something on an assigned project. It means asking them to use skills and facts learned in other classes, such as English or history, in their art. It means making monsters out of packing tape or old Barbie dolls. And giving a senior who forgot a day was senior skip day extra credit for showing up.

Ochsner is excited about the upcoming "Where the Wild Things Are" student art show. He brought back an assignment from five years ago, for all his students: Make monsters of themselves, using clear packing tape and plastic bags. It required teamwork: one to wrap and cut, the other to model (and trust the other with the scissors).

Ochsner's not-so-secret purpose for the project: It is an antidote to senioritis.

"By accident, I noticed 'Hey, everyone is on task,'" he said.

Ochsner exposes the kids to another art: music. From classical to Coldplay to Tuvan throat singing. And never the same album twice in a semester.

He turned a lemon -- a canceled field trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art -- in to lemonade, taking students instead to a zoo, where they were assigned to sketch the exterior of one animal on another.

But seriously

But art instruction is not all fun and games.

"A lot of people take art because they think it is easy," Ochsner said.

They shouldn't let his upbeat demeanor or the crazy Barbie monsters on display fool them.

Students in his Art I class have to keep a weekly sketchbook, and he said it is "always a battle" to get students to do it. But it is one of the avenues to combine art with the other subjects students are learning, such as English and history. He recalls a student who, told to combine Valentine's Day and history, drew Richard Nixon, with the caption of "You stole my heart. I am not a crook." For another, he asked students to depict haiku and texting. Ceramics students learn about the mathematics and chemistry of glazes.

"We're not a separate entity from the other courses," Ochsner said.

He talked about arts education fitting a "21st Century learning technique," encouraging students to become independent thinkers and learn how to learn information. He understands that school and government leaders want something quantifiable to prove students are learning, but doesn't think standardized testing truly measures that, with its emphasis on accumulation of facts. That's so 1900s, he said, in an age where everybody can quickly look up the facts they need from sources via the Internet.

"What you do with that information, not how fast do you retrieve it and apply it," is what is needed, and art instruction develops those skills, he said.

He pointed to a recent, favorite assignment: Students were given a quotation, a medium and a concept and asked to meld them. But they also had to explain what they did, and why they did it, in a paper.

"I'm trying to teach them to navigate, not repeat," Ochsner said.

Circuitous route

Ochsner said his goal is to offer classes he would have liked to take.

But in high school, he never took an art class. (He was, however, voted most artistic. Also, class clown.) His mother is an artist -- and current president of the Geneva Art Guild.

He concentrated on painting and graphic design when obtaining a bachelor of science degree from Western Michigan University, then obtained a bachelor of arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 2006, he received a master's degree in art education, from Northern Illinois University, and was hired by Geneva Unit District 304.

And then came cancer. In 2006, Ochsner had his thyroid removed, and underwent three surgeries overall. One of them was to replace a laryngeal nerve on one side of his neck, using a nerve from an ankle. It preserved his ability to speak.

"I am many times blessed, to be alive and to be here," he said.

"This is a job I look forward to coming to. My peers are awesome.

"This is a really cool place."

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