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updated: 7/8/2013 9:07 AM

Barrington 'Top Teacher' encourages creative risks, makes art relevant

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  • July Top Teacher Jason Burke of Barrington High School stands beside artwork by his students, which is on display in the hallway.

      July Top Teacher Jason Burke of Barrington High School stands beside artwork by his students, which is on display in the hallway.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • July Top Teacher Jason Burke of Barrington High School gives advice to freshman Jenny Torrez as she sketches a still life.

      July Top Teacher Jason Burke of Barrington High School gives advice to freshman Jenny Torrez as she sketches a still life.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • July Top Teacher Jason Burke of Barrington High School talks with his students during a summer program.

      July Top Teacher Jason Burke of Barrington High School talks with his students during a summer program.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • July Top Teacher Jason Burke of Barrington High School.

      July Top Teacher Jason Burke of Barrington High School.
    JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Top Teacher Jason Burke


A few years ago, in an effort to celebrate all the work his students did in a matter of 70 hours, Barrington High School teacher Jason Burke decided to start a one-day summer school art show.

"We have these awesome display cases here and I thought, why not just use them?" he said. "Art curation is a huge career and if they've never hung work, they don't even know it exists. So they get that, they get feedback on their work. It's such a cool day."

On the second to last day of this summer's painting and drawing class, parents and students from other classes flooded into the school's art wing to admire the work of Burke's students.

The 35-year-old teacher was visibly pleased with the turnout, and his students were all smiles as they passed out candy and explained the meaning of their pieces to guests. The show was accomplishing a goal Burke sets for all of his students.

"I want them to bring themselves into it," he said. "When we look at art, we're not just seeing the thing that's on the surface. There's a whole story behind it, there's a whole person behind it ... it's really important for them to know that."

Burke's creativity coupled with his drive to engage students and make art relevant in their lives are just a few reasons why he has been named one of "The Suburbs' Top Teachers," a distinction awarded to outstanding suburban teachers by the Daily Herald.

"He is definitely a hands-on teacher, but he also doesn't always show you right away how to do it because he wants you to learn for yourself," said Gabby Kottke, who has taken two semesters of classes with Burke.

The incoming sophomore called Burke her favorite teacher, noting that she isn't alone in appreciating his humor during lessons and his sincere interest in the students.

"He's always there for you," she said. "He's really relatable and it's easy to talk to him. You're never afraid to go to him for help."

Burke started teaching 12 years ago after graduating from the art education program at Northern Illinois University. He worked at Elm Middle School in Elmwood Park for five years before joining Barrington High School in 2007, where he has taught painting and drawing, ceramics, digital art, printmaking and graphic design.

Besides his job as a teacher, Burke also works on the side as a graphic designer, designing labels, brochures and illustrations for blogs.

Co-worker Jeff Doles, a TV production teacher at Barrington, said he felt Burke's experience in multiple mediums and his broad artistic interests are beneficial in the classroom.

"A lot of times, teachers get caught up in just teaching," he said. "He has quirky things he's passionate about. He stays in touch with the art community. I think that makes him a better teacher."

Fine Arts Department Chair Grant Sahr said Burke "really encourages students to take creative risks." He attributed the ceramics program's growth in recent years to Burke, noting that many students take a liking to his teaching style.

"I think the students share their experiences in the class, and I think that's a big, key component to the growth we're seeing in that area," he said. "I really look forward to watching his program grow."

While he has found success as a teacher, Burke is the quick to admit that he wasn't the best student while attending Fremd High School.

But a teacher there -- Curt Pinley, who is now the school's art department chair -- showed him a way of teaching that he has brought into his own classroom.

"He saw us almost like colleagues," Burke said, recalling a time when Pinley let his students critique his work. "He really started that whole idea in my mind of sitting with the students and working with them."

Prior to the summer school art show, Burke circled around the darkened art room to observe his nine students, who were shading in drawings of skulls that were illuminated by different colored lights.

Alternative music played softly in the background and students snacked on the candy they would later share with their admirers in the hall.

Donning thick black glasses, a plaid shirt and shoes covered in dust from previous art projects, Burke stopped at each table, occasionally taking a pastel in his hand to show the technique while providing encouraging feedback.

"My work's not any more important than their work," he said. "We're all in the same boat together; we're all artists. It's just a level playing field and everybody can make art and have fun."

Incoming senior Brittany Smith said she likes the way Burke comes off more as a friend than a teacher, and that he does the work alongside the students.

"I like his criticism because it's not mean, but it's not soft. It's kind of just real," she said.

Incoming senior Andrew Wenzel agreed that Burke stands out because of his down-to-earth attitude.

"I've only been in his class for three weeks now and he's already one of my favorite teachers in high school," he said. "I think he's one of the nicest teachers I've ever had. He won't tell you no, but he tries to put you in the right direction."

Burke said he likes to give his students lots of time to work one-on-one with him, and he often gives them opportunities to teach one another.

"It's easy to be heavy-handed as a teacher, and I think to know to back off and know when to step in is so valuable," he said.

Another critical part of the way Burke teaches is his emphasis to students that they have to get in touch with the process of making an idea in their head an actual product.

"I love that the learning experience in art is so subjective. What works for one student might be totally wrong for a different one," he said. "The way that you reach a conclusion is just as unique as the conclusion itself."

Outside of the classroom, Burke is a sponsor for both the school's art club and a student literary and art magazine called Nuance. He helps students with the set production for school musicals and plays each year, and he teaches at Pathways, an alternative after-school program to help at-risk students stay on track to graduate.

District 220 Summer School Director Alicia Bongiovani described Burke as "really thoughtful," noting several times he has gone out of his way to ensure a student's success.

Last summer, she said, a transfer student from Italy was signed up for a soccer camp that proved to be too difficult because of the language barrier, so his father asked if there was another activity or class the student could partake in.

"I immediately thought of Jason," Bongiovani said. "Jason, without even hesitating, said sure, let's try it."

She said Burke made an effort to learn some Italian to make the student more comfortable in his ceramics class.

Bongiovani added that just a few weeks ago, Burke helped a student with emotional needs who wasn't even a part of his class. The student told summer school administrators that art helped her with some issues she was dealing with, but she doesn't have many art supplies.

Burke had an art kit assembled by the end of the day to give to the student.

"His heart is with the students," Bongiovani said.

Burke said he especially enjoys getting students who aren't always engaged in school -- students who reflect his high school self -- interested in art. One time, he said, a quiet student said he noticed Burke's interest in zombies and asked if he would sponsor a zombie survival club.

"I have trouble saying no," Burke said with a laugh. "When I see a student who wants to start something like that I'm like, just do it. Let's go for it."

More than anything, Burke tries his hardest to impart an appreciation for art on all of his students.

His favorite assignments are ones that tie into giving back to the community, such as creating ceramic bowls there were sold at a local business as part of a fundraiser.

And he hopes that whenever his students see art -- be it a painting in a museum or a piece of ceramic work at Target -- they pause to admire the steps the artist took to get to the finished project.

"This exists outside of these walls. There's a whole world of art," he said.

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