Party in the Art Room

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By Emma Kent 

Former public school teacher Amanda Koonlaba has transformed her upstairs corner of the Link Centre in Tupelo into a colorful space designed to help kids embrace their creativity. Art adorns the walls, colorful floor cushions create a cozy space for kids to gather and, from down the hall, children’s voices can be heard discussing paint colors and projects. 

The space is the physical manifestation of a passion project Koonlaba has been working on for several years now called Party in the ArtRoom.

She started Party in the Art Room first as a blog on which she shared art lessons as a resource for other educators. Eventually, she realized it had the potential to be more than just a blog.

“I liked being able to share it with other teachers,” Koonlaba said. “The blog helped me connect with teachers all over the country.” 

After that, she began getting opportunities to do consulting, speak at conventions and write for other outlets about art education. As those opportunities became more and more, Koonlaba also began hosting small art camps at her home in Tupelo.

She loved the work she was doing sharing her own strategies and curriculum for teaching art, and she stepped away from teaching in a traditional classroom.

“I never thought I would do anything but teach art at school because I loved it so much,” she said. “It was a very hard decision to make.”

That’s when Koonlaba decided to take the idea behind Party in the Art Room and make it into something more tangible. 

“I decided to make it a real-life space,” she said. 

Although she says she’s still trying to get the space set up and organized in the way that she wants it, it’s come a long way in a year’s time. 

Last summer Koonlaba had 10 kids attend Party in the Art Room summer camps, but this summer she’ll teach six camps with more than 40 kids total. 

Each summer camp session is three days long and has a unique theme that guides the art projects and activities kids will participate in. Koonlaba has also put on several “art nights,” which are designed to give kids and families a single art experience.

On the other hand, Koonlaba also offers after school and homeschool art classes that span an eight-month period. They meet once a week for three weeks out of the month. 

These lessons take place throughout the school year and are designed to be a process for kids to learn the building blocks of the creative process. Koonlaba has developed an original curriculum unique to Party in the Art Room that teaches kids basic art techniques while also encouraging them to flex their creative muscles. Koonlaba allows students to use artist-quality materials in the classes. 

“You’re not going to get a lesson pulled from Pinterest or someone else’s teaching,” she said.

Koonlaba likes to focus on buildable skills with all of her camps and classes.

“We don’t have them copy us. We teach art skills and techniques,” she said. “I expect the kids to be the ones doing the creative thinking.” 

For example, at one of this summer’s camps, children were taught how to use a nib pen and ink before later using those basic skills to draw and decorate their own pair of shoes. 

Koonlaba has a master’s in curriculum, her education specialist degree, and on top of all of that, she has seven years of classroom teaching experience at Lawhon Elementary School and several years of experience teaching first grade before that. She gets kids, and she gets how they learn. 

“To be able to connect tangible standards and get the kids to be creative and do something that’s uniquely theirs is something I’ve spent my career fine-tuning,” Koonlaba said. “That background alone helps me understand what a child’s creative process is like.”

Party in the Art Room is about laying the foundation, giving kids the parameters and then letting them take their ideas and run with them. 

“We’re growing and that’s exciting,” she said. 

Growth means Koonlaba is continuing to work toward her goal, which she says has always been to get art into the hands of as many people as possible. 

Some students she works with just want to spend more time being creative, for them, her classes are a supplement to their art classes at school. For others, Party in the Art Room may be their only exposure to art classes as many rural schools don’t offer art or offer art as often as students would like to be in an art classroom.

Koonlaba said she works with many homeschooled kids whose parents want them to have that creative learning time and exposure to art. 

In both the camps and classes, Koonlaba likes to bring guest artists in to teach because she wants the kids to meet practicing artists. 

“I think that’s super important to model for the children,” Koonlaba said.

 Whether they go on to become practicing artists or not, Koonlaba feels strongly that exposure to art teaches children valuable life skills like independent thinking, creative problem solving and self-efficacy. 

“We need people on the planet who can think creatively and problem solve and think for themselves — that’s huge,” she said. “If they can think for themselves, then they can know themselves and become lifelong reflective thinkers.” 

Art can also break up the mindset many students must adopt when they’re at school. Instead of looking for a right or wrong answer, they can learn to see more than one outcome. 

“Art teaches them to be OK with ambiguity,” Koonlaba said. 

Besides all of that, art is fun. And that’s important too. 

“They have fun,” Koonlaba said. “It gives them something productive to do.”

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