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An art teacher ahead of curve; Education: Mark Coates, national secondary art educator of the year, uses creativity to keep River Hill High students interested.


Mark Coates hasn't forgotten how to pique the interest of a teen-ager.

"Here's a lovely intestine," Coates said, holding up a sketch for his students gathered in the River Hill High School art room. "Wouldn't this make a cool T-shirt?"

The class could go the normal route of shading cylinder and cone shapes, but that would be boring -- and Coates doesn't do boring. Instead, he has substituted drawings of brains, circuit boards and arteries for the assignment. When you're part of a select group of nationally certified teachers and the national secondary art educator of the year, you know what works.

The recent months have been heady ones for Coates, a 21-year teaching veteran who has seen art education evolve from children painting color wheels to sketching social commentaries on the Barbie doll. Besides becoming one of the state's first teachers to earn National Board Certification, he will be recognized next month as one of the country's best by the National Art Education Association.

But most agree that Coates has always been ahead of the curve, even as art education continues to reach more sophisticated heights. NAEA awards coordinator Donnamarie Gilbert said Coates was selected for his "innovative teaching" and "going above and beyond -- keeping these kids interested."

"Certainly, he had the kids who appreciated [him] and knew that he had taught them something valuable," Gilbert said.

Coates, 42, is home-grown, a graduate of Ellicott City's Mount Hebron High School with degrees from Frostburg State and Towson universities. He had a double major in art and music at Frostburg for two years "because I couldn't decide." But a summer teaching art at a parks and recreation center led him to his calling.

"I know it sounds corny," Coates said, "but you really see the change you can make in kids."

When Coates began teaching at Oakland Mills Middle in the 1970s, art instruction was regarded as a project-driven activity to be mastered only by "the talented kids."

He had encountered that attitude as a grade-school art pupil.

"Things were more about activities that made you feel good or they were therapeutic or they were seen as an emotional release," he said. "I don't think it was seen so much as an academic discipline. I remember when I first started teaching, you would just do art projects, which is taboo here in this department."

That generation of art instructors probably wouldn't recognize Coates' classroom, dominated on a recent day by funky drawings and photographs referencing everything from Gumby to the "South Park" television show. Barbie dolls, Mr. Potato Head figures and a carton of McDonald's french fries sit in the middle of the room, part of a still-life, narrative exercise by advanced students.

"They can start thinking as they develop their work," Coates said. "Is Mr. Potato Head shocked or surprised looking at the french fries? The compositions that they're coming up with are really cool."

Today, school systems such as Howard approach art instruction from the vantage point of history, aesthetics, criticism and production in one lesson rather than having students just make something, Coates said. Most pupils can spot a pointless assignment like the dreaded color wheel, he said.

"Do things that intrigue them," Coates said. "That's why we're not shading cones and spheres. Try to give them experiences that give them really strong success initially, and you just build from there.

"I really liken myself to a coach. It's no different than what you do out on the athletic field."

Making his rounds in the creative chaos of the art room, Coates offered assistance as his charges hunkered down with pencils and paint brushes. Looking almost a decade younger than his 42 years, he has an easy rapport with the kids, praising their artwork and joking.

Perhaps the best judges of Coates' work are his students, who range from dabblers to hard-core, future art majors.

"I think he's awesome," said sophomore Maggie Anderson. "He's fun. He's easy to get along with."

Junior Jon Cantor said, "He really motivates me to want to achieve good artwork. He just showed me that if you [put] some hard work and effort in it, it can look good to you."

River Hill Principal Scott Pfeifer approached Coates last year with the idea of pursuing national certification, and he became one of 18 teachers in Maryland to take the rigorous plunge. Thirteen would achieve certification.

For weeks, Coates had to justify his teaching methods, submit examples of student work to show their progress, write prodigiously and be videotaped while working.

"I think part of being a good teacher is reflecting on what you've done and constantly changing your approach," Coates said. "This whole process is just basically good teaching."

Pfeifer was thrilled when the teacher passed. "He was like an expectant father," Coates said.

"He has had a reputation as being at the top of the art teachers here in Howard County, and has clearly demonstrated that now," Pfeifer said. "He just has such a wonderful talent in terms of his own artwork and his perceptions."

Coates doesn't limit teaching to his classroom. Every other Saturday, he teaches American art history to high school students at the National Gallery in Washington. He co-teaches a visual arts course for gifted and talented students.

He also finds time to paint.

"I'm always thinking about what my next piece is going to be," Coates said. "I bring my work [to class], and we talk about it. Teachers need to be mentors and practice what they preach."

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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