Jodi Lea Schmidt: Making, Teaching, Recycling Art

Jodi Lea Schmidt [Intermediate Faculty '94-96, '98-'00] was first introduced to the Recycle Center -- officially known as Extras For Creative Learning (ExCL) -- while she was a staff member at Explo. As the Supply Room Coordinator for five summers at the Intermediate Program, she gathered an assortment of materials from the Center and brought them back to campus for use by teachers and activity leaders. acheter viagra As an art teacher in Massachusetts for eight years, she continued to make use of the resources at the Recycle Center for the students at her schools. In 2005, the same year that she was named the "Massachusetts Elementary Art Educator of the Year," she accepted a role with Extras For Creative Learning to become its first ever full-time Executive Director.

Christian Housh, the Director of Communications at Exploration, recently sat down with Jodi Lea at the Recycle Center to talk about its mission and the state of arts education in the country.


Christian Housh: Can you tell me a little about the kind of stuff that you have here at the Recycle Center? You get the most random stuff.

Jodi Lea Schmidt: We do get really random stuff. We also get all of the basic stuff -- the binders and office supplies that big companies downtown just can't be bothered to sort out and use. That stuff all instantly flies out the door. Then there's the really bizarre stuff. Right now, for instance, we have at least four different sizes of giant pipets. We have a bunch of filters from Nalgene. We have building material samples from architecture firms. We get so many odd things. But then we always think of them and use them for something else.

CH: Who uses the Recycle Center? Teachers? Community arts organizations?

JLS: This place is used by 30 Boston public schools, almost 400 individual Boston public school teachers whose schools don't have memberships, close to 200 community organizations, and then another group of individuals -- essentially, people who walk in from off the street. Art teachers from other districts, people who run after school programs, artists. So, it's all stuff that's ending up in either educational or artistic settings. [Ed. Note: The New York Times recently featured the Recycle Center in its Education section, highlighting both Jodi Lea and the teachers who make use of the center. Click here to read the article.]

CH: And what does this place do for those people?

JLS: We provide them with the means to fulfill their curricular objectives by having the stuff. We receive lots of nice letters saying, you know, without us, they would only have lots of good ideas but no actual products.

CH: Can you talk a little bit about art funding in schools? I assume that the Recycle Center is so valuable because arts programs are so underfunded.

JLS: Many principals are bringing arts back into the curriculum because they actually raise attendance at school. Kids are much more likely to come to school if they have art. And it's a nice break from testing, and it actually helps exercise all kinds of muscles in the brain that don't get exercised otherwise.

But you're right, in general, arts are always the first to be cut. In my career, I've been laid off three times, had my position completely cut once as an art teacher, and it wasn't because I was doing bad work or the kids weren't psyched about art or the parents weren't happy. It was all based on budget.

CH: Culturally, how do we get to a place where we can make school administrators understand the value of the arts?

JLS: I don't know. I think a lot of administrators intellectually understand. If they're administrators, they know the Gardiner's multiple intelligences, and they believe in differentiated instruction because you're evaluated on that as a teacher. And there are a billion and a half studies on what the arts do. What it's about is having administrators who not only intellectually understand that but also truly believe it and can see it and are willing to put money behind it.

But there are so many mandates and so many people who need money. There are so many pressures to meet state and national test scores, which is what principals are graded on. There's no art on these tests, and if it's not on the test, it's not getting money.

CH: Has the Recycle Center changed since you've been in charge?

JLS: We've grown. When I started, we had about 250 members, and last year we were up to as much as about 1000 members. Lots of organizations have joined. So, the numbers of individuals have dropped, but the number of big groups has gone up significantly -- from about 100 to over 200. In the last four years, membership has risen about 400% and income has risen 400-500%.

CH: So really, there are two goals here. One is to help the arts. The other is to recycle.

JLS: Yeah, but it's up-cycling. It's not recycling because we're not taking in binders and crushing them up and making floormats out of them. We're simply saying, "This is a perfectly good binder," and we give it to a kid who needs a binder. So, the idea is to keep stuff out of the waste stream and to make sure kids have a bounty of materials to learn with.

CH: How much stuff are you up-cycling?

JLS: In the past 12 months, we have given out to the community in some form or another over $1.5 million worth of materials. And that's all on a budget of a $160,000 a year. So every dollar we spend, $9.30 goes back into the community.

CH: What are the biggest challenges for your organization as you move forward?

JLS: Money -- as it is with all non-profits. Unfortunately, for grants, they see our entire budget as an operating budget. They say, "Well, you don't have a specific program." All we are is our program! Stuff comes in, it goes out. And it doesn't end up in incinerators and landfills.

The biggest challenge is, who will be inspired by what we do enough to get their foundation to support us? We don't want to charge the people that we're trying to help. So that's the challenge -- to find that foundation or that company that's going to say, "Yes, we believe in children and the environment and the arts enough that we're going to give you some money, so that teachers are not paying even more."

CH: You've been at the Recycle Center for five years now. Do you think you'll find your way back into teaching?

JLS: You know, I feel I've actually done a lot more art teaching and a lot more convincing classroom teachers and administrators about the power of art through this job -- because of all the one-on-one talking. If I can talk to 25 teachers who are all going to go out and teach 25 kids, and if I can convince them to integrate arts into their classrooms, it feels like actually a lot more.

CH: Is that a goal here? To work with art teachers and also to educate classroom teachers about ways to incorporate the arts into their lessons?

JLS: It is, in a sense. While we're a haven for art teachers, and they come in and have a blast, we don't need to convert them over to believing in the importance of art. Whereas with the classroom teachers, partially because of the focus on standardized tests and the mandatory minutes on math and English that they have, we're trying to say to them, "Look, you can accomplish your math objectives with this stuff. And use it and inspire kids." When I'm asked to do stuff with teachers, it's classroom teachers. It's all about using arts to teach the curriculum.