Sarit Swanborn | In Conversation with SPUSD Teacher of the Year | South Pasadenan

PHOTO: Alisa Hayashida | South Pasadena News | SPUSD Teacher of the Year, Visual Arts Teacher, Sarit Swanborn

Ask any family in town whose children have gone through our public elementary schools and they’ll tell you how much art teacher Sarit Swanborn meant to them. “One of my favorite times in South Pas was walking into Munch Company and seeing my son’s artwork on display,” says Arroyo Vista parent Jessie Mobley. “Ms. Swanborn asked the students to paint portraits of a dog in a dynamic Andy Warhol/pop-art style. They also made clay statues of this dog, which has now joined the AV Art Collection on display in our home. Her son, Max, echoes her enthusiasm for the art show saying, “She made us feel important by displaying our artwork around South Pas.”

Much to the delight of Mobley, countless South Pas families, and all the teachers and selection committee who voted, Swanborn was selected as the South Pasadena Unified School District Teacher of the Year. She was first named Teacher of the Year at Marengo Elementary this spring, which led to her being eligible for SPUSD Teacher of the Year — to say she’s honored is an understatement, Us says. -she.

PHOTO: Alisa Hayashida | South Pasadena News | Sarit Swanborn with her 2nd grade students at Monterey Hills Elementary.

The teachers of the year are selected by the teachers of each school. “I never thought this honor would come to me because I’m only at each school site for 13 weeks. I am very invested in each student, but I am everything and then I leave. This is the fate of the “itinerant teacher”. So it’s really a dream to even receive a nomination let alone be named teacher of the year. In fact, she was named Teacher of the Year at Marengo even though her time there was in the fall. Swanborn says: “It’s been quite an exciting year – we’ve rolled out engraving for the 4e graders, which we displayed in the front office with the 5 koi fishe graders, Paul Cezanne inspired art for the first graders – the kids made beautiful art and we really showed the diversity of sophistication from the younger grades to the upper grades. And I think that made a tangible difference.

PHOTO: Alisa Hayashida | South Pasadena News | Grade 2 students working with India Ink at Monterey Hills Elementary.

This visual arts program has been in the making for 12 years. It started as an artist-in-residence program where art instructors were hired through a partnership between SPACE (South Pasadena Arts Center which is now closed) and SPEF. Our district had lost funding for a full-time art teacher in 2008. There was an opportunity for SPUSD to partner with the Music Center, but local artists here in South Pasadena along with district kids said: “We have our talent base here. “Parents like Victoria Arriola and Hope Perello lobbied on parent forums for SPACE to partner with local educators who are artists to create South Pasadena’s own artist-in-residence program, which ended up occur. So for the next three years, instead of offering no visual arts, they were able to bring back an arts curriculum for students. Swanborn taught 3rd-5ewhile Rebecca Tager, Diana Friess and Sarah Dugan taught pre-K–2n/a. It was called AIR (Artists-In-Residence), run by Arriola and Perello who brought in the artists. They had 90 minutes with each class. This was an 8 week course ending with a two week project/exhibition.

PHOTO: Alisa Hayashida | South Pasadena News | Sarit Swanborn teaches 2nd grade students at Monterey Hills Elementary.

“What we were trying to do was bring a sophisticated visual arts curriculum that was engaging, relevant to real-world connections, and very robust. We didn’t want to water it down. We wanted to bring contemporary connections and introduce them to different artistic movements with a thematic approach. Swanborn has been very involved in creating its curriculum for 3rd-5e grade during those three years. Year one the theme was visual architecture, year two was architecture of the self – looking at the proportional relationships of the body – and year three was the artist within – looking at the power of symbolism. “So they were really substantial and very engaging and we found that the kids could rise to the occasion and behave wonderfully and their wisdom would come out. We set the bar high,” she explains .

PHOTO: Alisa Hayashida | South Pasadena News | Sculptures created by Monterey Hills students.

Based on those three years, when they were finally given a budget for a full-time art teacher again, the already accredited Swanborn was in a good position to fill that role. She was hired in 2013 and says, “I was so excited to create a more themed program! And so began his tenure as art teacher for all three elementary campuses with 13 weeks spent at each school. At that time, none of the three schools had a designated art class. Instead, until this year Swanborn had an elaborate “art cart” with which she went from room to room, packing and unpacking materials for each class.

This first year, Swanborn created a robust school curriculum from scratch that would allow all the necessary materials to fit on this trolley. And sure enough, now she was teaching kindergarten through 5e. “My promise was that the legacy of the AIR program meant the level of sophistication had to stay just as high – and I was so excited to do that – that I had become very good at figuring out where to set the level.”

PHOTO: Alisa Hayashida | South Pasadena News | Sarit Swanborn receives both Marengo Teacher of the Year and SPUSD Teacher of the Year at an end-of-year teacher celebration held at the new district offices.

Each year saw an overarching theme, the first of which was ‘Shelter: From Function to Fantasy’ which saw each grade level look at a different form of shelter – first graders looked at beehives – connecting to l architecture in arid Africa and how the shelters looked like a beehive dome. They discovered the work of French artist Louise Bourgeois who was fascinated by the spider sculpture, “Maman”, and examined textures such as what a spider weaves together as a form of habitat. Each class examined a natural habitat and an artificial habitat. All work uses the 4 ‘C’s – collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking and future years have explored themes of the art of myths, magical landscapes, the language of art and the inner artist.

As you can see, Swanborn challenges its students on many levels, exploring working artists, architects and craftspeople interweaving humanitarian issues, history and current affairs using multiple mediums, from clay sculpture to watercolour, collage, painting and mixed media. I only scratch the surface of all she does, day after day, year after year, to educate our visual arts students and unleash their creativity and curiosity.

PHOTO: Alisa Hayashida | South Pasadena News | Bob Ross saying the Swanborn mantra “You Got This!”

What exactly are the criteria for District Teacher of the Year? A panel of former District Teachers of the Year reviews the winners from each elementary campus as well as middle and high schools. You must have 8+ years of teaching, speak passionately about your topic, articulate with enthusiasm, and they watch what the ripple effect of your teaching is and how it fits into the community. They are looking for someone they would nominate to move forward in LA County, California and nationally.

Swanborn has influenced countless children in the city through his teaching, mentorship and passion for art. Many of his students have gone on to high school and private art studies and are now in top university art programs. This honor comes at a very special time, as Swanborn, post-pandemic, has now moved into designated art rooms – no more art carts! After years of advocating for self-contained art rooms that provide a quiet art sanctuary for students, thanks to Measure SP we now have beautiful, state-of-the-art rooms for Swanborn and students. Marengo’s and Arroyo Vista’s are complete with Monterey Hills about to open. Measure S in 2013, and renewed in 2017, provided funding for teachers themselves, including visual and performing arts teachers, as well as support staff, including aides, librarians, nurses and the school psychologist.

PHOTO: Alisa Hayashida | South Pasadena News | The new Monterey Hills Elementary building that will house the designated art room.

Parent Jeany Fong calls Swanborn, “extremely gifted. Week after week, I saw her introduce the styles used by the old masters of painting, but she was always careful to balance information on artistic concepts with relevant references and instructions. The students quickly absorb Ms. Swanborn’s enthusiasm and unwavering belief in their abilities – and positivity blossoms in their artwork. Fong goes on to say, “her creativity and warmth provide much-needed refuge from the demands of academics – a mental reset that’s both fun and rewarding.” After more than a year of working with Swanborn, Fong says her son developed an appetite for drawing, a passion he possesses to this day and she credits his sessions with his “extremely talented instructor”.

5e graders Gianna Mow and Evalyn Baum have been with Swanborn for three and six years respectively, and they both credit him for inspiring their love of the art. According to Mow, “She is so energetic and all the students love her – she makes this art class so much fun! Miss Swanborn is my favorite teacher. Mow has exhibited her work at the Maya Salon in town as well as pieces sold in Lake Arrowhead and says she fully intends to continue pursuing art in college and beyond. Echoing her sentiments, Baum says: ‘I watched Miss Swanborn with all ages of pupils from kindergarten to 5e grade and she’s so nice and the art program is really good. My favorite project was blue dogs in 3rd grade,” referring to these dog portraits, many of which were displayed at Munch Co. during the South Pasadena Arts Crawl.

I had the privilege of attending a couple of Swanborn classes in Monterey Hills recently where his 2n/a graders were fully engaged in working with India ink, painting over their intricate sketches of flowers in a vase. Swanborn first demonstrates how to work with ink, giving them techniques and suggestions using the overhead projector in a darkened room. She tells students that adult artists spend their lives trying to recapture the spontaneity and fantasy that children naturally have. She encourages them to take what is called a “mistake” or “accident” and do something about it, and just “let it go!” Let it flow! She repeats to them while they are working: “You have understood! Let it flow! Then the lights come on, the music continues and the magic begins.


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