Teacher uses online charity to keep her students well-supplied

by: VERN UYETAKE - Rowan Spencer and Courtney Van Kopp use their fingers to blend the colors of their oil pastel pumpkinsA seemingly endless string of budget cuts to Portland Public Schools in recent years has left little money for arts education.

But thanks to the online efforts of one tenacious teacher, students in Southwest are getting some of those resources back.

Since she started working at Stephenson Elementary School in 1986, third-grade teacher Chris Snodgrass has always striven to incorporate the arts into her curricula.

Unfortunately, she said, “Art supplies are very scarce in the building. Teachers need to use their own money to purchase art items.”

In November 2009, Snodgrass’ colleague Andrea McGrady received a $500 grant through Launched by Bronx high school history teacher Charles Best in April 2000, Donors Choose is an online charity in which public school teachers post classroom project requests for donations. Donors choose their projects and contribute a minimum one-dollar, tax-deductible donation. When a project reaches its funding goal, the materials are shipped to the school.

“I thought, it sounds great, but I just did not have the time, so I just did not pursue it,” Snodgrass said. “But during the summer I kept getting emails about it.”

This constant deluge of emails inspired Snodgrass to use her free time on summer break to try her hand at Donors Choose.

“The fact that they kept being persistent, it got me like, 'I really need to look at this,'” she said.

The online project creation paradigm proved a little daunting.

“I met with another former colleague, a former student teacher, who achieved her goal,” Snodgrass recalled. “I was telling her how I got stumped, and she said, 'I’ll show you what we need to do.' She came over and helped and walked me through the first one … then I kind of ignited the flame.”

On Sept. 2, Snodgrass created Literacy Through Art, a project seeking watercolor paper and 36 sets of oil pastels. Including a third-party payment processing fee, labor and materials charges and an optional donation to support, the total project cost was $200.73.

Within two days, the project had been fully funded. With a little help from social media, that is.

“What really prompted this is that I posted it on Facebook,” Snodgrass said. “I was able to reach out to former students.”

The expedited success of Literacy Through Art inspired Snodgrass to create a second project, O is for Organization, seeking binders and paper in which her students could organize their compositions into a writing notebook.

This project, more expensive than the first, was funded in just over two weeks and inspired McGrady to create another project as well.

And on a rainy day in October, Snodgrass' class of more than 30 third-graders experienced Literacy Through Art firsthand, drawing pumpkins using oil pastels.

“The purpose of the pumpkin lesson was to give students the opportunity to work with another art medium (oil pastels), blend colors and experiment with shadowing, all with a seasonal theme,” Snodgrass said via email.

After completing their projects, students will write about them.

“Students who have seen themselves as reluctant artists are surprised at their creations,” Snodgrass said in a letter to donors. “It has made the writing piece of this project so much easier because the students are eager to write about their work.”

Walking around her classroom and peering at one student’s work, Snodgrass said, “Perfect! Exactly! See what you’re doing? You’re blending!”

Snodgrass’ students were similarly enthused.

“It’s fun to show off your art,” one said, “and it’s just fun to look at it sometimes.”

“You get to work with different colors,” another student said.

“It’s another way to make a pumpkin,” said a classmate, “not just make a circle and a line.”

And, of course, one added: “You get a break from math.”

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