How an Oakland educator is keeping kids connected to art and helping with happiness

Tammara Mercer is an art teacher at North Oakland Community Charter School (NOCCS), the Junior Center for Art and Science and Emerson Elementary. With the coronavirus shutting down schools, Ms. Mercer created a vibrant YouTube channel with the help of her two children and has been broadcasting from her North Oakland home. The lessons, like how to make a bead necklace or a log cabin, and story time, are unique and infused with so much positivity and attention to detail. 

We caught up with Ms. Mercer to find out why she decided to create the channel, and how she does it. Here’s what she had to say:

Why She Does It

We’re all in this together, we all got to stay inside. So everybody’s kind of on the same playing ground right now. Probably for the first time ever. Everybody’s been stripped of everything all at once. That’s why it’s always good to do things like continue teaching. Continue infusing the kids with positive stuff like art and science. And laugh! Continue those heart connections.

As an art teacher, I can’t video call 200, almost 300+ kids, because I teach all the children, kindergarten through eighth grade. I teach at NOCCS, I teach fifth grade at Emerson, I teach at the Junior Center for Art and Science. There’s so many children that I teach at once.

What I’m doing now is creating my lessons and just putting them online so students can choose a lesson and do it. I’ve got lessons for younger folks, and then there’s more complicated ones, too. Through art, it brings hope!

I find that my youngest daughter, when she’s doing like her Legos or she’s painting, she’s just forgetting about everything. And at this time, our kids know what’s going on. Their anxiety is through the roof. So doing something with them, keeping a schedule – making art a part of the schedule – it just gives them normalcy. It makes them feel like things are not so bad, they’re able to still function. So when they do make it out of this, it’s not like they’re all suffering from PTSD.

I was a theater minor in college. So for me, teaching is not just getting the content out or getting out the technique. It’s about personality, charisma, heart connections. Making sure those kids know you love them, otherwise you can’t be stern with them, and then you ain’t got no classroom management.

For kids, they’re at home and got packets for reading and math and science, but you’re not gonna get any homework for art. There’s no homework packet for art. So I decided to create a digital homework packet. You can go on there, you can listen to stories that are really interactive. I try to make sure that if there’s difficult vocabulary, I put it on the screen, or I ask questions. I encourage them to engage with their families. I just uploaded a new story, and a question I asked was: talk to your family about your most embarrassing moment. It leads to more conversation. And more family bonding.

How She Does It

I never had a YouTube channel before and actually, it was my kids’ idea. I try to keep them busy as well. There’s several different types of art, it’s not just visual arts. There’s sculptors, there’s producers, there’s people that do mixed media. It just goes on and on. 

My son, who was supposed to be going to school to study studio audio, he makes the music, he does the filming and the editing. My daughter, who’s 16 and a genius (she taught herself fluent Korean), she draws all the animation, all the thumbnails, all that. So I’m able to focus on the lesson.

Oh my god, it’s the funnest thing in the world. To be able to go to my son and be like, ‘Did you get the video’ and he’s like, ‘yes, mom. My daughter is like, don’t rush me. But she does a good job and it’s really fun. Then to see the end result and then watch it with them is really cool. It’s fun, especially right now, while we have to stay inside. I thought we were gonna be going crazy up in here. But that’s a little break from reality: when we’re prepping, running around the house and trying find the supplies, taking clips off of binders.

It’s really cool to be able to do something with my family and just kind of like model that even though we’re inside, these are things we can do together. A lot of my students are low income, like myself, and marginalized, so my whole plan is to make sure that all the projects and all the lessons are available to everybody. How do you do that? All the supplies need to be able to be gotten from home. If you don’t have a popsicle stick, you can substitute it for this; if you ain’t got no paper, you can use newspaper. Just giving everybody a feeling that they can be successful, too.

Every kid at one point will say, ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I don’t like art.’ Then, once you push them to do it, even if it’s just that first line, you (as a teacher say) that line looks great. The kids need to still feel that because that pushes them to make that second line. And once they get to the end, now they’re an artist. And they believe they’re an artist because we’ve been able to guide them. If we stopped guiding them, and let this virus just stop everything we’ve invested in their creative imagination, in helping them be able to express themselves through art and creativity; if we just stop, then all that stops. And then it’s just video games, that’s the reality. People stop analyzing and the kids stop looking at art pieces and saying, Oh yeah, you know, we study Frida Kahlo with Miss Mercer. We studied artists.

I study the culture of the art. When we’re making baskets with clay, I’ll teach the kids about West African pottery. We’ll learn about how the West Africans had to dig for the rocks and had to smash all the way to the clay. And then once they learn that, they’re like, ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s amazing. I want to do that. I want to try that. Can we do that? How do we continue that?

That’s why I started the YouTube channel because I want to teach the kids like I do if I’m in class. I keep it real with my kids. I laugh with my kids. I tell my kids stories – we believe that there’s unicorns. They believe I’ve been to outer space because, you know, I have. That lottery ticket that I won, you know what I mean? So it’s just about how do you keep that joy going? Right now you can’t leave the house. You can’t go outside, there’s tanks in East Oakland. So how do you bring the outside, inside? Not just the projects and the lessons, but how do you bring the joy? How do you bring it to where your family is participating? It’s not just a lesson for the student, it’s a lesson for the family. The student needs help with this, or it’s a game and the student needs a partner play, and it becomes a family thing and right now. And now we’ve got everyone doing art, forgetting about the craziness that’s happening outside, at least for a few hours to do something that will take your mind off of what’s happening right now.

We’re all in it together. We got to do something for the kids who gotta get happy. Please wash your hands.

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