Innovator of the Month: Cooper brings out students’ creative side

The school district’s Innovator of the Month — recognized by the Board of Education each month — appears in the Shelton Herald the second week of each month.

Art has always been Mike Cooper’s life.
Admittedly not a strong student in his younger years, Cooper recalls his sixth-grade teacher pushing him to embrace his creativity, which not only lifted his grades but also set the trajectory for his future role as an educator himself.
“I was a poor student ... I had trouble focusing. In sixth grade, I was having trouble with reading and math, but my teacher saw my potential through my sense of humor and my drawing ability,” said Cooper, who grew up on Mad magazine and Garbage Pail Kids.
“She let me do some book reports and writing assignments in comic book form.
“This opened my mind to effectiveness in visual communication,” added Cooper. “I knew then I wanted to have an art related career or become a teacher. I never forget my perspective as a kid with difficulty learning. If I ever did become a teacher, I wanted to become a teacher I always wish I had as a kid. We always say art is so important, but art really can change a person’s life.”

Fast forward to 2019, and Cooper is that teacher, an art teacher at Perry Hill School — recognized by his students and peers as the February Innovator of the Month by the Board of Education.
“I try to be innovative in all I do,” said Cooper, known not only for his entertaining art classes but also his weekly cartoons, featuring the school district’s Word of the Week, which adorn the bulletin board outside the new cafetorium at Perry Hill School.
“[School Superintendent] Dr. [Chris] Clouet has taken a liking to them,” said Cooper about the cartoon. “The Word of the Week is fun to address.”
Cooper said his cartoons encompass all that he holds dear in education — encouraging his students to be inquisitive and challenged to take risks every day as they create incredible works of art.
“Even if students cannot exactly execute the drawing end, students still see the power the cartoon can convey in just a few words and a simple picture,” said "Cooper. “Observe. What do you see? What is the story? What can you understand? Those are exactly what I ask my students as we embark on a new project.”
Cooper, the father of twin 18-month olds, said a major part of his strategy with art instruction — and his with life in general — is storytelling.
One lesson has Cooper asking his students to imagine walking down a city block when they catch an aroma coming from a nearby confectionery shop. He asks them to walk in, observe the various desserts, then take out their imaginary handheld device and take a picture. Then students must draw a picture from that memory, with a touch of imagination.
Perry Hill Principal Lorraine Williams said Cooper, who joined the upper elementary school four years ago, fit in immediately, and it is “truly a pleasure to go in his room.
“He brings out the best of our students,” added Williams.
“Art by definition elicits a reaction, promotes conversation, observation, understanding and empathy,” said Cooper.
Cooper said that art was developed as a means to communicate, noting that paintings on cave walls done tens of thousands of years ago were the first means of communication, predating reading, writing and even the spoken word.
“[Art is] embedded in our species, and you see that the students at Perry Hill embody this trait through the illustration and painting units and our ceramics,” said Cooper. “Art is how many of us learn and understand the world around us. My art work has allowed me to tell stories, entertain, educate and inspire. At first as a child, and now as an adult. It is why an education in the visual arts is so important in the year 2019.”
Cooper, who also credits fellow art teacher Jessica Giordano for his teaching success, said his theory, practice and, most importantly, his experience illustrates the best way to teach a child is to encourage them to be inquisitive and to take risks.
“Art class is a place where that can happen at every turn,” said Cooper. “We as educators should be encouraged and challenged to do the same. If my sixth grade teacher had not thought outside the box, I would not be here doing this, and I like to think I do the same thing for my students.
“My love for making art has shaped me,” added Cooper. “The thought never escapes me about how lucky I am to share my love, passion and joy with my students.”