Ferry native featured in Harvard book

AN ARTICLE by Michele K. Sommer, former Martins Ferry resident, and her students’ artwork are a “quite rare” addition to the Harvard Educational Review, published this spring and the only one in 20 years featuring art.

The article by Sommer, daughter of attorney Keith and Carol Sommer, was among those selected from more than 450 entries from five continents for inclusion in the Harvard publication. It is titled, “The Cream Does Not Always Rise: The Plight of Visual-Spatial Learners and the Power of Art Education.”

“It is quite rare that cover images for a Special Issue of HER come from the students of a featured author,” according to the HER’s editorial board.

The board informed Sommer that its members “are greatly enthused by the opportunity to publish the reflective writing of a committed educator while highlighting the visual work of her students.”

Sommer, who is art department chair at the Rockland Country Day School in Rockland County, N.Y., learned a few days ago that her students’ artwork selected for the cover of HER had been chosen independently from the article, and the board was surprised that the same person was associated with the artwork and the article.

The former Ferrian said when she was notified at home about the article’s inclusion, “I ran into the next room to find my husband and proceeded to tell him (while jumping up and down) that this was THE best thing that has ever happened to me. Yes, I said that to – my adorable husband. He replied, ‘Really, THE best thing?’ Anyway, I was very surprised and delighted.”

She and her husband, Jonathan Turk, reside in Mahwah, N.J.

That publication is only one of various honors received by the graduate of Bowling Green State University where she majored in French and fine art.

In recent days, she was included in a panel discussion about the “Expanding Our Vision for the Arts in Education” theme, the title of the HER publication.

Sommer said other panelists “included a professor of art and art history, the founding headmaster of Boston Arts Academy and executive director of the Center for Arts in Education at Boston Arts Academy, a professor of education in the Creative Arts in Learning Division at Lesley University, the coordinator of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Arts in Education Program and renowned poet.

“The other panelists were authors of internationally acclaimed books, leaders in education reform, and several teach graduate courses at Harvard … and then there was me. Keith and Carol Sommer’s kid. Martins Ferry Swim Team High Point Trophy winner – life is magical!”

Sommer explained she was terrified prior to the discussion, and it might have been the scariest thing that she had ever done.

“But some of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my life were a result of a giant leap of faith so I held my breath and jumped in, ” she added. “Then I couldn’t stop talking, I get so excited about arts education. It was an amazing experience.”

Later, she was told that HER officials were excited that Kim Marshall of the Marshall Memo had listed her article with positive comments. That memo keeps educators and others well-informed on current research and best practices in the field.

Marshall checks articles each week from 64 publications and selects five to 10 having the greatest potential to improve teaching, leadership and learning.

Sommer’s achievements are especially noteworthy since she was a ” hopeless daydreamer” in second grade and received “a terrifying red ‘F'” on an arithmetic paper and then buried the evidence of her ineptitude along with her pride under a neighbor’s pine tree, according to the HER article.

Even then, she was artistic. Not understanding subtraction, she carefully and artistically had drawn vertical lines through the subtraction symbols, because she understood addition. The teacher, however, wasn’t fooled.

Her article noted her lack of confidence in middle school, and the feeling when she received an award for a drawing with a note from art teacher Debbie Kiester. In part, Kiester wrote,”Your incredible artistic talent is a gift to be nurtured and cherished.”

Prior to that award, Sommer said she had felt dumb and worthless among her talented classmates. “My art teacher saved my life that day. The … knowledge that I had a valuable skill that I could share with others … set me on the path to my bright future.”

Sommer said like all teachers, she has a responsibility to make all her students feel capable and valued. She added she often sees another side of a student struggling in academic subjects. Noting her important role in discovering how children learn and perceive themselves and the world around them, she emphasized how art education helps children become excited about learning.

It’s not surprising that among Sommer’s varied honors is her selection as “teacher of the year” at Rockland.

In recent days, she had breakfast with an editor who gave her a HER press bag filled with books including the original 20-year-old HER edition on the arts.

“I was so touched,” said Sommer. “She asked me, ‘Did you know you had this in you?’ A small voice in me wanted to say ‘yes,’ but I politely replied, ‘no.’ I had the time of my life.”