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Promise Academy Art Teacher Encourages Kids to Color Outside the Lines

Crista Terrizzi, Promise Academy Art Teacher

Woman with blond hair in classroom

A recent show of student art at Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy was a tapestry of eras and styles: aboriginal bark paintings, handmade “geodes,” self-portraits, a tribute to Keith Haring, and even a pair of five-foot dragon sculptures.

You have the talent of our scholars and the teaching style of Crista Terrizzi to thank for that.  When it comes to art and self expression, Crista encourages her kids to color outside the lines.

“Teaching kids to be different shouldn’t only be acceptable, it should be encouraged,” Crista says. “I want to instill the importance of being true to who you are.”

Being true to your art  and yourself

Crista is one of the hundreds of Promise Academy teachers who are doing whatever it takes to help our scholars thrive in the classroom, college, and their careers.

For Crista, this work begins with getting kids to embrace their individuality. This not only produces great art, she says, but also great people.

“I’ve experienced the long-term damage of not being true to who you are as a child,” Crista says. “I want these kids to be more successful than I was in my emotional and social development.”


Art from around the world

Besides urging them to look inside themselves for inspiration, Crista urges them to look to the outside world.

She teaches her students about art from different cultures and continents — from Buddhist sand mandalas to Keith Haring’s iconic East Harlem mural just a few blocks from Promise Academy. 

For Crista, different worlds means worlds real and imagined. She took inspiration from “Game of Thrones” for an assignment in which students designed paper mache dragons.

“My students told me, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a lot, Ms. Terrizzi, this is so hard,’” she recalls. “But I told them, ‘You can do it — once you do it, you’re going to be so proud of yourself.’” 

“Trying to be something that wasn’t me”

Growing up, Crista didn’t know that she was artistic until a middle school art teacher noticed her talent and encouraged her to pursue art. It was through art — and expressing herself creatively — that she found her calling.

“I was trying to be something that wasn’t me,” Terrizzi said. “I never had anyone say I didn’t have to not be me until I had art teachers.”

In college, Crista studied fine arts, but had no interest in pursuing a teaching career. That was until she took a required course in education equity and traveled to Haiti to volunteer in a school in Port-Au-Prince. After her trip, Crista became passionate about education and decided to become a teacher.


Caring for the whole child

Like many Promise Academy teachers, Crista centers her teaching philosophy on caring for the whole child. In her first year as a Promise Academy art teacher, Crista had a student who often got into trouble. With her experience leaning on art teachers in times of distress, she encouraged the student to share his feelings and express himself through art projects. The student’s behavior improved dramatically. 

“Sometimes, kids need that outlet for self expression,” the art teacher says.

Her classroom is designed to foster that expression. It includes workstations named after Jean-Michel Basquiat, Frida Kahlo and Pablo Picasso; spaces for self-reflection; and even an art-themed library for those who finish their assignments early.

At the end of her classes, wet paintings are neatly layered in the drying rack, the rainbow of acrylic paint in squeeze tubes is refreshed, and often a student leaves with one last, burning question for the art teacher: “Can we have art class one more time in the week?”

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