by Cassie Stephens,

Art Teacher, Johnson Elementary

When you ask anyone about their favorite memories of summer, I’m willing to bet they will mention some sort of summer camp. A time free of rules, responsibilities, and routines; a chance to make new friends we’d otherwise never meet, the opportunity to learn new skills, a place where the pace is slow enough to allow time for exploration and reflection while fast enough to keep us entertained, educated, and on our flip-flopped toes. I always remember going home from camp completely exhausted but thoroughly inspired by my adventures.

I suppose now is the time in this article when I should lament about how it’s a total bummer that as adults, we no longer have this kind of opportunity. And I would do that if I weren’t privy to the very best summer experience that’s as close to a summer camp (okay, it’s better) as can be: Tennessee Arts Academy (TAA).

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Photograph by Scott Schrecker

In non-summer-camp terms, Tennessee Arts Academy is a weeklong professional development opportunity, held annually in July for educators with a strong focus on the importance of the arts, held on the campus of Belmont University. Back in summer-camp chat, it ’s days of friend-making, skill-learning, self-reflecting, and rejuvenation. The best way for me to give you the total picture is to tell you exactly what a typical day entails.

There are a handful of tracks one can take at TAA: fine arts, music, drama, or arts leadership. After breakfast, the day begins with two hours in your chosen track. In the fine arts, that meant we were learning from the very best art educators in the country: Laura Lohmann, blogger and award-winning art teacher from Ohio; Jim McNeill, illustrator of several art education children’s books; Laurie Gatlin, an art teacher with an incredible approach to teaching through journaling; and Debbie Engbring, a ceramic teacher with a unique approach to teaching her craft. The crème de la crème of artists and educators. From our studio time, we experience a performance, which might include a dance troupe from Memphis or a world-renowned marimba player. After lunch we attend a TED Talk-esque chat lead by innovators in the arts. My personal favorite was Mr. Richard Sherman, famed half of the Sherman Brothers, who wrote the score for Mary Poppins along with many other Disney productions. And just when we think we can’t take any more, we return to our studios for more exploration.


Can you think of a better way for an educator to spend a week of their summer? I’ve attended Tennessee Arts Academy every summer for the last ten years of my teaching career and hope to go many, many more years. Established almost thirty years ago, it’s the only professional development opportunity of its kind in our nation. If you are an educator, I can’t encourage you enough to attend. Trust me, it will leave you as excited and exhilarated as any summer camp!

For registration details and information about Tennessee Arts Academy 2016, visit

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