Fort River art teacher honored for feminist work in the classroom

  • Nicole Singer, far right, receives her award at the National Art Education Association conference earlier this month in Boston.  SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Nicole Singer, at left, and Patty Bode in Singer’s classroom at Fort River. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2019 10:17:59 AM

AMHERST — Every year, second graders at Fort River Elementary School work on underwater sea drawings in art class. 

Amid sketching fish and seaweed, art teacher Nicole Singer, who is in her sixth year at the school, said she will hear student conversation about boy-colored fish and girl-colored fish. 

That’s when she intervenes, asking students questions that challenge their ideas like, “What makes you say that?” and “Do some girls wear blue?”

“Eventually the kids come to, ‘Oh OK, blue is really for everybody,’” she said.

For her feminist approach to instruction in the classroom, Singer was honored with an award at the National Art Education Association annual conference in Boston on March 14.

The Carrie Nordlund pre-K-12 Feminist Pedagogy Award, given annually by the National Art Education Association’s Women’s Caucus, honors an art educator who incorporates feminism and inclusivity into their work. 

“She does an enormous amount in her classrooms,” said Patty Bode, who directed the graduate program Singer attended at Tufts University and worked as the interim principal of Amherst Regional Middle School while Singer taught at Fort River Elementary School.

Bode nominated Singer for the award and noted that Singer brings diverse artists into the curriculum and helps students understand gender stereotypes.  

“She does it in ways that are accessible for elementary kids,” Bode said of Singer’s work. “She’s making sure every student has full access to their education, specifically in her case art education.”

Young elementary school students are not always able to grapple with feminism in the same way a high school student could, Singer said. 

“For me the way it often manifests are these small moments of everyday feminism,” she said, like when the students talk about gender and colors they use in their art.

Although they have started to form ideas about gender, she said she finds that elementary school students often are mentally flexible about it.

“I have this great opportunity to lay a gender neutral or gender inclusive notion about what kinds of art are accessible to them,” she said.

Fiber arts, for example, are often seen as feminine, but all students learn to sew and she shows examples of men knitting.

Her work also focuses on exposing students to diverse artists. K-12 art education tends to focus on old, white male painters but there’s more than just that, she said.

Singer makes an effort to include more diverse examples of work, such as women of color sculptors like Sonya Clark and Augusta Savage.

The work of these women artists is powerful in its own right, she said, and it serves another purpose.

“So many of my students are young women of color who want to do sculpture, it’s important that they see themselves in the curriculum,” Singer said.

Bringing feminism into art education isn’t just about student interactions though. In her acceptance speech at the conference, Singer said she spoke about holding the adults around her accountable, too. 

“It’s important for us to interrupt our own moments of sexism and racism or any other kind of ism,” she said. 

Greta Jochem can be reached at

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