Matthew Bower M ’11, an art teacher with Findlay City Schools, says that he takes inspiration from many areas. He finds it in people; he finds it in nature; and, as a teacher of Kindergarten through 5th grade, he also finds much reward in watching the students he guides move from grade to grade, year to year, adapting and growing with their artistic abilities.
As a child, Bower said, he was “always into creating and making things,” so the gravitation toward art wasn’t a surprise. The natural world that continues to inspire him today was regularly available in his childhood, as the summers of his youth were often spent largely at his grandparents’ farm, with the vast array of plant and animal life already helping to mold his outlook on life. “It had a grand influence on my learning and art-making,” Bower said, and inevitably this type of influence carried into his teaching, making nature parallel art and life in its purest form. “I teach my kids how wonderful it is that there are so many types of people in the world, and how their artwork reflects their lives,” Bower continued.
Bower is a hometown boy, having grown up right here in Findlay and attended Findlay City Schools. “In my senior year of high school, I had a wonderful art teacher (UF alumna Nancy Frankenfield M ’04), who made me seriously ponder becoming an educator. After that, I knew this was a career that I could do my whole life, and it would make me incredibly happy.” So, some fifteen years ago, he graduated from Bowling Green State University with an art education undergraduate degree and began with the very school system in which he was raised.
To learn and grow professionally himself, after teaching for several years, Bower decided it was time to start on a graduate degree. With a lifetime spent in Findlay, thus knowing the options available to him at its University, he knew right where to look to pursue a Masters of Arts in Education, and as equally important, one with an emphasis in children’s literature. “I was teaching during the day, and then working in a restaurant after school and on weekends. The fact I could do many of my classes online [at UF] was appealing to me, and as an art teacher, getting a chance to tie children’s literature into my degree was also a big appeal,” Bower said. The availability of UF’s Mazza Museum, which houses the largest and most diverse collection of picture book art in the world, was an added bonus for him, as was the number of options that UF offered for Bower to use when combining literature and art lessons for use in his own art room.
As the classes were typically smaller at UF they seemed more personable to him. Forming relationships with his like-minded classmates and understanding professors allowed for even more growth and discovery for Bower. “Most of my classmates were already working as teachers, librarians, or illustrators of some form, so it was wonderful to collaborate and learn from each other,” Bower explained. “Plus, our professors understood that we were already working full time, and some part time on top of full time, and created lessons for us that we would use immediately in our everyday lives.”
Having a world-renowned museum such as Mazza as a part of his curriculum became an invaluable resource for Bower, so much so that it has continued its importance well beyond his days as a graduate student at UF. In sum, he has taught for Mazza’s Young Artist Workshop every summer for years; he’s regularly attended Mazza’s Summer Conference; and he’s served on the Museum’s Conference Committee for many years. Taking what he learns and sees by being such a close ally to the Mazza makes his career much richer and his teaching more impactful. “[Picture books] are a fantastic resource to pull students in, show off various art techniques, and teach valuable lessons to our little ones. Plus, I love looking at the artwork as much as the kids do. To be able to learn about techniques, listen to stories, and then see the original work in the vault or on the walls is simply amazing,” he said.
Of utmost importance to Bower is to regularly recognize and celebrate in his students the differences and similarities that lead to understanding the world better, and to help them express these backgrounds through art. “My schools are both proud Leader in Me schools, and provide education opportunities for children of all ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and abilities,” he explained. The two schools – Jefferson and Chamberlin Hill – also have the largest population of students with Autism and Multiple Handicaps in the district. “It is wonderful to collaborate with these students and to understand a bit more about their learning styles. Each person’s art is unique just like them.” The diversity extends through family backgrounds as well, Bower explained, with kids coming from single parent families or even being raised by a grandparent.
Bower, a member of the LGBTQ community, said he understands what it’s like to sometimes feel left out or misunderstood, but that art, and understanding how it’s created, can help kids make sense of themselves and their surroundings in both unique and therapeutic ways. “I strive to make my class one where all students feel safe and can express themselves creatively. A place to make mistakes without fear of judgement. A place to set goals, work our best at them, achieve what we set out to do, and finally reflect on why setting goals is so important,” he said.
The advantages coming from taking online classes as a UF student, Bower noted, are just as valuable in the present day, yet in a way that no one, including himself, saw coming. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, FCS has adopted a method of hybrid learning for its students, with some days spent learning remotely, and others in person. As it turns out, by spending his own time as a student of online learning, Bower is able to adapt and even empathize with his students. “After receiving my degree,” he said, “I understood what it was like to be the student on the computer, trying to complete weekly assignments. Now I am the one creating the classwork for my own classes, and I realize how much flexibility and compassion must go into this type of work, especially for kids and parents who didn’t choose this option.”
While he says that, when he is at the schools, he is cleaning and sanitizing “more than ever,” Bower misses having his students in the art room each day, but also says he’s grateful for the opportunity to connect with them and teach them through different outlets. It’s clear that he is happy regardless of the setting as he continues to reap the rewards of being a compassionate and inclusive alumnus of UF, and to give those rewards back right here in Findlay through his work with Mazza and as a professional educator. “The littles are my passion, and always will be,” he said. “There is nothing better than watching a child experience a new art medium or technique for the first time. I feel blessed to get to set these foundations in their open minds, and to show my students how beautiful the world truly is.”