Magical moose motivates Modesto charter students

naustin@modbee.comApril 23, 2014 

Gus the magical moose thrives on Hatch Road, drawing on the imaginations of elementary school students at Aspire Summit Charter Academy and first-year art teacher Ben Phelps.

So far, Gus has inspired a song, a children’s book and uncounted artworks at the kindergarten through fifth-grade school. Pages for the book are being designed as part of a “Top Secret Art Project” kids get to take part in by being helpful and showing empathy and other good character traits. By year’s end, Phelps hopes to have the book about purple, flying moose Gus ready to publish.

“Already, Gus has acquired quite a momentum,” Phelps said, adding that students draw pictures of Gus playing with animals that they make up. On art nights, students come after school to the “art cave,” his mural-covered, Christmas-light-lit classroom, to create the pages for Gus’ book.

At “Secret Art Night” earlier this month, third-grader Santiago Gonsales and second-grader Simon Pezzoni were the first to arrive. A treasure hunt located the night’s artistic mission: Illustrate a page about Gus’ travels. What might that look like? After a discussion, both got busy ripping blue photo bits out of a magazine to paste on for ocean.

“I like that we make good works of art and all the students come to look at all the pictures,” Santiago said.

Simon said the draw for him is drawing. It was Simon’s birthday, said mom Amy Pezzoni, and it was his choice to come.

“Art has become Simon’s favorite class,” she said. “(Phelps) does a lot of recycling and he talks about careers in art. The students are so different, and he’s able to find a way to reach them all.”

The charter school includes art class twice a week for its 406 students, said Principal Jamey Olney. Because Phelps also is a musician, he mixes in melodies, as well, she said.

The Webb Serrano siblings were the next to arrive: 8-year-old Jacob, 9-year-old Jonathan and 10-year-old Elizabeth. Jacob smoothed chalky pastels in creams and orange into a sandy road. The others were working on wings and antlers for Gus.

Mom Elizabeth Serrano said the top-secret part makes the art night “extra exciting” for kids.

Phelps, 27, came to be an art instructor via an unconventional path. He earned an associate’s degree from Modesto Junior College and graduated from Liberty University in 2010 with a bachelor of science degree in psychology, Phelps said in an autobiographical email.

“Through college, I wore many different hats, from courtesy clerk to cake decorator, from warehouse manager to stocker, from salesman to estimator, from cashier to project manager. After graduating, I got a job as a counselor at a local mental hospital,” he wrote.

But he found counseling to be a bad fit and shifted into writing music about mental illness. He went into substitute teaching to pay the bills, and applied for a guest-teacher position at Summit.

“He applied to be a substitute with Aspire last August, and we were so impressed with his demo lesson that we invited him to apply for our art teacher opening,” Olney said via email.

Phelps’ path did not include a stop for a teaching credential. Art teachers in elementary charter schools do not need one, Olney said. But they do need to pass a California subject exam in art, which Phelps plans to take in May, she said. Other teachers at the school are fully credentialed, except one special education teacher with an emergency credential.

Though he came to teaching by a long and winding road, Phelps said in the end, the journey trained him well. “As I started teaching the students at Summit, I came to realize that my entire life in all of its struggles and successes had prepared me for this career,” he said. “I suddenly had a new reason for writing songs and making art.”

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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