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Michael Bracco, Art Teacher, Ellicott Mills Middle School

April 7th, 2016

Ellicott Mills Middle School art teacher Michael Bracco is a professional illustrator who brings his  love of art and personal studio practices into the classroom. He fosters the students’ artistic process by developing their technical, observational and problem solving skills, as well as their ability to communicate about their own art and the work of others. HCPSS Fine Arts Coordinator Gino Molfino said visual arts students “develop skills to translate what we’re seeing as well as how to communicate personal things we’re going through ourselves. Everything Michael is doing in the classroom is supporting lifelong behaviors every individual should have to be a good human being.”

Molfino explained that Michael is a great example of a Howard County art teacher because, “We look for teachers who are makers themselves because if you understand the craft and process of the maker, you’re better capable of translating the practices and behaviors for students.” Bracco agrees that his two roles complement each other with, “Being a career artist makes me a better teacher, and being a teacher makes me a better career artist. When you’re constantly encouraging others to be creative, it forces you to be creative, too.”

Bracco’s artwork includes illustration, a screen printed apparel line, graphic novel work and performance stage shows. He ties it all together with, “everything circles around sci-fi and fantasy, geek centric stuff.” His teaching has impacted his graphic novel and comic focus because “although I don’t write for kids, I write about my experiences with them. Teaching for so long has made me thoughtfully curious about my kids. In my work, I put kids in real world situations and explore how they might handle difficult things.”

Bracco keeps a packed schedule to balance his teaching and artmaking. He commutes from his Northeast Baltimore home to reach Ellicott Mills, where he leads 10 classes and an after school intramural drawing club, and hangs hallway shows. Bracco spends the rest of his day with his family–his wife, a fellow artist, and daughter–and on his personal artwork, finishing up around midnight each night. He travels to conventions, festivals and shows 20-30 weekends of the year to sell his work, and helps run and participate in Super Art Fight, a live action art competition and stage show.

Bracco creates whenever he can, saying “Because of teaching and the balancing act, it’s super important that everything is portable. I do 90 percent of my work in sketch books, all pen and ink, using brush tip pens. Each comic page takes 5 hours, so it can take years to make a book, so I have to be able to squeeze in 5-10 minutes here and there.” His sketches then get scanned into the computer, where they are finalized and prepared for T-shirts, comics or whatever else he’s creating. All of his products can be found on his site, Spaghetti Kiss.

Bracco, who has a BFA in illustration and MAT in art education from the Maryland Institute College of Art, joined the HCPSS as a student teacher at Longfellow Elementary School and had a contract with Ellicott Mills in hand before he completed his graduate degree. Bracco admits he entered the teaching profession for security’s sake and ended up at Ellicott Mills, the only school he’s worked at full time, by “being at the right place at the right time.” Though he serendipitously joined the school 13 years ago, he now says, “It would be the hardest thing in the world to leave this place. I just didn’t really expect to love teaching as much as I do.”

Ellicott Mills Middle School Principal Christopher Rattay said, “Michael’s passion for art goes beyond the education realm, it’s his life. He brings that passion into the classroom where he’s energetic and encourages the kids to take risks and challenges their thinking. No matter the ability coming in, where he gets them in the end is incredible. He’s so enthusiastic about his craft, kids are willing to buy in and stretch themselves.” Bracco openly discusses his professional journey with his students, including the challenges he’s faced as an artist, to inspire them, as well as opens their eyes to the many career possibilities in the field, such as graphic design, product design and even marble work.

Many of Bracco’s class assignments are individual as well as group projects. Bracco explained, “I want the work to be something they want to experience together as a community. It’s something you’re doing on your own, but you can’t learn unless someone looks at it. It forces them to think outside their own heads.” For example, students might look at similar themes or draw from the same objects and then walk around the classroom discussing each other’s work. And students from his after school drawing club are creating a permanent triptych mural for the school, reflecting on its past, present and future.

Rattay described Bracco as “respected by his school and the art community in Howard County and beyond.” Whether it’s designing a T-shirt for PARCC, MC-ing an event with the technology teacher or rearranging his schedule to present an award in Annapolis for one of his students, Bracco not only “takes his art and connects it across content areas but he goes above and beyond to be very supportive of our students and delve in and help out,” Rattay said.

Bracco’s leadership in art education includes the professional development workshops he’s led on illustrative problem solving and narrative thinking in art for Howard County schools and Maryland Art Education Association (MAEA) conferences. This year Bracco was recognized by MAEA as a Howard County Career Middle School Teacher, but perhaps Bracco’s best validation comes directly from his students like this one, who said, “no matter what mood you’re in when you enter his class, you always leave happy.”

To see some of Bracco’s students’ work, he encourages the community to check out two systemwide exhibitions this month: the Game Changers: Collaboration, Play, and the Search for New Ideas exhibition at Howard County Arts Council and the Spring Student Exhibition at the Mall in Columbia.