First Friday: Creating, Practicing, and Messing Up

How Jessica Melrose connects community and students for authentic creative experiences.


When Jessica Melrose took a position teaching art at Tucson’s City High School in 2013, she was looking for a place to build authentic relationships with her students and community. She found exactly that — and so much more.

One of three schools under the nonprofit CITY Center for Collaborative Learning, City High School aims to personalize education. With only about 190 students per year in grades nine through 12, the student population represents a diversity of ethnicities and cultures from a wide range of Tucson neighborhoods. The school is on a mission to build an environment that is both caring and academically challenging — a community that Melrose fits into with ease.

Melrose values one-on-one time with students and investing in them and their families. She understands that this takes time, and she’s in it for the long haul.

“I really feel like I’m doing what I was always meant to do. High school students want to impress themselves. They want to impress their family, their peers. They want to be proud of what they did and create something that’s going to do more than spend a week stuck on the fridge,” she says. “Learning art is about creating art, practicing, and messing up. I’m a firm believer in long-term projects and organic feedback and suggestions as work is in progress.”

In the vibrant arts and cultural community downtown, the New Jersey native watches Tucson from a unique vantage point.

“I’m in love. Downtown Tucson is growing and evolving right before my eyes. Entrepreneurs, artists, professionals, startups, and so many other learning opportunities are available as resources to our school and community. That kind of real-world experience is so valuable,” she explains.

It seems the feeling is mutual. “The Tucson community, especially the creative community, is so willing and open to working with our high school kids,” the University of Arizona graduate says. “It’s a win-win for everyone. Kids get to learn from people other than their parents and teachers, and the community has a refreshed and positive view of Tucson’s youth.”

Melrose is no stranger to evolution herself. She says, as a student and new teacher, she had high hopes, wanting all of her students to love art and go to art school.

But 13 years of teaching has taught her to paint a bigger picture. “I learned that’s not really realistic or helpful for individual students.”

Instead, Melrose illustrates how art can be used in all walks of life.

“Art is a possible source of income, but it’s a means of communication; it’s an outlet for emotions, a spiritual and cathartic experience,” she says.

She shifted her goals from “simply teaching the elements and principles and techniques” — how to get into art school, how to create a portfolio, how to photograph your artwork, make prints, cut mats, frame, and use other technology. She says, “I still do all of these things, but mostly I want students to leave my classroom and our school with a set of skills that will serve them in any setting.”

What do these any-setting skills look like? Well, aside from creating impressive works of art, Melrose’s students acquire time management skills, communication, visual literacy, creative problem solving, creative interpretation, documentation and organization, perseverance, reflection, revision, and, perhaps most importantly, how to embrace mistakes.  

City High’s founding philosophy allows Melrose to plan curriculum creatively. “Basically nothing is off limits, and no idea is too big,” she says. Currently, she’s co-teaching a math class that uses visual art concepts to help students relate to it and clarifies the content — an idea that she and her colleague came up with, then were given the trust and freedom to see it through.

For Melrose and her colleagues, collaboration is key when it comes to maintaining their close-knit and rigorous community. “Arts integration is really a large part of my job — to support other teachers in some of the more visual aspects of their content area such as helping students create videos or graphics that have a more mature and professional feel,” she says.

It all comes back to that perfect fit between Melrose’s personal beliefs and City High School’s mission to individualize students’ learning paths. “I feel safe and trusted as a professional to teach my content area, and can safely learn and grow as an educator through collaborating with colleagues and community.”

1 Comment

  • Jean Leslie Mulvaney says:

    This is great. You certainly give students the opportunity to engage daily in a creative process and for so many of them to produce something that is a work of quality and something that they can be proud of. Then all of these cool projects that you do with students around town. I love it.
    Well done Jessica.

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