Nathan Hatt, A2 STEAM lead teacher/Project-Based Learning coordinator

By Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor

Nathan Hatt, lifetime Ann Arbor resident, is a product of the Ann Arbor Public Schools and a University of Michigan alumnus. After five years working as a production artist, animator, graphic designer, creative director, and business owner, Hatt started his teaching career at Henry Ford Academy in Detroit. He began working as a third grade teacher at A2 STEAM since its inception in 2014, and this school year became the Project Based Learning (PBL) coordinator. As an educator, Hatt enjoys designing arts and technology integrated projects with a focus on applied science. In his free time, he is still involved in design and illustration, and loves the outdoors, cooking, and spending time with his family.

Hatt was recently awarded the MSTA 2018 Teacher of Promise Award. The winning Science Teacher of Promise is chosen for “inspiring students, demonstrating innovative teaching strategies, demonstrating the potential for science leadership, and exhibiting a passion for science and teaching.” Nominees are selected from teaching professionals who have taught fewer than five years.

Why did you leave a career in art and business to become a teacher?  Careers in art are difficult to find and even more challenging to maintain. Beyond that, the work that a creative firm does is usually in service to the marketing needs of private businesses. While this type of work provides utility to our economy, I realized that I had a different idea about how art can be leveraged to influence communities. Art can do more than influence consumer decisions. As a production artist, graphic designer, and creative director, the design challenge is most often focused on the client’s needs to sell a product. As an educator and curriculum designer, the design challenge is to foster citizenship, creativity, and understanding. I’ve been lucky to have worked exclusively in schools that place tremendous value on art and design. As an educator, I’ve felt far more creatively energized than I ever did as a creative professional.

What did you learn from being an artist that now helps you understand your work in communities and schools? Unfortunately, art is often looked upon as frivolous and mysterious. As an art student, the first lesson I learned is that I can improve my work through skill acquisition and revision. You can actually see it in your work as a visual artist. The second lesson I learned was from a professor during office hours after a critique session. He very candidly told me that I wasn’t good at taking criticism. That was the best piece of criticism that I ever got! I respected him a lot, and his feedback helped me to understand the implicit value of critique and revision. Understanding that this “soft skill” was where I needed to improve the most liberated me from the competitive disposition that was preventing me from doing my best work. Through this type of instruction, the learner understands the value of iteration within a social dynamic. As a designer and facilitator of arts-integrated curriculum, I’ve approached the work with an understanding that art can build self-efficacy and improve social dynamics within a learning community. Art is often seen exclusively as a means of unbounded self-expression. It can be so much more.

What was always written on your report card in grade school?  I talked too much. All the time. I guess I had a lot to say from an early age. It was clear even from Montessori school that I had an interest in art. I was always self-motivated to excel in art, and if I could find a way to use visual and spatial reasoning to explain myself in other subjects, I would.

What are your best memories from high school? My favorite experiences in high school were usually centered on art classes. Adolescence can often be a bewildering, confusing time. Art was always my outlet at that age. I always got excited about learning how to do new things because I knew I could do it well. Luckily, Pioneer and Community both provided lots of excellent classes. I took photography with Ronald Lutz and finished every assignment in the darkroom, before digital cameras. I had graphic design with Crystal Westfield before design was taught on a computer. I also took several art and film classes at Community. I’m happy that the Ann Arbor community continues to value the arts. Kids need to be able to see themselves in many different ways, this helps them to grow into confident adults. I really began to thrive as a confident young adult when I worked as a staff member at Camp Al-Gon-Quian after my junior year of high school. I developed many great friendships there with wonderful people that I still cherish today.

In your 3.5 years in AAPS, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned about teaching? About learning?  Teaching is learning, and the lessons that can be learned from that are expressed all of the time. Every day offers an opportunity to enjoy the work of education and reflect on one’s practice.

Describe an average workday.  While every day is different, every week I have scheduled contact with every classroom teacher in the building, and most specials teachers. During this time, we work together on refining PBL projects. We are always striving for authenticity in units of study. This can mean authenticity in the content or the process of learning. This can also mean the authenticity of the impact that the project has on its audience or the personal authenticity of the students in response to the project. Rarely is there that perfect project that is totally authentic in all ways, but pushing for that authenticity in each dimension is an interesting design challenge. The work compels you to think a lot. There’s a lot of legwork too. I reach out to public and private organizations to develop partnerships and spend a lot of time finding, curating, and sometimes authoring resources to be used for PBL instruction.

In addition, I work a lot with students. This morning I provided feedback after reviewing a student portfolio. This sixth grader is currently applying for Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. She was also excited to include some letterforms that she designed in the STEAM lab of her own initials using Adobe Illustrator. I have had the pleasure of collaboratively designing and co-teaching a typography project with Bill Van Loo this term, a unit within the 6th grade Design and Modeling course. She was excited to use this extraordinary piece, and I hope it goes a long way towards providing even more variety to her body of work.

Finally, I work with parents in several capacities. In addition to running community tours for prospective families, I also meet with a group of parents on a weekly basis to collaboratively design ways for community members, including STEAM parents, to connect to PBL projects in authentic ways. Soon STEAM families will be able to access these projects as they are being developed and implemented and reach out to the teachers designing these units. PBL has an amazing utility to triangulate between each stakeholder community within the school.

What do you most want district parents to know about Project-based Learning? PBL is most impactful when it takes into account the needs of the classroom it is being taught in. Just like any curriculum, it works best if it is adapted to the students at hand. That said, PBL is most effective when it is built on a foundation of excellent pedagogy. PBL isn’t open-ended instruction, nor is it a replacement for the good things that already happen in classrooms. It’s an avenue to bring the imminent stakeholders even closer to the practice in authentic ways: the teachers, the students, and their families.

What advice would you give to a first-year teacher? Seek out opportunities. Keep learning.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received from your dad, Chuck, principal at Burns Park Elementary?  Be present.

When the Hatt family gets together, do you talk about anything other than education? When we get together as a family, we spend most of our time enjoying each others’ company. This week we celebrated the first birthday of my nephew Henry. My brother Brendan (Pattengill fifth grade teacher) and my sister-in-law Erica (the district’s ELA and social studies curriculum coordinator for K-5) hosted a wonderful party with the theme “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Some may know that Erica’s sister Carolina is married to my other brother Chuck. Neither Chuck nor Carolina is a district employee. Nor is my mother, Vickie, for that matter, although she is a retired teacher (now full-time grandma). We were very happy when Chuck and Carolina moved back to Michigan last year from Wisconsin with their now two and a half-year-old daughter Camila. It was the same week that Henry arrived. It’s hard to find the time to talk about work when there are nieces and nephews around. Especially when they’re so charming!

Favorite websites: – One way in which I keep up with the design world. – My life lives here. – I spend a lot of time on the NGSS site. There are many different ways to understand the standards…

Fill in this sentence: I wish I had gone into any other field but teaching when … I don’t! This was a progressive career change for me and has been very fulfilling. Having spent days as a graphic designer and production artist behind a screen all day is unsustainable. It’s wonderful to be able to interact with all kinds of people every day and to do work that I believe to be essential.

Apps you can’t live without:  The Google Suite. Camera. RemoteMouse (free app that lets you control your laptop remotely). During the school day, I live by my Calendar app and Google Inbox which organizes my mail into topic bundles. Need to make a full-color PDF on the fly? I suggest Adobe Scan. My favorite large-screen apps are Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. I still use these design apps quite a bit for instructional design and PR.

Three favorite devices:  Pens. Pocket notebook. Canon G15 Powershot – for stills and video. The best devices are quick and easy to use.

How do you stay organized?  I write a lot down in my notebooks. While I use a lot of digital tools to organize, it always starts with pen to paper. I’m learning a lot about time management in my position as PBL coordinator, and staying ahead of the game can be a daunting proposition. I’m often moving through any given workday between many different kinds of professional tasks. In any given morning, I may be stepping out of a PBL meeting and then lending a hand to a teacher, or finding a resource inside of the building to assist in high-leverage instruction. I need to keep my phone on me, and I look at my calendar app quite a bit in addition to checking emails. I stay in the loop with Meg and Brooke using Wunderlist, and keep track of the various classes I assist in as a co-teacher in Google Classroom. Team Drive has been great this year for sharing essential documents among staff members.

What is the most rewarding part of teaching?  The fact that the work of teaching affects lives on a day to day basis. A2 STEAM is a big, lovely laboratory where ideas are paramount. Ideas are like fuel to a creative atmosphere, and I’ve never met a child who didn’t have a lot of them.

What has surprised you most about the profession?  What has surprised me most about teaching is that there’s no one right way to do things, and it’s not possible to ever reach a point where there is nothing left to learn.

What do you wish everyone realized about the work of a teacher?  It’s a big deal. It takes a whole person to teach well, it’s not something you just show up for.

How do you recharge? I love to cook, play my guitar, spend time outdoors and with my family.


What’s most exciting about your professional life right now? Your personal life? I am thrilled to be able to work with teachers every day on the most exciting parts of their profession. We are also excited to begin building our AR Sandbox, a project dreamed up by a STEAM parent and funded by a Lowe’s grant. Facilitating dreams and ambitions as an essential professional task is highly rewarding!

I am enjoying living in the Northside neighborhood as of this past December. Our bedroom view overlooks the city at dawn which is quite a thing to wake up to on a Saturday morning. We are looking forward to being close to Argo park when the weather warms up for trail hikes and kayaking.

What’s the best thing about teaching at A2 STEAM? The passion that students bring to their projects every day, the enthusiasm that teachers have for embarking on excellent PBL, and the care that the whole staff has for every student.

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