HOUGHTON - Melissa Hronkin was in her third year as an art instructor when a student told her, "You'll be a really good teacher - in five years."
It may have been a backhanded compliment, but it was also accurate, Hronkin said. Nine years later, she's continued to teach and hone her craft, moving westward across the Upper Peninsula from Rudyard to Ontonagon to her current position Houghton Elementary School.
Hronkin was recently named art educator of the year and elementary art educator of the year by the Michigan Art Education Association. She has been a regional co-liaison for MAEA Region 16-18 for the past 12 years.
Melissa Hronkin, art teacher at Houghton Elementary School, talks about color combinations with first-grade students at the end of class Thursday. The Michigan Art Education Association recently named Hronkin art teacher of the year.
Hronkin called winning the award humbling, if a little awkward.
"It's nice to be acknowledged," she said. "You just have to get up every day and do it. Every day's a new challenge."
Most days, she'll see as many as 150 children from grades K-5. The job is a good fit for what she enjoys, Hronkin said.
"You've got to be 100 percent here with the kids, and they're just so full of creativity," she said. "It's really inspiring, because they always come in with their creativity, so you've got to be ready for that."
The first-grade students are currently making art based on the children's book "The Legend of Mackinac Island." Clay turtles from earlier in the week were fired in the classroom's kiln. Thursday was for the water on which the turtles will rest. They did this by dipping brushes in water and applying them to artfully placed colored tissue paper.
"I imagine it's going to look like waves of water when we put our turtles on this water," she said. "So the wrinkles and the color blending is a really nice effect."
After the paintings were finished and placed on the drying rack, Hronkin sat the children down with a color wheel to find out what color combinations they'd noticed, and talked about the Native American legend behind the book.
During the discussion, Hronkin also drew out an observation she'd heard from one of the students.
"You said something while piecing it together," Hronkin said. "You said it was kind of like a..."
"Puzzle," the girl finished for the class.
Hronkin tries to build creativity skills - and more importantly, the thinking.
"Skills are important, but also the ideas behind them are going to cross over," she said.
Hronkin teaches summer arts camp for youth and community art classes around the Upper Peninsula, and also works as an adjunct instructor at Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College two nights a week.
It's an exciting time to be involved in art, she said, with the interest in design that's infusing the culture. She's also trying to bring to the classroom many of the developments in contemporary art.
Staff and parents at Houghton have consistently been supportive of the program, she said.
"We don't have a lot of the pressures of the curriculum ... down here, it's really nice," she said. "I think every parent wants their child to have their creative experiences and building their fine motor skills."
Now in her fourth year at Houghton, Hronkin is teaching the third-grade versions of many of her original kindergartners.
"You get to see them grow, and their skills expand," she said.