“In the life of an artist, you have to know—and be ready—to do a lot of different things,” John Cycyk laughs. As Menlo’s Park Academy’s Art Education and Appreciation teacher for the last seven years, his journey to the classroom included many different stops. In the past, Mr. Cycyk worked as an instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, a sous-chef for a James Beard Award nominee, and a self-employed artist, all before having his moment of belonging during one of his student teaching experiences.
“I’ll never forget the day I was a student teaching in a kindergarten class. I had Miles Davis playing in the background, the kids were working, and I looked up at my co-teacher and my one mentor with a huge smile on my face. I knew right then that this was exactly what I was meant to do.”
Since then, Mr. Cycyk has spent his entire teaching career showing kids that art is limitless. With two master’s degrees in Fine Arts and Art Education, he gives his students a well-rounded education focused on integrating other courses into their art. He believes that interconnected projects are essential to a cohesive learning experience. His creativity shines through his incorporation of other academic subjects into art classes.
“Something really fun we’re doing is ‘Cardboard Boat Regalia,'” he shares, “The kids only have cardboard and tape, and they have to make an actual boat that supports two people. They get to do all the research, prototyping, sketching, and planning artists do and then combine it with the scientific elements of water displacement and buoyancy to create a multi-layered project.”
In the past, Mr. Cycyk has also worked with a math teacher to help increase the students’ understanding of angles by aligning his lessons with her math lessons. During class projects, he posed questions using geometry vocabulary found in math class, framing them through an artistic lens. Currently, the kids are working to build kites to learn about thrust and force and paper roller-coasters to understand kinetic energy. There truly is no limit to what Mr. Cycyk can incorporate into his lesson plans, and the kids leave the classroom with a fun project and a better understanding of the principles they are learning in other classes.
The art doesn’t just stay in the school, however! Mr. Cycyk is a big believer in having the kids do community-based projects to teach them the impact art has on the world. Previously, his classes have worked with Giant Eagle Market District in Strongsville, where they met with the store’s design team to learn about what they do and how they do it. Then the kids helped create designs that went into the store. They have also made pillows for the children waiting for surgery at the Ronald McDonald House. These projects remind students of how big of a difference art can make.
“Menlo has always been a big believer in finding ways to do community service. It teaches you to care more about the people around you and become aware of the community you go back home to,” Mr. Cycyk explains. Continuing, he says, “When Covid happened, I took it as another opportunity to ask the kids to take a look around and realize what ‘community’ and ‘caring’ means to them and then we utilized that for art. Art is so special because you can morph it into absolutely everything and the kids need to see how they can use it for their community.”
Looking forward, Mr. Cycyk wants to have the kids work even more on projects that the public can see. Over the summer, he reached out to a friend who works with grant money in Cleveland to see what is available for the students to use for city projects.
“Right by Menlo, there is a walking path that leads all the way Downtown. I want to have the kids work on creating a design that gets woven onto the fence along the path. I think we should talk to the community and hear what they would like to see on there and create something colorful for that space.” He continues with a laugh, “I also have reached out to American Greetings to see if we can have the kids create a design for them, but I haven’t heard back. So, if anyone from there is reading this, you have my number!”
Mr. Cycyk is a prime example of a teacher who will always go above and beyond for his students. He knows the importance of his role in their lives.
“In the 21st-century, students have to be able to think on their feet and problem-solve from many different angles and perspectives. That’s not something that many people can naturally do,” he stresses, “It’s always the off-the-road path that leads you to where you need to be. You have to be able to make leaps and different connections and art helps to teach that.”
It’s an ever-adapting world and to have these skill sets worked into their curriculum at a young age puts Mr. Cycyk’s students leaps and bounds ahead of even most adults. He knows that his kids are always ready to think on their feet and face a challenge head-on, and that’s what makes his Menlo classroom so special. The kids believe in him, and he believes in the kids. His revelation about knowing that teaching is his calling rings more true every day.