MANKATO, Minn. — Some days art teacher Amy Muehlenhardt has a defined lesson for her students at Rosa Parks and Bridges elementary schools.

Students recently learned about color mixing through some unexpected art materials. Kindergartners, for example, drizzled water over Skittles candies to create streams of colors. Third-graders meanwhile added red and yellow food coloring to baking soda and vinegar to create orange lava.

Other days Muehlenhardt lets students loose in her classroom with just one instruction.

"Tell me a story," she says before students get to choose to paint, sketch, color or collage whatever pops into their imagination.

"I really try hard to give them a lot of choice," Muehlenhardt told The Free Press . "I really want students to express themselves and be independent thinkers and drive their own learning."

The choice-giving Mankato teacher will this week be honored as the Elementary Art Educator of the Year by Art Educators of Minnesota. The professional development association for art educators honors one nominated art teacher from elementary schools across the state each year.

Bridges lead teacher Robin Courrier said Muehlenhardt's strength is giving students freedom to explore their unique artistic talents.

"She guides. She doesn't tell," Courrier said. "She is so good at just letting them go and show their own creativity."

Students also said they appreciate how Muehlenhardt empowers them with freedom.

"She lets us just go and use our imagination," said third-grader Ashlyn Huettl.

Third-grader Maria Cole said Muehlenhardt has taught her not to fear making a mistakes.

"She's really nice and she has really good ideas for turning your mistakes into something cool," Maria said.

Muehlenhardt also does an outstanding job at showcasing students' creations, Courrier said.

Muehlenhardt organizes the district's annual elementary art show in partnership with the 410 Project: Community Art Space.

She also leads the annual regional art show held at Bethany Lutheran College that exhibits selected works from elementary students from several area districts.

She also transforms her classrooms into an art gallery for all students to display their creations. She invites parents to come for an evening of art projects and guided discussion with their children about their projects.

This fall at Bridges, Muehlenhardt's after school art club is painting a hallway mural. She sketched images and words of encouragement that were suggested by students and the students are adding the color.

Each spring Muehlenhardt holds a family arts night at Rosa Parks with student artwork and guest artists leading activities and giving demonstrations.

Muehlenhardt has been teaching at Rosa Parks since 2010 and Bridges since 2016.

She started her career in the Waconia School District but was laid off three years later when the district cut art class from the elementary curriculum.

She spent the next five years at Capstone Publishing, where she illustrated dozens of children's books and created a series of drawing instruction books.

But teaching was her calling.

"I always wanted to get back into the classroom. It is what I am meant to do," she said.

An AP Member Exchange shared by The Free Press.