Letcher County teacher uses Post-it Notes to teach math, create art

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A man stands in front of the windows of a library that are decorated with brightly colored pictures of the Muppets.
Tyler Watts, a teacher at Letcher Elementary School (Letcher County), stands in front of his Post-it Note art on the windows of the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library in Whitesburg. He has made an annual tradition of creating pictures of pop-culture characters for the holidays on the library windows.
Photo submitted
  • The annual pictures on the windows of the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library in Whitesburg take about 10,000 Post-it Notes to make.
  • Watts got his start by making shapes on the floor for his 1st-grade students at Letcher Elementary School.

By Jim Gaines
jim.gaines@education.ky.gov

The Post-it Note pictures by Tyler Watts on the windows of the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library in Whitesburg are getting lots of attention, but it’s far from his first such project.

This year’s row of five Christmas-themed Muppet characters is just the most recent. He has covered the library windows in Post-it Notes a half-dozen times for the holidays, including “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” and one for Halloween featuring figures from “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Friday The 13th” and Pennywise the Clown from “It.”

“The Grinch was actually on Good Morning America and CBS This Morning. It was on Yahoo News as well,” said Watts, a 4th-grade teacher at Letcher Elementary School (Letcher County).

His pictures always stay up about a month and a half, he said.

“This one was really big and had a whole lot of detail,” Watts said. “I used about 10,000 notes on those library windows.”

It takes two or three weeks to assemble his holiday projects.

“I do everything myself,” he said.

Though his pictures on the Whitesburg library get the most attention, Watts has done more Post-it art elsewhere, including elementary schools across Eastern Kentucky – Belfry (Pike County), Hindman (Knott County), Leatherwood (Perry County) and Science Hill (Science Hill Independent).

“I do it for a lot of reasons,” Watts said. “I wanted to do something that would make everybody smile and even laugh a little bit.”

Especially during the strain of COVID-19, giving people something to enjoy is a “pretty cool thing to do,” he said.

“It’s turned into a Christmas tradition here in Whitesburg,” Watts said.

People stand outside of a library looking at windows decorated with brightly colored Micky Mouse characters.
Patrons of the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library in Whitesburg view one of Tyler Watts’ previous Post-it Note creations on the library windows. Watts, a teacher at Letcher Elementary School (Letcher County), uses about 10,000 Post-it Notes to cover the library windows every year.
Photo submitted

Surprise in Science Hill
Watts’ work at Science Hill Elementary School started when Jimmy Dyehouse, principal and superintendent at Science Hill Independent School District, asked him to hold some professional development training for teachers on his teaching methods.

“He just shared with my teachers a lot of the little tricks of the trade that he uses with his students,” Dyehouse said. “Teachers fell in love with him here.”

Watts’ sessions were so successful Dyehouse asked him to return the next year, in 2018. After that event Watts left them a surprise gift. He had someone let him back into the building after hours, and the next day Science Hill personnel found a large yellowjacket – the school’s mascot – made of Post-it Notes.

“And he did it right beside the concession stand,” Dyehouse said. It was basketball season and lots of parents attending games commented on it, he said.

In the following weeks the Post-it Notes gradually fell off the wall, and students would press them back in place, Dyehouse said.

“It was really cool. He’s a really neat young man,” Dyehouse said.

From Simple Start to Complex Math
Watts was born in Letcher County and attended the same school where he teaches today. He left to attend Midway University – then Midway College – where he earned a bachelor’s degree in K-5 education and a master’s in leadership and environmental studies. Then he returned home.

“I’ve been at this school since 2012,” Watts said. “This is my dream job, to work in this building in this community, to give back to the school that gave so much to me and my family when I was growing up.”

Watts started out teaching 1st grade at Letcher Elementary School. Around 2016, he was teaching his 1st-grade class about line symmetric shapes by taping outlines on the floor.

“But then we started using Post-it Notes and making our own shapes,” Watts said. The creative ideas that came from that lesson prompted him to start making shapes, then pictures, out of Post-it Notes.

Watts has his students learn geometry through problems such as calculating the area his pictures will cover and how many Post-it Notes he will need, although that’s been harder this year with students in and out of in-person class.

“I tie the curriculum into it pretty heavy most years,” he said. “It gives my students a sense of ownership.”

Sometimes Watts can find cross-stitch patterns to use as models, but most designs he works out with his students.

As his projects grew, so did the need for Post-it Notes. Now the 3M plant in Cynthiana sponsors Watts’ work by sending him enough for his Christmas projects.

“I tell them what I need and I have it within four or five days,” Watts said.

A picture from inside a darkened library with pictures of characters from horror movies on the windows.
A view from inside the Harry M. Caudill Memorial Library in Whitesburg of Tyler Watts’ Post-it Note art for Halloween, showing characters from three Halloween-themed movies. Watts, a teacher at Letcher Elementary School (Letcher County), creates the pictures with Post-it Notes donated by the 3M plant in Cynthiana.
Photo submitted

Jesse Ahlers, manager of the 3M plant in Cynthiana that makes Post-it Notes, said Watts reached out to the company three years ago. Former plant manager Eric Opland saw that Watts’ projects were volunteer work for the community, so he agreed to support them, Ahlers said.

Ahlers continued that help when he arrived in 2019. 3M regularly gives supplies to schools in Harrison and surrounding counties through its Community Gives initiative, he said.

“This is probably the most unique kind of Community Gives project that we have,” Ahlers said. The company’s donations of supplies are usually for classroom and office use.

Now officials in Cynthiana are talking to Watts about doing a Post-it project in the city’s downtown, Ahlers said.

Branching Out
Watts, a Kentucky Education Association (KEA) member, has done several Post-it Note pictures for that group, KEA President Eddie Campbell said.

“We call him the ‘Post-it Note Picasso,’” he said. “I think everybody’s enthralled by these designs that he does. He’s so talented.”

In association with KEA’s “difference makers” poster contest for students a couple of years ago, Watts created an “I (heart) public schools” Post-it banner in the tunnel between the Kentucky Capitol and Capitol Annex.

Other designs Watts came up with himself, such as a large apple in the event hotel window during KEA’s spring meeting, Campbell said.

Nor was his art limited to Post-it Notes. Watts made a mural of the KEA logo out of beads, which is now hanging in the organization’s office lobby, Campbell said.

“I can’t talk enough about Tyler. He is one of those educators that is just amazing, literally amazing,” he said. “He gives 110% to his students all the time. When he’s teaching, you can see his passion and love for what he does.

“He’s one of those teachers that students are going to remember when they’re 90.”

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