Perhaps it’s a vestige of the agricultural heritage here in the Grand Valley in western Colorado, but our school children are released for the summer in mid-May. Growing up in California, we went from Labor Day to Memorial Day, at least. Beginning of September to end of May, or early June. Here, it’s been tradition to let them out in May to help on the farms and ranches.
Since January I’ve been squeezing in days that I can work with my fifth graders at one of the school district’s most rural elementary schools. Set literally between cow and horse pastures, our school is comprised of an interesting mix of ranch families, folks who bought cheap land and built a big house, and folks who pretty nearly live off the grid even though it’s not really their choice.
Our little school (300 students more or less) hunkers down between a stretch of a highway that leads into the mountains and to the backcountry of Utah, and horse and cow pastures. When I drive to work, I get into my car in my neighborhood of mature trees and cozy cottage houses stretched between a major medical center complex and a university campus. I emerge 30 minutes later in the parking lot of the school, which seems like an extension of the surrounding fields. There is always a meadowlark that trills when I get out of the car. This transition always reminds me of who my kids are, and allows me to adjust my head before I walk in.
Earlier this year while my students were working on the raw clay, rolling out slabs to work with, busy with the kinetic tasks of modeling and shaping images, they were talking. I don’t subscribe to silence while artists are at work. My rules are simple. Keep it clean and keep it nice. No dissing ANYONE, even yourself. That said, it is highly fascinating to listen to the conversations that occur when kids have their hands in wet clay, or are focused on painting glaze (which doesn’t behave like any kind of paint they’ve ever used, and thus gives them an opportunity for problem solving). So one young man says to another, “I can’t believe they won’t let us wear our work boots to school anymore. They said we’ll track feces all over” (said with an audible eye roll). Probably not a comment you’d hear in your average school setting.
Tomorrow I will fire the last batch of clay tiles. Last week the students painted on the glazes they want, making decisions that will be permanent, but will not ever be “wrong.” One child decided to mix two colors of glaze to get a different brown than I had available. When glaze goes on, it is chalky and a completely different color than it will turn out when it’s been fired. The student asked me how much to use, and I told her I had no clue. Baffled looks. I’m the art teacher, right? But I don’t know how it will turn out. So many possibilities. So I told her to just do what seemed right, and we’d see how it looks. She said “It’s okay, it’ll work”. Bam. Yes.
In the past few weeks I’ve been fitting work on the tiles between standardized testing and regular classwork these children need to be ready for middle school. They are tired, grumpy, stressed. Some of them are SOOOO ready to be in middle school, but some are really grieving for their loss. One girl just wants to stay with her “favorite teacher of all time.” Another is hoping her parents will agree to homeschool her so she doesn’t have to see “all those girls running around with tank tops on.” She goes back to painting glaze. “Can I use this line painter to make dots?” I ask her what she thinks. She tries it out, and gleefully paints dots on her ladybug. Another student uses this new tool to fill in the depressions where she has pressed letter stamps into the clay. They share it around, show each other how to hold it and squeeze the bottle just enough.
Tactile. Small motor skills. Learning through teaching. Problem solving (with no set answer). Predicting results. Flexible thinking. Tolerance. Self-critique. Cooperation. Group work.
I recently read an article about how visiting a museum can make young people measurably more tolerant and kinder. Plus, they actually remembered what they learned in discussion groups about the pieces they saw. Combine visual with kinetic with oral and the experience implants itself in a young brain. A pattern is set, an indentation on the smooth surface of their memories, which will receive information again and again over their lives, and it will fit into this indentation, and be familiar.
Our new Education Secretary, John B. King, Jr., has expressed concern that the testing models now are taking up instructional time, and have squeezed out science, social studies, art and music in the race to improve English and math skills. He has proposed that perhaps different models could be used to measure students’ abilities, rather than “low-level bubble tests” such as essays and research projects, which would, one would hope, be assessed by the teachers. This is a big, fat “NO, REALLY?” for me. With the testing load teachers have now, especially in states where Common Core has been interpreted to mean that test scores determine teacher pay, the result is that teachers are not given the respect of their education and professionalism to determine how and when and how much to teach which subjects in order to best serve their students’ needs. Weren’t we there, with teachers assigning essays and projects to gauge student work, before we got so bogged down with tests? Please let this new acronym ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) be code for “give the respect of professionalism back to the teachers” and not “here are some more hoops to jump through”.
Time and respect.
A few years ago I was teaching art in the classroom, as an artist in residence, at this same school. I am not, now, for reasons best explained as a shift of funds and time towards technology. At that time, I saw each child in each grade about twice a month for an hour or so, and taught art standards at all levels, K-5. Now I only teach the one unit, the clay tiles for fifth graders.
This shift in hours of contact was massive. I went from every child in the school receiving art standards-based instruction twice a month to only fifth graders receiving a total of about 3 hours each of face time from me. Bless the teachers’ hearts, they break the kids free from math, from reading (all needed for tests and for teacher performance rating) and even P.E. to get them into “my” room. If it weren’t for the two teachers who so enthusiastically support what I do, it wouldn’t happen.
Then, the space I have is the back of a room also used by individual “intervention” groups, working with kids who need extra help, and also the kindergarten after-school care group. We co-exist pretty well for the most part, but what message are we giving these kids about how important art is? We’re crammed into a room with two other tenants, no place to proudly display work, hoping upon hope that what they are doing is not damaged in the bustle of bodies.
I know that every group in this burgeoning school is crammed for space. I know that I am fortunate to have been funded, by a willing core of PTA moms and a matching “grant” from the school district, because there are school administrations that do not choose to channel funds that way. There are teachers who would like to move in that direction but are bound by the culture set up for them by the administration of their school.
I am fortunate because the teachers I work with respect my knowledge of art, and communicate that to the students. I know that at least in that way, art takes a significant place in the curriculum, if only for the short time we have. I am not relegated to craft status.
For many of us here in Grand Valley, we hang on by our fingernails to what space we have in these children’s lives. To a greater or lesser degree, almost all the students in our elementary schools have art. The breadth of difference between the greater and the lesser, and the preponderance of “lesser” is what we work at and fight to change. None of our Artists in Residence or Art teachers present anything but core, standards-based, quality art instruction to students, even if it’s for three hours a year, or one hour a month, or 30 minutes a week. We all do that on shoestring budgets, and often with recognition only from the teachers and students. Sometimes we’re not sure we actually want the attention from higher administrators. But that’s a different day, and a different blog.
Here is what I want for these kids: a school that will teach them what art means in the world. A school that teaches them that art is NOT just for artists. A school where children can get their hands deep into paint, and clay and papier mache and crayons and yarn and plaster…in short, a school that has the time to give to art.