By Roni Rohr
Teaching visual arts to grades K through 8, at El Dorado Community School, has its challenges, but one thing stays the same: kids want to be heard, they want to express what they see, and they don’t want to be criticized for their ideas. (Hmmm…sound familiar? Who does?!) How can an arts teacher help?
Art helps students to understand their emotions, and to see and express themselves. The arts require considering different points of view and even changing our minds. When students analyze an artwork through critique or discussion, they discover that it is best to start with understanding that not everyone sees the way they do. My goal as an arts teacher is to help them find the words and images to express themselves in a respectful manner — to understand that it’s okay to disagree and even better to understand why someone is disagreeing with you. These are lifelong social skills that are vital to our society.
Can the arts teach kindness, empathy and how to get along? I know they can. Several years ago I began developing and teaching workshops that I called Kindness in Arts. As an illustrator, I had collected many books premised on kindness. The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper, Enemy Pie by Derek Munson and other books based on anti-bullying issues became a jumping-off point for much of my curriculum. I gave many workshops and an in-service to Albuquerque Public Schools art educators to demonstrate how important combining language arts and illustrations could be in combating bullying and understanding how kindness brings out our best work. Bringing students and our community together to communicate ideas and interests through individual and collaborative art efforts was my main goal. When such communication happens, kindness abounds.
When El Dorado expanded from an elementary to a K-8, I adjusted my class and developed a Social Justice Through Arts curriculum, to help middle schoolers express what was important to them. They targeted real-life issues and created ads and newspaper front pages based on art works tackling issues like racism, bullying, the environment, adoption, immigration and politics. You name it; we’ve talked about and created different art pieces around so many topics.
Professional development for educators is vitally important, and while attending The National Art Education Conferences in Seattle and Baltimore, I met others who have created wonderful programs using art to develop emotional intelligence and kindness — one being The Hexagon Project (www.idayscranton.org/hexagon.html), which we adopted at El Dorado in 2010. All of our students and many of our teachers, staff and other community members were given a hexagon template in which they drew images representing kindness, friendship and community. We attached them together and they filled the hallways! During art night, students and parents walked around picking out each other’s work and observing how all the hexagons “fit in” to create a visual whole.
In the beginning of each school year, my students create a large piece of two-dimensional art together. It takes trust to work with a table full of people and create a large image. The class gets to know who leads, who follows, who knows how to compromise, who bullies. Each group of four to five students gets a three-by-four-foot sheet of white paper, on which they trace their hands or other objects over and over, creating a composition and coloring it in with patterns, line and shape. It’s amazing to watch.
Some tables create masterpieces: hands that create a peace sign, or hands that overlap and burst forth with color. Other tables can’t get their act together, ending up with an unfinished disjointed piece, frustration and arguments. In the next class we put them all up on the walls and talk about what happened. There is no getting away from it; the visual image actually tells how well everyone worked together (or didn’t). When the discussion is over, everyone has learned something about everyone else, with new motivation for getting along visually as well as emotionally, in the art room and out. You can see and feel the change.
Eighth grade students in Art & Social Justice class created a “Legacy Mural,” with help from a Partners In Education grant. The mural addressed the overarching question, “How do you want to be remembered?” This 16-foot-long piece, based on kindness, empathy and respect, was used as a backdrop for the students’ graduation ceremony.
Combining their own written works developed in a Language Arts class with Mr. Jamie Guevara, and working with visiting artist and activist Issa Nyaphaga, students used their own empowering poetry, words or phrases and overlapped dynamic tracings and images of their bodies in black, adding color later. We had many discussions throughout the year about how to empower each other and our community through the use of these visual elements, shapes and colors.
Projects like these require a lot of collaborative and guided brainstorming. Art teachers always need to start fresh and communicate well to find out what’s important to our students and then get out of the way so that they can express themselves! I put large sheets of paper on tables with open-ended questions like: What’s important to you? What do you love/hate? What are your favorite subjects? Music? Clothes? Then, during a few sessions, students walk around filling the papers with doodles, lists and words, and we cull it down to get to the heart of it all. We then have a beginning of an idea for a Social Justice Mural.
The artwork is stunning. Layers of paint and layers of trust build as students learn to work with one another. My hope is that, in the future, these pieces will be shown off in a much larger way. I’d like to see this project as part of a non-bullying initiative. If more people brainstormed, if they learned to argue in a respectful manner and question each other intelligently, there would be less bullying.
Analyzing, reflecting, creating, working and enjoying the process as well as the finished piece is happening daily in our schools. Allowing students K-8 to make their own decisions and not create “cookie-cutter” art is more of a guided process than a directed one, and a much more authentic way of creating. My students know where to find things and know where to put them back. We have a working studio, and you can see the empowerment that comes from being in control of your materials as well as your ideas.
I am a working artist in the classroom, getting messy and finger-painting right along with my students: I consider my students some of my finest colleagues. For me, art teaching is about bringing expertise into the classroom and exciting those around me. It’s about modeling the process, making mistakes and fixing them or abandoning them to create something better.
Elementary art is about experience. It is about thinking like an artist and creating different experiences to feel like a “maker of art.” I believe if you are a scientist, math professor, writer or engineer, and you do it right, then you are thinking like an artist! Art supports all the goals and standards in our public school system and I am privileged to gain inspiration from working with some of the finest, most passionate and inspiring art teachers in our state! Incorporating the arts in every classroom helps empower students and fill them with joy as they build up, take apart, get messy and move on in life. If they do it with a bit more kindness and empathy, I feel I have done my job.
Roni Rohr teaches art at El Dorado Community School K-8 and is an educational consultant for museums, schools and other organizations. In 2011 she received the New Mexico Art Education Award from the National Art Education Association and a Teacher Who Inspires award from Partners in Education in Santa Fe. Visit her website, www.ronirohr.com, for information on workshops, lesson plans and more.
Explorations in Clay: Creating Friendship in Art
(A lesson based on the book Enemy Pie by Derek Munson)
Kindergarten through fourth grade
Plasticine clay in different colors
Small pre-cut matt board, 4” x 4”
Scratch tool to make indentations
First, read the book Enemy Pie, by Derek Munson. Then ask students to close their eyes and imagine the world’s tastiest pie! What’s in it? Berries? Chocolate cream? What feelings of goodness, love, sharing go into the making of their pie? Who might they want to share it with?
1. Knead the “dough” until soft (play with it until it softens).
2. Roll out the crust, making a pinch pot and pushing out the edges.
3. Roll up edges of the dough to form your crust. Pinch edges for that home-baked crust look!
4. If making “cherry” pie, keep colors separate. Or, if making a surprise magical pie, mix colors (red and yellow=orange, etc.). Using more of your dough, make the pie filling.
5. What else goes into the pie? Show students how to roll clay into balls to make tiny berries, and encourage them to create their own ingredients.
6. Make a fancy lattice crust for the top. Roll out very thin snakes and crisscross these snakes along the pie, leaving triangle spaces over your filling. Or, get fancier: flatten the snake with your finger and put a pattern into it with pencil or finger, or roll up the snake like a garden hose.
7. Use remaining clay for details. Perhaps you need a small spoon and plate to “eat” off of!
8. Place finished pies on your cookie sheet boards. Put your name in the corner.
9. Share your “Friendship” pie. Turn to your neighbor and discuss what is in it, how it tastes, how you made it.
1. Did students participate, explore, make mistakes and work with them?
2. Did students listen to the story and understand the concepts of sharing and creating with one another?
© Roni Rohr 2006
Heartful Art Resources
· Encouraging Creativity in Art Lessons, by George E. Szekely (Teachers College Press, 1988), an out-of-print book that is brilliant and worth finding used!
· Engaging Learners Through Art Making: Choice-Based Art Education in the Classroom, by Katherine M. Douglas and Diane B. Jaquith (Teachers College Press, 2009).
· Hello World! by Monya Stojic (Boxer Books, 2009). I use this beautiful book to show young students that everyone in the world smiles and says hello in their own way. Students repeat after me different ways of saying “Hi!”
· New Mexico Art Education Association’s Annual Fall Conference: A weekend of workshops, lectures, vendors and presentations for art educators, teachers, homeschool parents and others interested in the arts, November 2 and 3, 2012 at The Lodge in Santa Fe. www.newmexicoarteducators.org.
· The Peace Book, by Todd Parr (Little, Brown, 2009), a wonderful illustrator on par with Keith Haring. Students relate to his simplicity and honesty.
· Teaching for Artistic Behavior (TAB), a nationally recognized, choice-based approach to teaching art. teachingforartisticbehavior.org and tabchoiceteaching.blogspot.com.
· Visual Arts as a Way of Knowing, by Karolynne Gee (Stenhouse Publishers, 1999).