Friday, June 1, 2007

Teaching Artist Toolbox: Integration Notes

“The Teaching Artist Toolbox: Connecting Your Art and the School.”

I wrote this essay for a book that never made it to print. Or, editor Faye Stanley never bothered to tell me that my piece was rejected. Either way, I waited with baited breath for a long time. Time to post it. I think waiting seven years for a rejection letter is long enough. —7/1/2014


The success of an artist’s school residency depends upon receptive teachers, administrators and support staff who are advocates of the arts. I’ve found that working with parents—especially the PTA—is the most effective method to develop a long term, in-depth arts residency. In post Prop 13 California, despite recent funding, we are still ranked at the bottom of the national list on public arts and education funding. Most school communities are grateful to be offered any arts programming as credentialed K-7 teachers are not trained to teach art with their students. Many feel stymied by art, and they feel pressured because there’s not enough time in the day to teach the basics, let alone art. That’s where offering to integrating the arts into school curriculum comes into play. I tell them that Art is the fourth “R.” If an administrator mandates that all teachers MUST participate in a project, then I ensure that we have enough common ground so the teachers are supportive of the residency.

With school advocates, I often develop and co-write grants to fund arts residencies. I will also explore areas where we can utilize school site and discretionary funds. There are sometimes obscure pockets of funding that can be used for the arts—especially if the grantor’s goals is developing self-esteem, then the arts become the tool or vehicle to develop self esteem. It’s a matter of mirroring language.

When I develop an arts residency, I meet with teachers on campus to get a sense of their classroom environment and teaching philosophy. If I can arrange a phone conversation beforehand, I will ask what they are planning to teach during the next few weeks. Then I explain my areas of expertise. I show teachers a portfolio of my work and student work. I explain ways we can integrate the arts into existing curriculum. From there we develop a curriculum based arts project. I encourage teachers to actively partner and develop new lesson plans with me so it doesn’t become an art la carte, or a catered event where the teacher uses my time slot for extra prep time. I encourage teachers to sit down with the students to create art too—sometimes it takes a few sessions before they feel brave enough, but many do, and are as delighted as the students with their art.

Developing an integrated arts curriculum is in addition to my teaching philosophy of experiencing art for art’s sake. Foremost in my teaching philosophy, is that art is a process and from that process, we create a product. My goals are to teach students to learn to use new mediums, to develop new skills, to learn artistic terms, to appreciate each other’s work, to gain a sense of the history of art, and most important to create a portfolio of their own art—not make copies of the masters. I don’t want them to produce 20 van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” all in a row.

Before I approach the school site, I refresh myself with typical grade level specific curriculum in the California State education frameworks: the Visual and Performing Arts-, the Language Arts-, the ESL, and Science frameworks. Then I look for areas where my art residency will naturally intersect with the frameworks. Often the curriculum vocabulary is different in each framework, but the goals and objectives are similar. I have a stock of visual arts and language arts lesson plans I’ve developed over the years, so I am familiar with tailoring my lesson plans to meet specific site needs.

For example, I often integrate science with visual arts. The Science Framework—to observe and record the physical world—are really the same skills in the visual arts framework, only the language is different. I find it helpful to use a yellow highlighter and highlight anything that catches my attention, and taking the disparate parts, and specific vocabularies, to reshape my lesson plans. In some ways, we are decoding and translating the frameworks for the teachers. Drawing and painting from nature is easy to adapt to the science framework, whether it be the study of geology, of land forms, or water/weather/plant cycles.

I like to begin residencies invoking the ancient Greeks, I explain to students that the ancient philosophers (scientists) who were also artists and poets, divided the world into what they considered the four basic elements: air earth fire and water. This is the ancestor of our periodic tables. By 5th grade, most kids have had a brush with the periodic tables. This idea also ties in well with the Chinese way of reckoning the world, so I use this as a way to show convergent systems.

I write on the white/blackboard a list of the four basic elements. We each vote as to which element we think we are and we write/draw from that perspective. Because the list creates categories, I’m introducing thematic based art. I demonstrate to the students how to use a particular medium, but I want them to tap into their own creative ideas too, not just copy and regurgitate my examples. As models I use artists from around the world so kids are exposed to art in many forms. We often talk about what we see, what we like, etc., before I introduce the lesson.

For example, when I introduce tempera paints and color mixing, I use large calendar landscape photos for models. What the images all have in common is a plethora of triangular and rectangular shapes. Even kindergarteners can find and identify those shapes. We trace the basic shapes with our fingers, and then we make do simple “baby” drawings on a small piece of paper. (I demonstrate this on the board). Usually it’s only 5-7 simple contour lines, but it’s recognizably a landscape. Because I choose mountain with reflecting water images, it’s easy for kids to find the horizon line or water line and they build drawings from the middle out. In this exercise I’m teaching them to see land forms with a geometric basis, sometimes with the older kids I talk about fractals and math. The shape of coastlines and oak tree limbs.

Sometimes we even draw landscapes with our arms, incorporating kinesthetic movement, big sweeping ranges, tall mountains, swirling water. Then I reintroduce how to use the art materials and we paint gorgeous landscapes in tempera using only the three primary colors (cyan/yellow/magenta). I use an ice cube tray as a palette and I explain that all the colors of the world live in that ice tray. When they look skeptical, I ask them if they’ve ever seen an inkjet printer.

With a stockpile of ideas based on the basic elements to develop art lessons, I have kids design templates for silk hoops based on the four elements. Or they might write poetry as an element. I use a special medium—silk, silk dye, and gutta, but it could be adapted to painting too. Painting on silk especially lends itself to exploration in the scientific realm. Osmosis, surfaction, absorbtion….once you find the right vocabulary, the possibilities for integration are endless.

Another neglected area in the care and feeding of an arts residency is increasing community awareness. Sending students home with an arts portfolio isn’t enough. I coordinate my flashier arts projects such as silk painting, to coincide with public events including Open House or thematic school events. I also invite the press. This led to the uncovering of a new arts funding source, our local PBS television station! We’ve received arts funding from KQED’s SPARK arts education fund.

Another area of integration is to create an arts specific event. A new tradition at one school I work at in Oakland, CA, is our annual PTA Fall Art Auction/Spaghetti Feed. We showcase student art, produce poetry readings and we have a silent auction of student art and silk hoops and group banners displayed on the walls. The art auction raises enough money to pay for food and art supplies. Parents are more willing to directly contribute to specific fund drives, join the PTA, and generally support the arts when they too are part of the arts process.

(Faye Stanley, I have jpgs too… I could go on, explaining specific lesson plans, or I could conclude with a synopsis on how to integrate a residency…)