Student Art Program Based on Connections
Boston Globe, 3/31/05
By Emily Shartin, Globe Staff
Reprinted with permission of the Boston Globe. © Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company.
(March 31, 2005) - The paintings looked like colorful life-sized images of human bodies. But buried in the paint were lessons in mathematics.
The artwork was created by a class of fifth-graders from Boston's Mather Elementary School. Working with teenage students from the Cambridge School of Weston, they chose colors or images to represent their five favorite things and then filled drawings of their bodies with several blocks of each color or image.
The project was intended to teach concepts such as fractions, percentages, and the area of irregular shapes.
"'We were doing art and math together," said Nathaniel Davis, a Mather student whose colors stood for interests including trucks, football, fish, and music.
The project was organized by the National Arts and Learning Collaborative, an arts education group based at Walnut Hill School in Natick. The collaborative, which is celebrating its fifth anniversary, works in part to promote arts education by pairing private high schools with public elementary schools and establishing mentor relationships between students of different ages and backgrounds. The group recently received a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to share practices with teachers.
As public schools grapple with more demands on the school day, arts education is often given short shrift, said Meredith Eppel, the collaborative's executive director. While her group would generally like to see more resources devoted to art in the public schools, she also notes that connecting it to other subjects can help make it seem more relevant. ''It's hard to just say 'Let's do art for art's sake,' anymore," Eppel said.
Even without a tie to another subject, teachers say, art still imparts useful lessons. Steve Durning, an English teacher at Walnut Hill, a private arts school, helped lead students from Boston's Marshall Elementary School in creating a presentation that incorporated song, dance, and poetry.
''You have to generate the ideas, and you have to execute them in a coherent way," Durning said.
''It really makes them use their brains in a different way."
Along with the Cambridge School and Walnut Hill, the collaborative works with Brimmer and May School in Brookline and plans to expand the program next year to include Beaver Country Day School, also in Brookline. The elementary schools they work with are all in Boston.
During a recent wrapup meeting and exhibit at the Cambridge School, students from both schools said they enjoyed working together.
''I met a lot of new Cambridge School students," said Corbin Crosby, a Mather Elementary School student, reflecting on the program. ''We learned percentages . . . It was fun."
Crosby said he learned more about art during the program but added that it also helped him review math that might be part of the statewide MCAS exam. To help prepare for the program, the private school students took versions of the MCAS, which they are not required to take, to help them create appropriate projects for the Mather students.
Mather principal Andrew Bott said students at his school only take art for 45 minutes once a week. The fusion of art and other subjects is beneficial to students who learn in different ways, he said, and can also make lessons more fun and meaningful. ''It helps build a long-term memory, a long-term skill," Bott said.
Doug Herbert, special assistant on teacher quality and arts education for the US Department of Education, said arts is considered part of a balanced curriculum under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. He spoke on how schools can integrate arts into their programs at a celebratory event hosted by the collaborative late last week. Herbert and Boston Superintendent Thomas Payzant both received awards for their support of arts education.
Many of the high school students said they gained just as much from the program as the children they mentored. They are given the opportunity to teach and share their experiences in art and also gain a different perspective on themselves and the world.
''It can open the eyes of students to possibilities that they might not have thought about," said Eppel.
Martabel Wasserman, a senior at Walnut Hill, said she became involved because she wanted to give back. She believes it is important to encourage younger students to express themselves. ''It's saying that they have something valid to say," said Wasserman.
Many also noted that there are few opportunities for students in the suburbs to interact with students in the city. The experience, they said, helped debunk stereotypes they had about urban schools.
''It was just a really fun experience," said Emily Katz, a student at the Cambridge School. ''Maybe I made a difference; you never know."