Developing Skills and Sparking Imagination in the Classroom
Even after her kindergarten students have gone home for the day, Jennifer Banks’ classroom suggests the buzz of activity that usually takes place there. The room is overflowing with art supplies, books, toys, mobiles, science projects, and the colorful artwork of her young charges.
It’s the artwork that’s most different this year, says Banks, pointing to walls filled with student art depicting everything from animals and snowmen to houses and families. That’s because she and her fellow teachers at Bayside Elementary School in Sausalito are taking part in a new effort to infuse student learning with arts-related activities.
She says that the arts have already had an impact on what and how her students learn.
“We started the school year with a lesson on different kinds of lines,” she reports. “They learned about straight lines, curved ones, and zigzag ones. They did ‘shape hunts’ and ‘line hunts.’ And it helped them develop fine motor skills and dexterity, which made it much easier for them to make letters. There was a lot less erasing going on than before.”
She tries to incorporate art into every aspect of her curriculum. In a science lesson on animals and their habitats, she had the kids draw the animals they were studying.
To develop their language skills, she asks her students to dictate short stories to go along with their drawings. Banks then attaches the stories to the art when it’s hung on the classroom walls.
And using techniques she learned in a theater class she took as part of this effort, Banks says she’s helping her students be more expressive in their use of language, including when they read and speak.
Plus, the arts-related activities are having a big impact on her students’ vocabulary, she reports. “They’re learning words like vertical, horizontal, and zigzag.”
Besides benefiting academically, the youngsters are learning another important lesson—one which Banks herself has learned as a result of this program: that there’s no “one way” to draw something.
“I used to do cookie-cutter kinds of projects,” she says. “The goal was to have everything look the same. My thought was, ‘Here’s the template. Here’s the model.’ But I like things to be different now. There’s no formula for what things should look like.”
For example, when she had her students cut out pumpkins from paper, she encouraged them to think beyond the “right way” to complete the task. “I suggested they could be square, very small, or really big.”
In fact, Banks now feels, definitively, that “there are no mistakes in art. If someone thinks something is ‘wrong,’ you have to turn that ‘ooh’ into an ‘ah’”
She makes an effort to have students talk about the decisions they made as they created a piece of art and also asks them to comment on each other’s artwork, encouraging them to look more closely—for example, getting them to see that someone likes to use circles more than someone else.
Besides seeing how the arts connect “to everything,” as Banks puts it, she’s enthusiastic about her students’ interest in drawing and other art activities. “When they have free time,” she says, “they get out paper and pencil and do free drawing. In fact, they often prefer to do that than play with toys.
“They’re a lot less scared to put lead to paper,” she reports. “I’m hearing a lot less of ‘I can’t do this.’
“And their parents tell me they are doing more art at home, sitting at the kitchen table rather than watching TV. This is the first time I’ve heard that.”
Her young students were especially proud when their artwork was included in a school-wide “Art Walk,” when art produced by students throughout Bayside was displayed in the multi-purpose room for a highly successful event attended by both students and parents.
Bayside—along with other Sausalito Marin City schools and ones in the Larkspur School District—are taking part in an effort funded by the Marin Community Foundation to develop a comprehensive arts education program tied to statewide academic standards for each grade level. The project includes efforts to develop curriculum incorporating the arts, train teachers, bring in outside experts in arts education, and involve parents.
“When we meet as a group to talk about this project, I hear from other teachers how this program has taken off,” Banks reports. “They say it’s had a big impact on academics, behavior, and the kids’ imaginations.
“It’s great to see the kids take to this. They’re like sponges.”