Art education: From pre-k to high school

Through the grades the goal is the same – teach students critical skills via the creative process

Bedford Montessori's director and owner, Gail Bannon, with Kindergartners Samarah Day and Drew Morris, painting nylon and wire sculptures set into wood blocks.

In 2014, art education saw its first significant curriculum overhaul in 20 years. The launch of the new National Core Arts Standards took place about the same time as the nationwide implementation of the Common Core standards. Art education’s rebirth better aligned creative teaching and learning to ensure that educational concepts and practices were synonymous across all areas of student development, according to the College Board for the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards.

While art standards and student expectations progressed, authentic founding principles prevail across pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 learning environments. Elements of art (line, shape, pattern, texture, color, value) and principles of design (balance, rhythm, movement, unity, emphasis, contrast) continue to be taught at every age.

Establishing a flair for fun: Pre-k and kindergarten

A prevalent focus throughout art education is a commitment to fostering the creative process. Gail R. Bannon, director and owner of Bedford Montessori School for 32 years, has seen this firsthand, given her involvement in Montessori education since 1977.

“Breaking things down is inherent to Montessori methodology. We want children more invested in the process, rather than focusing on the ‘ta-da’ at the end,” Bannon said.

Bedford Montessori’s extensive art program empowers pre-k and kindergarten students to make choices and explore concepts using a variety of mediums including oil pastels, clay, watercolors, texturing papers, sponges, glue and more. Sensory “brain-to-hand-to-work-of-art” connections are critical at this age, Bannon said.

“If they feel it, they’ll remember it and then incorporate it into something else within their lives,” Bannon said. “Working with their hands advances communications skills, teaches calming techniques, develops problem-solving and gives children a way to express themselves. It’s art therapy, really, and it fits naturally with the Montessori way of embracing everyone for who they are and respecting what they find of interest.”

Cameron Dyson of Bedford Montessori School collages a story using handmade dyed papers and then adds prose to further the project.

Although not required to comply with Common Core or National Core Art Standards, Bedford Montessori supports the concept of curriculum consistency across education. Gail is comprehensive in the process and projects she selects for students. She said she believes art and literacy go hand-in-hand, especially at the pre-k and kindergarten levels.

Bedford Montessori promotes art history, nature and a “write-first-draw-after” style of learning that encourages creative thinking. It pairs that with an introduction to new tools and techniques typically introduced in later grades (e.g., book publishing, puppet making, line design, layering, acrostic poems, group presentations, art shows and more).

“Art develops confidence, creative thinking and fine-motor skills, while encouraging social and emotional milestones that extend into other classroom areas,” Bannon said. “Science is supported through color mixing and exploration; geometry with shape and line manipulation; history by the study of artists; math through counting pieces, measuring and patterns. Opportunities are endless and I love working with the children.”

Taking the next step: Art in elementary school

Much like the pre-k/kindergarten focus, art at the elementary level focuses on materials exploration and multifaceted student development.

Riddle Brook Elementary School’s art teacher, Meagan Read, has eight years of district experience, three of which were at Bedford High School. Read said the town’s art educators work closely together to advance the art curriculum and make sure art programs are well supported.

“In Grades 1-4, students are typically excited about art, as it’s a relaxing time when they can move freely around the room and do physical work with their hands,” Read said. “Teaching about materials, being creative with the experience and understanding the process are more important than worrying about whether a particular finished work is a perceived masterpiece.”

Lesson plans are more regimented than in the Montessori pre-k/kindergarten environment, as students have art only one day a week for 40 minutes. However, Riddle Brook’s progressive program still manages to complete almost 20 different involved art pieces per student throughout the year. Additional opportunities, like various art clubs, are available as well.

“Specialty art clubs encourage students to take concepts to the next level and also advance gross motor skill development, which is important to elementary art education,” Read said. “For example, a big hit was this year’s STEAM—science, technology, education, art and math—club. We infused simple batteries and motors into different vessels, like a cup or bowl, to make art mobile.”

Projects for Grades 1-4 also need to match the likely attention span and social skills of children during this time of development.

“Sometimes it feels like I’m a mom to 400 kids—wiping up tears, settling arguments and helping students learn to share the two tracers in the center of a table for four,” Read said. “It’s such a magical time though. Art of any kind is critically important to brain development, as is learning that it’s OK to try something and not have it work out. Exploration should be the primary focus, so they’re ready for intermediary school.”

Continuing the journey: Grades 5 and 6

While art class in pre-k through Grade 4 can be a bit more technical, such as cut along this dotted line, trace that shape, glue that there, etc., Michael Flint, art educator for 10 years at McKelvie Intermediate School in Bedford, said he enjoys the free-spirited thinking students start to infuse into artwork in Grades 5 and 6.

“There’s so much that goes on in the school at this age with an emphasis on words and text development that art strikes a welcomed visual tactile balance and helps students think through things in different ways, using many kinds of materials,” Flint said. “Since they have a basic understanding of tools, art elements and design concepts, we can present new information to expand their frame of reference and approach to a project.”

While a bit more maturity and life experience can be liberating, today’s world of excess and media exposure can also complicate the purity of art education. Flint spoke of a recent lesson where students were asked to draw an object as they “actually” see it (a SpongeBob statue, in this case), rather than what their perceived notion is of how they think it “should” look.

“It can be difficult to make the distinction between what we truly see and what we think we’re supposed to see, but that’s a great exercise for brain development that advances critical thinking,” Flint said. “Fostering confidence and encouraging them to trust themselves is important, especially as they’re now even more aware of their talents and the skill levels of others.”

Flint also observes that while technology and increased media use enable students to be visually savvy, it seems to hinder physical drawing skills. He wonders if a decreased emphasis on cursive writing could also be a factor.

Still, Flint said, “Technology offers new elements of art exploration” and said he “infuses it into lessons when possible.” For example, he will be teaching students how to use Google Draw for an upcoming graphic design project.

“We spend a lot of time trying to get the fifth- and sixth-graders to use whatever frame of reference they have to express themselves however they feel comfortable,” Flint said. “Art clubs, community projects and other volunteer opportunities also keep art a part of their busy lives. The true beauty of art is that, really, anything you create is OK.”

High expectations push the art envelope in middle school

Timberlane Regional High School Art Teacher, Dessa Landry, and Senior Kathryn Thomas, collaborate using a graphic design program to create a CD cover and tour poster for a fictional music group. On page 4: Kathryn Thomas used advanced shadowing, depth and texture techniques to create an apple still life.

Susan Olejarz taught special education for 19 years before returning to school for her art degree. She has been teaching at the Ross A. Lurgio Middle School in Bedford since its inception nine years ago and previously taught art for five years at McKelvie.

Olejarz is one of two art educators working with Lurgio’s seventh- and eighth-grade students. The intent is to extend student understanding for the elements of arts and principles of design. They gain deeper insight into artists’ lives and infuse movement, history and cultural considerations into their artwork.

“It’s amazing what students can do at this age; it’s a fantastic, exploratory time to advance artistic interests,” Olejarz said. “Increased use of vocabulary, materials, tools, processes, problem-solving strategies and even time-management skills contribute to their ability to take the creative process even further.”

Seventh- and eighth-graders are expected to demonstrate greater observational skills and take creative risks. The program at Lurgio hopes to develop technical and perceptual skills through exploration in visual communication.

 “Connecting with students at this age is so important – enthusiasm can be contagious. It’s a very social time of their lives and mutual respect has to be there. Encouraging students to allow honest, true emotion to show can be a tough thing for anyone to do,” Olejarz said.

She agrees that technology has changed how students think about and create art. Much like Michael Flint at McKelvie, Olejarz tries to keep hands-on creativity a key element to every lesson.

“Increased media exposure seems to cause students to rely on their imagination a little bit less; they draw what they think something should look like, rather than what they actually see,” Olejarz said. “It’s critical for both their art and overall development that they enjoy things that don’t come out of a flat screen.”

However, Olejarz embraces technology, noting, “there’s a time and place for digital,” and it’s an integral part of Lurgio’s art program. For example, a project beloved by both students and teachers centers on digital photography.

“No matter what the medium, whether students are feeling up or down, art is an outlet,” Olejarz said.

Art preps high school students for the future

High school art education in 2017 offers a new level of sophistication. Having established a student’s understanding for the elements of art and principles of design, classes like pottery, beginner or advanced drawing, illustration and cartooning, 3D modeling, graphic design, dark room photography, digital photography, and more, home in on the interests and abilities of ninth- through 12th-graders.

 Dessa Landry, art educator for 12 years at Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow and herself a Timberlane graduate, makes it a priority to teach students how to apply the skills learned in art to “the real world” beyond the classroom.

“Information conveyed to students goes beyond the basics of how to use different materials and mediums, and becomes more about how elements of art and principles of design relate to every aspect of their lives,” Landry said. “When we talk about color we bring in color charts from a store, as if we needed to paint the interior and exterior of a house. We look at flow and talk about emotions that color elicits; we discuss project management and budgets. We’re empowering students to see art in a bigger context.”

Kathryn Thomas, a senior at Timberlane, “really likes” the art program and said the high school program goes into much greater depth than it did in middle school.

“We have more time to focus on and finish things, and can elect to take additional classes once we’ve completed mandatory art requirements,” Thomas said. “Timberlane has an amazing program. It has helped expand my interest in art and now I plan to focus on graphic design in college.”

A popular project in Timberlane’s program incorporates the foundations of art, graphic design tools and business management skills. Landry tells students she’s the head of a band that needs a new brand, CD cover, tour posters and more. The assignment is for students to create the band’s identity and pitch it to her, as if she were interviewing them to be hired.

“Teaching students through art to problem solve with visual solutions, think critically for themselves and collaborate well in team environments are all skills they’ll need, no matter where they go in life,” Landry said.   

Jessica Ann Morris is Managing Director of jam:pr, a strategic communications firm providing PR, marketing and freelance writing services. An eternal Star Wars fan, Jessica believes she was a Jedi in a former life and carries a miniature Yoda at all times. Happily married to a Han Solo look-alike, she lives in New Hampshire with their four Padawans and a Wookie.

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