Lessons with art

Teachers discover how the arts can help students learn important skills

Posted: Thursday, August 05, 2004

It may look like child's play - crafting miniature dolls from scraps under the direction of a Yupik elder on the floor of a University of Alaska Southeast classroom.

And it is that, said Theresa Arevgaq John, an Alaska Pacific University professor leading a session in a two-week class for teachers in the Basic Arts Institute 2004.

The doll-making has "a connection with our little-girlness," said participant Mary Maisch, a second-grade teacher from Fairbanks. "It is a very personal thing."

It also is the way Yupik girls traditionally learn, John said. At her side, Yupik elder Theresa Moses taught by example.

Down the hall, other educators worked to incorporate painting with poetry. In another room, teachers were acting out the movements of how sculptures they had created made them feel.

"We think of reading, writing and math being the gatekeeping skills," said Ted Wilson, principal at Glacier Valley Elementary School in Juneau, one of the 27 participants in the program. Lacking such skills can keep people out of the workforce.

But Wilson has seen improvement in those core skills flourish when students have the opportunity for artistic expression.

Cristine Crooks, a retired Juneau teacher and administrator coordinating the program, said, "It's about why arts are important, why it's not fun and games."

The program, which will conclude Friday, was put together by the Alaska Arts Education Consortium and the Bethel-based Lower Kuskokwim School District Alaska Arts Education Collaboration Project, with support from UAS. A grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Innovation and Improvement provided funding.

Participants came from Juneau schools, the Lower Kuskokwim area, Fairbanks and Kaktovik, on the Beaufort Sea. The program is covering visual arts, art theory and classroom applications, movement and Native storytelling and crafts. Last week, John led her sessions with Tlingit elder Paul Jackson.

The morning began Wednesday with participants expressing themselves through movement.

Session leader Jeff Mann, from Goldstream near Fairbanks, told participants it wasn't about dance steps but self-expression. That's why he doesn't believe in background music, he added.

Wilson said the movement alone has been shown to do some good. Scientific research shows that cross-body movement can help children's brain development in ways that will enhance reading skills.

But also, when students have to look for different ways to express themselves, they think more creatively and develop a keener understanding of why authors chose the words they did and how word choice can affect the way they communicate.

Wilson also has seen art turn students on to learning. In the spring, Glacier Valley students performed "Tides and the Tempest," a play combining Shakespeare with a traditional Tlingit legend. It lit a spark in one fourth-grade actor in particular, Wilson said.

Participant Mimi Walker, who teaches kindergartners and first-graders at Riverbend Elementary, said learning to read is one of the skills her students need to learn, but she also believes art is an important part of the package.

Wednesday morning she talked to the group about a project that began with her students tracing the outline of a painting of a mother and child by American artist Mary Cassatt. From there students filled in their own pictures.

Later, she said, her students learned geography by finding on a globe where the artist came, and history and social science by learning the obstacles and prejudices she faced as a woman artist. Walker also incorporated language skills with the words and names they were learning.

It all ties in together, she said. And one of the students' projects ended up on the cover of a book - not about art but about literacy, published in Oregon in 1998.

Crooks said educators who applied for the program had to show they believed in its goals.

In John's session, Moses worked delicately with an ulu to cut a piece of cloth, the round knife fitting neatly in her hand. She looked over her glasses at the teachers sitting around her, answering a question in Yupik to one who had learned her language.

"There's lots of concentration, working on a project until it is done," John said. For girls, their crafts led to the skills to make mukluks and parkas. Boys were learning carving skills that led to making kayaks and paddles.

John said that as children learn their Native crafts, they develop intuitive mathematics, measuring with the hands and arms. She said her mother could look at someone, go home and make a parka that would fit him or her perfectly.

It's about people doing the things they need to do, John said. "Art is an integral part of human life."

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