Things I've learned starting a school art program

(Klimt inspired, gold paint and pastel)

Hi! So many things that make kids into happy adults are impossible to measure: people skills, grit, and I believe an appreciation for beauty and trust in their own ability to think creatively. Whatever we can do to nurture those things in children is time well spent, don't you think? We are in the third official year of the Parent Art Docent Program at our elementary school. I feel like I've learned a lot through trial and error in the last few years about getting something like this going, so I thought that I would write a little about my experience in the hope that it might save someone out there wanting to do a similar thing a few headaches. (Warning - it's super long and rambling).

First of all, in California, our state budget is in dire straits and our district has had to make huge cuts to survive the last couple of years. There is no money for art education (although we are still very fortunate to have a music teacher at our school), so four years ago I began volunteering in my son's second grade class each week teaching art history-based art lessons that I found in books or on museum websites. It was really fun and not as hard as I'd worried and everyone had a great time - me, the kids, the teacher - so at the end of the year I went in and talked to the principal about starting an official program where parents came in and taught art-history based lessons in as many classes as possible. She was on board and so I spent the summer putting together binders of lessons, mostly from museum websites, and powerpoint presentations for visuals to go with each lesson (all of our classes have LCD projectors that hook up to teacher laptops) that could be emailed to the teacher before the lesson was presented.

(animal mummy, before getting wrapped in gauze and decorated. clay)

The first official year was okay. We had a small but enthusiastic group of volunteers (the volunteers have been incredible. When I say "okay" that is in reference to my work figuring out the program, not to our volunteer docents) and at the end of the year we had a tiny little display of art in the school cafeteria. I hadn't done a great job of organizing the art during the year, so some of the art ended up not having names on it which I felt so badly about. We have since implemented a really obviously simple way to keep track of the art: we buy a bunch of poster board at the beginning of the year, and every student participating in the program gets a portfolio (poster board folded in half and stapled on the sides). All art made during the year gets put in the child's portfolio, and the portfolios stay IN THE CHILD'S CLASSROOM. Before the spring art show the kids choose their favorite piece to display, and at the end of the year the portfolios go home.

Another thing I learned: the binder lesson system I slaved over for the docents was totally unnecessary. Many of the volunteers discovered that they loved researching and finding their own lessons - which is so great! - so we ended up creating a school art docent blog, where we put pictures of finished pieces and links to lessons that we found online that worked with our supplies and classroom set-ups. There are zillions of amazing blogs out there that art teachers around the world maintain, which really have been our very best resource. A few favorites that always deliver: deep space sparkle, incredible art department, and art dish. Lately I've also been finding great ideas on pinterest.

Last year was much better. The program became clearer and simpler in its goals - mainly, to provide each class in the school with a parent art docent (hopefully regularly, but for sure at least once), and to have an art show at the end of the year to generate interest for the program and celebrate the students' work. We had 12 dedicated art docent volunteers who volunteered in classes all over the school and at the end-of-the-year art show, we had over 800 pieces of art displayed (and labeled!). We really struggled to determine the best way to display the art (to mat or not to mat?) but in the end we had such a small budget that we simply mounted the work by class on bulletin board walls lined with black paper. Simple and effective. Lots of families came, and the kids were so proud to show off their work. We recruited a string quartet from our local high school to play, and had free cookies and a donation jar. It was low-key but nice.

Speaking of budgets - another issue to work through is fundraising for supplies. We have a supply closet in the main office where we store our collective supplies, and in order to keep it sufficiently stocked we've partnered with restaurants, had a bake sale, sold t-shirts, and solicited donations. A couple of other great ideas: one of our docents last year came up with the idea of asking parents to "sponsor" lessons, which works well (she made a list of her lesson plans for the year, with the amount of money that it would cost for the class to complete each activity next to each lesson on her handout. For example: a lesson about Matisse, where the kids make collages with scissors and construction paper, costs only about $4 for a whole class. So it's fun for a parent to send in $4 and feel like they are facilitating a great experience for their kids, without it being crazy expensive). Every little bit adds up and helps! And second - a couple of weeks ago my friend Liz came up with the great idea of collecting leftover halloween candy, and making candy grab-bags to sell at school functions. I bet we can make over $100 this way over the next few months (for free!). Again, every little bit helps.

(inspired by Andy Goldsworthy)

(inspired by Monet's Magpie, watercolor and salt)

So there it is an a very long-winded nutshell. If your child's school doesn't have the resources to provide art, don't be afraid to jump in there and fill the need. You don't have to put a perfect program out there, just do your best, use parents in your community, and it will get better and better. Something is always better than nothing! It's been such a great experience, and every art lesson I teach inevitably ends up totally making my day. Not only that but I am so inspired by the other parents that work so hard to add their effort to our school's program. Amazing!

Are any of you involved in school art programs? And do you have any great ideas for me? (...ideas to somehow tie art into community service?)


house on hill road said...

i applaud you, lynne. it is so wonderful that you stepped up and made this happen. congrats!
our school (K - 8) just implemented an art elective for the 8th graders. we still have a full time art teacher and a music teacher and the idea was to give the kids a more in depth study of one thing per trimester instead of music once a week and art once a week. i'm teaching photography to a group of 12 of them each trimester. i'm partnered with a teacher on staff who handles all the business stuff - i just show up with a plan and we go for it. it's been a huge learning experience and while i've found that i thought it wasn't going as well as it could, the feedback i am getting is great. it's a good learning experience for everyone involved.

heirloomfarmhouse said...

as a full-time (still!) art teacher, i cannot thank you enough for what you are doing!!! i do a lot of community service art projects including several murals, "I-Spy" paintings for waiting rooms in our clinic, ceramic bowls to sell as a silent auction at a home sporting event to raise money for our local food shelf, and partnered with the home economics department to make mittens and quilts for a (relatively) nearby homeless shelter. i have found that businesses are extremely receptive to funding these types of projects--- particularly when you are able to get some sort of press to cover the project or when it is close to their location. i would guess grants are hard to come by in california, but they are still quite easy to get here in minnesota--- it's always worth a shot. again, thank you! if you have any questions, email me!

Michelle said...

As a former high school English teacher in a school district with very limited resources, this post brought tears to my eyes! Thank you for stepping up and making your child's school better. We can all do more to make corners of the world brighter. Desire + inspiration + hard work= miracles.

Jojo Caramel said...

Your program sounds great!
I've been involved in school art programs in a small school, without budget, I used recycling a lot, collecting cheeses boxes, cardboard tubes, paper of all sorts, packagings everything... I often tried to use fairy tales or children tales to access to an artist or another.
I bring my young girl to museums quite often, and when she was younger with some paper and pencils, we used to sat down in front of paintings and she tried to reproduce what she liked best. We are lucky in Paris because there are so many of them, with castles, churches full of art (paintings, sculptures...) So much history, and history of Art. Art can be in the street, in the woods, everywhere :) I hope that my english is understandable :)

Julie said...

thank you thank you thank you for this post. So many great ideas and I love the practical tips for how you have found things work best - even just making the folios and displaying the work are useful ideas. I and another parent are looking at starting a craft project in our school - teaching sewing, knitting and basic skills as many kids don't get to learn them. Your experience is invaluable.

melissa said...

YEah LYnne! I love all of your ideas!

melissa said...

Your school is lucky to have you: so are your kids! Great work!

allydru said...

as always, you amaze me Lynne.

Jenna said...

You must be a great art teacher, and your kids are talented. I love the Klimt inspired art with the poster board. He's my favorite artist of all time.

ghenessa said...

I just want to introduce Studio Helper. It help manage your staff and students in a smoother and easier way. It helps manage and track of their performance. Give it a try today! You're free to play around with it as much as you like during your free trial. www.studiohelper.com

Quincunx said...

Intriguing! I had art classes and art history classes but the two were not united until high school. Seems like a much better use of the materials to also mix in some culture alongside the joy of creation.

Anonymous said...

I applaud your program. We are also in CA and thankfully our art program is sponsored by the PTA. I wish you'd come to our school though, because our art teacher is super grumpy. Can you imagine that? A grumpy art teacher? She's so goal orientated that she yells at the kids for painting outside the lines. Just typing that makes my heart break; it makes no sense. Come to our district Lynne!!!

charmingdate said...

creative program,I support it !