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Art and the drop-out student.

"Dear Nobody:" wrote a twelve-year-old boy in a log he was asked to write. How do our students see themselves? A recent study in California concluded that lack of self-esteem is one of the major factors in school failures. Many remedies were suggested, but not one recommended the arts.

Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children's Defense Fund, speaking at the International Design Conference in Aspen, pointed to the fact that the U.S. government spends twice as much on prisons as it does on education. An inner city teacher mused, "I believe that many of the students we lose to crime and imprisonment are potential artists." Her conclusion bears exploring. Just what does expression through the arts do for children (and for everyone)?

Recently, I spent a day working with ten fifteen and sixteen year-old students at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center School, a Chicago Board of Education program for young men who are being held for trial as adults. Their crimes, as well as their family backgrounds, are devastating. To interest them in learning is an immeasurable challenge.

Frank Tobin, their teacher, reaches out to them through the arts. "There is a natural therapeutic value in working with one's hands," he says. "Ceramics is most successful with them, because it provides kids a chance to experience success immediately. But, more importantly, they can smash their piece and start over if they choose. Our education system makes failure bad. Kids are afraid of failure. Testing and grades as the measure of learning do terrible damage to a child's self-image.

"These kids need a personal accepting relationship with an adult," Tobin says. "You can relate with them as they work on art. They get comfortable. You can help them assess and improve their work."

He finds that many of these young men, whose reading levels are minimal, catch on quickly to the basic skills of poetry and music. They write very perceptive poetry, often reaching into their personal family and neighborhood experience for subjects. These lines (translated into English) were written by a boy recently arrived from Mexico, learning English in Frank's classroom: "There are children that are born with the seed of wickedness and parents who are blinded by affection. They ferment it with their exaggerated consent, these stupid irresponsible parents that allow him to do anything he wants ..."

A whole day of art.

After a warm-up drawing of their shoes (which produced some very sensitive results), I asked them to do self-portraits. We used mirrors to draw. Showing them with a ruler that eyes are in the center of the face length, I called attention to the individual shape of the jaw, to the eyelids partially covering the pupils, to the shape of the mouth, to the structural connection of nose to brows.

One student started drawing a caricature, with a mouth full of teeth, an action easily understood as a way out of fearing his inability to do a likeness. I commented on its humor, but assured him that he could do a likeness if he just let his eyes do the drawing. The next attempt was wonderful. He even looked at the line of my blazer collar and drew himself a coat and tie. Commenting on his experience in a CBS TV feature on the portraits, this young man said, "When you first start you think you can't do it and you get mad. But then you try and find out you can."

When the drawings were complete, we mixed paint for skin colors, combining red, yellow and blue tempera to make brown and adding white to tone. I explained skin color as variations in amounts of melanin in each person's skin.

The attention to detail, openness to criticism and pride in their work that these young men sustained through an entire school day rivaled the "best" classes I have ever taught. These young men are eager now to look at reproductions of portraits in art books, to study style, approach to background, light and shadow--all the problems which they tackled in this process. But most importantly, they left feeling affirmed, pleased at their success, wanting to draw more.

Closing the door

Many excuses are given for neglecting art in the classroom--lack of teacher training, tack of supply money, lack of time. These must be measured against the importance of tapping this power, especially in students whose readiness for learning can only be found in visual expression, in movement, music, poetry.

Look for signs--doodling, day-dreaming, acting out, tapping rhythms and telling tall tales are all outlets for imagination and the intuition to assert themselves over assigned tasks. But all come across as disruptive. Plan with your students to channel the productive ideas that may come from such activities. Encourage individual Idea Logs, notebooks in which they can record visual ideas (doodling can produce good material for more serious work) and descriptions of daydream inventions. Ask the rhythm tappers to put their patterns in notation using their own sets of sound and time symbols. The potential for new ideas is there, waiting to be let out. Your interest in it can be the release.

For many of our students, the world of fantasy and imagination is their only escape from a personal life filled with violence, abuse and neglect. A learning climate that channels this fantasy, dream, hope may be the thin rope that holds a potential drop-out. By providing outlets, teachers can demand the attention of all students without humiliating or punishing those whose minds are elsewhere.

A fifteen-minute period in the school day given to recording ideas and dreams might prove to be the resource for writing subjects. A five-minute "drawing break" can be a welcome shift for even your most left brain students. Take it at a time when students are restless. Ask them to draw one of their shoes, their hand, a floppy purse, a sweater laid in a heap, a crumpled piece of paper. Ask for "right brain" drawing--letting the eye "crawl" along the edges, directing the hand. Call it "eye training" and insist that wrong lines be left and new ones drawn--no "messed up" excuses for erasing or stopping.

You will find that once they let themselves go in this kind of drawing, a wonderful silence from intense concentration will come over the class. And they will be ready to return to the class routine refreshed, the left brain will be rested. And the perception as well as the drawing will improve steadily.

The children who sit before us in the classroom bring minds with full potential--left brain powers to calculate, organize, compute and right brain powers of imagination, intuition and the rich resources of the senses. If all these powers are not tapped and brought together in the process of learning, we are opening the door to our dropouts.

Jean Morman Unsworth is Art Consultant for the Chicago Archdiocesan Schools and the author of numerous books on art education.
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Author:Unsworth, Jean Morman
Publication:School Arts
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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