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Clay and the at-risk student.

Picture a middle school classroom filled exclusively with the most obstinate problem students--all the stubbornly disinterested, disruptive, dispirited students that drive even the most dedicated educators to distraction. Welcome to my visual art class at the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program (UCAP) in Providence, RI.

UCAP is the collaborative effort of the Providence, East Providence and Pawtucket school systems that offers an alternative education for at-risk, middle-school students. Generally, these students, ages thirteen to seventeen, have been held back one or more years, have high absentee rates, poor self-images and chaotic family lives. If they're enrolled in UCAP, participation in other special programs has been unsuccessful, leaving these students with a fifty to ninety percent chance of dropping out of the regular school system. UCAP's goal is to accelerate these students by one grade so they can rejoin their appropriate age group. The ability to graduate with their peers greatly increases their chances of completing high school.

One of the elements that makes UCAP work is the integration of music, dance, videography, drama/ storytelling and visual art in its curriculum. UCAP recognizes the value of the arts as central to the education and growth of its students. A grant from the RI State Council of the Arts makes it possible for UCAP to offer art electives three hours a week.

When I began teaching at UCAP, I had taught almost every type of student, from developmentally delayed to gifted and talented. I thought this experience would have prepared me for the students at UCAP--I was wrong. Even though I had met these students in other classrooms one or two at a time, a classroom full of exclusively at-risk students proved to be a new challenge. A unit on handbuilt ceramics magnified the unique learning process that seems to be characteristic of this group.

All the students were new to the clay medium. During the introductory lessons, nearly one-third of the class invested time in sensory/motor experimentation. In a traditional classroom, I might have pushed the students to pursue the assignment. At UCAP, I allowed them the time to explore clay at their own pace.

Every student came up to speed very quickly. They moved along to successful pinch pots and slab constructions in record time. Intuitive learning on their part precluded the need for me to take them sequentially through the clay unit. It was as though they progressed through stages mentally, without the need to pursue them materially.

After we covered the basics, the students pursued individual projects of their own conception and design. They conferred with me regarding more advanced techniques needed to complete a particular project, but not about the ideas for projects. They learned rapidly and demonstrated boundless enthusiasm, patience and attention to detail.

My only concern was that I not break the spell. I am very proud of my UCAP students' accomplishments, and I'm impressed by their gifts, patience and willingness to meet the challenge of a new medium.

Gloria Merchant teaches middle school art at the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program, Providence, Rhode Island.
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Title Annotation:arts education for problem children
Author:Merchant, Gloria
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1993
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