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Mentoring in art education.

Brian, a high school senior, and Jennifer, a sixth grader, stand together in animated discussion as they critique a painting rendered in the style of Georgia O'Keeffe. Painted with acrylics, it combines a large steer skull with several carefully placed flowers and a few small stones amid a great expanse of sand. The artist is Jennifer. Brian is pointing out how the lack of shadows under the objects gives them the appearance of floating. With the brush he applies some paint to the canvas to help get his point across. That problem at least tentatively solved, they launch into a discussion of some trouble spots in Brian's painting of a large, curving piece of driftwood, conch shell and flowers. After agreeing on some apparent solutions to Brian's problems, Jennifer goes back to making changes on her painting. Across the room, two other students, a sixth grader and a high school junior, seriously discuss the colors in their batiks. Near them, another pair of students put the finishing touches on their photogram display. All around the room, pairs of students work on a variety of art projects, sometimes together, sometimes alone, but always near each other in case one or the other needs help.

This is mentoring--an experimental art class, taught during the summer. It paired twelve elementary students (grades 4-6) with twelve high school students (grades 10-12) who acted as mentors. As one of the Teacher Extended Year Appointment (TEYA) programs sponsored by the Midland Public Schools, it is the culmination of an idea the two of us have tossed around for several years.

The mentoring concept, a new approach to teaching for both of us, worked very effectively. The high school students acting as mentors, develop teaching skills, while the younger ones develop more complex, artistic problem-solving skills. This project also helps the district develop a means to guide students who are interested in teaching by placing them in elementary artrooms during the school year. In addition, it provides teachers at both levels with new problem-solving and motivational techniques and a means to evaluate mentoring as a general concept. It also introduces the possibility of a gifted and talented program in the arts.

Students were selected according to their art interest, ability and maturity level. After selections, pairs were assigned (one grade school student and one high school student) by discussing personalities and attempting to link similar types. While the pairs were first getting acquainted, we promoted better interaction between them by having each one tell us something about his or her partner during a break on the second day. Of course, to do this they had to ask their partners questions. After the second class, we gathered the high school students together to talk about mentoring and what we expected of them. After that, we stayed out of the picture as much as possible allowing the mentors to do the guiding, counseling and advising. From then on, they were right in there, involved as much as they could be with the younger students.

By basing our projects on several well-known women artists, we felt we could enhance our students' art history background, help them appreciate the work of these artists by emulating their styles and subject matter, and learn more about the importance of women's contributions to the arts. We selected Mary Cassatt, Georgia O'Keeffe and Imogen Cunningham because of their contributions and individual styles and subject matter. We provided a number of references on these and other women artists, and decorated the room with examples of their work. The units selected were sculpture, acrylic painting, jewelry-making, photograms and batiks.


The first lesson began with a videotape and discussion about the life and work of Mary Cassatt. Cassatt's genre paintings of women and children influenced the students' ideas for 6" to 8" (15 cm x 20 cm) figure sculptures. We encouraged them to use more than one figure in their sculptures. They used a variety of subjects, including mothers and fathers with children and children with pets or dolls. We used a terracotta clay fired to cone 05. The sculptures were stained by dipping them in a diluted mixture of black and brown tempera, and were then sprayed with fixative to give them a protective coating.

Acrylic Painting

The unit on acrylic painting began with an introduction to the work of Georgia O'Keeffe. We encouraged students to emulate O'Keeffe's style, using simple design concepts and bold color. We placed objects similar to O'Keeffe's subjects around the room such as bones, steer skulls, silk flowers, stones and shells. O'Keeffe's works were also used for launching a discussion of the elements and principles of design.


For the third unit we used Georgia O'Keeffe's large flower paintings to influence jewelry designs. The designs were cut out of copper, nu-gold, brass or nickel silver, and fabricated to create pins and neck laces. We asked the students to search O'Keeffe's paintings for abstract forms which could be developed into effective jewelry designs. The students glued their chosen designs to the metal and cut them out with jeweler's saws. They filed, sometimes hammered (for shaping and texturing), emery papered, soldered and polished to produce the finished piece. Although this was a new experience for the elementary students, all the high school students had fabricated jewelry before, so they could provide some very effective mentoring.


For the session on photography, a local photographer who specializes in photograms, spent a class period as our "artist in residence." She gave a brief historical overview of photography, emphasizing women photographers, and showed the students a film on Imogen Cunningham. We then took the students into the darkroom, two pairs at a time, and introduced them to the art of making photograms on 8" x 10" (20 cm x 25 cm) photographic paper. This produced some very imaginative photogram designs.

For an added experience, we provided each team with a roll of black-and-white film, and made sure they had a 35mm camera. After talking about the elements of good picture taking, we encouraged them to take pictures of each other and various activities during the first seven days of class. During the last three days, we developed the film and made 3" x 5" (8 cm x 13 cm) prints which were combined with photograms to create a montage of each pair's activities throughout the week.


The final unit was batik. Using their photograms as a basis for design, the students created some excellent abstractions. Lessons in color theory and abstraction were presented. The students used either a chromatic or analogous color scheme. With skillets containing molten wax placed on four large worktables, clotheslines inside and out, some dry, sunny days and two fans, we were able to move the batiking process along quickly, completing two waxings and dyeings each day for several days.

After cleaning the artroom on the last day, we gathered together for a critique. Students used art terminology to discuss their favorite project from the two weeks. The session ended with an open discussion about which aspects of the program students felt good about and which might be improved.

One suggestion from the mentors was to have a mentor training session before bringing in the elementary students. This would give the secondary students more confidence in their teaching abilities, and help them move into their mentoring roles more quickly.

One very positive result of the mentoring approach was the high level of excellence achieved by the elementary students. Seeing what the high school students could do appeared to spur them on to higher levels of achievement. There has been some carryover from our program into the elementary classroom. Since the new school year began, several elementary teachers have responded very positively. One comment was that a sixth-grade boy "is exhibiting more confidence in all his abilities."

Mentoring turned out to be a very successful concept. It would be a wonderful class to put into the school program on a permanent basis, either for a two-week period in the summer, or once a week during the regular school year. Observing those talented students working together on a wide variety of projects with such intensity--creating, learning, growing and enjoying--was truly rewarding. That's what education is all about, and that's why we teach art.

David G. Morrison and Patricia Smith teach art in the Midland, Michigan Public Schools.
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Author:Smith, Patricia
Publication:School Arts
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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