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The Problem class - turning it around.

Educationally and semantically, the term environment has a wide range of applications. This Focus feature examines the critical issue of how to turn a negative classroom situation into a positive learning climate. Editor

One day, I was staring blankly at a class that came in each day, talked constantly, repeatedly got out of their seats, and paid very little attention. I wondered where I went wrong ... I had work prepared but rarely got a chance to introduce it. I found that I was getting into frequent shouting matches and was at the point of dismissing the class as a group without any possible hope for educational salvation. Of course, I could not admit to this or I might as well have signed my time card and gone home for good. Pulling out a recent article from a local newspaper criticizing our district and highlighting our school as one plagued by student failure and political mismanagement, I asked how many of my students had seen it. I was surprised that quite a few had, but when I asked what it was saying, very few really knew. They knew, in some vague ways, that it pinpointed them as examples of educational failure, but they did not know why. I decided right there to make it our job to discover why and to work to change that perception.

It seemed obvious from responses to the article that there were connections between students' negative perceptions of themselves and their poor work habits. Even more damaging was the eventual frustration of teachers in dealing with children who had decided they could not learn or contribute in class. It was important to air our feelings and to bring out the causes for their lack of educational success.

Pinpointing Problems

The next day, a Friday, we threw the school problems out on the table for discussion: test scores, reading levels, student and teacher discipline: family life, school board and administrative politics. At first, it was a unique experience for the students; they took the opportunity to vent real frustration but remained strictly biased, shifting all blame to those around them--usually the teachers. This caused an exciting but chaotic session which did not end until the bell rang.

That weekend I realized that each student had to be encouraged to face the problems directly and honestly. On Monday, I came in with a questionnaire titled "Why we do and don't learn." It asked each student to discuss both the positive and negative factors which affected how they learn. They were asked to look at themselves, their classmates, teachers, parents and the community.

We established a system of anonymous writing; students were assigned numbers identifiable only by me. They were encouraged to write openly and at length, the only restriction being that they should not use real names. The next few days were spent on individual conferences. It was important to let each student know that his or her input was highly valued. I never openly denied a student's opinion, but always challenged the assumption and made sure both sides of the argument were looked at before reaching a conclusion.

A Binding Solution

The results were surprising. We decided to illustrate our ideas and writings so they could be exhibited on their own. We also used these illustrations to compile a hook we could distribute to the school. I selected a wide variety of ideas--in some cases whole pages--and assigned the students to illustrate them using drawing principles such as figure/foreground relationships, as well as certain illustration and animation techniques to suggest movement or to tell a story.

I also used this project as an opportunity to introduce the use of pen and ink in the classroom. We always started with rough drafts and worked our way through final products. Even though this caused muttering about having to rework the same idea, I tried to make the students aware of the importance of this skill in all areas of thinking and learning. Resistance was generally overcome by exhibiting successful projects at various stages of production and showing them the metamorphosis of ideas--from the first intuitive sparks to the final polished products.

The next step was to put the illustrations together in book form. Each drawing was photographically reduced to fit a standard book page, then glued onto a master sheet, reproduced and bound with the other pages. Bookmaking was an excellent way for my class to be exposed to layout and design. It also demonstrated the possibilities available through the use of a photocopier. These machines can do what once was possible only through an expensive photostat process. Enlarging, reducing, making negatives, screening photographs, photocopying on acetate and colored cardstock are just some of the possibilities. The cost is relatively inexpensive and the results make for new excitement in the class.

Expanding the Focus

After we distributed the books, reactions ranged from strong support to silent muttering. Now that the students had the opportunity to make a critical statement about themselves and their school, it was important for them to realize that they had a responsibility to both. Posters were a logical expansion for these ideas. We focused on school problems (i.e. cutting class, trash, drugs, graffiti, etc.) and brainstormed solutions. The class was introduced to the use of symbols and trademarks, as well as the production of creative and block lettering. We established a class logo (COP, Cooling Out Posters) to give us a group identity within the school.

Once again the use of drafts were implemented along with the idea of working cooperatively. Students could elect to form creative teams; we established the positions of art directors, who came up with ideas, and free-lancers who helped in various technical stages of production. When we were finished, it was a thrill to see all the work they had produced. I was very proud of them, and I think they were equally proud of themselves, although for the most part it was uncool to admit it.

Our final goal was to introduce our work as a whole to the school and the community. We decided to use the classroom as a gallery and to have our own opening/dedication ceremony. We cleared out the classroom, put white paper on the walls and white fabric over the storage closets. Going back to the photocopying techniques we learned earlier, we printed invitations using our logo. The P.T.A. and students' families volunteered to supply refreshments. We arranged for use of the school video camera to film our production, made sure all classes were properly covered and watched our efforts come to life.

The opening not only let the students show off their work, but it gave the teachers and parents a chance to show the students that their input does count, that there is something more than always being singled out for doing wrong or poorly. The highlight of our opening was a dedication ceremony in which the students gave their posters to the school and the principal recognized the students with certificates. I hope this memory of sharing and growth will stay with these students for years to come.

I would like to point out that while these projects emerged out of a knee-jerk reaction to school problems, an entire curriculum grew around them. It involved aesthetics as well as critical thinking and content and most importantly, it changed the way students thought of themselves and their teachers and hopefully, how teachers perceive themselves and their students. Looking back, the social goals of our unit can be organized into four basic steps:

1. Pinpoint the problems;

2. Discuss causes and solutions;

3. Develop projects;

4. Recognize efforts.

Artistically, we accomplished more through direct problem solving than from the usual method of introducing an assignment and collecting the work. This project has been displayed in the school and highlighted in the educational supplement of the local Spanish newspaper. Through my work in a group, Artists/Teachers Concerned, a number of these students' works were also exhibited in a professional artists show in SoHo entitled "Democracy and Education." Imagine the pride of having your work hang alongside such artists as Andy Warhol, Joseph Buoys and Jenny Holzer, and seeing your school and class name in the Sunday Art Section of the New York Times. The next time you are faced with a problem class, try asking them why. It can make a BIG difference.

Mario Asaro teaches art at Enrico Fermi Junior High School, Bushwick, New York.
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Author:Asaro, Mario
Publication:School Arts
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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