At Parker Academy we believe the work we are doing with our students is really important. We are hoping to have an ongoing dialogue with the people and programs that make Parker Academy what it is.
Today we are getting to know more about the Parker Academy Fine Arts Program. Like most of the arts, this program is expressive and intuitive; and we are spending time with art teacher, Deborah Mahar, to find out a little more about why this program is so important in creating focus and harboring creativity throughout a lifetime.
Parker Academy has a full-time art teacher/program, which is amazing. What do you think the benefits are?
Having a full-time art teacher allows for the arts to be more accessible for students. It can fit more readily into their schedules and allows more students to participate in the art program. They are exposed to the arts all day while walking by, visiting, or seeing someone with a piece they have created. The students have an art room and supplies that are accessible to them for other classes as well. “I need a ruler. Can I have some paint? Can you help me figure out the best way to do this?” are just a few of the more common requests. During most of our lunch periods, students drop by the art room to stop in and create. That is another measure of accessibility. The arts are all around them and in whichever way they want to approach it throughout the day.
“Our art program here is unique. I sometimes use the phrase the ‘one room school house’ to describe us because we base our teaching on the needs of the individual.”
How do you think Parker Academy’s art program differs from other programs you have been involved in, do you see a difference?
Our art program here is unique. I sometimes use the phrase the ‘one room school house’ to describe us because we base our teaching on the needs of the individual. Our program is choice-based with opportunities to develop skills built into the planning. Art classes, like the rest of the school, provide a strength based, co-regulating environment. We are flexible enough to let student interests guide us. Our courses are wonderfully designed to match with the students I have and I think that is a huge difference. Although we teach specific skills sequentially where needed, we do not let prerequisites dictate experimentation with mediums or styles. Within a group of four or five students, there might be a different approach depending on what they have done before. I stay flexible within lesson plans creating new experiences. Courses change and adapt to who’s here, verses having students adapt to what is available. Which is perfect for art, because there are not really any prerequisites when it comes to creativity.
We have a large variety of mediums for a small school. Students have access to a wide range of drawing and painting materials as well as opportunities to explore printmaking, ceramics and 2 and 3 D Design. Which is another reason it is great with Sheldon next door, he is an asset. There is some noise, but we have accessible materials and other equipment there if needed. The way that we work together opens up a lot of possibilities for our students to explore.
Speaking of Sheldon, I know he has a different program than yours, but can you talk about why having his classroom next to yours is a great chance to collaborate?
We are lucky to be able to collaborate with our applied arts teacher. Sheldon Cassady works with three-dimensional materials on a regular basis. Some of his students are engaged in 3-D art projects, whether it is in wood, metal sculptures or simply using recycled materials. So, it’s a different kind of shop class; students are not all making the same bookshelf. They are definitely working along the same lines as I would, in which the student’s interests are first and foremost. We start with what they are interested in and find ways to keep them exploring that. We collaborate a lot, there is a back and forth between the shop and art students, (we are quieter) but other than that, we share and engage in each other’s materials and creativity.
“They are definitely working along the same lines as I would, in which the student’s interests are first and foremost. We start with what they are interested in and find ways to keep them exploring that.”
What is the importance of creating art with your hands?
Art is a natural for engagement in active learning. The process requires both a different mindset and a different set of skills than other disciplines. It’s more intuitive. I think the hands and brain coordination is crucial to the full development as a human. We enjoy using our hands and it is important to the well-being of all people. Right from the beginning, when I am teaching world history, we talk about being able to create and make things. We all have that innate compacity and desire to create. We often use the arts in other courses to study what human beings were expressing in the past or present cultures, and how people feel about the world.
It is important to focus on the creative process. A lot of it has to do with the progression of initiating an idea. How do you get started, how do you find and nurture the seed of an idea? I’ll give them something to start with, a prompt or an assignment, but I think it’s about how you plant the seed. How do you design, how do you see how many different ways you can solve the problem? That is very important to me. When they ask, “Why do I have to do three or four drafts?” We talk about how much we can learn through seeing the progression of attempts and the process of seeing the work evolve from start to finish. It may look very different in the end. In that sense, the creative process helps them to put more of themselves into their art work. The process of finding an idea and then developing and nurturing that idea is a way of exploring themselves and their own creativity. I think it is important to learn how to become flexible enough to say it is not working and I am going to try a different avenue. Learning that it’s okay for me to say, “That didn’t work so I am going to try something different.” That is an important key emphasis in any classroom.
“The process of finding an idea and then developing and nurturing that idea is a way of exploring themselves and their own creativity.”
How does the creative process help them throughout their lives?
The creative process that they learn about and practice will help them throughout their lives and in many fields of endeavor. I am oriented towards that long holistic view of how art can be important to them. I believe that planting a desire to continue with the arts in some why throughout their life is something I really want to encourage as a teacher. Making sure they know, “You can do this, you can sketch, you can make things, you can take a class, you can visit museums, you can create a space in your life for this kind of activity.” So, I think this is a really important aspect of being an art teacher.
We know that viewing and creating art can be very therapeutic. Do you see this come out in your classroom at all?
Art is very therapeutic. Another way that art helps bring out the best in our students is that it helps them develop the ability to concentrate and maintain their focus. When they’re very engaged in something they sort of move into another realm. I think it helps them to just take a break from pressure and stress, allowing them to be in the moment. Watching them work in a very concentrated way, when they get lost in it, their worrying about the future or stressing over the past dissipates. Being “in the moment” fosters an inner peacefulness, giving an opportunity to feel at ease with what is happening.
Do you see any behavioral changes when that happens? [Creating art].
I can see students calming down when they get engaged and start to focus a little more in one area. It is really important for students to be able to express something that interests them. Although I am not an art therapist, it is clear to see these effects everyday. What we are doing here is working with a particular population of students and meeting their specific needs. So, for some students, things like visual journaling or simply being able to put something on paper, provides relief. Art is such an amazing outlet for our students. It gives them multiple ways to explore and express what they are feeling.
“Being ‘in the moment‘ fosters an inner peacefulness, giving an opportunity to feel at ease with what is happening.”
What is the importance of being creative while staying within the parameters?
There is a very conscious process behind what we try to do with art here. It includes teaching specific techniques and skills. We cannot create what we envision without developing and marshaling our skills. This depends on where the student is experience wise, and how much skill building is needed. Once they are open to that, setting the parameters within which they can proceed helps them develop the skills that will allow them to express themselves. If it is a wide-open world, you may feel lost if you do not have much in your tool kit. I think that the skills we teach gives them some grounding. From there, I am very happy to see it develop into something else. So, setting parameters around learning the needed skills is important.
Your students participate in Empty Bowls every year as a creative service project. What goes into this process?
We believe that it is important to keep our students aware of the larger community around them and instill in them a sense of service. This is especially important for our developing artists. Each year we participate in the “Empty Bowls” initiative, where we help raise funds to support those in need. It begins with students learning to make a ceramic bowl and some of the properties of clay. Some students who have already had the class come in and are ready to roll. Other students learn how to form, attach, and glaze. It involves the repetition of the same shape, which is very much about production ceramics work. They enjoy this so much that it’s easy to forget they are taking part in a community service project.
That is a good reminder. To elaborate on that, how do you view art as important to and for the entire community?
More and more artists are expressing their reactions and responses to social issues. There is more public and performance art, which means more opportunities to see artists and their work. You can see creatives on the forefront, often commenting on social change or as Marshall McLuhan put it, “Being the antenna of the society.” It’s good to be in tune with what’s going on. Sometimes finding respect as an artist can be somewhat challenging. It is important for the students to take time with the process and feel that they can make a difference by creating something. I believe this to be a worthwhile way for them to view art.
Thank you so much for letting us know about this fantastic program, is there anything else you would like to share?
I believe the main thing we do here, and I think that the rest of our staff would agree, is reach out to each student. We try to find a way to meet them. We have small classes of four or five students, with different types of kids with multiple backgrounds. By focusing on their strengths and giving them a say in what and how they learn, they feel more connected. Art is a special part of this and it is gratifying to see the successes that our students have.