Adventures in Teaching: 11 Wildlings, 1 Fair-Haired Girl-Child, and Me

There have been so many fun & exciting (and yes, utterly exhausting) changes in my work life beginning with the onset of the new school year just a few weeks ago. First of all, I am now an official "artist-in-residence" at my school, Laurel Tree Charter School. Essentially, this means that I not only teach art to students but also provide workshops and/or individual assistance for staff members who want to infuse lesson plans with a bit of art. I float around the school grounds, inside and out, looking for ways to add art to beautify & inform. Right now, this mostly manifests in the form of bulletin boards but in the future, I'd like to create a sculpture & fairy garden walk as well as bright, colorful, whole school collaborative art projects. Basically, I get to add "professional art fairy" to my resume. So awesome!

In addition, this year's art program is substantially different from years past. I began teaching art at Laurel Tree Charter School 12 years ago as a volunteer when the school's art program was entirely on Friday mornings. Each year, I developed two or three art classes, as did three or four other teachers in other subjects (such as music, crafts, and dance) and the middle school students signed up for what they desired. (You could call it a "required art elective" day.) After a few years of that, I moved into the regularly weekly schedule by integrating art into the middle & high school English curriculum.

Around January/February of this year, Laurel Tree began development of a forest kindergarten program and that seemed to simultaneously trigger a new concept for our first through eighth grade students. We've long operated with the twin guiding principles of social justice and environmental stewardship. We've worked hard to get students outside and into the surrounding community, fostering connections to each other and the world-at-large. So by the end of the 2016-2017 school year, a new yearlong program had developed that features five different class offerings to fill our afternoons: Edible Education, Community Classes, Theater/Music, Watershed Adventures, and my contribution: Elemental Art. All students, first through eighth grade will attend each of these classes (in 7-week rotations) at some point in the school year. The program name? "Laurel Tree Wild," something I had started calling this concept early on in order to create a bulletin board. The name stuck and now, here we are as Laurel Tree Wild is in full swing.

For me, this means several new things: 1) art at Laurel Tree now has its own stand-alone class during the main school week, 2) I get to share (and decorate) an actual classroom, and 3) I am teaching art to primary grade students on my own (for more than just a one time class) for the first time ever in my teaching career.

So...Elemental Art...what does that entail? First and foremost, I wanted to develop a program that taught the elements of art - line, shape, value, form, space, texture, & color - for younger students and the principles of design for older students. I also wanted to incorporate some sort of connection to the outside world in keeping with the main focus of the Laurel Tree Wild mission. After a lot of brainstorming, note-taking, and lesson gathering, I decided that each of my five rotations would use one of the four elements of life - water, fire, air, earth - as the central inspiration for art projects and materials. (The fifth and final rotation will incorporate all four elements.) For example, in my first rotation, "Water," which runs until October 20th, most of the projects feature some sort of water creature, from purely imaginary to inspired by real life. We are also using watercolor a great deal. Whenever possible and appropriate, all rotations will have projects & lessons outside. The school garden is right outside my classroom door so it is easy to connect to that natural inspiration when we need it.

The student groupings change every seven weeks, alternating between "littles" (1st through 4th) and "middles" (5th through 8th) with the last rotation made up of a mixed age group of littles and middles. I began on September 5th with my first group, "Water" and 12 primary students: 11 boys and 1 girl. Let's pause just for a moment and consider that...a dozen young, ever-in-motion bodies and minds, who need to be wrangled for almost two hours to focus on art projects. 11 of those wild creatures are boys (my "Wildlings",) who, at the elementary school level are a fascinating and frustrating mix of vulnerability and fearlessness with a rousing dose of stubbornness tossed in for good measure. And then there is the lone girl-child - appropriately named Daisy - who is fair-haired, delicate but strong, tiny but mighty, especially in her ability to hold her own amongst a pack of Wildlings. 

These past few days have been challenging and not without some rough spots. The first week always brings boundary-testing and button-pushing (no matter the age group.) We spend a lot of time learning about each other: the students learn my classroom do's & don'ts and I learn where each child is in their art interests & abilities. After my first day, I came home at 4pm, utterly exhausted, sat down on the couch, and woke up the next morning. Even if I do manage to stay awake after work, not much else gets accomplished including chores, cooking, appointments, my own art, and blog posts. I hope as time passes, I'll be able to find a better balance between exhaustion and all the other things I want & need to do on a daily basis. For now, I basically teach and sleep four days a week (or alternately, stare blankly at the television screen.)

Teaching art to primary students is vastly different than teaching middle and high school-level kids. Attention spans are shorter, bodies are busier, emotions less in control, fine motor abilities still developing. We work in small chunks of time - no greater than 20 minutes in one shot - with lots of breaks. Halfway through class is what I call "intermission," in which I open the door to our school garden and let the horde run wild. After 10 minutes, they have let off just enough energy to return to their art and finish up their work. Once the weather turns more inhospitable for outdoor time, I'll need to have indoor activities planned but for now, I can turn them loose into the sun & fresh air.

While I am bone tired almost every day now, I am also incredibly inspired. It is so lovely to work with littles, to witness their ability to simply dive into a project without hesitation. One Wildling likes to doodle "I love art!!!!!" (liberal exclamation points included) inside whatever image he is creating. Another Wildling can't sit down when he works so he stands instead and bounces along with every mark on the paper, providing a constant singsongy tune for good measure. Every student colors with wild abandon and yet, can thoughtfully describe their drawings, weaving elaborate (and extensive) explanations and narrations that are spellbinding. Ultimately, I know that all this inspiration will weave itself into my own work. I can't wait for the energy to make that happen!


Loulou in Texas said…
Wow, Michelle! This is so inspiring! Your creativity is going wild, too! How wonderful to be named the artist-in-residence of your school!

While reading about the Laurel Tree Wild concept and mission and how you are going to integrate Elemental Art into the program by focusing on water, fire, air, and earth in your art projects, my mind raced forward and imagined seeing your newly published book -- one that explains and instructs other schools how to start a similar program. Like you need to add one more item to your list of projects -- but I seriously can picture this happening. So be sure to take lots of photos throughout the school year of the projects -- just in case. :) :)

Loved this blog!
gretchen said…
congratulations - this seems to be a perfect fit! best wishes in this new venture :)
Anonymous said…
How absolutely wonderful - and obviously exhausting!!! Thanks so much for sharing this. The school looks great and this program is awesome. The work you are doing with these kids will stay with them through their lives no matter what they end up being. Super huge congratulations on developing this program. (I just wish I could send a fairy godmother to grant you a few more hours in the day to rest!!)