Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Parents Teach Art - a DIY Approach to Elementary School Art Education

The following article, written by me, was published yesterday in the Storque.

Where I live, there are billboards all over town that simply say, "Art. Ask for More." At the bottom is a line of smaller print that says, "Are your kids getting enough?"

As an artist and a mother of two, I feel fortunate that my kids attended a public elementary school with a thriving, well-established, award-winning art education program that is available to every student during the regular school day for twelve weeks out of the year.

This is rare. Many schools have after-school programs with enrichment classes or occasional projects with artists-in-residence, but very few public schools have a comprehensive art program incorporated into their regular curriculum. Portland, Oregon's Duniway School, which my kids attended, is even more impressive when you consider that they don't even have an art teacher. Instead, the entire program is organized, funded and taught by parent volunteers.

Are you a parent who is frustrated by the lack of art education at your child's school? Are you "asking for more" but still not getting enough? Maybe it's time to take matters into your own hands, in the true DIY spirit. This is the first in a two-part series that will provide some tips and resources for starting and maintaining a parent-led art program at the elementary school level.

[First grade "Sunflowers" lesson based on the work of Van Gogh.]

Start Small
All you really need to start is one classroom and one lesson plan. Talk to your child's teacher at the beginning of the year. Ask for a chance to come in for one hour to teach a fun, simple art lesson. What teacher could refuse that? To find great lesson plans specifically for your child's grade level, you can visit the Duniway Art website at

[The Duniway Art website]

These lessons were all designed to be taught by parent volunteers who don't necessarily have any art or teaching experience. Passionate parent artists like Michelle Smit, a mom of two boys who creates abstract paintings and fused glass works, revamp the lessons each year based on student and parent feedback to ensure they are fresh, relevant, and easy to understand. Michelle also makes sure these aren't "cookie cutter" projects, but rich, meaningful lessons that engage the child's heart, encouraging free expression, imagination and "happy accidents." The program encourages exploration of a wide variety of media, while building technical skills and incorporating art history and multiculturalism.

[Artist and parent volunteer Michelle Smit with her favorites from the fourth grade Picasso lesson, which she wrote.]

The program earned Duniway an Oregon Creative Ticket Schools award last year from the Oregon Alliance for Art Education and the Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education.

Duniway's lessons are all downloadable PDF files with sample images of student artwork. Each lesson includes the concept and objective of the class, prep work and supplies needed, vocabulary words and detailed instructions for teaching the lesson. Pick one and try it out in your kid's class. Or take a look at some of the many other great art lesson plans on the web (see the Further Resources list below for some links). Or, write your own lesson plan! You don't have to do it all alone — team up with your spouse, a friend, grandma, another parent or neighborhood volunteer to make this an experience the kids will never forget. Take pictures and have fun!

[Fourth grade "Sumi-E" lesson based on Chinese brush painting.]

Get the Community Involved
If you'd like to take this beyond just teaching one class and create a school-wide art program like Duniway's, there are three elements you must have in place: support and commitment from the school, help from lots of parent volunteers, and funding to buy supplies.

Talk to your principal and teachers to see if they could carve out one "art hour" per week for up to twelve weeks. Explain that parent volunteers will be doing all the work. If there are objections that art time will take away from valuable time teaching other subjects, point to Duniway as an example. Duniway is consistently rated an "exceptional" school year after year, based on high test scores and overall academic achievement — yet kids take time out for art, physical education and music one or more times each week. It's no surprise, really — according to Americans for the Arts (the group behind those billboards), kids actively engaged in arts education are likely to have higher test scores than those with little to no involvement.

[Fifth grade "Musical Collage" lesson]

Start talking to your school community. Find out how many parents are interested in art and are available for an hour or so a week to volunteer. Find out which parents own print shops, frame shops, art supply stores or other businesses that can help out with in-kind donations.

[First grade "Houses" lesson]

If your school has a PTA or similar organization, find out if you can form an art committee. With a handful of like-minded parents, your committee can begin to recruit and train parent volunteers and organize fundraising efforts to pay for supplies. How much funding will you need? At Duniway, the PTA's art committee has a budget of $4000 each year, which includes all supplies, as well as expenses related to putting on an annual Student Art Show. With a population of around 400, this averages out to only $10 per kid! As Michelle Smit says, "Where in the world could you purchase 12 great art lessons, including supplies, for under $10.00?"

Further Resources:
EyePopArt's blog post about the 2008 Duniway Student Art Show
Duniway Art
Princeton Online - Incredible Art Lessons
The Educator's Reference Desk
National Endowment for the Arts - State and Regional Art Agencies
Lowe's Toolbox for Education
Americans for the Arts
Arts Education Partnership
National PTA
No Subject Left Behind - A Guide to Arts Education Opportunities

Coming Next Week...
Stay tuned! Next week we will take a closer look at how the program works, including roles and responsibilities of the art committee, scheduling classes, teaching tips, and ideas for hosting an exhibit of student art.


ofifteen said...

congrats on the article!

'designing your life'

PeggySue said...

A well written article! When I taught first grade for 5 years, a number of years ago, the district had developed ‘art kits’ teachers could ‘check out’ for a 2 week period. They were all based on the ‘masters’ and taught art with art. It is exciting for me to see an art program extended to a district through parent support. Last year I went into a friend of mines classroom several times and worked on textile art, it was a blast. The kid’s quilts were auctioned at the end of the year fund raiser. I plan on making it a regular visit with all kinds of art. These lesson plans will make it a much less time intensive project for me! Thank you for sharing I look forward to part 2 of the article!