Friday, 1 January 2016

Art Shapes Learning

At first glance, this classroom scene could make anyone nervous. Yet the teacher is far from anxious, in fact she’s in the middle of things: paint is everywhere, with students wielding brushes and palettes, working on multiple surfaces at once. In this lively act of creation, not destruction, students are engrossed, mixing colors and experimenting with technique. Rules are simple:  ‘respect the materials and one another’s artwork.’ With freshly-painted canvases propped up against windows, on desks and tables, it seems more gallery than a typical classroom.

This is the Shelter Cove Community School classroom, at the Alternative Education campus in Fort Bragg. The art materials, along with conceptual support, are supplied by Flockworks.  How is this different than any other art class? Mainly because this isn’t an art class and it can occur at any time of day, during almost any subject. Along with the usual textbooks and worksheets, science, geography and history are expanded into the tactile realm of creative arts. A length of raw canvas features swirls and splatters overlaid with hand-drawn schematic of a hydrogen molecule chain. A round of wood becomes a cross-cut of the Earth’s layers. The students are making sea creatures, specifically those found in local coastal waters, from a messy plaster substance. Ranging in age from ten to fourteen, many spend their free time fishing, and have taught their teacher, Ariela Marshall about the finer points of local marine life.

Marshall, in her first year as core lesson teacher, brings her prior experience as a crisis counselor and youth worker where creative arts were used as a medium for conflict resolution. While researching restorative justice for her Master’s thesis, Marshall volunteered in San Quentin prison in San Rafael, and served a Summer internship working with incarcerated gang members in Pollsmoor Prison, South Africa. In both cases, art and self-expression were central to her work. Currently, in the Shelter Cove classroom, Marshall draws on students’ own knowledge and interests to promote creative opportunities for learning.

Studies have shown increasing evidence that learning through doing (physical learning) helps accelerate and solidify the absorption of new information, particularly for students with learning and behavioral challenges.  Charles Fowler, an esteemed advocate for arts in education, wrote, “the arts humanize the curriculum while affirming the interconnectedness of all forms of knowing. They are a powerful means to improve general education." 

Students at Shelter Cove often face considerable adversity in their lives, and struggle with motivation and focus. The tactile experience through arts gives them a dynamic and flexible way to engage with learning. They bring their own strengths, and work in their own time, in a safe environment. A natural reinforcement happens as they recreate a lesson through art. “The process, in this case, is far more important than the product. The act of figuring out what you’re doing as you go can be a potent means of growth, both cognitively and emotionally,” says Marshall.  A current board member of Flockworks, she’d witnessed the transformative power of art and wanted to ensure creative opportunities continued on the Mendocino coast. “Kids start to think differently about themselves when they engage in these artistic processes,” said Marshall.

Artwork by the students at Shelter Cove will be shown in the January 2016 OddFellows’ show called “Making Space” opening Saturday, January 9th, 2016.

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