Central School, K-3 Art Show
East Bridgewater, MA
As a public school art teacher, Kathy Douglas tries to foster an authentic artist's experience for students. Because exhibition is an important part of the artist's experience, she wants to create a similar opportunity for students to show their accomplishments, communicate about their process, and connect to a larger community. For Douglas, creating a student art show presents both wonderful rewards and enormous challenges.
"In the past, I had looked forward to our spring exhibition with a mixture of pride and dread," she says. Like many elementary art teachers, Douglas has a large number of students (700-900). Choosing one piece from each student was overwhelming. "I kept all the finished work in growing piles around my room until it was time to make the choice. Often, the students did not particularly care for the piece I chose; more often, the students were uninterested in my choice." She used to hang the exhibition in the town library, but few people saw the show, and there were too many students involved to have a proper opening reception. Many of the people who did view the show would walk by the work quickly, looking for their own child's piece. There did not seem to be much enthusiasm or appreciation for the work that the children had done. She left wondering: Was this worth our effort? What were the students gaining from the experience?
To address these problems, she developed a choice-based approach to creating a student art show about seven years ago. Now, the spring exhibition has become a highlight of the season. While only the eldest students exhibit, the entire school is able to participate in viewing and responding to the artwork.
The curriculum theme is "What do artists do"? Because artists choose what, when, and how many pieces they wish to show, she invites the students to choose the artwork for the exhibition. Additionally, to decrease the number of artworks in the exhibition, only the eldest children exhibit. At Central School, this is the third grade, which varies in size from 180 to 220 children from year to year. "Having the students participate in curating the exhibition was the biggest change for me and made the project more manageable," says Douglas.
Planning for the show begins in September. At the beginning of the year, she invites the students to leave work for the show in a large marked box. During the fall the box slowly fills up. She does not look at the work until January, when she sorts it by class to see what has accumulated. As she meets with each class, she lays out the work that she has so far, and they discuss preparing for the exhibition. Because some children have taken home artwork that they wish to add, they bring it back to school.
At this time, a parent volunteer joins the third-grade art classes. She calls students to the computer and invites them to discuss their piece. Acting as a scribe, she types their exact words on the computer and prints them out; this becomes the artist's statement attached to the artwork. Older students can write their own statements, but the teachers found that the children have a lot more to say when they had the services of a scribe.
In January and February, Douglas takes dozens of digital photographs of the students at work; these too become part of the exhibition. She also makes big printouts of quotations from famous artists studied in art history. All this material is mounted outside each third-grade classroom in the hallway gallery and stays up for the entire month of March. This is the time for parent-teacher conferences, enabling all the parents to see the art show for more time than an opening reception.
The exhibition features paintings, drawings, prints, collages, fiber art, weaving, masks, sculpture, and puppets presented on the walls, tables, and a glass case in the hallway gallery. Douglas sends a letter to each teacher in the school encouraging an "in-school field trip," in which other classes can view and respond to the exhibition. Most teachers in the school walk their students through the exhibition. Some teachers create graphic organizers to help younger students view the show in a more focused manner. Some invite students to choose their favorite piece and describe it. Many create a letter-writing experience, asking students to write a fan letter to one of the artists using a graphic organizer. Often the artists write back to their fans.
According to Douglas, "The school-wide gallery visits create excitement in a number of directions: the artists see crowds admiring their work, the younger children see the work of their older friends and siblings and begin to anticipate being in the show." Teachers report that the children wrote well when they chose a piece that connected to them. The letter exchanges built an awareness of the decisions that go into making an artwork and the multiple responses viewers can have. The student art show created a shared experience for the whole school community.
"A choice-based exhibition is easier for me, and by focusing our collective efforts, it is more meaningful to the school community," says Douglas. "Because the children are showing the work of their choice, they are incredibly invested in the show. The show proved to be a motivator for many students who worked extra hard to finish in time. I also got to know the students better, more intimately, through their artist statements. I noticed a different quality to our eye contact even when we passed in the hallway."
For those viewing the show, the photographs and artist's statements were "speed bumps," causing them to look more carefully at all the work and often to marvel at the depth of thought displayed in the visual art and the written statement. Parents commented on how much more confident their child has become as a result of the class and show. The elements of choice, reflection, response, and community have made this project a success year after year.