PUBLISHED: 5:10 PM on Wednesday, December 6, 2006
Creative flow
Visual arts education flourishes in Juneau elementary schools

Photo by Ryan Conarro
  Heather Ridgway, left, and Nancy Lenhnart, artist-instructors for the Elementary Art Program, share visual art lesson kits for Juneau elementary school teachers.
Developing artistic reflection, experiencing integration of art and academics and participating in Alaska-themed art lessons are all activities Juneau's young people will be involved in this winter as the Juneau School District and its Elementary Art Program implement plans for stronger, more consistent visual arts education.

Heather Ridgway and Nancy Lehnhart are the two artist-instructors for the Elementary Art Program. They said the school district is currently distributing to schools a new comprehensive curriculum for visual arts. The curriculum, a packet filled with colorful, clear instructions for all teachers of kindergarten through fifth grade, was adopted by the district last month. The district also updated its middle and high school visual arts curricula.

Lehnhart sat on the committee that wrote the new elementary school curriculum. She said the group was composed of district staff and personnel, as well as community members interested in arts in the schools. Lehnhart said the curriculum standardizes the school district's requirements for visual arts education. She said the committee used as a model the curriculum adopted by the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District.

"We started with Fairbanks and then we made changes to make it more Juneau-based," she said.

The curriculum guide assigns a representative adult artist to each grade level.

Lehnhart said choosing Southeast Alaska artists helped make the curriculum feel closer to home.

"We chose Jenny Thlunaut as our third grade representative artist," she said. Thlunaut is a traditional Chilkat robe weaver from Klukwan.

Lehnhart indicates that the newly adopted curriculum aims to help teachers go beyond simple art activities like drawing and finger painting with students.

"An important section of the curriculum is a section called 'Reflect,'" she said. "(Reflection) is a skill too. It helps kids be stronger learners, and it stretches way beyond just art. It makes kids more respectful; they learn to see different perspectives."

And as the district-wide curriculum goes out to teachers this fall, Lehnhart and her fellow artist-teacher Ridgway say they are striving to achieve similar goals with direct lessons from the Elementary Art Program.

Lehnhart said the district curriculum is simply a guide for teachers.

The Elementary Art Program brings to all classrooms specially tailored lessons designed for each grade level Ridgway said.

"Each lesson provides a set of art goals that students should achieve by the end of the lesson. We also strive to include goals in other subject areas, like health, math, and science," Ridgway said.

Lehnhart and Ridgway are currently preparing a new Alaska-themed unit of visual art experiences for all first- through fifth-grade classrooms in the district. They will begin bringing the lessons to students and teachers in January 2007. The two women are in their second year of bringing art lessons to Juneau's elementary schools, and they will have conducted three sessions in each classroom by June 2007. The upcoming set of Alaska-themed lessons will be their second round of visits to schools.

The first grade January session will teach the ovoid shapes that appear in Tlingit design and will include art skills - color and shape - as well as social studies skills - facts about Southeast Native culture. Second graders will experience a watercolor paint lesson inspired by the work of Juneau artist Rie Muñoz. The third grade lesson intertwines art with mathematics: students will learn about geometry as they design snow flakes. Juneau fourth-graders will create landscapes with tempera paint with a theme of "Scenes from the Iditarod Trail."

Ridgway is working on plans for the fifth grade lesson as well, which will be a workshop on traditional ravens tail robe weaving.

"It's a struggle to make it an authentic, valuable experience in an hour and fifteen minutes," she said.

After extensive research, writing and gathering of materials, Ridgway and Lehnhart trim each lesson to a consumable single-session art experience for students - and for teachers as well.

"It has to be something a teacher can teach, comfortably and confidently," Ridgway said. "It takes a considerable amount of prep time to hone each lesson down."

The two art instructors said they rely on the collaboration and feedback of classroom teachers to refine each lesson.

"(The Elementary Art) Program has embedded staff development," Ridgway said.

The classroom teachers observe Ridgway and Lehnhart as they deliver the art instruction.

"We're hopefully inspiring (teachers) and encouraging them to include more art in all of their instruction," Lehnhart said. "We're really striving to be a resource for teachers. Our hope is that teachers will become more and more confident about how to include art in their classrooms on a daily basis in ways that make sense for them."

Harborview Elementary teacher Fred Hiltner indicates that the Elementary Art Program has done exactly that.

"Heather and Nancy are real artists," Hiltner said. "So it brings us (classroom teachers) to a whole new understanding of art and art instruction. But they also have a real rapport with kids and a great understanding of kids' developmental levels."

Hiltner teaches a combined first and second grade classroom at Harborview. He said he sees himself as a teacher of art as well as a teacher of other subject areas. He adds that the Elementary Art Program has helped him develop his own skills.

"(Ridgway and Lehnhart) really do give good examples of arts integration," he said. "They helped me broaden my ability to tie in other subject areas, especially science, into art. It's not just drawing pictures of things, but how to teach."

Hiltner said the last elementary art lesson in his classroom this year combined health and science goals with visual arts. Ridgway and Lehnhart shared the book "The Hungry Caterpillar" by children's book artist Eric Carle. Hiltner's students then designed pieces of food to be eaten by their own classroom caterpillar using paper and oil pastels.

"The beautiful thing is that it might be hard to tell if it's an art lesson or a science lesson," Hiltner said. "Both were taught in depth."

Six-year-old Marlena Romanoff is a first grader in Hiltner's Harborview classroom. What does she think of the Elementary Art Program?

"It's good," she said.

Romanoff created a watermelon for the caterpillar project.

"I first figured out which food I was going to do," she said. "I drew it. Then I cut it out."

The students colored their art work and then strung the pieces around the classroom to illustrate the caterpillar's journey.

Romanoff said art is her favorite subject.

"I like it because it's fun," she said. "You get to make whatever you want."

And Lehnhart and Ridgway suggest that Romanoff's sense of freedom and fun is as important a goal of their program as teaching art standards and academic subject areas.

"The recent body of research shows that art makes us more human," Lehnhart said. "We can be as technical as possible in this very technical world, but there's more."

After they teach lessons like the Eric Carle oil pastel project, Ridgway and Lehnhart return to their office in the Harborview School building to create portable kits for each lesson. The kits include step-by-step lesson plans, visual aides, and the art materials necessary for teachers to execute the projects. The kits are available for any district teacher to check out and use in the classroom. Last year, the first year of the program, the two instructors built three kits for each grade level they taught. This year grade levels one through five will receive three more kits.

"The program will multiply over time," Lehnhart said. "We'll add more and more kits, and we'll encourage teachers' ideas."

In their office, Lehnhart and Ridgway have arranged stacks of red and green canvas bags-the art lesson kits. They said that the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District has run a similar district-wide program for many years now, and that the Fairbanks program has begun a partnership to share its kits with Juneau to help jump start the local program.

"(Fifteen) Juneau teachers are using the Fairbanks kits" this year under the grant partnership, Lehnhart said. Next year, "Fairbanks will donate up to 40 kits to us" for use by all Juneau district teachers.

The grant is called Project ARTiculate and comes from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant is administered by the Alaska Arts Education Consortium.

"So after just a few years, teachers' resources and comfort will grow," Lehnhart said. "There seems to be long-term commitment from the district to keep the program going."

Lehnhart said the Juneau Elementary Art Program is funded mostly by school district money, with additional dollars coming from the local nonprofit Arts for Kids organization and from the Laursen Family Foundation.

Ridgway adds that the school district hopes to include kindergarten classes in the program next year. She said she hopes to see the program flourish.

"I was really disappointed when I moved here that there was no elementary art," she said. "I was skeptical about this program at first, because I was used to the idea of a specialist art teacher in a school. But the more I learned about it, I thought, 'Oh, I get it. This is really cool. Art in the classroom, with everyone, not just a specialist.' I've become a believer in this program over pull-out specialist programs."

Lehnhart and Ridgway begin teaching their Alaska-themed art lessons in Juneau elementary schools Jan. 3.

"This program provides the most potential for getting art into the everyday lives of kids," Lehnhart said.