American students have experienced a global health crisis, nationwide protests, and school closures and restrictions over the past two years. But art classes in schools helped some students to cope with their emotions and difficulties.
Teachers used the arts and humanities to teach complex subjects such as racism. Students at Sullivan High School in Chicago, for example, wrote poetry and drew pictures on topics like incarceration and slavery for a project based on the New York Times Project 1619.
Art courses such as painting and drawing, as well as music and acting courses, provide students with a way to express themselves. The art or music room can also provide students with an escape from the stress of the school day, educators say.
“I remind students that they only felt comfortable in the band room,” said Gary Mayne. He was speaking to the non-profit organization Music for All of Indianapolis, Indiana.
Mayne is a behavioral expert and former music teacher. “And the best thing we do for a living is to ask children to sit in a room” and express their feelings through music. Some experts say that art classes provide a way to teach social and emotional learning. Social and emotional learning is about finding a way for students to control their emotions, have relationships with others, and show empathy. Many schools pay close attention to social and emotional learning. This may be because students’ mental health has become more of a concern following the coronavirus pandemic.
“Art educators, more than most, have been seeing children for several years,” Maurice Elias told Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news provider. Elias is director of the Social and Emotional and Character Development Laboratory at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “They build strong relationships and connections with children. They have a huge influence on your mental health. “
Sarah Potpinka teaches eight subjects as the only art teacher at Putnam High School in Connecticut. When the classes went online, she asked her photography students to photograph how their life had changed. His drawing and painting students also made pieces in reaction to the pandemic. The work of many of his students was “full of anger,” Potpinka told VOA.
A student who saw school as an escape from home life was unable to leave the house during the pandemic. Through art, she “was able to express herself”, but it was also a way for her she teachers to “see where she was mentally, as I didn’t hear her very often”.
The student’s disturbing work led to a discussion involving mental health experts from the school.
Potpinka said her art classes are often a “relaxation time for the students”.
She said her school system is in a poor part of Connecticut. Many of her students care for younger relatives or work part-time to provide extra money for their family. Potpinka said one of her high school students recently had a child and had a difficult family life even before the pandemic. Potpinka said he is involved in the child’s life. But he is struggling with his homework and risks dropping out of school, as school is no longer important to him.
The student became very interested in the design of tattoo art. Tattoos are ink drawings drawn on a person’s skin that are permanent. He asked Potpinka for materials to be able to work on his drawings outside the classroom.
“You can balance what you’ve struggled with academically, with some success in the art room,” Potpinka said. “It’s nice to see him still working on something that captures him.”
Shawna Longo is a longtime music teacher in New Jersey. She told Music for All that teaching music is a way to have fun while students explore their personalities.
She said that in many years her students may not remember the notes of a song. But “they will remember how they felt. And that, to me, is of the utmost importance.”
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