DOUGLASS: Art teacher pushes students to discover themselves

Friday, October 14, 2011 | 6:24 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — On a recent morning, second- and third-grade students at Ridgeway Elementary School rehearsed for a classroom performance. 

A week before they had cut out words from magazines and pasted them on small pieces of cardboard, creating what they called "headline poetry." Now, it was time for them to share their work with their classmates, as spoken word.

Students walked to the front of the class, their untied shoelaces dragging behind them. After a deep breath, the first student began to recite her poem. When she finished, her classmates burst into a round of applause.

"These kids are loving it,” said Amber Ward, an art teacher at Ridgeway.  "We can't get them to go home at the end of the day."

Through critiques, songwriting and lessons about famous artists, Ward motivates her students to make meaning out of their work and to develop a sense of identity.

While second and third graders found themselves through spoken word, fourth- and fifth-grade students discovered themselves through images. They cut out images, words and phrases to create archetype cards describing who they believed they were or who they aspired to be.

Anxious to get started on their projects, the young artists grabbed containers filled with magazines and began ripping out pages.

"Can someone help me find dead animals?" one student asked his classmates. "I want to be a hunter."

Lesson plans are developed to help students learn without feeling like they're learning, Ward said.

Before moving to Columbia to pursue a doctorate in arts education at MU, Ward taught at a middle school in Shawnee, Kan.

But teaching hasn't always been on her agenda. Ward, who comes from a matriarchal line of artists, said her primary dream was to pursue a career in fiber art.

She had no backup plan, so her father encouraged her to pursue a teaching certificate.

Ward, who said she never had an art teacher to help her discover the value of art and didn't learn the importance of meaning making in art until she was in college, now seeks to provide students with opportunities she didn't have.

After completing her degree, she said she hopes to teach college students about the power and importance of art. She's already began to spark an inspiration in a student not sitting at the small tables in her classroom

Adair Stokan has been student-teaching in Ward's classroom for eight weeks. She's paid close attention to Ward's teaching style and made mental notes on things she wants to use in the future.

"She knows exactly what she's trying to get them to understand," said Stokan, who graduated from Columbia College in 2009. She is currently following in Ward's footsteps and pursuing a teaching certificate in arts education.

During a recent planning period, Ward and Stokan practiced a song Ward created for her kindergarten class.

"I'm a circle, I'm a circle," sang Ward, mimicking a circle with her arms. "I'm a square," Stokan sang.

Ward said her kindergarten artists are having a difficult time remembering the shapes they're assigned. After several failed attempts while rehearsing the song, Ward and Stokan burst into laughter, took a deep breath and began the song again.

"I did not do this in middle school," Ward said.

Although she teaches the same skills in her elementary classes that she did in her middle school classes, she said she's noticed that she's had to implement more patience and less sarcasm to help the younger students learn.

"I really want them to become thinkers, to find the deeper meaning in what they do," she said. "Because I think only through that meaning-making process that they learn."

By the end of class, students are remembering their shapes.

And Ward's learning too. She applies what she's teaching her students in her own practice of art.

In her recent sculptures, "Confessionals," Ward said she reveals the authentic version of herself she's been hiding since childhood. According to her blog, each sculpture documents aspects of her identity and the confession within.

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