Friday, May 1, 2015

Painting as Therapy

                   By the end of a long school day, children often get wound up and upset about things that have happened over the course of the day. They're tired, and a lot of the time the teacher is, too. I used to follow a wonderful teaching blog, It's Not All Flowers and Sausages, that talked about just this happening and she said that often her solution for her second grade students was to let them paint at the end of the day.
                  I know a lot of teachers will think: There is no way. My kids are so active, all over the place, if I give them paint and cups of water, my room will be a disaster area. Besides, I have to teach them so many standards, I can't be responsible for the art standards, too. This is what I thought, too, until I gave it a try.
                  Preparing over the summer for my second year teaching, I was more confident in my skills and more determined to give my students a great school year. I got some watercolor paper. I did not get the cheap stuff. When I first started painting with watercolor in high school, our art teachers gave us the paper that the school board sent them. It was horrible, with this terrible texture that made everything look like fur. Of course, as a ninth grader I didn't know any better, so I just thought I hated painting.

My first watercolor portrait. Note the terrible watercolor paper.

                   You couldn't do much more to stifle a student's love of art than give them terrible supplies when they are first starting out (in my opinion). (Disclaimer: In tenth grade at least my teacher warned us that this was terrible paper and we should buy our own paper at the art store.)
                    I probably took this art supply dictum to an extreme by extending it to first grade and kindergarten students, but no matter.
                  I also spent quite a bit to make sure I had a watercolor set for every student. The crayola sets aren't too bad, but I tried to get as many Prang sets as I could afford (I do have a problem with spending too much of my money on my classroom).
                  I cut the large watercolor sheets into eighths and used masking tape to attach them to pieces of cardboard I took off of old sketchbooks and notebooks. This was important because my students did not value paper. I wanted to impress upon them that this was different paper, and they wouldn't get a new sheet if they messed up, they just had to make the painting work.
                 Whenever I announced that at the end of the day we would paint for the last hour (for a while I tried to do this every Wednesday, I think), the students looked forward to it eagerly.
                  I had lots of plastic kids' painting cups (like sippy cups with caps on them to minimize spills) and I had the kids fill them up in the water fountain in the hallway. There was one cup for every two students. I had kids' numbers on the watercolor sets (because I know it's not fun to use a set that someone has messed up all of the colors in; made the yellow brown, the red green, etc.) and I had the kids pass out the sets to the right people and pass out the watercolor brushes.
                  Before we started the first time, I showed them some of my watercolor paintings and demonstrated the basics of watercolor painting: get the brush wet, you can mix colors in the top, dip the brush in water and wipe off on the paper towel before you get a new color to keep the colors pure.
                  Now, I love painting, myself, but even I was shocked at what an effect watercolor painting had on these children. The ones who were the most anxious and unable to concentrate would focus intensely on their painting. You could feel all of the tension of the day leaving the room as the kids had fun with the paintings.
                  It was no use trying to get them paint anything realistically, though. Me being me, of course I tried that, but they just wanted to paint abstractly or paint hearts and stylized flowers. That was fine. It wasn't really about the finished product, it was about what painting was able to do for them: calm them, make them see a new world of possibilities. I was surprised (although I shouldn't have been) at how creative and open-minded my students could be about painting.
                  It was awful when we had to clean up. I tried to wait until the very last minute to call for clean up, because we were all having so much fun. But honestly, although I was always rushed (if they weren't at their dismissal posts in time I was in big trouble with my principal), sometimes the clean up process was the best part. The kids loved being put in charge of cleaning the brushes and cups in the bathroom sinks, sopping up the paint on the watercolor set tops and collecting and putting away the paint sets and brushes. They even liked being rushed and having to do everything quickly and efficiently.
                  I highly recommend that Gen Ed classroom teachers offer painting at least monthly to their elementary students. They might not be learning a reading or math standard, but they are building a community and learning skills essential to being in a great learning environment. Besides that, it is a form of therapy, and it helps them to calm down after a sometimes hectic school day. It helps all the students, and especially those with behavioral issues, see school as a calm, welcoming place.
                  Plus for one bulletin board I had them write a sentence about their painting and put the paintings and sentences up. You can bring all subjects into art if you think creatively.

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