Coloring Outside Curriculum Lines To Depict the Drop in Arts Education

For the 320 students toting sketch pads, charcoal pencils and erasers, North Chevy Chase Elementary School's Big Draw event meant a three-hour break from math, language arts and other classes and a chance to draw to their hearts' content.
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 6, 2008

At North Chevy Chase Elementary School yesterday, third-graders in Room 12 sketched ideas for Harry Potter and SpongeBob SquarePants postage stamps while sixth-graders down the hall drew architectural designs for a castle.

Educators from the National Portrait Gallery helped fourth-graders draw images of themselves, and third-graders pretended to be botanical illustrators by making detailed drawings of plants.

It was all art, all morning at the Montgomery County school, casting a local spotlight on a national reality: that art is often squeezed out of the curriculum by the academic rigors of the No Child Left Behind law.

For the 320 students toting sketch pads, charcoal pencils and erasers, the school's Big Draw event meant a three-hour break from math, language arts and other classes and a chance to draw to their hearts' content.

Fourth-grade teacher Jackie Moore considered it a protest against a decline in public school arts education attributable to budget cuts and a focus on standardized test scores spurred by the federal law.

"I've always been a little bit of a rebel," said Moore, the event's organizer and a reading, language arts and social studies teacher for 19 years. "It's my way to bring art into the spotlight because it's getting pushed aside, and it's so frustrating."

Her sentiments echoed a report released last month by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, which found that many elementary schools across the country have allotted more time to reading and math by cutting time for social studies, science, art and physical education. The issue of "curriculum narrowing" has become a key part of the debate over reauthorizing the 2002 federal law, which is designed to improve reading and math proficiency.

Moore decided a half-day of drawing would highlight how little art instruction students usually receive. She thinks that art helps students learn while improving concentration and observation skills but that there's no longer time to have her classes sew colonial embroidery samplers or create Native American jewelry and pottery.

"I'm all for accountability, but I just think things need to be loosened up a bit to add music and art back into core subjects," Moore said. "Teachers feel so pressured. If they're not always doing test preparation, they think someone is going to come take their job."

Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), a former fourth- and fifth-grade teacher, came to observe. He said he had felt Moore's frustrations.

"It's gotten to the point where everything has to have an objective" based on the curriculum, Elrich said. "I used to take my kids to the Phillips gallery, and [school system officials] would say, 'What's the objective?' I'd think, 'How about imagination and exposure to the world? How about that for an objective?' "

Moore said she got the Big Draw idea from an event of the same name held in June at the National Building Museum. She solicited donations from art stores and help from parents, artist friends and Gary B. Bartee, her principal.

"Yes, we have a responsibility to academic excellence," Bartee said yesterday, "but we only get that if we develop the whole child."

For some students, Bartee said, art skills are some of the few they feel good about. As a teacher in Harlem, he said, he often took his students to New York museums.

"I need to give students a reason to walk through the door," he said.

At the Big Draw, some students learned by sketching whole and cut green bell peppers how architects draw elevations, plans and sections.

Kristi Saunders, a college friend of Moore's and a professional artist, drove up from Richmond to help teach the pepper session.

"It's exciting that they're bringing it back, even if for one day," Saunders said. "You never know if it inspires even one of these kids to do something else," such as take art classes after school.

Several students said they're inspired but want more time to be involved with art in school. Some said they draw in their notebooks during films or when they finish an assignment early.

Irina Galbo, 9, said she likes to draw cartoons at home. "My mom doesn't want me to doodle on my homework," she said. Irina, who wants to illustrate children's books, said she also draws when she finishes early in math class.

"I wish there was a Big Draw twice a week," the third-grader said.

Jacob Rains, 8, said he'll use his skills "to draw things and send them back to Earth" when he becomes an astronaut. But, he said, he feels rushed in his 50-minute art class, which is held once a week.

"Art," the third-grader said with a knowing sigh, "takes time."

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