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A Brush With Teaching: Art, Music And Theater Majors Bring Their Scholarship Into Area K-12 Schools

By Karen Nikos-Rose on November 5, 1999 in University

(Editor's note: Since this story was printed in 1999, the funding for UC Davis ArtsBridge has undergone a dramatic reduction in concert with cuts to higher education in the state budget. UC Davis students can now get course credits as interns in the program.)

Under a clear blue sky on a fall morning, a class of first-graders learns about the color green. The children sit at outdoor tables covered with white butcher paper. Glass jars hold blue and yellow tempura paint.

The children each have a cardboard with empty squares in which they will make shades of green from yellow and blue.

"Now everybody grab your brush. Dip it in the yellow paint and paint in your yellow square. Now, we're cleaning our brushes and not putting them in anything else, yet," says Vonn Cummings-Sumner, wearing a red T-shirt, blue jeans and red sneakers.

Cummings-Sumner, a UC Davis graduate art student, teaches first graders at Tremont Elementary School about art.

The children teach him about their learning curve as 6- and 7-year-olds; he now remembers to tell them how to hold their paintbrushes and to apply charcoal to the paper, not to their faces.

The first graders and Cummings-Sumner, along with children in 19 other classrooms and 21 other UC Davis students, participate in a new UC program known as ArtsBridge. UC Irvine pioneered the program four years ago and it became available systemwide last spring.

ArtsBridge encompasses both visual and performing arts, though in its first year on this campus focuses mostly on visual art. Reaching those with no formal curriculum The mission of ArtsBridge is to provide arts education in K-12 public schools in California that typically have limited or no formal art curriculum.

Often the college students and classroom teachers who participate in the program grew up with no formal arts education offered in their California public elementary schools. Local, generally underperforming schools in Sacramento, Dixon, Winters and Woodland received applications to request a UC Davis student arts "scholar."

Graduate and undergraduate students apply to teach in the program, and those selected spend at least eight weeks teaching an arts-related topic, receiving a $1,000 scholarship for their efforts.

The student scholars are counseled by UC Davis graduate student and faculty mentors, who have had experience in K-12 teaching.

Projects in progress through the program vary from a theater production in a Sacramento elementary school to printmaking at Woodland High School to marionette-making at a Dixon elementary school to papermaking related to the study of ancient civilizations at Winters Middle School.

"We're trying to reintegrate the arts into schools, getting across the idea that the arts are a vehicle for learning, not just a 'fun' side event. Art is a useful, hands-on process to help the child grow and understand at more than just the linear cognitive level," says Cornelia Schulz, art professor and director of UC Davis ArtsBridge.

Schulz came to ArtsBridge somewhat skeptically but now calls herself a convert. "Last year I attended an ArtsBridge conference at UC Irvine reluctantly, but I came away extremely impressed. I was truly inspired.

As a colleague says, 'I got the religion!' It's such a pleasure to participate in an arts project that is so enthusiastically supported! It's the first time in my 26 years at UC Davis that I've seen the arts supported like this."

Legislative funding ArtsBridge is supported through funds allocated to UC by the state Legislature; each campus applies annually for part of that money. For the 1999-2000 academic year, UC Davis received $160,000.

"I say to the scholars 'you have a mission' to assist in correcting the unfortunate dilemma of diminishing funds to the arts in K-12. This project tries to help bring the arts back into the classroom.

"When I go to the schools to promote the program, I say that 'art is another vehicle for teaching your subject, another vehicle for learning.' And the teachers know that their children learn in different ways. I might say 'think of bringing in a theater scholar to help the class act out a history lesson.'"

Schulz, who is planning to retire in three years, says directing the program is a satisfying way to complete her teaching career. "It touches a part of my psyche that I can't even describe.... But it also touches on something I've felt disturbed about all these years-that college students are so reserved in the classroom, fearful of expressing themselves. I think, 'what has education done to them?'

I wonder at the elementary level, if there'd been more creative and expressive activities, could students feel more confident, more imaginative, not quite so passive. Maybe this project can help future students be more creative, able to explore, and it can show that the arts are a necessary part of education to draw out the kids in a kind, gentle way."

Praise for the program Elementary school children and their classroom teachers, and UC Davis student scholars and their mentors, seem unanimous in their praise for the program.

"The kids really love to have an outside person come in. It connects them to the possibility that they might want to be an artist," says Yvette Eusebio, classroom teacher for the first-graders learning about primary colors. "Vonn brings ideas to me, which is nice. His plans evolved as he saw what the kids needed.

So, we've taught the artists what teachers go through!" she says. Tremont first-grader Benjamin Story says, "It's fun, 'cause I like doing all this art stuff. I've learned how to paint."

The program offers college art students like Alex Palmerlee, an undergraduate art major, a chance to try teaching before possibly choosing it as a career. "I like all the arts, but nothing that's in great demand in the job market. So teaching may be what I'll do. ArtsBridge combines art and teaching," Palmerlee says.

He and Brian Schmidt, also an undergraduate, are team-teaching a third-grade class in Dixon that is making marionettes. When the class finishes making its wire-and-clay Pinocchios, puppies, Yodas and space aliens, Palmerlee and Schmidt will help the children write a play that they'll perform using the marionettes. One bright comment "It's very rewarding," Palmerlee says.

"The kids here need little to be encouraged. One bright comment from me or Brian can make them think this might be their future." UC Davis music major Diane Cooper teaches Dixon fourth-graders songs about California history to correspond with the state's fourth-grade curriculum. She also teaches them basic music reading and theory.

"I'm toying with the idea of teaching. I'm not sure if I want to, but this is a chance to try it out. I love kids, and this is a whole lot of fun." For other student scholars, the program is a way to express their philosophical beliefs about the importance of art in education. "I really want to teach art. I've worked with kids for the past two years doing art. I think it's an exciting way for kids to learn.

Art isn't as structured as other subjects, so the kids have fun with it," says Claudia Alvarez, an undergraduate art major who specializes in ceramics. She is teaching Woodland fourth graders. "We're incorporating California history into our projects. We've done drawing and ceramics, self-portraits, mosaics, journals, pinch pots and murals. The kids love it," Alvarez says.

Student scholar Robin McCauley recalls that her schooling in Illinois included art as part of the curriculum. "I grew up with art ingrained in me. It's very important that young children appreciate all sort of arts, including dance and theater."

McCauley is working with second-graders in Woodland. "We're working with drawing, coloring, cutting out things. Last week we traced their bodies. It was a pretty ambitious project for second grade-it gets pretty crazy when you have 20 kids running around with full-scale paper cutouts of themselves!"

To her surprise, some of the children had never drawn before. "It dawned on me how important this program is. I'd just assumed they would have done this.

It was really good to see the ambitions in them. I want them to have a sense of accomplishment." Back at Tremont Elementary School, the first-graders have learned about the color green--and Cummings-Sumner has learned more about teaching.

Cummings-Sumner says he envisioned the lessons as very free form when he started. "I wanted to let the kids go where they wanted to go, and be uninhibited with their art.

That worked for the first day or so, but then I realized they needed more structure. I learned you have to take your objectives and package them.

And for first-graders, that means being very structured, planned-and basic." He's also learned to ask for advice from another first-grade teacher-his mom.

"Every time I talk with her I'll say 'Mom, what could I have done?' when class hasn't gone so well." Still, teaching is "always enjoyable, even when they run right over any plans I have!" Cummings-Sumner says. Particularly satisfying is when he creates an example of the art for the children.

"They really watch how I'm doing it. They really pay attention." As the lesson progresses, Cummings-Sumner kneels down beside a child. "I want this square to be even bluer than that square. Yes, mix the paint all around. That's right."

Media contact(s)

Karen Nikos-Rose, Research news (emphasis: arts, humanities and social sciences), 530-219-5472,