Like ants, they're crawling all over the concrete. On hands and knees, small groups of students congregate here and there while others strike out on their own. Brightly colored chunks of dusty pastel smudge their fingers with pinks, yellows, and greens.. It's Earth Week, and McKinleyville High School's quad has a festival atmosphere in anticipation of Pastels on the Quad and McKinleyville Arts Night.
Friday, after a week of eco-conscious art activities, like "toon bombing" recycling bins with googly eyes and holding a school-wide Earth fair, Mack Arts will cover the quad with environmental images in conjunction with McKinleyville Arts Night. Artistic skills literally hit the pavement, bridging the gap between the adolescent haven of a high school campus and the town that supports and stocks it — an appropriate metaphor for art teacher Justine Smith's goal of integrating fine arts education with community engagement. (Full disclosure: I'm a former employee of McKinleyville High School).
In an era of budget cuts, you might assume that school arts programs are contracting — victims of a myopic focus on core subjects like math and language arts. While this may be true to some extent, Smith's recent endeavors to connect community and classroom are a startling reversal of this trend. By publicly promoting the accomplishments of her students she's not only giving them real-world marketing skills, she's also building critical ties with local families and businesses. Pastels on the Quad is the latest example of Smith's new focus on outreach.
For weeks now, every student in Smith's Fine Arts class has created, individually or in groups, an environmentally themed drawing for the event. On Friday, along with other classes, their drawings will be created anew on the coarse concrete of the school quad. That evening families are invited to see the results and create drawings of their own. Professional-quality displays of student art will be set up in adjoining rooms to show off the other two and three-dimensional pieces students have been creating. Down the hall, Jim Hannon will host an open ceramics lab for anyone who wants to try his or her hand at throwing a pot.
It may seem that this type of community involvement comes naturally to a teacher, but for Smith, it hasn't always been this way. "I have a tendency to get tunnel vision — never getting out of my classroom," she says. "So in order to make these community events happen, [I] have to get out and talk to people in the community!"
Whether it's hitting up local businesses to show student art or going to meetings with the McKinleyville Parks and Recreation board, Smith has had to learn to widen her social and educational circles for the benefit of her students and community. She is now in her 13th year as the fine arts teacher at McKinleyville High, but the first decade or so was narrowly focused on classroom curriculum and planning. Smith admits to being a control freak, but realizes, "that's not what the students need! Why not let them have a hand in planning things out and learning these things?" After all, it's their community.
So why not bring the community into the school? For the past two school years, Smith has been steadily increasing her school's involvement in McKinleyville Arts Night. What began as poorly attended, hastily assembled shows in the cafeteria have blossomed into cross-disciplinary, multi-generational events that showcase the skills of MHS students. For the art class in particular, students not only present their newest visual achievements, but develop and run family arts events. From graffiti name drawings to shadow puppets, students derive lessons from Smith's curriculum and teach them to siblings, adults and anyone else lucky enough to show up.
Arts Night events have had a three-fold increase in attendees over the past year, and Smith is understandably proud of her students and their outreach to the community. "Now we are starting to see people come in who have no relationship to the school ... yet!" she says. "It's a great thing to do on a Friday night with younger children."
Speaking about her students, and echoing her own growth as a teacher, she says, "Just because you've never tried something doesn't mean that you shouldn't, and that you can't develop skills in that area." With each passing month, Smith is handing more of the responsibilities for promoting and running Arts Night to the students. And they're eating it up. It's Smith's hope that even those students who don't plan to pursue art careers are inspired to live life more creatively. That, beams Smith, is the ultimate goal. You can stop by McKinleyville High School on Friday, April 18 from 6-8 p.m. to see the wonders of Earth Week. Bring the kids, make some pastel drawings, and take a small part in creating a global, active and caring community.