Afterschool Art: College students go back to elementary school to teach kids how to get creative

The ArtShould Board of Directors (Mehves Konuk)

The ArtShould Board of Directors (Mehves Konuk)

It’s 4pm at Ray Elementary School, and there’s some serious eating going on. “The alien is eating the snake, but the snake is trying to act dead,” says one second-grader. Shortly after, “He’s eating him, and he eats him, and,” with great emphasis, “he eats all of them.”

It’s not a culinary club, nor one of alien-eating enthusiasts. Instead, it’s an afternoon teaching session held by ArtShould, a new organization at the University of Chicago, and thirty elementary school students are being tutored by UofC students on the art of collage.

ArtShould is unique because it is not simply a tutoring program. Ray School, like many Chicago public schools, has no art curriculum. But it does have an established afterschool program and some curious kids, which got a group of industrious UofC students thinking.

Alex Spacht, head of teaching and community outreach at ArtShould, explains that what originally started as a collective of UofC students passionate about art evolved into a community outreach program. Instead of focusing on mastery of a subject, teachers for ArtShould introduce kids to something they wouldn’t have come across in a standard curriculum. “We’re teaching third-graders, so we’re not going, ‘Here’s art, you should be good at it,’” Spacht says. “It was started to be a community of student-artists, and our idea expanded from there, bringing that passion [we had for] art to students that otherwise wouldn’t have it.”

In addition to the Tuesday afterschool sessions, ArtShould teachers are required to attend Monday night training on topics ranging from general concerns about teaching young children to the topic at hand that week.

This week is collage. “We give them a setting, they pick and choose different objects and people, and they create their own story,” explains Eddy Menendez, an art teacher and second-year in the College. The kids are at four different tables, and each seems to be taking on their own theme. Aside from the food-chain theme, there is the home improvement-themed table (“I have a flat screen up in the attic.”) and the galactic-themed table (one collage has a capture-the-flag-type story involving the American flag and Jupiter).

In the future, topics will encompass several different types of art, including the graphic novel. Spacht says that Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” will be on the reading list. “It’s sort of tailored for that particular age group, [in] style as well as story,” she says, also adding that student interest would determine additional material. “We might bring in ‘Watchmen’ if the students are interested.”

According to Natasha Davis, an original organizer of ArtShould, it all stems from the idea that “you don’t need oils and pastels to do art. We’re doing basic art with basic materials, and it’s really accessible.”

That accessibility may prove to be what draws the number of elementary school students to room 229 at the Ray School every Tuesday afternoon. With the passage of stricter, test-based standards in schools throughout the country, many programs that were staples of a well-rounded elementary education have gone by the wayside–arts and music especially.

ArtShould is finding a way to bring that vital part of education back to students at Ray Elementary, and it is planning on expanding to other, less affluent schools in the near future, says Spacht.

And aside from that, it seems to be establishing real bonds between teacher and student. The environment is playful and social, and kids interact with their teachers as much as they do with each other. Being a teacher for ArtShould not only involves teaching art, but interacting with elementary school students who have razor-sharp wit and curiosity to match. At times, it leaves one in awe. “I’ve got to give mad props to the teachers,” Davis says, “for actually getting any art done.”

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