On a recent morning at on Carroll Street, Sophia Yarosh's third grade classroom was plastered floor to ceiling with bright painted canvases and colorful scientific charts. Paper mache sculptures were everywhere.
The entire third grade is participating in the Soloman R. Guggenheim's 40th annual Learning Through Art (LTA) program, a year-long course that places teaching artists in ten middle school classrooms across New York City.
P.S. 58 was selected for the program after a scrupulous application process of interviewing, observation and one-on-one meetings. Schools apply yearly for a chance to engage their elementary students in a state-of-the-art art program. At the end of the school year, some of the students' art is chosen for an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum.
"A Year with Children 2011," organized by the Sackler Center for Arts Education, is on display May 13 - June 16 at the Guggenheim.
“We were looking for schools interested in our own methodology and pedagogy, which centers mainly on arts integration," said Greer Kudon, LTA's Senior Manager at The Guggenheim Museum. "We are looking for a personal connection.”
P.S. 58 is well-known for its integrated curriculum, which includes a French-English dual language program for its students. The school's strong regard for a well-rounded education and a commitment to the arts made it an excellent candidate for the LTA program.
As art programs continue to lose funding, more schools are turning to external educational programs such as LTA, making the selection process increasingly more competitive.
“Kids love art, and they absolutely need it,” said Sara Dalziel a French-English program teacher, adding that the LTA program was all the more important this year because the school had to completely cut out the third grade art budget.
Yarosh said the importance of art cannot be measured.
“Since this is the only art education they can receive right now, this is where they get all their creative artistic instruction," she said. "It's amazing to see what these children will create.”
The students have been working hard on their projects all semester long, and are excited to share their work.
“We hope everyone will like it, because it took a lot of work and so much time,” mused third grader Shelly Figuereo.
Figuereo and fellow student Lucy Machlan worked in a small group to create a paper mache sculpture, the product of months spent learning facts about animals and their climates, conducting research and writing reports on their animals of choice. The final projects are created entirely from recycled objects, such as egg cartons, straws and plastic containers.
“We learned more about animals, not just math and reading,” observed Alexa Ujueta appreciatively, who chose an arctic climate for her group's project.
Justin Morales, Milo Tierney, Byron Hughes Maxwell and Solly Walsh proudly presented their sculpture: a combination of a gorilla, an alligator, a monkey and a bat.
Morales was excited about the class trips to the Guggenheim during the year, where they were able to take in colorful exhibits of modern art for inspiration. As for his aspirations for the upcoming LTA show, Morales feels pretty confident.
“We might be famous for it," he said. "We might go on a wall of fame.”
Beyond learning techniques and lessons, Jewells Ellis said she loved that art gave her the freedom to be creative.
“We learned you don't always have to make the exact copy of a painting the teacher brings in," she said. "In art, not everything has to be perfect. You can learn how to make mistakes into something else.”
LTA has been awarded several research grants by the United States Department of Education because the program builds connections between students' improved reading capabilities, critical thinking skills and problem solving through active engagement with the arts.
“Our approach to learning and art integration in the classroom is very unique in the way we help students build certain skills,” said Kudon.
Grace Isaacs, a third grader, was excited to use recycled objects to create art.
“It's basically saving the earth," she said.
Classmate Peadar Killeen agreed.
“Recycling helps the earth, and then we add color.”
The program has taught the third graders of P.S. 58 as much about working together and developing creative solutions as it has taught them about art techniques – but it has not always been easy.
“We had some cooperative problems,” reflects Sam Holdengraber, a dual-language program student. “But at the end we sorted it out.”
The children also waded through challenges of self-criticsm.
“I wasn't happy with my landscape at first, said Holdengraber. "But we learned from our mistakes.”
Art is indeed all about personal expression. Student Henry Weingartner remembered one of the lessons he learned.
“We would ask Sara Mostow (one of the Guggenheim's teaching artists at P.S. 58) 'Do you think I'm finished?' She would always stop and say, 'Do you think it's finished? It's your decision.' It was very interesting, because she let us decide and tell for ourselves how we felt about our own pictures.”