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Birth of the Art Club (or, my real dream of an environmental club)


I’ll be honest: I wanted an environmental club. I wanted to sponsor an after-school club on water conservation and air pollution. I pictured myself gathering school children on sunny afternoons to learn about climate change. We could hook up with Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program and invite Navajo environmentalists to lead talks; we could have started recycling. It would have been grand.

Enthusiastically, I described my elaborate dreams to some fifth and eighth graders on the first day of school. They were kind enough to let me finish illustrating how we would pick up litter around the lake and discuss alternative energy sources. But after painting my spectacular plans, luckily I had the sense to ask them if anyone would join the club.



“Uhh…. no.”

And so, my dream was killed.

I was heartbroken, but only for a minute. I ventured to ask these students, this collection of loners and athletes and rockers, what they actually liked to do. And I wasn’t surprised by the majority of their responses.

“Drawing on paper.”


“Crafts and stuff is OK.”

And so that was that. Our Art Club was born.

The only problem is I hate crafts. I don’t like art. I have a hard time even writing straight on the blackboard. I go to far lengths to avoid doing crafty things and bless my artsy colleague who patiently, magically transforms magazines and construction paper into delicately arched roses and carnations that drape from the classroom door. Did I mention I hate arts and crafts? I have patience with children; not with scissors and glue.

But as I’ve quickly learned from my fellow teachers, many of whom double as my surrogate mothers out in the Southwest, it’s not about what the grown up wants to do— it’s about what the kids need. And according to our kids, they need art.

Art isn’t offered as a class at our school this year, but it doesn’t mean we can’t make it happen ourselves. Especially when the kids bring their own enthusiasm. Last week, we had our first Art Club meeting. Two teachers and I supervised the students between 3rd to 7th grades as they rolled colored clay and drew portraits of one another. I now have a collection of clay roses drying on my desk.

While I had no idea how to entertain the students at first, I should have known that they’d be the ones fueling the club’s energy. When asked what they wanted to do, the ideas wouldn’t stop pouring in. Sock puppets. Holiday cards. Halloween decorations. Oil painting. More clay. Even the other teachers got in on the fun. What about decoupage?

Our club meets weekly in my classroom. It isn’t fancy. It probably isn’t educational. And it most definitely doesn’t revolve around climate changes and alternative fuel sources. But the kids are happy. And for now, that is enough.


I admire how you are going with the flow of the situation. And, after 22 years of teaching, I can tell you that almost everything you do with the students, if it piques their interest and keeps them engaged with school, will lead them back around to more traditionally "educational" things.

Our education system tends to focus on test-taking skills and rote regurgitation of information, but there are many other life skills and ways of learning that need to be developed in our classrooms. My guess is that you will develop an esprit de corps in your Art Club that will result in heightened self esteem, greater engagement, and, ultimately, increased learning by the students in the Club.

Keep up the inspiring work!

I hope you learn to love arts and crafts. As a new teacher, when I get to finally teach, I plan to incorporate it into just about everything. As a student teacher, we did something artsy crafty with almost each lesson. The kids loved it. At the end of the Sand, Salt and Silt science section we did clay sculptures and painted them. The veteran teachers oohed and aahhed at my patience. I could do it because I was student teaching, but I intend to do it as a "real teacher" too.

Twenty some years ago I visited a friend who was teaching at a school in Manny Farms Aizona. I was struck by the beauty and the isolation of that area and always thought that someday I would work on the Big Res. It has not happen yet but with retirement looming it could still happen. I honer you didication and tell you you are cool.

The old teachers are correct it is always about the students, teacher are there to serve, cultivate, and protect. Thank you for you posting.

What could be more educational than kids following their inner passions and expressing themselves creatively? What an important human experience! I hope your students continue to realize their dreams and needs, and I hope, even if you hate art, that you will come to understand the deep and profound value of not only their creative expression, but also their self-understanding and ability to enable themselves in their interests.

You are absolutely right that what's important is the students' needs, not ours. When kids create, they see their ability to transform bits and pieces into something beautiful. That's a powerful experience.

What you're already doing is fantastic, but might I suggest a vision for taking it to a new level? You mentioned wanting to bring in Navajo environmentalists--why not bring in Navajo artists to teach students the history related to their art?

I run an afterschool program that, among other things, uses music to help students connect to history. Visual arts can do the same thing. Keep in mind that art arises from specific cultural and historical contexts and can be a tool to effect positive change.

My context is different--my students are African-American middle school girls in Washington, DC. But the underlying lesson of their experience translates. When they started our program, the Civil Rights Movement was so distant to them that many thought Martin Luther King freed the slaves! By exploring freedom songs, learning about youth in the Movement, discovering parallels between the struggles against Jim Crow and apartheid (using the South African national anthem as our entry point), and meeting a survivor of the freedom rides, this history became real to them.

Not only that, but they drew inspiration from it. At their final performance, after doing a skit about a 17-year-old unsung heroine from the Movement, they sang the old Civil Rights song, "If You Miss Me from the Back of the Bus." They added their own last verse: "If you miss me from the sidewalk/ And you can't find me nowhere/ Come on up to Winston School/ I'll be learning up there." They are beginning to locate themselves in history's continuum. They're taking on the struggle to get that education so they can take full advantage of the freedoms their forebearers fought for. Talk about powerful!

Congratulations on your current program. I wish you the best as you discover art's potential to impact your students' lives.

Dear J,
I just happen to come across your article by accident. I would like to commend you for your attempts to create your environmental club (even if it did not work this year). But be assured that in the future, depending on how long you decide to work on the Navajo Reservation, I am sure that your attempts to create a "new" learning environment will not be in vain. In fact, I believe that getting Navajo children to participate in something they love, can tranlate into getting them to try something you love. The "trick" is somehow incorporating it into a different context. Maybe try have a "trash day" and look for items that can be used in make an art project. Or devising a "make Navajoland Beautiful" campaign/contest. Also, Navajo children will get to know you on a more personal level, which is the best way to create a positive learning environment for all involved. At this point, I think it is about planting a seed, that will grow later in the year...or next year. The Navajo Nation Department of Dine (Navajo) Education has an Office of Dine Language and Culture that might be about to help you incorporate Navajo though and philosophy into your art projects and/or environmental projects. The managers name is Eddie Tso. You can use my name as a selling point.
I am a Navajo Educator currently attending Penn State University, D.Ed. in Educational Leadership. I work, lived and went to school on the Navajo Nation. If you need further assistance email me...I have other individuals here at Penn State and on the Navajo Nation that might be about to assist you.

It's not about what a teacher "needs" or "wants" to teach indigenous people. It's about what essential knowledge is important to the Navajo. These children were obviously missing something in their curriculum. Read the research on the arts in education and how art actually improves other academic learning. Read about creativity in learning. The natural laws experienced in music, art, crafts are directly applied to all areas of life. Our genetic predisposition to tribal arts and crafts and the making of tools is missing from modern education and schooling. The proof of authentic learning of academic subject can be displayed using the skills of art. Even in chemistry labs, the art and craft of glass bending and blowing is an artistic craft evolved to perfection. Enjoy the art of these 'close to the Earth' children. Enjoy and begin to understand their celebrations of natural laws experienced in raising sheep and growing corn. Indigenous people of the world, especially in the warmer climates, spend far fewer hours a day preparing to live well. Many hours left to celebrate, worship and create beautiful art from gathered renewable resources. All of these 'left over' hours are misunderstood by most modern people who are used to electric lights, and a western Christian work ethic based on the philosophy of 'life is suffering and then you die'. Enjoy life's processes! Celebrate in art! Carve a cottonwood bowl and spoon. Decorate it. Appreciate a master drum maker or loom weaver. How environmental!

I am very excited to hear the diversity of comments generated by your posting. I would like to begin a dialogue with you (and anyone else in this posting area) about what we are doing …it might just be the next step to help your students. Let me explain: I work with a wonderful individual whose name is Nataha Lightfoot; he is Native American (Choctaw) and a K-12 educator for almost 30 years. A few years ago, Nataha was nominated for Teacher of the Year with Disney because he proved in his classroom that you can teach animation as a core building block for all other curriculum. He and I firmly believe that you can teach all subjects with their standards around art and animation; in fact, we use the term "visual communication" for this educational model - it enables students to build thinking and problem solving skills as they learn to understand history, science, humanities and other subjects – they then learn now to translate these concepts into resources for other students and communities. When the students have the skill sets that they need to be successful as artists or animators, they can start their own businesses in garages or even in community centers because the animation labs are small and portable. At our developing website http://www.esalutes.com you will see a list of the schools using Nataha’s equipment and curriculum, a list of online courses, and a compilation of career paths that students can enter with these skills. Several years ago, through a grant, we set up animation labs in 3 under-performing schools to help pre-service teachers, master teachers and students learn how to use animation to enhance math, science, and humanities curriculum. During one of these grants, I also began working with two Chapter Houses on the Navajo Nation. I am still involved in trying to find funding to help us set up a conference center in Window Rock, AZ for business leaders, educators and families to come to the Navajo Nation. Please feel free to email me at [email protected] about anything related to what I have shared with you today.

I really admire that you decided to incorporate art into your lessons. I think that art is an important part of education and so many schools just do not have the funds. I have not started to teach, but I am in the process of getting my multiple-subjects credential. I plan on going back afterwards and getting my single-subject in art. When I become a full-time teacher I too plan to incorporate art into all of my lessons. Students have such wild imaginations and without art they are never allowed to express it. My ultimate goal is to become an art teacher at the elementary age where I will show children how to change negative energy into positive energy by using different forms of art.

I was very struck by your attempts to set up an Environmental Club in your school. I have been facilitating an Environmental Club in my school in Co. Clare, Ireland for 4 years. We are a small dedicated bunch of students and teachers who are continually trying (struggling) to inspire the entire school community.
Guess what? It was through ART that we reached out to the school and to the wider community. We came up with the idea of a small exhibition and invited a few local artists to exhibit work with an environmental theme. However, the idea blossomed into a fantastic exhibition involving over 100 projects from our own students and over 30 pieces from artists around Ireland. Six months later and we're still reeling from the success of the event. The exhibition raised our environmental club and membership to a new level.
My advice is to stick with the glitter, glue and paint. You never know where it's going to lead.

I am enjoying your postings. 26 years ago I went to teach on the Makah Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest (Washington state). Lifelong friends, a new perspective on indigenous peoples, and an on-going love for fresh salmon are among my joys at being there.

I have to say "good on ya" for letting the kids have an art club. Follow up on this desire the kids have. You are in a position to bring in the culture of the students. Invite mothers, fathers, aunties, uncles, and grandparents to come and show some art ideas. Let them tell about the weavings, jewelry, drums, and many other types of art. Students, their relatives, and you will have great benefits. I know, I have been there.

i admired for being so much interested in art.... i am a visual art teacher inte philippines the name of our school is HOLY CHILD SCHOOL OF DAVAO.

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