A Personal Essay Advocating for the Arts in STEAM

As an enthusiastic art teacher for children ages Kindergarten through fourth grade, one of my biggest goals is to provide my excited and wide-eyed kiddos with a variety of materials and techniques to explore each year. And as their very first art teacher, I am faced with a great responsibility each day. I remind myself daily of how big an impact I could have on how my students experience, view and even choose art for the rest of their lives.    

The role I have as a teacher is like my role as an Artist; As a potter I am too familiar with the battle of keeping my center while being able to manipulate the push and pull of the clay. I can mold the clay in any way I choose yet at any second, with just one wrong move, my entire creation can fold into itself and completely crumble. As a teacher I am painstakingly aware of how my words and actions can either push a child down or build a child up. I hope to always have students who remember having fun and feeling safe. I also hope to challenge my students in creative ways that encourage success. I hope to always raise confident artists and bold risk takers who aren’t afraid of solving creative problems.

But I also know it is not always easy, this process of gently pushing our students beyond where they started.

We want, we need, to challenge them, yet in their growing I know it’s not gentle on them. It seems that they sometimes want to stay exactly where they are. After all, they say that growing is painful, otherwise we wouldn’t use the phrase “growing pains” at all.  And I suppose it’s the same for our learning. And as reluctant as our students can often be, those monumental moments of growing do come. It comes when they have grown tremendously without even knowing it and they overcome those creative challenges that we give them.

And that is why I do not have tape as a choice in my classroom.

I can see it now, that quizzical look. You’re thinking but things do rip and tear and mysteriously break into pieces… what household doesn’t have tape? Let me describe a typical scenario that occurs regularly in my classroom.

A student comes up to me in desperation with their paper creation in hand. I can see all the parts that are meant to fit together, the bumpy creases where they tried folding over and over. Their cheeks are slightly red, their eyes wide and their words come out fast, almost leaving them out of breath. Steady now.. .this could be dangerous territory.

“Mrs. Ramos! I need tape!”

There it is. It happens every time. It seems tape will save anything. I’ve heard it’s name being called from the depths of the darkest pitfall of a second grader’s not so level house or a not so eloquently built rocket ship. 

“You need some tape? Are you sure you need tape? Why don’t you show me what you’re working on.”

“Yes I’m sure I need tape! It won’t work any other way and I need it now!” Careful… no quick movements… the floor might cave in at any moment.

“I bet we can come up with another way to do what you want to do. I even bet we can find a way to use the glue sticks. Can you tell me about your work?”

This is when they are still desperately clinging, still almost out of breath yet willing to brainstorm.

“I’m trying to attach these pieces so that it stands up. But the glue won’t stick the edges together. It’s not strong enough so I need to tape it.”

“Oh, I see. We need to make something for the walls to attach with. Did you try folding and gluing?”

“Yes but I couldn’t get it straight. And now it’s all bent.”

“I’m so glad that you tried a different way! I have another way that I think you are going to find even better than folding. It’s called using tabs.”

“Tabs?” An eyebrow is raised, their nose scrunched up. I think they still think I’m crazy at this point.

“Yes! Tabs are awesome. Here, I’ll show you. Tabs are like hinges on a door or a cabinet. Have you ever looked at how the cabinet doors attach to the wall? Tabs do the same thing to help your pieces stay together.”

I cut out a small rectangle and fold it in half to create what looks like a small paper hinge. I then glue on both sides but only on one side of the paper. I show them how to place the hinge on the inside of their creation with one side of the tab on one section of the structure and the other side attaching to the part that they want to attach it to.  I then explain that tabs are great because they attach without being able to see them and that tabs can be any width or length.

“You see? You can make as many tabs as you need for your project and you can even make something be able to open and close. And most of the time you can’t even see them! That’s why I like using tabs over tape.”

I demonstrate how the tabs can be movable if on only one side of the structure.

“Whoa! Thanks! I think I can do this!” And then they’re off exploring how to attach in ways they never thought possible.

Many students go even further with tabs and explore how to make things go up and down in their creation or make something move. They explore how big to make them, how many to use and placement within their structures. I have had students create multi-level creations with different heights using tabs. All I have to do is introduce the basics and they find ways to create that I would never think of. And this is just one example of a creative mind at work.   

And there it is. My silly kiddos become engineers.

All they need is that one push and they’re no longer looking to just stick something together, not looking for a patch. They’re looking to actually build something with what they have in front of them and with what seemed impossible.

As an Art teacher I’ve learned how valuable it is to keep giving my students the opportunities to solve their creative problems in different ways and most of the time with limited materials so that they need to think differently.

And don’t get me wrong, there are those moments where tape is the only fix. There are also days when it seems like saying no to tape as a choice feels harder for me simply because those days exist.

But on the other side I’ve watched my kids grow into the kind of creative thinkers who might one day solve our world problems. And if we do not let our children explore how to solve creative problems today while they are children, how do we ask them to solve the world’s problems tomorrow as adults?

Art encourages us all to solve creative problems. Making art even on it’s best day is a creative problem and we must think in creative ways in order to really make it work. We also use creative thinking and problem solving skills when viewing art as we are often left to try to understand something that is not always easy to comprehend. 

But teaching art does not only teach art or creative thinking; art teaches a variety of skills and habits of mind that expand beyond the art studio.

In Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education authors Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema and Kimberly M. Sheridan set the case of how an arts education is not only important to how students learn overall but makes the case that:

“visual arts teach students not only dispositions that are specific to the visual arts- the craft of the visual arts and an understanding of the larger art world outside of the classroom- but also at least six dispositions that appear to us to be very general kinds of habits of mind, with the potential to transfer to other areas of learning” (Hetland, 2007).

The Studio Thinking Framework identifies a specific set of Studio Habits of Mind or a set of dispositions that are essential to artistic learning and artistic behaviors. It encompasses a wide variety of thinking skills that art education encourages including

  • developing craft to learn skills and technique while also learning how to care for tools and studio space,
  • engaging and persisting to solve creative problems and work through challenges,
  • envisioning to imagine possible next steps or see what cannot be directly observed,
  • expressing ideas, emotions and personal meaning,
  • observing and learning to see more closely,
  • reflecting through questioning and explaining or through evaluating your work or the work of others,
  • stretching and exploring to learn how to exceed one’s capacities while embracing opportunities to learn from mistakes and understanding the art world beyond the classroom through learning about art history, other cultures and learning about art within our own society and community.

It is for all of these reasons that Art should be included in STEAM.

Not only does art encourage us to design like engineers or experiment and observe like scientists,  visual art education encourages our students to think creatively and deeply and in a variety of different ways while also learning a variety of skills and behaviors.

When my students are on the brink of giving up and they believe that tape is the only way to make their ideas work because they’ve already folded the edge too many times and tape is easy, the real benefits of art class will make all the difference. It is when they are willing to try something new with what they already have in front of them, gently stretching and exploring beyond where they were,  when I know that one day they might just solve all the world’s problems, one tab at a time.     

This post was written by Sara Ramos, an elementary school art teacher, in response to an assignment for the Arts Integration & STEAM Retreat graduate course.

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