For six wonderful professional years, I served as Lower Elementary art teacher at the Curtis School in Los Angeles. Earlier this summer, my family and I decided to move to the San Francisco Bay Area, and as part of this I made the opportunistic choice to become a stay at home mom with my young son. During these transitional months, I have had time to reflect on my teaching practice and the years that I spent at Curtis School and have realized that my true passion in the classroom lies in the collaboration between disciplines.
Throughout my time at Curtis, I spent considerable effort trying to expand and broaden the arts curriculum that I introduced to my students, in an attempt to make art more relevant to them and the experiences they were having outside of the art classroom. I established an artist of the month program, which provided my students with the story of an artist and a reference point for the project that they were working on. I encouraged my students’ homeroom teachers to refer to our artist or the time period or the subject of their artwork in anyway that made sense with their own curriculum. I knew that discussing the same subject as it relates to a variety of ideas would stimulate our students’ minds to think across disciplines and problems. There was nothing more thrilling than watching my students “connect the dots” without my help.
As the years progressed, my curriculum evolved and my determination to create a theme that acted as an umbrella between two or more disciplines gained momentum. Though my administration openly encouraged my collaborative projects, Curtis’ typical curricula tended toward traditional and finding the space and collaborator for the kind of program I hoped for took time.
During my final year at Curtis, the 3/4 grade Science teacher, Gianna, (fellow 2012 TOF) and I decided to work together to build a pilot program that shared a theme between Art and Science. Gianna and I only shared students at the third grade level so that is where we started, however as the year progressed many of our grade levels became involved within the same themed umbrella. Together, we established a joint curriculum between art and science that deeply invigorated us as teachers and our students to learn and explore. Because of our drive to work together, my last year at Curtis turned out to be my most successful, memorable and rewarding year as a teacher to date.
Our curriculum centered around exploring an idea that could apply to both disciplines. One particularly successful project concerned the Hopi ceramicist, Nampeyo. In art, we discussed the life and work of Nampeyo. The students created bowls in the style of the artist and learned that much of Nampeyo’s work was inspired by ceramics from artists much older than her. On the science side, Gianna then came to my room to talk to the students about archeologists and their work to preserve ancient artifacts. The sixth grade students then led the kindergarten students through a “dig” of artficacts that, once glued back together, produced recognizable artwork.
So what did we learn about collaborative inter-disciplinary teaching? It may sound obvious, but Gianna and I discovered that the single most important success factor is finding the right colleague to work with; collaboration cannot be forced or pushed together just because it sounds good. There has to be chemistry between two teachers’ approaches to the classroom to really make it work. On paper, Gianna and I didn’t appear to be likely collaborators. We had different schedules and for the most part different students but we had the same willingness to be flexible and proactive with what we brought to our program. We trusted each other’s instincts and could move forward with our ideas without consulting first. This type of confidence moved each project along quickly. We combined classes and grade levels to maximize our time and often used older students as mentors to younger students. The students never knew if they were going to end up in the Art room or Science room as they lined up outside my door. This type of flexibility also made our very large school campus seemingly much smaller to our younger students. They got a chance to interact with their older brother or sisters Science teacher and loved seeing where their siblings had class. In return, my former students were able to spend more time with me.
I don’t necessarily think that what Gianna and I did was groundbreaking in terms of concept or originality but we certainly created a spark in our students as well as a few of our colleagues that didn’t exist before. It was such an important part of my professional career that I felt compelled to write about it here. Thanks for reading!
To learn more about what we implemented, our years’ curriculum is documented on our Wordpress site http://paintbrushesandmicroscopes.wordpress.com.