Almost every artist I’ve interviewed for this column has explained how he or she made a connection to the visual arts early in life. To better understand how an elementary-school art class might influence that early focus, I recently visited with Shirley Frankowiak, who has taught art going on 30 years.
“Miss Frank,” as her students call her, says she knew she wanted to be an art teacher back in the fourth grade. Today she teaches more than 200 students at Jane Addams Elementary School and about 250 at Black Hawk Elementary School, the same school she attended as a youngster. District 186’s first- to fifth-graders receive one hour of visual-arts instruction every week.
Though many people may consider art one of four basic languages, along with the written word, music, and three-dimensional expression, Frankowiak doesn’t see it that way. To her, art is not a different language but an extension of language that uses many of the same disciplines associated with other types of learning.
“Harmony and repetition and other elements come together in art as they do in music, history, and even mathematics,” she says.
“As art teachers we work to integrate art into other forms of study, to help kids better understand relationships as they’re written. Outside my art class, other teachers ask their students to draw pictures based on their writing, and we teach art by using vocabulary they will encounter in other classes. Radial design is an example. Principles taught in making a creative pizza design — dividing, multiplying — will be encountered again in geometry class. Making a mask in art class based on what a student learns about African tribal masks adds dimension to the learning process.”
“Everybody has different abilities, in math and the rest, but everybody can be a visual learner,” Frankowiak says.
Frankowiak’s classroom at Black Hawk is decorated with reproductions of the works of Monet, van Gogh, Renoir, and other masters. “Those reproductions generate a lot of questions — mostly ‘Is he dead?’ ” Frankowiak says with a smile. Today’s art classes include regular reading from art history books.
Students with a real aptitude for art stand out early. Such students consider the approach; they work on the idea first before putting pencil to paper and take their time. “I don’t judge whether art is good or bad. I look at how they’re meeting the objectives of the assignment,” Frankowiak says. “The quality of the art, because that’s so subjective to begin with, is not a factor in the grading. Enthusiasm is a better criterion for assessing art at this stage than the details.”
Grades are based on how well a student meets the “rubric” (baseline goals spelled out on a sheet of paper for each art lesson) and the student’s enthusiasm. All art teachers in District 186 meet regularly to set standards and create projects that meet the standards of District 186 and the Illinois State Board of Education.
During her career, Frankowiak has seen elementary-school art classes expand from 30 minutes a week to 60 minutes a week. The resources she is provided have increased as well. She says she celebrates her two sinks (“absolutely wonderful,” she says), and the art-history textbooks that line the lower shelves of her classroom.