The bell will ring in 5 minutes and clay is everywhere. Artist Hannah Shun is showing fourth-graders how to score clay. Plastic forks in hand, students rake across the clay adding texture to the smooth surface.

“You have to really dig into the clay” says Shun, demonstrating the technique to deeply engaged students who don’t want the class to end.

Shun visits my class once a week. She is one of many teaching artists collaborating with Hawaii public schools. They work closely with grade-level teachers to design arts-integrated units of study.

Artist Hannah Shun works with fourth-graders at Waikiki Elementary School.

Lory Peroff/Civil Beat

As I observe students working on their creations, clay calamities are everywhere. A tall, skinny seabird sags and collapses. An octopus tentacle falls off. A slithery eel that has been rolled out too thinly splits in half. Students are forced to rethink and rebuild. Some are laughing. Some are calm. Some are frustrated. One student in particular is tempted to call it quits.

“It keeps falling apart!” he huffs. Allowing him to ruminate in his frustration, Shun bides her time before approaching  Following her lead, I too resist the urge to rush over and fix his problem.

Our patience pays off. After multiple failures, he successfully secures the limbs of his creature. A proud smile spreads across his face.

Art is a perfect vehicle to teach persistence. It is a safe and fun way to provide students an opportunity to experience adversity. By embracing the struggle during art class, students begin to accept  failure as a step toward growth. With each broken clay appendage students were given an opportunity to try again, test a new approach, and eventually succeed.

Waikiki Elementary students Ryder Goto, left, and Toranosuke Kikuchi display “transformational self-portraits” made in art class.

Lory Peroff/Civil Beat

Art can also help bolster self-esteem in students who struggle in other areas of school life.  It gives them a way to shine without having to be top of the class in reading, writing and arithmetic. For instance, a student who struggles in writing recently created an extraordinary sculpture.

Through art, students are able to cultivate an awareness and articulation of emotions. One recent art lesson involved them viewing self portraits of famous artists.

“I think he must have been sad when he painted it because the colors are all blue and gloomy” said a student after viewing a Van Gogh self portrait.

Another student said, “She looks very serious and strong. I think she likes nature and animals because its’ all around her.” after viewing a self portrait by Frida Kahlo.

Through this experience, students learned that art is healthy way to communicate their feelings.

Everyone can do art.  A new student from Japan recently joined my class three-quarters through the school year. His English is limited, and he and I both struggled to find an appropriate level for him during Language Arts class.

After our first period together, he was showing signs of feeling confused, frustrated and left out. Luckily, next on the schedule was art, and he was able to jump right in.

Art is joyful work that makes students want to come to school. I have a weekly schedule written on the whiteboard, students are consistently excited to see art on the agenda. They routinely rate art as one of their favorite subjects in end-of-the-year reflections.

Shun’s residency is sponsored by the Honolulu Museum of Art, a private organization providing arts programming in schools. Many other Hawaiii nonprofits do arts programs in our schools as well, such as Honolulu Theatre for Youth and the Hawaii Arts Alliance.

A traditional self portrait was transformed into a mask of sorts in the art class.

Lory Peroff/Civil Beat

In 2017-2018, 103 schools received an Artist in the Schools grant through the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, which connects artists with schools. All public schools, including charters, are eligible to apply.

The foundation receives funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, which could be a cause for concern. Will President Donald Trump’s continued efforts to drastically cut or elminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts impact art programs in Hawaii public schools?

They haven’t so far, but if spending on arts education is cut we are losing something important.

“Art helps students discover who they are and what they have inside,” said Shun. “They are amazed at what they can do.”

By inviting expert artists into our schools and integrating art into our core academic subjects, teachers are engaging students in rigorous and fun activities while helping them develop mindsets to navigate life’s challenges.

At the end of the class period, I ask a student about his sculpture. Looking down at his finished work, he tells me, “It didn’t look like what I wanted it to look like so I had to use my imagination and keep trying.”

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About the Author

  • Lory Peroff
    Lory Walker Peroff is a fourth grade teacher at Waikiki Elementary School and a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow who believes writing is not only enjoyable but essential. She lives in Honolulu with her husband, two energetic daughters, three chickens, two ducks and one peahen.