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Tall and self-confident, Elizabeth Willett looks more like a model than like an elementary school art teacher. As she walks down the sunny hall toward the art studio, as her classroom at Fort Worth's Alice Carlson Elementary School is known, her black pleated skirt brushes her ankles. A line of children traveling the opposite direction all notice Willett, look up at her face, and brighten. A few reach out to touch her hand or pat her as she walks by. She smiles and bends down to their level, a habit acquired over 14 years of teaching art for the Fort Worth Independent School District.
Cynthia Riddle is as different from Willett on the outside as she is like her on the inside. Riddle is a 20-year veteran art teacher at another elementary school, North Hi Mount, just blocks from Fort Worth's cultural district and within walking distance of four museums. She looks more Bohemian than Willett, and favors denim, lots of silver jewelry, and a casual chic. Her art classroom is smaller than Willett's, but the upbeat energy is the same. Riddle's students have made dream-catchers this week, weaving colored yarn in and out of paper disks into replicas of the Native American art form.
Willett and Riddle are two of a small group of art faculty members to serve as leaders in an innovative reprogramming of elementary education funded by the Getty Education Institute for the Arts and the Annenberg Foundation. Along with their school principals, an art administrator, museum educators, and a local university brain trust, these teachers have been quietly setting kids on fire for learning by exposing them to art.
But the project lately has been troubled by questions of censorship. The school district recently canceled visits to two Modern Art Museum exhibitions because of complaints from some parents and uneasiness from some teachers that at least some modern art is not suitable for young eyes. That's an ironic twist for a program that uses art to teach children how to think for themselves.
This is Willett's first year at Alice Carlson. She spent the last 13 years at Oakhurst Elementary, one of the four Fort Worth schools chosen in a national pilot program called "Transforming Education Through the Arts Challenge," a five-year, $15 million effort to reform education through art. "This approach combines four basic disciplines -- art-making, art history, art criticism, and aesthetics -- into a holistic learning experience," says Pam Stephens, mentor and project coordinator for the North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts, which coordinates the Getty/Annenberg program locally. "We're still in the process of measuring as we begin the second half of our fourth year in a five-year program," Stephens says. "My own gut reaction is, we're getting positive results."
Willett says using art to teach math or social studies or language arts is better than teaching students to memorize facts alone. "I really think in art you're teaching a kid how to think," she says. "You're teaching them how to look at a problem, dissect a problem, and come up with a solution that really works."
Stephens says community resources like Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum, Amon Carter Museum, Modern Art Museum, and Sid W. Richardson Collection are important adjuncts to classroom work. "When these kids go to the Amon Carter Museum, for instance, they look like they own it," she says. "I have witnessed these kids in front of works of art taking over from the docents. These interpretation skills then relate to better test-taking skills and better writing skills."
Willett can attest to the better test-taking part. Oakhurst was one of 14 schools nationwide in the program that serve at-risk students and was the only low-performing school of the Fort Worth four. "We got off the low-performing list in one year, which was a monumental task," Willett says. "It was a dramatic difference, maybe 40 points higher (on the TAAS test). It wasn't all because of art, but I know art had quite a bit to do with it."
Museum educators have thrown open their doors to Fort Worth teachers for training; to students for repeat-visit programs that serve both as reward and reinforcement for classroom learning; and to hands-on art-making, art-criticism, and art-interpretation sessions with local artists. And they've done most of it at their own expense, because this kind of grassroots involvement in the community, they believe, is their ultimate mission.
It was last fall's acclaimed retrospective of exemplary British artist Francis Bacon's work at the Modern that led to complaints that school officials had engaged in censorship. Some teachers confessed to being uncomfortable with wall text in the exhibition that referenced homosexuality. Some disliked the number of nudes on display, although Bacon tends to fudge in the area of genital detail, seeming to prefer smudged and blurred suggestions of private parts. Bacon's work is dark and surreal and reflects a degree of personal torment on the part of the artist, but any true appreciation for its adult subtleties seems far-fetched for a fifth-grader to fathom.
"Bacon caused his own controversy from the grave, you know, here," says Terri Thornton, curator of education at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. "The nightmarish quality was the criticism." She says the museum offered a poorly attended preview of the exhibition for Fort Worth teachers as a precursor to their student tours, which she believes could have done a lot to stop the ensuing hysteria.