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| 5 min read | by Lonnie Huhman, |

The art room at Beacon Elementary School was filled recently with creative energy as second-graders were drawing trees, first with pencils and then with charcoal pencils.

In getting the lesson started, Beacon art teacher Julie Nichols told the group that everybody makes trees differently, so part of the assignment was seeing the results of the work that had students thinking about such things as line, balance and unity.

Nichols asked the class if they were their own unique artist, which was answered with a resounding “yes” by many of the students.

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The art room at this newer Dexter school building is one year old now and in that time a few hundred pieces of art have been placed on its walls, recognizing the great learning happening there.

Beacon students see the room as a place of fun learning.

“It’s really fun,” said Beacon second-grader Maren Smith of what she and fellow students are doing in the art class each week.

She said she enjoys the variety of projects, which her classmates at her table agreed with and said because of that it makes the learning even more fun.

Beacon art teacher Julie Nichols gives some instruction while students draw trees.

From Nichols’ perspective, art is vital in the teaching of the “whole child.” 

“Art teaches children that problems can be solved in many different ways,” she said. “Art is empowering!”

She said it’s also a respite for so many students that struggle with different aspects in and out of their school day. 

“Academically, behaviorally and socially, art helps children learn to say what they may not be able to say any other way,” Nichols said.

She said, “Having art in the school curriculum shows students that adults believe it is important.”

The approach to art at Beacon, according to Nichols, is art “education” rather than enrichment, exposure, or art as entertainment, although each of these is encompassed within the curriculum. She said Beacon lessons align with the Michigan Merit Curriculum and the National Core Arts Standards frameworks. 

She said the Elements of Art (line, shape, form, texture, value, space, color) and Principles of Design (repetition, movement, balance, contrast, emphasis, and unity) are the “building blocks” and art terms introduced with each lesson. 

“The creating and completion of lessons, allow students to internalize these terms as they are relevant within their work,” Nichols said.

Beacon students at work drawing trees with charcoal pencils.

Each grade’s instruction and projects have a different focus that is designed to be sequential, Nichols said, and the curriculum is arranged in a developmentally appropriate progression between grades and within each grade level. 

As an example, she said second graders use charcoal pencils and shading techniques that would not be appropriate for a kindergartner or even a first grader. However, she said this material and technique would not be appropriate for a beginning second grader and is not introduced until January or later.

All classes do clay projects, but there is a progression from slab construction in Young 5s and kindergarten to pinch pots in first grade. At second grade, she said students combine two pinch pots that they learned how to make in first grade, to make a hollowed fish.

Nichols said even the three large murals at Beacon’s entrance have a progression of difficulty on individual student tiles. She said kindergartners completed butterfly tiles, first graders completed fish tiles and second graders completed bird tiles. 

“When they were combined, we ended up with three murals that added color and beauty to our school entrance,” Nichols said.

Many of the students’ projects are based on the work of a particular artist and their work, such as Vincent Van Gogh and Starry Night or Georgia O’Keefe and Flowers.

Nichols said Beacon art is presented as a series of problems to solve, which involves exploring higher level thinking skills, in order to arrive at the final composition. She said lessons are presented sequentially; allowing students to work at their own pace and have self-checkpoints throughout completion.

“Students learn to communicate with art and respond to art, while developing the skills needed to create their own art,” Nichols said.

Students are introduced to past and present artists, art styles and themes and art in everyday life, she said, and said using recycled materials and being environmentally aware are year-long themes.  

“Students are encouraged to be their own unique artist,” Nichols said.

“We discuss that their art does not need to look like other students or the teacher’s. Students are introduced to artists that were not accepted by the art community at given time in history because they decided to try something new and unique and how with perseverance, they became some of the greatest artist of all time,” she said. “We talk about how boring art would be if we all did the same thing in the very same way. I encourage students to always do their personal best. No matter what medium we are working with or if its 2D or 3D, the goal is to make art become real.”  

Talking about the classroom style, Nichols said it’s always important that students feel that learning art is engaging and fun. 

“The pulse of the art room should be a buzz of activity where individuals feel free and comfortable to explore their ideas on a given project, knowing I am there to support and encourage,” Nichols said. “When a student sees me in the hall and says, ‘I can’t wait to have art on Thursday, I wonder what we’re going to do,’…life is good.”

For those interested in seeing the pieces of art coming out of the Beacon, then check out the Dexter Community Schools sixth annual Downtown Art Walk, which will run from April 25 to May 15. There will be over 400 pieces of art created by DCS students on display at different downtown businesses.

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