Albert Einstein said, “True art is characterized by an irresistible urge in the creative artist,” but maybe not if that irresistible urge is to abandon the school-sanctioned project, spread paint all over your hands, and slap goopy blue handprints on everyone and everything in sight.
Herein lies the chief problem in facilitating creative art projects with third- and fourth-graders in a school that struggles with students acting out violently in the classroom.
In my work at La Escuela Comunitaria Arturo Jimenes, a primary community school run by social justice center Oné Respe, I devote a great deal of energy to preparing these art projects, made from repurposed recycled materials. The projects allow the kids to channel energy into creativity and learn about sustainable resource use. The first time I worked on an art project with the kids, they responded so positively and behaved so well that it seemed almost like a magic formula.
Alas, it was not a magic formula.
Recently, I prepared a new project that I was very excited about: painting masks made out of recycled cardboard boxes and toilet paper rolls for Carnaval, a month-long celebration preceding Lent in which people act out heedlessly in street festivals, dance in parades, and dress in elaborate costumes or masks to mock the Devil. The school was gearing up for its own Carnaval celebration, so the kids could show off their homemade masks to their younger schoolmates. When they saw me cutting out the mask shapes, they wanted to start the project immediately.
At first, everything went as smoothly as I had anticipated. The kids applied colors and patterns with gusto. They shared colors cooperatively and cleaned their brushes. Some even asked me to help them cut out extra masks. These were little things, but they seemed like miracles after all the havoc I’ve watched these children wreak over the past month.
Then, just as I was marveling at all the pleasantness, something switched. It was instantaneous. One minute everyone was painting calmly and tidily; the next minute all I could see were pint-sized, primary-colored palms waving everywhere. Faces and uniforms were streaked and hand-printed with red and blue and, for the most creative, muddy pastel mixtures. Students shrieked; slimy stains covered every surface; the rainbow chaos swallowed me.
The change came so quickly that it was difficult to adapt. It had to transition rapidly from Encouraging Art Teacher to Ruthless Disciplinarian/Adept Custodian. I blamed myself for the loss of control in the classroom and wondered how I could have prevented it.
Really, though, there’s no way to circumvent challenges, no matter how carefully I plan these art projects. There’s no way to predict how they will be received, no matter how much I want to believe that creative outlets will make everything click for a child with a disability or a kid from a violent home.
Working with children, especially a difficult group of children, especially in a school low on resources, inevitably will be frustrating. This work requires flexibility and generosity, traits that might be inherent but can always be honed.
After the polychromatic mess, there were micro solutions and macro ones. Physically, I scrubbed tables and walls and hands and faces. Emotionally, I tempered my anger so I could deal with the aftermath more productively.
Most of all, I tried to remember that there might still be benefits to my community work despite the challenges. These benefits might come later, or they might be difficult for me to see. However, my personal frustration is not the final word (any word, really) on the status of this community’s development.
Zooming out, it’s a statement on sustainable community development. All the foresight in the world will not result in immediate tangible results: good development is slow, requires relationships, calls for adaptation to local context and culture, and might not always produce measurable change. Tellingly, the kids still really enjoyed the project and were proud of their masks, even though I perceived the whole thing as a disaster.
Perhaps most importantly, the outcomes of any development project should stem from the community itself, not from an outsider like me. Although it’s rewarding when the kids enjoy their project and behave well too, I need to remember that the ultimate goal reaches farther into the future, farther away from me. If I can provide opportunities in creativity that plants an “irresistible urge” to organize or develop something in their community, years later, that’s a lot more meaningful than an easy day at work.