An exemplary teacher offers a way to make kids feel confident and love art.
By Leanne Miller
"Teachers have two gifts they can offer children: the desire to learn and a feeling of confidence." This has been the guiding principle of Lucie Legault-Shrider’s teaching.
For 17 years, she’s been teaching elementary students for the Conseil scolaire de district du Centre-Sud-Ouest and the Conseil Scolaire de district Catholique Centre-Sud. For the past two years, she’s taught Grades 4 and 5 at École Corpus Christi in Oshawa. Last year, she was selected as one of 10 Teachers of the Year, from more than 1,200 nominees, by the Toronto Sun.
Legault-Shrider says of teaching, "My job is to make them feel successful and good about themselves. They have to feel special and when they do, they’ll feel good about school and then they’ll want to learn."
She continues, "I’m always enthusiastic about what we’re learning and I work hard to pass my enthusiasm on to my students. I want them not to be afraid to make mistakes, because so many kids are. I don’t want them to feel discouraged but I do want to emphasize that they can learn from all their experiences, both good and bad. There’s a law in our class that everyone must feel important. I foster this by celebrating what they do well, no matter how small. I give everyone opportunities to be successful, and that means tapping into their diverse learning styles and offering a variety of learning activities."
ENGAGING NEGATIVE STUDENTS
Legault-Shrider points out her Co-operative Council wall display. On it are the rules for ensuring harmony in the classroom. She teaches the rules early in the year, reviewing them as necessary. At the kids’ eye-level are four envelopes: one says Bravo! (things to celebrate), one says Merci! (things to thank others for), one says Je n’aime pas (problems in the classroom) and the fourth says J’aimerais (things I’d like to see).
When issues arise in the class or schoolyard, students are encouraged to note them and put them in one of the envelopes. "Every Friday afternoon, we gather in a circle and talk about what’s in there. This is our chance to discuss problems, focusing on issues – never people – and strategies to solve them. We brainstorm strategies to improve inappropriate behaviour and it works. The goal of the Co-operative Council is to never leave an issue unresolved at the end of the week so we all can work in a positive learning environment."
She cites an example of a boy who was causing trouble for everyone. "His name kept appearing in the envelopes and he quickly became a serious impediment to learning. We discussed his hyperactivity and once the students understood that his misbehaviour was uncontrollable and not malicious, they were keen to help. Someone suggested that he be given a stress ball every time he started acting out. The kids all worked together to remind him and it didn’t take long to see small improvements. Because they all had ownership of the solution, they were committed to making it succeed."
THE FINE ARTS
"Grade 4 is a good place to introduce students to the fine arts," says Legault-Shrider. "This unit covers research, inquiry, writing, reading, group work, and it includes social studies, science, math, language and the arts. What’s great is that the kids take ownership of this project and they really have a chance to be creative. I let them decide how they want to produce the culminating activity, and this pushes them to take ownership for their learning and produce outstanding work."
The three-week unit begins with an introduction to art. Legault-Shrider stimulates interest and builds on existing knowledge by asking students which artists they have heard of. Then she asks them why people draw and why we have art. The goals are to personalize the topic and engage her pupils.
Then she takes them through a brief survey of art, starting with cave dwellers. Her Grade 4 reading text, Capsule, is an outstanding resource to start this unit. Later, students complete a timeline of the artists and periods they have discussed.
Legault-Shrider also uses the popular Où est Charlie? series (the French Where’s Waldo?) and compares one of these pictures to the Bruegel painting, Jeux d’enfants. Both pictures present the world through the eyes of children. She then leads the students through an analysis of the two pictures with questions about what they see, how it would be to live in Bruegel’s time, what children do for fun, how realistic the activities are, the clothing styles worn, what games they recognize. She encourages her students to compare these pictures to their own world, and then they discuss realism in art.
Still using the text, Legault-Shrider takes the children through a survey of some artistic techniques and introduces them to the art of Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Munch. She says, "It’s wonderful when kids recognize the paintings or the names of the artists. Next we discuss the social conditions in which these artists lived. Then we explore the techniques these artists employed and finally, I encourage them to select a favourite technique and to explain why."
PAINTING AND POETRY
"Then they paint something in their chosen style. It takes some work, but they really get into it and they produce excellent results. Next, I introduce poetry and ultimately, the students write a poem about their picture or their inspiration or something to do with what they have painted."
"We start with an introduction to poetry through word association. I pick a word like snow and they brainstorm creative and descriptive words to describe it. Next, I teach the key characteristics of a poem – the structure, the fact that a poem focuses on one idea or concept and that poetry uses language techniques including rhyme, rhythm, sound or word play. Then we write a poem together. Finally, I encourage them to write their own poem that complements their painting. We talk about rhyme but they don’t have to make it rhyme. I want them to enjoy language, not struggle with it."
Next, the students work in pairs on a research project on their chosen artist. Legault-Shrider structures the assignment, giving them a list of resources and questions. They complete a mini-biography and link in how the artists lived and what they were painting. She adds,
"The kids always get a thrill to learn about Van Gogh’s ear or Monet’s garden."
"When they are given this assignment, they are also given the assessment criteria, so they know exactly how they will be marked. The students prepare a written report and they present orally to their classmates and I encourage them to make connections with their own lives and why they painted what they did."
Legault-Shrider wants her students to experience the full artistic process. She explains, "Their challenge is to organize and present a major exhibit, usually held in the gym. I let them decide where it should be, how grand it should be, who to invite (parents, extended family, other classes, reporters from the school newspaper, local artists, etc.) and I let them decide how it should be set up. First they learn about the necessary elements of a successful exhibit and then they divide into work teams to make it happen. Sometimes we have food for sale, presented artistically of course.
"They usually want to frame their pictures. In the past, I’ve involved parents who are good with construction and they are always thrilled to help the framing team. Then there’s the whole challenge of setting up the exhibit. The kids decorate the gym, mount and display the pictures, create signs (like No Smoking, No Funny Faces, No Yawning), and they often want to control the traffic flow with arrows and signs. Each painting must have a sign that includes the title, the artist’s name and a brief description of the picture, so there’s lots to do."
"The exhibit usually takes place in late October or early November and sometime before the Christmas holidays, I will take them to the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario). I used to fear that they’d be bored, but because they’ve been so immersed in these artists, they aren’t. In fact, they are usually fascinated and thrilled that they recognize both the artists and the actual paintings. It’s great fun for them and I’m always so proud when I hear them discussing the artist or the technique; it’s impressive for the tour guides too!"
Legault-Shrider comments on the integration in this unit: "It embraces a variety of topics and skills. In science, we talk about the spectrum and how to blend colours. We cover language with the research, writing and poetry. The kids present their findings, both in writing and orally. They learn new vocabulary and even some math, as they calculate how long ago the artists lived. The social sciences are covered with the periods they are learning about and the skills of research and group work are critical to success. Then there are the visual arts that so often don’t get enough coverage. Students enjoy the opportunity to express themselves in a completely different medium – both with their painting and with their poetry. Organization and critical thinking skills are developed as they design and execute the exhibition. They take such pride of ownership and they always do a great job. This unit is always one of the highlights of Grade 4, both for my students and for me."
Perhaps Canada’s next Alex Colville will one day credit Lucie Legault-Shrider for getting him or her started down the path to artistic greatness.
Lucie Legault-Shrider’s recommended resources:
Lucie Legault-Shrider says her job is to make students feel successful and good aboutthemselves. "They have to feel special and when they do, they’ll feel good about school and then they’ll want to learn."
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