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by Ellie Spielberg | May 16, 2013 New York Teacher issue
In a part of Manhattan that hasn’t gone the way of cappuccino and chain stores — on a Chelsea street bustling with wholesale business and men pushing racks of garments — a group of artists makes its way up an old industrial building to a loft studio that overlooks a black tar roof and a metal sign factory.
Their portfolios are almost bigger than they are.
They are 1st-graders from PS 30 in East Harlem, one of the UFT’s six Community Learning Schools, heading for their weekly immersion in the aesthetics of high art.
This isn’t kiddie stuff. When each of the two kindergarten and two 1st-grade classes go to the HiArt! studio, which works with children in underserved schools with its nonprofit program Time In, they create artwork, explore movement, language and music, and visit galleries and museums all over the city.
On a polished cement floor covered with clear plastic and the colorful chaos of art supplies and collage clippings, the children are watching the opera “The Magic Flute” on a large screen. Soon they will draw their interpretations of the character Queen of the Night.
First-grader Hind shows off her painting of a padlock that goes on the lips of liars, according to the opera. It’s natural to be proud of your creation, especially when you’re encouraged to shine by the fun lady with the purply hair and checkered eyeglasses.
“Some children bring problems with them but fundamentally they are like all other children,” said HiArt! director Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène. “They need attention, TLC and to be engaged and inspired. That’s the way we reach them — with a child-centric program that is very play-based, challenging, sophisticated and multisensorial.”
Bellen-Berthézène says she believes that all children are gifted in some way.
“Are we willing to meet children where their talents are or pigeonhole them and make very small demands on them?” she asked.
Teacher Juan Fermin, on a May 3 visit to the studio with his 1st-graders, said that the children are much more creative since beginning the program in September.
“They are also more expressive, especially English language learners, discussing what they did when they get back to the classroom. Wanting to share their experiences motivates them to speak more English,” Fermin said.
Courtnee O’Keefe, who also teaches 1st grade, said, “This gives students exposure they otherwise wouldn’t have. They’ve been learning art vocabulary and it’s been giving them a different outlook.” She added that simply realizing that there is such a thing as professional artists was a revelation to them.
O’Keefe recalled a high moment when the children were gallery-hopping. One girl, looking up in awe at magnificent contemporary sculpture, said to O’Keefe, “Oh, I didn’t realize art could be this!”
photos 1-5: Like the girl next to an Al Held painting in photo 1, children at HiArt! in Manhattan spend 20 minutes at a time sketching the work of artists in museums. photo 6: HiArt! Director Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène says that developing children’s talents can expand self-confidence to areas in which they feel less competent. photos 7-11: Kids work in the Chelsea studio. photo 12: Teacher Courtnee O’Keefe arrives at the studio with 1st-graders from PS 30 in Manhattan. photo 13: PS 30 paraprofessional Ana Campechano helps prepare collage materials.
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