The Artist's Studio
by Greg DeFrancis
Last spring I spent a day at an elementary school in northern Vermont working with the schools faculty in a professional development context. I arrived at the elementary school with boxes of scientific supplies colored markers, clay, cardboard, coffee filters, frozen juice can lids, soda straws,... I had enough materials to last a days worth of adult play and investigation. The Principal greeted me and showed me the classroom I would use. As he was leaving I commented on the neatness of the room, concerned about the mess twenty five teachers and I were sure to create. This classroom was sterile. There was very little on the walls, a few Hallmark-like inspirational posters with bad poetry, but few pieces of students work. The counters were bare, as were the window sills.
Being deeply interested and involved in education, I feel fortunate that my job allows me to see so many different schools. I always try to find time to walk down the hallways, peak inside the classrooms, look at the artwork on the walls and observe the children playing during recess. Some schools have created an exciting and vibrant environment. Others seem stifling, with a neat, yet passive environment that appears to be driven by a need for orderliness and cleanliness. These hallways remind me of the quiet, clean and isolated corridors of corporate America, yet they are intended for children. On the other hand, some halls and classrooms remind me of an artists studio - bursting with imagination, overflowing with creative energy, full of works-in-progress. You can walk into some classrooms and feel the excitement of learning, complete with the mess and controlled chaos of intellectual endeavors. A classroom may give you this feeling even when the students have left for the day.
Years ago, I walked into an elementary classroom in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on an early September morning. There was a pegboard along one wall with an assortment of common tools - hammers, saws, pliers, extension cords, and so on. There were stacks of cardboard, construction paper, shiny mylar, even red, blue and green colored acetate (known as "gels" in the theater lighting business). Egg cartons, old containers and paper tubes were stuffed under the counters. Boxes of colored pencils, markers, tape and glue were spread on the long tables where students would sit on stools. A nicely equipped art room. Just beginning my odyssey into the world of a professional educator, I assumed I had walked into the wrong room. I was looking for Sally Crissman, an extraordinary elementary science teacher with whom I was to apprentice for the year. As it turned out, this was Sallys science room.
During the year the room overflowed with students works-in-progress: seedlings growing in the window sill for the garden outside; marble shoots made out of wood, nails and duct tape; graphs of when the moon rose, or the sun set, or the tide was high; students maps of the classroom, or the school yard, or the Gulf of Maine.
I spent that year with Sally learning what science education is really about. Its about letting children create a shadow puppet play using lights of different color and size, and boiling sumac berries to make a dye. Its about children using pliers to wire a light bulb to a battery and pen and ink drawings of the roots of a sprouting seedling. Its about children using a hammer, saw and scraps of wood to create a sundial, or solar water distiller, or even a see-saw. But mostly, I learned that, at its best, science education, like art, is a messy business, both intellectually and physically. It is not neat and clean like the atriums of Americas businesses along our urban beltways. Our classrooms should reflect the mess, the curiosity and the intellectual excitement that is inherent in doing good science, or good art.
As I finished my teacher workshop last spring, I learned that the room I used was a sixth grade math and science classroom. I left the room a little bit messier than I found it, with a few works-in-progress on the window sills which perhaps the teacher and her students would discover the next day. .
- Greg DeFrancis is the Education Coordinator at the Monshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vermont.