Impact Stories

  • Anita Embleton

Art At Stanley Middle School

By the time Lafayette students reach Stanley Middle School, they are familiar with the LPIE art lessons being incorporated into the curricula in their other classes. Three art instructors, Julie Lyverse, Beth Jonsson, and Joan Toney, who are district contractors supported by LPIE funds, push into many different classrooms at Stanley. In addition, Mr. Robert Anke is the full-time instructor teaching art as an individual subject through Art I and II, and also as one of the components of the Wheel program. In this way, art touches students in many aspects of their education to enhance their understanding of subjects and really make lessons tangible.

Ms. Lyverse has been heading up the art programs at Stanley for 17 years. She started at Lafayette Elementary and then moved to Stanley, where she and instructor Ms. Jonsson coordinate four projects a year for 6th Grade Core classes as they study ancient civilizations. Many people are familiar with the Sarcophagus project that illustrates the tombs in ancient Egypt. In sixth grade, the kids have 18 classes overall, encompassing three to five weeks of art education and participation.

Ms. Lyverse didn’t start out as an artist; her degrees are in early childhood education and special education. But while living in Cincinnati, budget cuts meant that there wasn’t money for art in elementary schools and she and other volunteers started an Art Appreciation program to bring art into the classrooms, much in the way LPIE started doing here. Julie says that people tend to think that you “are an artist or aren’t,” but that anyone can do art and her philosophy is that LPIE projects “plant a seed” and add to the richness of the curricula students are learning. It’s another way to “think outside the box,” and as such, she will show children examples of how original artist’s created their work, but not other students’ or teachers’ art because she wants the kids to interpret and imagine their own new designs.

In addition to 6th grade Core, Ms. Lyverse and colleague Ms. Jonsson push into the 7th and 8th grade World Language programs to enhance the learning of the cultures the students are discovering. They also take art lessons to the English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Another very important way art is used to enhance learning at Stanley is in the Special Education classrooms. The third teacher Ms. Toney takes lessons to Special Education classrooms, working with the three to four classes of six to eight kids 10 times per year. Art acts as “psychological relaxation,” says Ms. Lyverse; it’s good for mental health. Students are never graded on their projects, but only on participation, lowering the stakes and allowing the kids to express themselves freely. Distance learning this past year has maintained the integrity of the projects, but changed the programming some. Ms. Lyverse says that an upside is that the students have the “lowered intimidation of creating art at home,” without worrying about comparing their work to any of their peers.

At Stanley, many of the students are able to add Art as a singular subject to their schedules, as a quarter of the Wheel program, or in full-year Art I and Art II classes. Those programs are all taught by long-time Lafayette School District teacher, Robert Anke. Following is a written interview with Mr. Anke:

Would you mind giving a quick overview of your career in art – how did you come to teaching? What is your preferred medium, if you have one? How long have you been teaching art? At Stanley? Was there an art teacher who inspired you, or have you always been the kid in the classroom drawing?

I came to teaching in a roundabout way. I always loved drawing as a kid, but spent more time on a bicycle and skateboard in my free time. My dad was a “car guy” and inspired me with his drawings of cars. I also think my 1st grade teacher dubbing me “Artist Anke” probably had a lasting impression on my life’s direction. Haha. That, mixed with my mom’s career as a teacher, then a principal. I must’ve changed my major 50 times before deciding on sociology, and by the time I had my degree, I was only a couple units short of an art degree since I always took art classes to stay sane, so I finished that degree also. When I got out of school, I tried subbing, and on my first day I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I taught 2nd grade, and then 4th grade for the majority of ten years at Springhill Elementary, which I absolutely loved, but when I heard the one art position in the district was going to be available, I put all my eggs in that basket and moved to Stanley. I taught one year of Core, and have been teaching art ever since. I’m in my tenth year at Stanley now.

As far as my own art, I focus mainly on drawing and ceramics, and spend a lot of time painting landscapes of Briones, where I love to mountain bike, but I dabble in anything creative.

How do you present art to these adolescents? Do many of the kids in your full-year art classes come from Wheel? Do they come with much previous experience?

Apart from this wacky year, in which I talk and interrupt less and let the kids have more time to relax and enjoy the creative time away from ever-present screens, I normally present lessons to the kids by trying to hook them with awesome examples, then giving a demo on technique, and offering advice and bad jokes. The overwhelming majority of students in the year-long classes had Wheel Art in 6th grade. Some come with experience, and I really enjoy furthering their skill set individually – the growth of focused artists is pretty awesome to see – but I also really love hooking the kids who just took art for the heck of it and end up liking the class enough to take a second year.

How do you think Art benefits adolescents as they manage all the changes in their lives? Has that changed during Covid? How has it worked teaching art during Covid?

I think art class benefits students by allowing them to express themselves individually while strengthening their skill sets in various mediums. I think another benefit of the art classroom is that it’s a place to relax. You can work quietly, or listen to music while you work, or as long as you’re not distracting others’ creative processes, it’s also a place where you can chat with peers while you work (not something I can do personally – multitasking like that – but some people have the ability and desire to talk while they work). As far as the changes to the program that Covid has brought on, I’d say I’ve temporarily shortened the lessons and increased the independent creative block, since the kids just need some time away from screen. I think we’re all ready to get messy in the art room again though. I know I am.

If you could design the perfect art curriculum, when would you start teaching art as a stand-alone subject, as opposed to it only being used as a support to other curricula, e.g., a crayon drawing a child does in a book report? What would it look like?

Great question and actually an easy one to answer, since I saw it first-hand as an elementary school teacher: I’d do exactly what LPIE does. The lessons and instructors are fantastic. The projects are age-appropriate and the teachers introduce students to artists and techniques that most kids only get when they are much older and/or have chosen art as an area to focus on. LPIE is just an outstanding organization with a terrific curriculum. The kids really look forward to the lessons, they learn a lot, and they finish with something they’re proud of that also shows an understanding of the techniques taught. I reference those past lessons in my own, reminding them of something they’ve done that applies to what we’ll be doing.

How has LPIE parental support (we have to have an LPIE angle, of course) benefitted the arts programming at Stanley? What additional support could you use to further the arts for the kids?

LPIE has been a blessing. When people walk into my room for the first time, they usually go: “Wow! You guys have potters wheels in middle school?! Look at all the art on the walls and the sculptures! Print making? What?!” If it weren’t for LPIE, it would take a career’s worth of spending my own money to have a fraction of the supplies and tools the kids get to try: computers for graphic design, brushes and inks for Asian brush painting, clay for ceramics, paint for landscapes, portraits, paper mache, linoleum blocks for carving prints… the list goes on. I am extremely grateful. It is no small thing, the amount by which their generosity has enhanced the creative lives of Lafayette’s students.