Impact Stories

  • Jennifer Palmer

Lifetime Opportunities Through The Arts

Highlighted by Robert Porter, Acalanes Art Department

Much research has been done in our country to reveal that an arts education benefits all students academically. This is embraced fully at Acalanes High School where, through the support of LPIE, every student has an opportunity to explore the arts for themselves. With a broad selection of art classes and a one-year art curriculum requirement, the possible misconception that one has to be an artist to study art doesn’t exist here.

Robert Porter, Art Department Chair and Instructor at Acalanes High School, shares with us how students develop skills such as resilience and a growth mindset to master their craft in art. These skills then help students to achieve academically and succeed in life after high school.

He should know after 26 years in education helping diverse populations including youth with SED and DD (serious emotional and developmental disabilities), third through fifth graders, and students of the UC Berkeley Extension Program and the San Francisco Art Institute. Arriving at Acalanes High School in 2007, he reinvigorated the digital photo and video production programs and started up the 3D and AP art courses. He is an actively practicing artist in mixed media painting and occasionally sculpts in clay, and wishes he could practice more.

We asked Mr. Porter about the Acalanes Art Department offerings and how an art education impacts adolescence, especially in this challenging 2020-21 year.

What is the variety of art class options at Acalanes?

Acalanes hosts an exciting array of courses: Art 1, Art 2, Advanced Art with an Honors option, Independent Art Portfolio, and AP Art. We also have Digital Design taught by Chris Busse and Digital Photo and Video Production taught by Austin Briggs. These programs have various sequential levels as well.

How is art incorporated into the Acalanes community in general?

Aside from the numerous skills and talents held by the amazing Acalanes students, the Visual Arts programs host a large exhibition during Open House in February, showcasing a myriad of forms of unique visual expression.

The 3D Art class made some garden sculptures for the school garden, both the 3D and 2D Art programs regularly exhibit student work in the library, and we have a small exhibition space in the upper mezzanine of the PAC.

Independent Art and AP Art have a final whereby students plan, implement, and produce an exhibition of their work. Historically this has been held at the Art Room in downtown Lafayette where the owners graciously allow us to descend like a horde of locusts for a few days getting ready. There is a big opening with hundreds of community members coming to see and support our most marvelous artists. This is my favorite event of the year. It can be a bit stressful, but it is an awesome opportunity to celebrate and honor the three to four years of hard work and thoughtfulness these students have exhibited. I am upset this won’t be possible this year.

What skills does an art education build?

  • Growth Mindset

  • Creativity

  • Improved Academic Performance

  • Fine-Tuning Motor Skills

  • Confidence

  • Visual Literacy

  • Decision Making

  • Perseverance

  • Concentration Skills

  • Working with Deadlines

  • Improved Cognition

  • Communication (Written/Oral and Visual)

  • Deepening Cultural and Self-Understanding

Can you speak to the benefits of art during adolescence, perhaps relating it to mental health benefits?

Well, I don’t like to think of art education as a means of catharsis, because it really isn’t. The art courses I teach are rigorous and challenging yet fun and engage students to think in ways that are not typically experienced or stressed in other courses.

I would say that the biggest mental health benefits are learning resiliency and being open-minded to possibilities. I encourage my students to take risks and to embrace failure wholeheartedly. We fail more often than we succeed, but this is necessary in order to learn and to adapt to a series of unknowns and changing circumstances. If you think about it, art education teaches us how to live authentic, holistic lives where we want to become and stay lifelong learners constantly exploring and revealing what is new both for others and for ourselves. It’s the whole growth mindset stuff.

How have you been able to pivot so that students are still able to get exposure to art? What are the biggest challenges during Covid and how are you combating them?

It has been an extremely difficult year. I had to find what was most essential and cut down the scope and limit the materials needed to produce artwork, mostly from a budgetary standpoint as each student needed their own materials and tools available to them at home. The real difficulty was the actual teaching. So much of my work as an art teacher is predicated upon developing a rapport and learning what students want to see so I can guide them. That one-to-one involvement where I can see and mentor their discovery and learning process was incredibly difficult on Zoom. It required many uploads of student work moving back and forth with both verbal feedback in break-out rooms and recorded audio feedback via canvas.

It has been helpful to go into a hybrid model but most of my students chose to stay home in the full-distance model so the hybrid model is actually harder in many ways as a teacher. I still spend most of my teaching day on Zoom working in breakout rooms.

Arts are usually the first to be cut when budgets are tight, which is one of the reasons LPIE was founded 40 years ago – to prevent this from happening. What does parent and community support through LPIE mean to you?

I have been pink-slipped many, many times and know this all too well. What strikes me as so different and unique, and is a total blessing to me as an art teacher, is the incredible support from parents. Of course, this would not be possible without the force of good that resides in those volunteers that make up LPIE. With LPIE’s support, I can purchase excellent materials – that really do make a difference in the quality of work produced – and have any and all of the materials that I should need! I am able to experiment with my lessons, keep things fresh, make lessons that address important issues, and work within students’ interests. Essentially, LPIE’s support not only provides the means but also allows me to be the best I can be to help serve my students.

LPIE has given almost $25,000 to Acalanes’ Art Department this year to provide supplies and equipment thanks to the generous support of our parent donors.