Saturday, July 24, 2010

Another Summer Break

Two years down!  I can't believe it.

As I write to you now, I’m in the United States! I finished my first two-year contract at my school and am enjoying spending eight weeks with friends and family on the west side of the Pacific Ocean. Only eight weeks, you see, because I’ve signed another two year contract. I head back in just a few days to continue the journey of teaching art abroad.

I can’t imagine searching for a new job now. Two years was just a start---there are so many things I still want to do, explore, improve---I am NOT ready to start from scratch at a new school!

I always thought the art teacher was a constant in elementary school life. Your classroom teacher changes every year, but those specials teachers remain the same. I had the same art teacher from kindergarten through 5th grade. Apart from a maternity leave, I also had the same music teacher. And the librarian, she was the same all six years. I loved library in elementary school. I used to go in during my recess in 4th and 5th grade just to read to the lower elementary classes. I still love reading children’s books out loud, holding the book in that special way to the side so the kids can see the pictures but you can see the words.

But back to the art room. In an international school, nothing is very permanent. All of our lives are very transient. For the few elementary students that have been in our school for more than four years, this past year was the first year they had the same art teacher two years in a row! (Previous art teachers split the K-12 load by each grade level individually, not by division---elementary/secondary.)

Part of the doing, exploring, and improving of the 2009-2010 involved the display of artwork. While I continued to update my two bulletin boards in the hallway outside my classroom, I did not have the time to create extra displays in the elementary building. Teaching AP Art History to 11th and 12th graders might have had something to do with that…

But the successful part of the displaying, let’s talk about that!

Many schools have a yearly art show. My school asked me to do nothing of that sort. I thought about it last year, but I couldn’t conceive a system of displaying the work. Growing up, my elementary school had a very wide and very long lobby. The elementary art teacher would cover the bulletin board walls with work AND hang roll paper from the ceiling, perpendicular to the side walls, to create little partitions of hanging artwork. She would then display work on either side of the paper wall. This was an annual occurrence for the month of March, Youth Art Month. Every elementary student would have one work mounted on construction paper and hung in the lobby for the show.

I liked the basic premise of the show, but would it be feasible with my circumstances?

First of all, roll paper is imported, i.e. expensive. Plus, with all the green-initiatives around the world, it seemed like quite the carbon footprint to cut down trees, process them, ship them from the US to China, use meters and meters as fake walls, then throw it away after the show.

I was explaining this predicament to a parent of two secondary students and she had a truly genius idea.

Our school is forever printing cheap plastic banners, be it for a sporting event, concert, drama, or semi-formal. It only costs us a few dollars per square meter! What if we ordered plain white banners, with no printing, and used those instead of the roll paper? The plastic banner could be cut to any dimension, hung vertically, rolled back up after the show, and stored until the next art show! Seemed like a plan to me!

Now where to hang them?

The music teacher had already approached me about hanging artwork during the elementary concert in May. It’s great to tag-team events at my school as the campus is not in the middle of town and it can be taxing on families to come out to campus every weekend for events. The concert would be in the auditorium, but with the high pitched roof above, it didn’t seem like the best place to suspend partitions.

My dream spot---the cafeteria one floor below.

It’s a large space that is often used for refreshments after a concert. I brainstormed with the facilities manager about the idea. Could the ceiling tile grid support the banners of art? What would be the best dimensions for the banners? And most importantly---what would we do with ALL THE TABLES?

See, our tables are not your typical “fold up for easy storage” American tables. They don’t fold, at all. And the seats are attached. And there’s very limited storage space nearby. But with the entire space filled with tables, there would be no areas to hang partitions!

I initially talked about moving out 1/3 of the tables. It turned out to be more like 2/3. I drew up a floor plan (conveniently gridded by the ceiling tiles) and marked off where to hang the partitions. It was a little more complicated than you would think, trying to create a flow to the room, adequate space to observe artwork, and considering light sources. The long sides of the room are covered with windows which allows for abundant natural light, but with an evening concert and a post-concert reception in the cafeteria, it was very important that I was aware of the windows and fluorescent lights.

With only 150 students, I decided to hand select artwork for each student, trying to pick one of their very best pieces but also having a sampling of different projects for each grade level. I mounted all the work but had the art department teaching assistant create all the labels---I just love her handwriting!

We advertised the event with custom invitations to the Elementary Fine Arts Gala: Art Gallery opens at 6pm in the cafeteria, concert at 7pm in the auditorium. The refreshments would follow the concert in the cafeteria. Each student received 3-4 glossy color postcards, one side printed in English and the other side printed in Korean (approximately 70% of my students are Korean).

A few days before the event, I started getting anxious about all the work to do. Only so much could be prepped before Friday! After the morning art class on Friday, I could rearrange my room and turn it into an art-hanging factory, laying the banners out on my tables and taping the mounted pieces to each side. We had to wait until after lunches, around 1:15, to start moving cafeteria tables. Could we get all the work done before 5:30?

The elementary principal really saved me, and the backs of our staff, by hiring a team of six movers to do that manual labor. Since they only speak Chinese, I asked one of our Chinese staff to be my project manager. She was able to be assertive and get all the tables stored away in the kitchen and elementary music classroom with no damage to the tables, cafeteria, kitchen, or the elementary classroom! Plus, she had the movers rearrange the remaining tables, according to my floor plan, to create a better atmosphere for the refreshments section of the gallery.

Other staff members came by to pitch in throughout the day on Friday. All my anxiety, all my stress, all the built-up tension, was carried by members of our team, from teaching assistants and office staff with a few minutes to spare all the way up to the head principal who, with the second grade teacher, sat chatting and making tape donuts for me as I arranged all the artwork on the banners. It was quite the team effort! Everyone was so supportive and excited by the results…and we finished before 4:30!

The space was truly transformed! It was a magical evening as the students arrived back on campus with their parents, searched the gallery for their piece, then lit up with a smile from ear to ear and ran around, showing their work to their friends and family! Students were just as proud of the artwork of their friends. It was a surprise to wander the maze of the partitions, rambling about and discovering the talent of their big brothers, little sisters, classmates, bus buddies, and new friends.

The event was a huge success, even the tear-down the next day. Yes, it was just for one evening. The space needed to be a cafeteria again on Monday morning. The movers returned on Saturday afternoon. Another teacher and I took down all the banners, then the movers brought back all the tables.

The Elementary Fine Arts Gala was a great end-of-the-year event for the school and a fun way to finish my first contract. The banners are now rolled up in the office, waiting to be used again in May 2011!

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