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Teacher brings art history to life with stories, coloring
Jefferson Elementary School art instructor Liz Wheeler works with kindergarten students Argenis Lopez, left, Audrey Hoch, center, and Mario Benjamin as they draw instruments while learning about the artist Romare Bearden.

JEFFERSON — Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo and Henri Matisse are all artists you might expect to study in college, but some Jefferson elementary students are getting a head start.

As the art instructor at Jefferson Elementary School, Liz Wheeler has managed to break down complex subjects like art history and art appreciation into bite-sized pieces easily digested by her kindergarten through second-grade students.

“I have always enjoyed art history — I try to incorporate it into every lesson,” said Wheeler, who has been at the school for three years and an art teacher for nine.

But instead of lecturing students on the merits of the artists’ brush strokes, Wheeler uses a more age-appropriate approach.

“I introduce the artists to the students in a story format. When you present information to them that way, it seems to stick with them better,” Wheeler said. “I also like to incorporate a lot of literature and to find ways to make it fun for the students — I don’t want to overwhelm them with information.”

Wheeler meets with each of the school’s classes for weekly 45-minute sessions. During that time she introduces a new artist by telling a story about their lives and career and also showing the students some of the artist’s work. Each grade level sticks with its unit about a given artist, style or culture for about a month.

Last week, Wheeler introduced kindergarten students to Romare Bearden, a Harlem Renaissance painter who was famous for his collages, which often depicted musicians and their instruments.

After telling the students a little about Bearden’s life — he was born in North Carolina, loved animals and his favorite type of music was jazz — Wheeler showed the class several of his paintings.

While discussing the paintings, the students also got the opportunity to use some of the knowledge they’ve picked up in music class while identifying different components of the pictures.

“I see circles on the drums,” Riley Servatius said.

“And I see rectangles,” Chloe Padgett said. “They’re on the keys of the piano.”

After reading the students a book illustrated by Bearden — “I Live in Music” by Ntozake Shange — Wheeler tested the students’ critical thinking skills by asking the students what idea the author was trying to convey in the book’s title and abstract content.
One student, Cal Maheffey, hit the nail right on the head.

“It means she loves it,” the kindergartner said.

Following the group discussion, the students got to work on their own Bearden inspired drawings. After drawing a large instrument on a sheet of white paper in pencil, the students then traced the drawings with black marker and colored them with crayons.

Next week, the students will paint a background for their drawings, which will be an art lesson unto itself. During that class, the students will learn about primary colors and how they can be used to create secondary colors. They will then be able to create their own secondary color to use as the background of their painting.

Wheeler’s Bearden lesson and some of her students’ paintings were recently featured in a national magazine.

“I think bringing in so many elements helps engage the students and makes the artist more real for them. And it’s a lot more interesting than saying, OK kids, ‘today we’re going to learn about lines and shapes,’” Wheeler said. “I hope the lessons help them develop a true love and appreciation for art.”