< Art Class Offers Escape, Healing for Students
By Dan Novak
23 November 2021

American students have experienced a worldwide health crisis, nationwide protests and school closings and restrictions over the past two years. But art classes in schools have helped some students deal with their emotions and difficulties.

Teachers have used art and the humanities to teach complex subjects like racism. Students at Sullivan High School in Chicago, for example, wrote poetry and made pictures about subjects like imprisonment and slavery for a project based on The New York Times' 1619 Project.

Art classes like painting and drawing, as well as music and acting classes, provide a way for students to express themselves. The art or music room can also provide students an escape from the tensions of the school day, educators say.

"I remember students that only felt comfortable in the band room," said Gary Mayne. He was speaking to the non-profit organization Music for All based in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Mayne is a behavioral expert and former music teacher. "And the coolest thing about what we do for a living, is we ask kids to sit in a room" and express their feelings through music.

A students from Public School 11 picks out art supplies during an art class at the High Line Park Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
A students from Public School 11 picks out art supplies during an art class at the High Line Park Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Some experts say art classes provide a way to teach social and emotional learning. Social and emotional learning deals with finding a way for students to control their emotions, have relationships with others and show empathy. Many schools place a lot of attention on social and emotional learning. This could be because students' mental health has become more of a concern following the coronavirus pandemic.

"Art educators, more so than most, they see kids for multiple years," Maurice Elias told Chalkbeat, a non-profit news provider. Elias is head of the Rutgers University Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab in New Jersey. "They build strong relationships and connections with the kids. They have a tremendous influence on their mental health."

Sarah Potpinka teaches eight subjects as the only art teacher at Putnam High School in Connecticut. When classes went online, she asked her photography students to take pictures of how their lives had changed. Her drawing and painting students also made pieces reacting to the pandemic. Many of her students' work was "filled with rage," Potpinka told VOA.

One student who saw school as an escape from home life was unable to leave home during the pandemic. Through artwork, "she was able to express herself," but it was also a way for her teachers "to see where she was at mentally, since I wasn't hearing from her very often."

The troubling work from the student led to a discussion which would involve school mental health experts.

Potpinka said her art classes are often a "decompression time for students."

She said her school system is in a poor part of Connecticut. Many of her students care for younger relatives or work part-time jobs to provide their family with extra money.

Potpinka said one of her high school students recently had a child and had a difficult home life even before the pandemic. Potpinka said he is involved with the baby's life. But he is struggling with his schoolwork and at risk of dropping out, as school is no longer important to him.

The student has taken a strong interest in designing tattoo art. Tattoos are ink pictures drawn on a person's skin that are permanent. He has asked Potpinka for materials so he could work on his drawings outside of class.

"He can balance what he's been struggling with academically, with some success in the art room," Potpinka said. "It's nice to see him still working on something that captures him."

Shawna Longo is a longtime music teacher in New Jersey. She told Music for All that teaching music is a way for students to have fun while exploring their personalities.

She said that in many years' time her students may not remember the notes to a song. But "they're going to remember how they felt. And that, to me, is of utmost importance."

I'm Dan Novak.

Dan Novak wrote this story for Voice of America. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

humanities n. (pl.) areas of study (such as history, language, and literature) that relate to human life and ideas

comfortable adj. not causing any physically unpleasant feelings; producing physical comfort

empathy n. the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions

multiple adj. more than one

tremendous adj. very large or great

rage –n. a strong feeling of anger that is difficult to control

decompression n. the process of reducing pressure; to rest and relax

academicallyadv. related to school or education

utmost adv. to the utmost or highest level

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