Her classroom space is bright and airy, enhancing the saturated colors of flecks of paint here and there that are an elementary art teacher’s building blocks. Though this is Goodwin Elementary School art teacher Sarah Bernhardson’s first year in the district and at the school, she has already made this dedicated art room her own.
One of the classroom’s tables is now the Choice Table. If a student finishes the art project assigned for that day, that student can go to the Choice Table and select from enrichment materials to make a project of their choice.
“I had one girl go to the Choice Table and then come ask me for a stapler,” says Sarah.
A stapler isn’t a tool that a younger student might use unsupervised, so Sarah asked her what she wanted to do with it.
“She said she wanted to make a book about puppies and needed the stapler to make a book of blank pages,” she continued. “I was so thankful that she spoke up and I didn’t say ‘No.’”
Instead, Sarah told the girl she would make blank books to add to the Choice Table.
“They understand they should have a choice in their learning—and they use it well,” says Sarah.
Lining the hallway outside her room are second grade students’ art projects: Line Lions, bright splashes of color and line that bring energy to the subject of lions; and a tree hung with leaves drawn in line patterns called zentangles, which mimic the veins of real leaves.
“We learned about the science of how leaves change color in New England, and then we painted our leaves with warm colors and zentangle patterns” of lines, Sarah says.
For Sarah, integrating different subjects like science, writing, art history, and social studies into art class comes naturally to her. For the last three years, she worked at the Childrens’ Museum of Southeastern Connecticut as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) educator. Before that stint, she taught K-5 art in Windham for a year. Her education shows her shared interest in both subjects: Her bachelor’s degree is in art education, but her master’s degree is in science education, so she is as comfortable teaching students about what makes fall leaves change color as she is helping them create fall leaves as art.
“All grade levels follow the national core art standards: creating, presenting, responding, connecting—we visit all of those topics in the art projects we do across all grade levels, at different levels of intensity” in each grade, Sarah says. “The shift in focus with the national standards is to teach children to be observers and to respond to art. That was missing from art education before.”
In her classroom, a new element of art is introduced and explored on a regular basis. Last month, for example, the focus was on the use of line in art.
“The overarching themes are the elements of art—every six weeks, we learn about a new element—then we study art history, social studies and STEM topics that reinforce these concepts.”
All grades may study the element of line in art, but each will explore it in a manner appropriate to their grade level.
The 2nd-graders studied lines and how they are used in the art of zentangles, a meditative process of repeating lines of patterns. Third-graders observed and responded to the use of line by Katsushika Hokusai in his print The Great Wave, and then related it back to their own art. Kindergarten students learned about Piet Mondrian and his use of line and primary colors to create squares and rectangles. Soon, it will be on to the next element.
“We’ll be using all art media this year. We’ve done several paint projects already,” says Sarah.
She also looks forward to using the school’s kiln to fire student ceramic projects, too—while a college student, her art focus was ceramics so she looks forward to working with clay with the students. She also plans to tap resources in Goodwin Schools STEM lab in support of the art program this year. For her, science and art just go together.
Science wasn’t a subject she always has loved. She first started liking it when she had to take three science classes in college to complete her degree requirements.
“I started liking science because of my interest in plant life and animals. We had to look, observe, and touch—science is about exploring and trying things out—and art is similar,” says Sarah.
With two young boys, both of whom share a love of science, she also gets to tap that other interest.
“Yesterday afternoon, I was launching rockets with my sons,” says Sarah.
Summer also included other hands-on science activities.
“We put vinegar and baking soda in a test tube and launched corks—with supervision of course, and goggles. And we’ve made slime,” recalls Sarah of some of the summer family activities.
Her own summer science projects, though, tend more toward chemistry projects.
“I like to can my own jams and jellies from pick-our-own farms,” says Sarah. “My favorite from last summer was spiced peach jam.”