In the preschool classes, many students are learning to interact with the world away from home for the first time. Everything is new, and both exciting and scary. For some of our preschoolers who are English Language Learners (ELL), there are additional challenges. This may be some of their first experiences completely immersed in an environment where their native language is not used. In our preschool program in Port Richmond, some students come from Polish and Albanian speaking families. Throughout the semester it has been thrilling to see these students emerge from their shells in our art classes.
The range of personalities in a preschool class are amazing. Some students will talk unabashedly, sharing their opinions, daily experiences, and imaginative stories. Others are more shy and reserved, and may be newly adjusting to time away from parents. I remember that feeling, and it’s hard. Initially many of the quietest students in our class this spring were ELL students; it has been amazing to watch these students, gain confidence and express interest through art projects.
One particular example is a student I will refer to as B. Initially B seemed interested in the classes but did not seem to be able to follow activities. We noticed this on day one, and immediately we began to use more physical miming to accompany verbal instruction. This is a good practice to use anyways, but it came to be important for this particular group. Since then, we have witnessed B and the other ELL students make great gains in the class. Using physical motions to emphasize the processes to follow, B follows directions perfectly, intently working on his creations. He always gives us a smile and a high five at the end of each class. The inviting, participatory nature of working with clay, and the consistent routine of class, mitigates language barriers. In this particular class the teachers have activity stations set up around the room and we work with groups of six as they rotate through the days’ stations. After just two classes students picked up on the routines of art class. We frequently prompt them with questions to scaffold their learning and tie previously acquired knowledge to new lessons. In the first few classes, we would ask students to roll up their sleeves and put on an apron before getting to work. After just a few sessions, students could answer, “What do we need to do before we can get to work?”, saying that they needed to roll up their sleeves and wear an apron. During class last week, as soon as we arrived and began setting up, B went up to the Preschool Teacher, and motioned for her to help him roll up his sleeves. This little interaction spoke volumes to me, he knew that he would be need his sleeves rolled up to begin making art and he was eager to get ready and begin making! In class each child has made creative strides, slowly learning to advance their ability to manipulate clay, to follow directions and to share materials through the confidence-building experiences of art and play.
The extended process of ceramics has also been an important learning lesson for the preschoolers. Rather than quick projects with immediate gratification, they have prompted students to maintain a sustained interest in these long-term projects. Each week they ask us about their projects from last week and we explain that they are being fired in the kiln and we will work on them again the next week.
While learning routine and maintaining interest over the course of a couple weeks may not seem like a big accomplishment, these are really valuable experiences for preschoolers. Setting small goals with a long-term goals in mind, the preschoolers are able to accomplish small feats that lead to larger accomplishments. Not only do these lessons teach students to be creative and work with clay; they allow students to gain esteem and self-efficacy as they learn they can effect materials, work together, and accomplish goals. Research in Social Cognitive Psychology points to the importance of establishing both short-term and long-term goals to develop self-regulation and self-motivational skills. These seemingly little accomplishments have been linked to the ability to be a self-motivated later on in life, and the importance of these experiences in early life are becoming increasingly understood.
I am excited to return the finished glazed pieces to students. The amazement on students faces when they see the hard, shiny, colorful surface of a glazed ceramic piece that THEY created is so rewarding. While of course I hope that as they grow up they will continue to enjoy art and maybe further pursue it, I mostly hope they take that feeling of satisfaction with them. I want them to come away with the knowledge that they are capable and that the world is transformable.