Every one of the fourth-graders in the media center at Lake Nokomis Community School is still. And quiet. Not a one of the 30 is whispering or giggling -- even though their instructor is waving his arms, making funny faces, doing anything to make them laugh or wiggle.
The "get the kids to crack up" drill may not be part of the curriculum, but artist Steve Busa uses it as an exercise on being focused. It's just one of the acting techniques he teaches on his weekly visits to the Minneapolis school.
Best known as the artistic director at Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis, Busa is one of a growing number of "artists in residence" who share their expertise with elementary and high school students statewide.
Although many schools have been forced to cut back on art programs and teachers to save money, Busa said art education is critical because it gives students different ways to learn.
"It takes them from the desk because not all kids are desk-learners," said Busa, who followed the focusing exercise with a tableau (essentially a living picture) in which the kids told the story of the tortoise and the hare.
Teacher Jennifer Delveaux said the exercises allow her quieter students to blossom. "Many very quiet and reserved students shine in tableaux, and their classmates make them feel good about opening up," she said.
Busa's work is coordinated through Arts for Academic Achievement (AAA), the Minneapolis Public Schools' program that brings trained teaching artists into classrooms. The organization, funded primarily through foundations and corporations, says its programs in visual art, dance, music and theater involved 17,000 students in the 2008-09 school year. Compas, a community arts organization based in St. Paul, and the Minnesota State Arts Board, a state agency that's charged with encouraging development of the arts, also have residence programs.
"We have people that specialize in poetry, mosaic art, songwriting, drama and on and on," said Dan Gabriel, director of arts programming for Compas.
At Hamilton Elementary in Coon Rapids, for example, one of the highlights of fourth grade is folk musician Ross Sutter's weeklong music and dance residency. Artists from the Children's Theatre are spending 18 weeks working on theater techniques, writing and storytelling with fifth-graders at Evergreen Park World Studies Elementary in Brooklyn Center. For Compas programs, the schools pay about two-thirds of the cost to bring in the artists and the organization covers the rest with state, federal and private grants, said Gabriel.
Head of the class
Artists in these programs range from the not-so-well-known to the prominent, including T. Mychael Rambo, a Twin Cities actor and jazz artist.
Rambo's months-long project with sixth-graders from three St. Paul schools -- Museum Magnet, Capitol Hill and Benjamin E. Mays -- culminated with a recent performance about how jazz influenced the Harlem Renaissance. Rambo took the role of radio announcer, while the students took part in the "Kids Jazz Show," which included poetry readings, music and even commercials for bubble gum, Band-Aids and other products from the era.
When he's working with students, Rambo said his role is to help them set goals as a group. He also strives to give each student a chance in the spotlight.
"I realize that most children want a chance to be heard and to be seen and to shine," he said. "They want a moment, they want a place in the sun."
Artist Cara Fazio has found that students also savor a chance to be observers.
Fazio has been teaching drawing skills to a group of fifth-graders. After snowshoeing at Richardson Nature Center in Bloomington, she settled the Kenwood Community School students in a classroom to draw items that she'd collected outside. The students started by doing "gesture" drawings, quick pencil sketches of dried leaves, dogwood branches and dried berries. Then they moved on to a 20-minute detailed drawing using colored pencils. Fazio's 10 sessions with the students will culminate with an intensive drawing project in the spring.
Fazio said she relishes the chance to help students take a closer look at the world around them. "With computers and Google images, so many things just pop up and then they're gone," she said. "This lets the kids slow down and take a closer look at what makes this plant special, what makes this animal special and to actually observe what they're looking at."
Fazio, who squeezes in the art classes around a full-time job, said she gets something from the students, as well.
One time, she asked a group of third-graders what symmetry was. "We decided it meant the same on both sides, balanced," she said. "Then I asked what asymmetry was. One kid raised his hand and couldn't wait to tell what it was. So I called on him."
His answer: A place where dead people are buried.
"You just never know what you're going to get," she said.
Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707