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Artful Lessons for Cambodian Kindergartners

June 11, 1989|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Francie Hansen's philosophy of education is summed up in an ancient Chinese proverb printed in an old newspaper article that she keeps pasted in a notebook.

"Tell me, I forget," the proverb goes. "Show me, I remember. Involve me, I understand."

It's a philosophy she implements by using art to teach English to her Cambodian kindergartners.

Bright-eyed and scrubbed, they begin arriving for school well before the 8 a.m. starting time. Chatting loudly in their native language, they spread out across the floor, bending over papers and paintbrushes to complete the task at hand.

Involvement in Project

The teacher's method is simple. Using largely discarded materials, she involves the children in an art project, which forms the basis for a discussion in English.

"Art is the perfect vehicle," Hansen said. "It's the universal language."

So far the approach seems to be working. The test scores of her students at Robert E. Lee Elementary School have improved, she said. The approach has attracted the attention of community members and colleagues. And it has resulted in several public displays of the students' artwork, including a monthlong exhibition at a city park.

"She's doing well," said Lee Principal Bob Robertson. "We are very proud of her."

Encourages Participation

Dick Van der Laan, a spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District, said: "Art is communication. It makes the children participants rather than passive spectators."

They weren't always participating. Last July, when Hansen began teaching the 29 5-year-olds, most of whom are the children of Cambodian refugees, very few could speak any English. Located in the city's large Cambodian neighborhood, Lee Elementary--which is on a year-round schedule--has a 41% Cambodian enrollment. "The room was silent," Hansen recalled. "They weren't ready to talk."

It was only with the help of a Cambodian-speaking aide, the teacher said, that communication occurred at all.

Hansen decided to try a different approach. A teacher with 18 years of experience and an artist, she began focusing more on art. First she led the children in directed drawings, exercises in which the class drew what the teacher described with the help of her bilingual aide. Then she gradually began shifting to projects requiring more individual initiative. By relying on what she perceived as the children's natural love of art to produce an atmosphere in which inhibitions were low and involvement high, she said, she created an environment highly conducive to learning.

Each Answers Questions

The scene on a recent day was typical. By 8 a.m. the children were sprawled on the floor, enthusiastically painting the indentations of cardboard fruit cartons in yellow, pink, white and blue. As they finished, they formed a line before Hansen, who asked a series of questions of each student. "How many blues?" she asked, referring to the number of indentations the child had painted blue. There followed interrogatories on each of the other colors, after which the teacher recorded the results on a toll sheet. The effect was a lesson in English colors and numbers.

Later they tried another exercise. Using empty cylindrical tennis ball cartons, construction paper, scissors and glue, the children were instructed to create fanciful animals of their own choosing. Lining up again, they were each asked to describe something special about their animal; the teacher then inscribed the answers on on the animals' sides.

"It's a girl bunny sticking her tongue out," said Mary Nasovann, 6, smiling shyly but clearly proud of her creation.

"The lion wants to jump through a hoop of fire," said Sangkham Nou, 5, a sturdy, sober-looking boy with wide shoulders and piercing black eyes.

Hansen believes that such exercises help the children expand their English vocabularies. To enhance the process and add to their general educations, she also employs such traditional kindergarten techniques as reading stories to the children and involving them in elementary scientific experiments. But the art exercises have had a particularly dramatic effect, Hansen said, resulting in some obvious changes in the students' demeanor which she hopes will help them throughout their schooling.

"They're so much more outgoing," she said. "They speak and they understand and I can really give them direction. They're interested in learning."

Shops Display Work

The changes have not gone unnoticed. During walking field trips to nearby business establishments, Hansen said, the children have charmed proprietors into displaying class artwork in such facilities as a yogurt shop, taco stand and flower shop.

A recent monthlong exhibit at the El Dorado Nature Center, its organizer said, was seen by more than 12,000 people. "Besides being full of joy and creativity," said Mary Blackburn, the center's program director, "the work was pretty sophisticated for 5-year-olds."

Consisting of about 100 pieces, she said, the show included collages, drawings and three-dimensional paper sculptures of animals such as monsters, lions and snakes. "It was so full of color and animation that people thought it was just wonderful," Blackburn said. "It says that (the children) feel good about themselves and their place in the world. It says they feel confident."

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