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Bridging the Artistic Gap for Students and Teachers

UC program offers art lessons for kids, training for collegians and tips for classroom veterans.


The art lesson in a fifth-grade class at West Los Angeles' Shenandoah Street Elementary School is about how to define visual space.

Instructor Rebecca Campbell steps in front of a light projector, casting her shadow on the wall. She tells the students that her shadow constitutes positive space; the empty area around her image, negative space. Campbell asks Josue Flores, 10, to find the positive space again. As he innocently touches his teacher's projection, the pre-puberty class squeals in unison.


As raucous as the class may be at times, Campbell seems unconcerned. A little noise means her students are actually paying attention, said Campbell, who recently received a master's degree in fine arts from UCLA.

She also believes that this class, part of a University of California program known as ArtsBridge, offers a valuable experience for teachers as well as students.

The program is meant to provide a bridge spanning three generations.

ArtsBridge awards UC undergraduate and graduate students $1,000-a-quarter scholarships to gain real-life teaching skills in K-12 classrooms. At the same time, veteran teachers learn about the arts from them. And the youngsters benefit from exposure to theater, dance, photography, music and painting--subjects that educators say are too often lacking, especially in urban schools.

Through the arts, children gain confidence, sharpen motor skills and build critical thinking, said Patty Wickman, director of the UCLA ArtsBridge program for the School of the Arts and Architecture since 1999.

But most important, Campbell said, children learn that art, by itself, is important.

"It does teach you hand-eye coordination and concentration," she said. "But it's so much better than that. You can't even put it into words."

Teachers and ArtsBridge scholars, as the college students are called, say they learn their own valuable lessons as well by sharing skills and training.

For example, Campbell says she has picked up tips on how to gear lessons to fifth-graders from Marianne Boroditsky, whose Shenandoah classroom she takes over for an hour twice a week.

"I might have an idea, but she's able to bring to it how to get the idea across," Campbell said.

Founded in 1996 at UC Irvine, ArtsBridge started up as a response to arts cutbacks at public schools. In the last academic year, 780 scholars operated out of eight UC schools and California State University's Long Beach and Sacramento campuses.

ArtsBridge has a statewide annual budget of $1.5 million, although its supporters are alarmed by Gov. Gray Davis' proposal to cut that in half for next year under general austerity measures.

UCLA operates two ArtsBridge programs, one in the School of the Arts and Architecture and one in the School of Theater, Film and Television.

Campbell participates through Arts and Architecture, where typically 100 scholars teach sessions that last an academic quarter to 2,800 Los Angeles school district children on such topics as ballet, jazz, African dance and painting. Some students visit art exhibits at the UCLA Hammer Museum and others learn photography concepts.

A painter, Campbell has been involved with ArtsBridge since she began her graduate studies two years ago. She has been at Shenandoah since October and, because she has finished her degree, is considered a scholar emeritus with a continuing stipend.

Campbell designs the arts curriculum for the class. Boroditsky reviews the lesson plans, deciding which are appropriate for her students, mostly English language-learning Latinos. Then Campbell teaches, with Boroditsky adding suggestions and helping to maintain discipline.

Boroditsky, who counts artists among her family and friends, said she learns new art concepts each time Campbell takes over.

"In my mind, art is more important than many other subjects," Boroditsky said. "Art completes a full education."

After defining negative space as empty space in an artwork and positive space as the area filled with lines, designs, colors and shapes, Campbell asks her students to demonstrate the ideas themselves.

She hands them 6-foot-long swatches of brown butcher paper and tells the students to pair off and trace each other's bodies onto the paper.

Inside their traces lies the positive space. Outside is the negative space they will cut away.

Leslie Estrada and Vilmida Castro, both 10, partner up. Leslie says she likes Campbell's art lessons because she gets to do things frowned upon in her other classes.

"We can do grown stuff," Leslie said. "Charting stuff, coloring the way you want to, painting and drawing."

About her other classes that require students to sit and learn from books, she says: "We do too much of that."

Until recently, arts classes were some of the first items to hit the chopping block in budget-strained school districts like Los Angeles'. Twenty years of such cuts seemed headed for a turnaround in 1999, however, when the Los Angeles district created a new program that shuttled arts teachers to schools on a rotating basis.

But that has limits. At Shenandoah, only eight of 43 K-5 classes benefit, school officials say. Volunteers and such university-based arts groups as ArtsBridge try to fill in the gaps.

But now the UC program, which has inspired pilot programs at New York University, the University of Utah and the University of Colorado, faces potentially devastating cutbacks, according to Jill Beck, dean of the arts at UC Irvine and director of ArtsBridge.

"We know ArtsBridge is good. We just need to try to maintain it," Beck said.

She hopes the state Legislature will reject Davis' proposed cuts, and she also will meet with federal officials to seek funding.

In the meantime, ArtsBridge scholars will continue providing children with arts classes that offer a lens through which they can view the world in a new way, Campbell said.

"There are a million lessons you can learn," she said.

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