Unique arts program lets students 'freestyle'

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Apr. 9, 2008

After a long day at school, the last place most middle school students want to be is in a strictly- structured environment. On the flip side, the last thing they need is too much free time.

With that in mind, faculty and undergraduates from Massachusetts College of Art and Design and high school students from Boston Arts Academy have devised a unique art program that is now up and running at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School on Columbia Road.

This free after-school program - dubbed the "Art Jump Off!" at the suggestion of students - meets every Tuesday afternoon.

"It's about being responsive to the kids," said John Giordano, an associate professor at Mass Art who helped to launch the program in 2005. "The idea is for them to feel ownership."

Frederick students choose to work at one of three or four "art stations" and may change from one station to another as often as they please. There's a 2D station, usually with drawing or painting, and a 3D station where students can work with clay or wood. Students may also work on dying or sewing projects at the fashion station or even, during some weeks, do projects involving video.

At the beginning of the program last Tuesday, four girls at the fashion station worked on embroidering a lightweight fabric that they will use to make purses in the weeks ahead. Jamie Andrade, a Mass Art student, showed the students how to make a chain stitch.

"It [the program] sounded like fun," said seventh-grader Brande Dunton, as she tried her hand at stitching the stem to a multi-colored flower using the new method. "They said they were going to do purses and stuff and I wanted to learn how to sew."

While Dunton chooses to stay at the fashion station, other students like 13-year-old Samantha MacLean like to try out each art form. Last Tuesday, she started out stitching at the fashion station, and by the end of the hour carved out a design on a rubber stamp and started to build a miniature bed out of blocks of wood she painted pink and black. MacLean, a seventh grader who has been in the program since last year, likes Art Jump Off! because, she says, "we could pick our own activities.

When you're in school we…get assigned stuff," she says. "In Art Jump Off! we don't."

The program is meant to be as flexible as the students want to be within reasonable limits, said Giordano. The students are allowed to "change their minds as often as they want to, which middle schoolers are pretty good at doing," he laughed. The staff "let them be who they are but be there as positive role models," he added.

During the fall, about 15 Mass Art students go to the Frederick School as an integral part of Creating Communities, an art education class that Giordano teaches. The Art Jump Off! program began in 2005 as a hands-on teaching component of the class and gave the college students the task of creating their own curricula.

With one or two Boston Arts Academy students there to help out, it was also a way for the high school to try to boost enrollment from Dorchester neighborhoods, according to Giordano. While the vast majority of the students are sixth or seventh graders who may not be looking into high school just yet, the Boston Arts Academy students are there to field any questions the younger students may have as well as help them out with their projects. At the end of the 8-week program in the fall, they all go on a field trip to the high school where the Frederick students present their work to the older students.

In the spring, it's a bit more laid back with an average of 10 to 14 kids, about half the number of students that come in the fall. This spring two Mass Art students, Andrade and Robin Bellinger, Boston Arts Academy senior Makeba Bostic, and coordinator Kristen Mills run the program. They continue through the spring to keep the program a consistent part of the students' lives and "get them more excited to come back in the fall," Mills said. They also further encourage exposure to art by offering scholarships for weekend and school vacation programs at Mass Art.

Deb Socia, the principal of the Frederick School, describes the program as a win-win situation. For the college students, the program is a way of trying the teacher role out in a "nice, gentle way," Socia said, "and our kids love it."

"I feel like it provides a great opportunity for me to learn to teach and to provide a great after school program," said Bellinger, a senior at Mass Art in her third semester with the after- school program.

Mills, who will be teaching the Mass Art class in the fall, sees the program as striking a balance of structure and flexibility that keeps the children engaged. Even though they welcome drop-ins, Mills notes that once middle school students come to one or two classes, they tend to continue to come every following week.

"I think it gives them a safe, kind of warm environment that they can hang out in on Tuesday afternoons," she said, where "there's no right or wrong - they're just coming in and making stuff and having a good time."

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