Tuesday, March 23, 2010

When students run out the door and don't tell me where they go

The kid center front is one of the shyest, most aloof kids I know, yet he was willing to go up on stage and share his kung fu - because he enjoys it.

This afternoon, I'll be going to my Tuesday art class. I've been teaching at this school, at this time slot, since August. I really like this school. I really like the students here.

So it made me a little sad when one of my students walked out on my class last week. Nelly* is a second grader and it's like pulling teeth to get her to care about each week's art project. Every other kid in my Tuesday class is self-motivated. They can draw and color for hours on end. But Nelly, she can't wait for 4:30 when I release them.

Now, there may be multiple reasons why she wants to leave so freaking fast, and hating art might not be one of them. Still, she shoots out of there so consistently, and always does such a half-hearted job, that I wonder.

Last Tuesday was an easy art lesson. There are so many perfectionists in this class that I wanted to have them do something simple, completely and well, rather than something more difficult and half-finished. I got some really good sample student work that day. I'm glad I brought my camera.

Nelly was the first to get through the lesson, messily as usual. Like usual, I prompted her to make a "good" piece of art better by going back and carefully covering up the white spaces she left behind, making lines connect with the other lines, coloring right up to the edge of the paper. I even sat down and did a little bit with her. A few weeks prior, I had spent nearly the entire coloring portion of the art class with her, encouraging her to push herself to a higher level. She did slightly better than week than any other time.

Last Tuesday, I didn't have that kind of time. My kinders, who were out sick last week, were back. Some parents were hanging out and had questions about the new session. One of the boys was being particularly high maintenance. Every single green marker decided to die on me that day so I had to improvise with telling students to "mix media" and tossed green color pencils into their boxes of markers.

The next time I looked for Nelly, she was gone. Backpack, jacket, person.

Oh. Thunderous. Crap.

Losing a kid in a crowd is said to be a parent's worse nightmare, and it probably is. I don't know, I've never been a parent, but I imagine it to be horrific.

Losing a kid, as a teacher, is heart attack inducing. The liability! The law suits! The firing from said job! Good grief, this must be what a principal feels when some green, n00b of a teacher goes rogue and does something totally unconventional.

I run to the door and looked around in the courtyard. No Nelly. I called her name. No reply. I had a hunch she was just around the corner of the building at the pick-up line which, I knew from experience, was within earshot of the door I was standing in. I called again, louder. Still no reply.

I couldn't leave the other students in the room either.

Luckily, a parent I knew walked by and I asked her to check to see if Nelly was at the front of the school. I was right, she was there. The parent brought her back and I had a quiet little conversation with her, telling her firmly that she needs to be in this room until 4:30 - even if she wasn't doing any art. She looked annoyed and relieved at the same time. I think she was afraid I was going to make her color that insipid picture again. I told her she could do her homework, or read a book from the shelves.

Thank the good lord art class is held in the library. The girl made a bee line for the shelves.

Those last ten minutes were long for me. They were probably long for Nelly too. When her parent arrived, I pulled them aside for a chat. After asking some questions and finding out that everything was "fine" with Nelly and "fine" with art class, I told the parent about the day's events. I said that I love to have Nelly in the class, that she's doing good work and improving her drawing skills a lot. But I also want her to want to be in the class too. And that if she's really not happy here, she should keep looking and trying activities that she would enjoy more - or maybe she just needs a break from after school activities, since sometimes kids get tired of doing so much (I had gotten a HUGE hint from one of the other students, he was Nelly's neighbor and he knew her goings and comings pretty well; apparently, Nelly has been shipped out to various places everyday and never went home until late - there may also be some traumatic family event, like divorce, going on). I told them they don't have to decide right away, and I'll still continue to do new things to try to make art more interesting for everyone, but it's ok if she wants to do other things besides art.

I know that I, as an after school art teacher, have the luxury of telling students to seek better things for themselves if they don't fit in well with art - or if art doesn't fit with them. No public school classroom teacher EVER has that kind of choice.

Nelly had been clammed up all day and I didn't expect her to say anything. But at this point, she burst out crying and couldn't stop. I thought it best to leave the conversation that day as it is and bid Nelly a "It's ok, you're not in trouble, get some rest, calm your nerves, and you can tell me more later, if you want to." They left, Nelly still bawling all the way out.

It really makes me sad to see kids not enjoying the things I'm teaching them. Sad for them, I mean. Sure, they may not be good at it right away, or even after a decent amount of time. But never have I taught a kid who didn't learn something, who didn't improve upon something they already knew.

It's sadder still when my students can't manage to find some sort of escape from whatever troubles they have (if they have any - and more likely than not, they do) in art class. It's meant to be fun, social, challenging-yet-accomplishable. I carefully shape the class so that students feel safe enough to unburden their worries at the door when they enter the world of art. Many students do, and the quality and quantity of what they learn/improve grows exponentially when they enjoy the time it takes to cultivate that knowledge/skill.

For Nelly, it wasn't enough. Which makes me think I wasn't enough. I didn't do enough to relieve her of her fears, not even for an hour-long art class.

Today is the first day of a new art session. I wonder if Nelly will be there?

*Not real name.

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