Art is beyond a painting on a canvas and rhyming words in a song. According to artist, environmentalist and producer, Jade Zaroff, art and entertainment can be vehicles for communication and impact.
Zaroff, who founded the nonprofit organization Entertainment for Change to empower young people to make a difference in the world using storytelling and creative expression, also believes art can instill essential life teachings. During her recent virtual session for PBS SoCal’s STEAM Series, she discussed the importance of teaching young students art in classrooms.
“When you’re engaging them with art, you’re pulling something from within them, and I think that alone is so powerful because it allows a young person to immediately have trust and confidence in themselves,” Zaroff said. “I think those lessons alone are the most valuable lessons you can learn in terms of sustaining mental health and self-worth.”
Zaroff explained that by allowing students to make songs and paint pictures, they explore new forms of expression. And she has some tips for educators who are looking to promote art in their classrooms on what to do.
1. Have Daily Art Activities
Consistently engaging children in fun art activities daily — no matter how small they are — is healthy, Zaroff said. It allows them to learn key lessons in creative and innovative ways. For example, an activity she recommended to educators is letting each student choose a paint color and then having them take turns splattering it on a blank canvas. This results in a large art piece that the entire class creates together. Through this activity, Zaroff said, young students can better understand the concept of collaboration.
She also suggested integrating music into the classroom by having students write down their favorite songs on pieces of paper and putting them into a hat. Then, at the start of each class, teachers can pull out a paper with a song and play it for the students. Other approaches Zaroff suggested for daily creativity are letting students draw a picture of how they feel at the start of each day and having posters in the class that speak to the importance of art and expression.
2. Grade Art Based on Accountability and Thoughtfulness
Grading art can be tricky. “Art is so subjective,” Zaroff said.
She said that scoring a young person’s artistic ability can stifle their creativity, which, in turn, suppresses a part of themselves. Instead, she said she thinks teachers should grade students based on accountability and thoughtful intention.
“Hold them accountable for the thought that they are putting behind their creation,” she explained, “so that they can learn that practicing is important and technique is important.”
Zaroff also recommended establishing guidelines for projects and activities to justify grades. For instance, if a worksheet’s instruction is to make a straight line, educators can objectively grade students on whether or not their lines are straight.
When you’re engaging them with art, you’re pulling something from within them, and I think that alone is so powerful because it allows a young person to immediately have trust and confidence in themselves.
3. Empower Art with Goals
A central vision of Zaroff’s nonprofit, Entertainment for Change, is to encourage youth to use their creativity and artistic expression to advocate for social justice, climate action, equality and sustainability. She believes that incorporating the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into education systems is one way to unite social and environmental activism with art. These goals include ending poverty, creating sustainable communities and reducing inequalities.
Zaroff said educators should teach their students how to integrate the SDGs into their work. To do that, she suggested educators present films, music, books and poems to students and challenge them to identify the SDG that the art piece aligns to. By having them create interpretations independently, they can better understand its significance.
“What resonates with them becomes what is going to impact them,” Zaroff said, “which will then propel them to make an impact themselves.”
4. Break Down Imposter Syndrome so Students Can Feel Free to Make Art
Zaroff said imposter syndrome — the feeling of being inadequate despite evidence of competence — can stop young people from creating art and making an impact.
“It’s rooted in what we believe, and you have to break up a belief system and get to the barebones of why it’s there,” she said.
She explained that having conversations with older students can help dismantle their imposter syndrome. Students can make lists of why they think they are not qualified to make art or achieve other things. Examining such lists with educators can help build up their self-confidence and self-esteem because they will see that they are the only ones doubting themselves, not others.
5. Encourage a Non-Judgemental Space
A judgemental environment restricts ideas and curbs forms of expression that may appear unconventional, which should be avoided, especially when making art.
“A lot of the time, people don’t speak honestly when they’re scared of being judged for it,” Zaroff said. She explained that this results in the squelching of creativity, quirkiness and personality.
She advised teachers to create a space that is free from judgment so that students can have opportunities to think outside of the norm and share ideas from an authentic place.
As Zaroff said, art can be an excellent method for communication. So when educators promote self-worth, empowerment and art in their classrooms, they foster a space where students can embrace expression.