Wanda Mumm helps a student using a computer at Dubois High School

By Bob Bahr

It’s not unusual for a 2nd Grader to own a smartphone in today’s world. It’s not uncommon to see a table full of teenagers sit in silence as their thumbs fly over their phone screen. Studies abound that warn about the dire consequences of modern children becoming too wrapped up in their electronics. And yet, in many schools, electronics play a helpful role in arts education.

SKBers who teach kids see this all the time, and the concept is on perfect display at Dubois High School and Elementary School, where teacher Danita Sayers guides students through the use of electronics with a deft hand. Anyone who knows Sayers knows she has a bit of a magic touch with kids…and bears, and dogs, and many other animals. Her nature is to offer firm guidance and provide as much leeway as possible for individual expression. Electronics are like any other challenge in that regard.

Electronics can be perfect resources for finding reference material for art projects.

“The computer becomes a support and a type of research tool rather than a crutch that hinders exploration,” says Sayers. “I show them how to utilize technology in that way. We have elementary kids with smartphones, and they start taking photos during the summer for art projects. Otherwise they wouldn’t be thinking about schoolwork at all. Now I notice that through their smartphones, instead of being mindless, they are becoming collectors of images for possible future work. They come in the first day of school, and instead of coming in saying, ‘Summer’s over, what a drag,’ they say ‘Look at this! I want to talk about what would be a great first project in art class.'”

Dubois Elementary and High School art teacher Danita Sayers embraces technology in her classroom. She even uses a microphone for classes of particularly boisterous kids–just until they settle down.

Typically, Sayers has her art students make a proposal for a given art project that includes three references. The reference can be a work of art by a master or something that catches their eye. It can be one of their own photos. Sayers then has the task of convincing them not to make a direct copy. “They need to discuss design, color, value, and what will make the resulting art different from their reference material, how it will be their own vision,” she says. “They loosen up, but then when it comes to putting it down on the canvas, they lose faith and go back to direct copy. It has to do with youth and confidence.

Nancy Foureman helps a student at Dubois Elementary

“The challenge has been to take their eye away from a screen and get it back onto the artwork, to get the student out of their head and onto their feet.”

Sayers is completely aware of how powerful a tool a smartphone, iPad, or laptop can be. Several views of any animal, notable building, or pose are readily available with a simple Google search.

Traditional painting materials aid students alongside technological resources in Dubois, Wyoming.

“As a resource tool, I think the computer is tremendous,” says Wanda Mumm, an SKBer, the head of the SKB mentoring program, and an art instructor. “Even for myself, electronics allow one to research images and also to see how someone else did something. It’s helpful to see how someone else approached a painting challenge. The information is out there; it’s so attainable for almost everybody, so people are a lot more informed.”

“I think schools are moving toward giving a device to all students,” Mumm points out. “If a school doesn’t provide all with devices, they at least have computer labs. A few in 3rd and 4th Grade had phones, and those phones allowed us to see the different kinds of ducks…our kids were able to research what a duck stamp looks like.” It’s worth mentioning that the students Mumm works with, and especially those of Sayers, accumulate awards like leaves in the fall.

Matthew Hiller helps a student during Mentoring Day at a past SKB workshop in Dubois, Wyoming.

Sayers not only embraces electronics as a research and teaching aid, she also turns the negative aspects of electronics into a teaching moment. “All of us walk around in a sort of fog of unawareness,” says Sayers. “We miss the unexpected beauty. We need to notice something outside of our conscious awareness. So we discuss that. We discuss how being aware enriches life and infuses art. Just studying a cloud, or light on the floor of a bedroom. For the longest time I saw staring at a screen as a hindrance to that. And my effort was to nurture mindful awareness of their surroundings. Once we started to have success with that we began to see a way to reincorporate the screen back into the art process and have them still maintain awareness and appreciation.”

There are limitations placed on the use of electronics in Sayers’ classroom. “The students will tell me how they will utilize their computers, and that’s the only way they can use them until they consult with me,” says Sayers. “No Facebook, no texting, no email–or they will lose their privilege and not be able to use the electronics in this classroom for a set amount or time. Personal music is allowed after instruction. They need to pay attention to what I’m saying, then they can listen to their music. And they can’t walk out the door with buds in, because there are different rules in different classes.”

Foureman supervising work in Danita Sayers’ classroom in Dubois

How is this enforced? “It’s in their syllabus and it’s signed by the parents and reinforced with consequences,” says Sayers.

This is in rural Wyoming, and for Mumm, also rural Montana. One can only imagine how electronics are integrated into arts education in a place like New York City.

Or, actually, one can’t.

“I teach elementary school kids, and at my current job I don’t have access to much technology,” reports New York City teacher Karin Dando-Haenisch. “We don’t even have a smart board. That’s at a public school. When I taught at a private school we had tech. And we could talk about how to integrate technology into art instruction.”

John Phelps advises a student

What’s the hold up? Money. In Wyoming, every single public school child has a computer, supplied by the government. The low population (one Dubois business sells shirts that read “High Altitudes, Low Multitudes”) makes this easier than in a densely populated state like New York or New Jersey. Dando-Haenisch says there are advantages to not having devices. “It’s not a choice for me—in public school we don’t have any technology,” she says. “But in the private school where I taught, we had two large desktops with huge screens, and it was a constant draw for the kids. It was mostly about finding reference material, but I spent a lot of time trying to break that knee-jerk reaction to find a ready image. Sometimes, that is exactly what they need to move their work forward. And sometimes, it’s a crutch. I’ll always first say, ‘Maybe we should try drawing a little more.'”

Dubois Elementary and High School has produced many award winners in statewide art competitions.

“They do becomes so accustomed to the flatness of the screen, so much so that they incorporate it in their work,” Sayers says. “It’s my job to help them be aware of the parameters of the screen. SKB’s work with our kids is one of those methods. Plein air painting is another method. Some days, we use no screens, and go with the old style of instruction. We have exploration days. We have our own door to the outside, and we get out and plein air paint right here in the playground. I ask them to describe the difference between what’s there in the playground, what’s on the screen, and what’s in art. If they understand the differences, then they can work around it and adjust for that in their art.”

Wanda Mumm illustrates a point during her time teaching in Danita Sayers’ classroom in Dubois

Echoes Mumm, “Students in particular get dependent on the cropped picture and may not be able to see beyond it. An image burns into their mind and it affects their vision of what they would do with their art.”

The traditional approach to making art is not going away anytime soon, and maybe never, if this contemporary crop of art educators is correct. “We don’t ever want to lose that physicality as art-makers–and people,” says Dando-Haenisch. “We have to model that behavior, and show them how to use traditional tools. It’s nice to choose brushes in a software program, but there’s nothing like a paintbrush and paint.”

Mumm helps a student

And, in the end, art instruction is like any other field in that the quality of the teacher is the most important factor. “Schools can have access to everything in terms of money and technology, but they must have teachers who show how to use them correctly,” says Dando-Haenisch. She has seen technology unused or misused because a teacher wasn’t prepared to utilize it in the classroom. It appears—or it is hoped—that this situation is improving.

Mumm leads a class session at Dubois Elementary and High School, in Wyoming.

“As an arts educator, I can say that technology has the ability to enhance and support content,” says Ellen Sears, a recently retired art teacher in Kentucky. “The greatest impact probably came as an assessment and communication tool–students were able to document and assess their growth as an artist as well as communicate with others about art. It leveled the playing field for students because each student had a voice and the time and safe place they needed to use that voice. Technology broke through the physical and time constraints of traditional school and learning continued outside of my classroom. It changed my classroom and the possibilities.”

A student in Danita Sayer’s class

Finally, Sayers reminds us of the inevitability of electronics. “Students are required to use electronics in their other classes,” she points out. “Why should they receive the message in my classroom that technology does not have a place in art? We have to bridge that.” Ω

Cal Kemppainen mentors a student during a past SKB workshop