Learning curves

Artists visit area elementary schools to teach art, writing, theater and dance through Sierra Arts Foundation's Arts in Education program

Peter Whittenberger teaching digital art at Smithridge STEM Academy

Peter Whittenberger teaching digital art at Smithridge STEM Academy

Photo/Kris Vagner

Practice Makes Perfect, an exhibition of artwork by teaching artists who work with Sierra Arts and Arts for All Nevada's education programs, is on view at two venues, Lake Mansion, 250 Court St., through Dec. 23, and Sierra Arts, 17 S. Virginia St. through Dec. 24. A closing reception will be held from 5-7 p.m., Dec. 17 at Sierra Arts.

On a frosty morning at Smithridge STEM Academy, in a room lit by a string of Christmas lights and 22 laptop screens, Peter Whittenberger projects a few lines of computer code onto the whiteboard. (The acronym “STEM” means that the school emphasizes science, technology, engineering, and math.)

Fourth graders, some giggling, some squirming, some concentrating intently, each type the code onto a small, heavy-duty laptop. Whittenberger’s in mid-explanation when a student interrupts to ask his name. Whittenberger, also concentrating intently, wearing a suit vest and dress shoes, answers, only half cracking a grin, “Mr. Hamburgler,” then finishes his coding explanation as if he’d never left his train of though.

Whittenberger has taught digital art at University of Nevada, Reno, and Sierra College in Truckee. Currently, he’s an instructor at Truckee Meadows Community College. He’s also one of four artists who visit six area elementary schools to teach art, writing, theater or dance through Sierra Arts Foundation’s Arts in Education program. A similar program, Arts Alternatives, sends teachers to three alternative high schools.

The grant-funded Arts in Education program has offered supplemental instruction to select schools in the Washoe County School District since 1977. Many districts nationally have similar arrangements with other cultural organizations. WCSD has art teachers in many middle and high schools but typically not in elementary schools. There’s one elementary school art teacher, who’s new this year, and district Fine Arts/Music Specialist Julye Neel said she hopes to see that number grow soon.

Neel also said that the visiting art teachers are part of a long line of guests who visit schools to supplement various subjects and concepts. A few examples include conductors, adjudicators and Holocaust survivors. The Reno Philharmonic has a teaching presence in the district, and Reno Little Theater is considering starting an educational program.

Whittenberger tells the fourth graders, “Float y = 100. I know it sounds weird. This is a level of math you’ll get to in seventh grade, so you’ll have to just trust me.” They do. The fact that this is Whittenberger’s first semester teaching elementary kids could be lost on a visitor. Five weeks into a six-week session, he has an easy-sounding rapport with the students.

His goal for today’s lesson is to teach students to program a horizontal line that moves up the screen, using a program called Processing, developed my MIT. “It’s a very simplified version of Java,” he explains. “It’s an open-source language to teach coding to visual artists.”

His own work is a much more elaborate version of the animations the fourth graders are working on, using more elaborate software. In his video piece “What’s The Worst That Can Happen?” complex shapes and colors morph and undulate to a soundtrack that sounds like electronic jazz tuba and found industrial sounds, conveying equal doses of cheery overstimulation and anxiety-tinged hesitation. Think Modern Times (the 1936 Charlie Chaplin film) meets hardware failure, that moment when your Mac screen looks cool blipping and scrolling, but you half panic because you never asked it to blip and scroll.

Whittenberger projects some gracefully moving geometrical shapes onto the whiteboard and explains that this complex animation could be made using a more advanced version of the same kind of coding the students are doing. There’s a brief chorus of enthrallment.



“It looks like a chicken!”

After about five minutes, one boy says, “I got it!” He’s entered the code correctly, and a horizontal line floats up his screen. Other students see the line ascending on their own screens, one by one, and a few forge ahead, changing a digit in the code to produce a red ellipse, a lime-green square.

For others, Whittenberger helps troubleshoot: “Change that ’L’ to a lower case.” “You just doubled up your semicolons and brackets.”

This is just one of several types of media and method that students learn from the professional artists who each work about 12 hours a week in classrooms. Dance instructor Eve Allen, for example, has recently taught Hawaiian dances at Lincoln Park Elementary School as part of a supplemental lesson in volcanology. She rebrands her subject area “dance and movement” for the grade-school set, not just “dance,” to overcome a some students’ misperceptions that they’d be required to learn ballet.

“Here [at Smithridge] they prefer all the students are on devices, because it is a STEM school,” said Emily Rogers, Program Director for Sierra Arts.

Class acts

The teaching artists help other schools meet their individual needs as well. At Libby Booth Elementary School, Joseph Hunt, an author and illustrator who has also taught at TMCC and UNR, instructs students on writing comic-book stories that adhere to some of their academic writing requirements. At Jan Evans Juvenile Justice Center, where students are incarcerated and sharp objects such as pencils and scissors are prohibited, Polly Peacock, who's in her 10th year as a teaching artist, pre-cuts paper and teaches collage. And at Katherine Dunn Elementary, where Whittenberger teaches drawing to kindergarteners, the teacher requested that students be taught to draw a human figure accurately, so a course description of his lessons with five-year-olds would read almost like that of an intro college class: composition, shading, design, balance, harmony, foundations of drawing, working with charcoal, learning about anatomy and perspective. Or, as Whittenberger put it, “Mrs. Hernandez asked for them to learn to draw a human, a cat and a dog.”

On one hand, he keeps the kindergarten drawing lesson that simple—and also opens the floodgates to the possibility, even to very young minds, that this art thing can be serious business. “I talk [to kindergarteners] about using these principles to express what you want to express, as a way of being honest, as opposed to what you think will please other people, or what other people will like,” he said.

His goal for the fourth graders: “Ideally I want them to come away having an understanding of the syntax of the language. I’m not saying all of them are going to be programmers, but they really take to it.”

This year, administrators at Sierra Arts decided their hardworking teachers deserved some public recognition. They teamed up with Arts For All Nevada, another arts education organization, to mount an exhibition of artwork by about 20 teaching artists. The works range from Hunt’s books and Whittenberger’s video projection to traditional paintings, ceramics and jewelry.

Exhibit curator Eric Brooks from Sierra Arts said, “The main reason we’re doing this show is so we can showcase the artists who take time out of their lives and their work to teach.”

The exhibit should also give students an idea of what they can eventually accomplish. As Whittenberger told the fourth graders on that frosty morning, “When people were making Inside Out, when they were making Up, they had to start somewhere, right?”