A few years ago I had no idea what donorschoose.org was or how much I would come rely on it to fund the projects my elementary school art students produce throughout the year. I had just been offered my current position in an urban school in one of the most underprivileged areas of the city, teaching Visual Art to kids aged 4-11 years old, pre-K through 5th grade.
I’d decided to teach in the public school system for a number of reasons: the chance to share my love of art with young people, the opportunity to build relationships with students over several years, and the fact that I’m a product of public schools myself. I felt it was a way to engage in meaningful work while doing something I loved, making art while making Memphis a brighter place. In brief, I was following a pattern that’s played out in various incarnations throughout my career, that of the professional (some might argue delusional) do-gooder.
To say I was naive when I first started this life chapter would be an understatement. It takes far more than passion or heart, grit or good intentions to make a difference.
I knew it took planning: of lessons, activities, curricula, and resources. I looked forward to engaging students on various levels, academically and emotionally. What I did not understand would have such an impact upon every art teacher in the city was the imperative to which funding our work would fall largely upon ourselves.
This is where initiatives like donorschoose.org play such a vital role in the art education of our community’s students. You may already know the dire financial straits our city’s public schools face, which is intensified in areas of town where entrenched poverty affects the lives of kids in ways many may find impossible to imagine. Because of this and innumerable other reasons, district funding tends to go towards what is considered by the powers that be as fundamental to future success in the workforce: reading, math, and science.
While these subjects are undoubtedly crucial to the matriculation of anyone’s overall education, I would argue that the arts, and Visual Art specifically, are in many ways even more important to the cultivation of wholly sentient and fully human beings.
In the Art room, my school kids get to share their original ideas, they get to work collaboratively, they are encouraged to express themselves, to try new ways of making work previously unknown to them. They are taught to improvise, to analyze, strategize, to make mistakes and learn to be okay with making a wrong mark and to turn it into something else to be proud of, and to keep going when their original plans don’t work out. Our collective mantra is “It’s okay to mess up, as long as you never give up.”
In the process of making art, my school kids learn not only the processes of portrait drawing, or how line variety can be used to add textures to landscapes; they learn that their unique imaginative personalities are valuable beyond measure. They learn that their art matters, because their ideas matter, because their creative voices matter, because their efforts matter, because they matter.
As magical as the moments with these amazing kids are, it requires a great deal more than inventiveness and improvisation on the part of any teacher to make such experiences possible for them. Bluntly stated, it takes money.
Without materials and supplies, ideas stay ideas alone. No paint gets put on paper, no sculptures get built from clay. No pencils get sharpened. No crayons get broken. Not much happens at all, actually. Let’s look at the numbers to make the situation as crystal clear as possible. Here we go…
I have approximately 600 children that I teach for an hour each week. I know all of their names, their brothers, sisters, and cousins, who’s having a good day, who’s going through a tough time. They are all incredible. I say approximately 600, because many move away and many more arrive throughout the year. Some will go to as many as 3 or 4 different schools in a year. Some I may teach for years, some I may only see once or twice then never again.
Each art teacher in the Shelby County Schools’ public school system gets a set dollar amount for supplies for the entire year. For the 2015-2016 school year, that amount was $200. Yes, two hundred. That’s per teacher, not per student.
If you have fewer kids to teach, that amount goes farther, if you have more kids, it has to stretch further. Regardless if you have 400 or 600 students, that’s how much the system gives you to buy supplies for the entire year. Yes, the entire year. With 600 students, my $200 means each kid is allotted 0.33 cents. What can you buy for this amount that lasts the whole year long? Hmmmm…
To put this in perspective, let’s talk about crayons. As a teacher I can order a 12-pack of Crayola crayons for $1.34. That’s about 0.11 cents per individual crayon. So, for $200 I can get 1,818 crayons. So, with 600 kids, each one gets 3 color crayons for the entire year. Yep. The entire year. Of course, without paper to color on, 3 crayons won’t do much toward learning to draw.
Here’s where donorschoose.org comes in. Teachers create supply lists for specific projects on the site, then launch it into the world with the hope that donors locally and beyond will contribute towards their project’s funding goal. Of course, there is no guarantee any project will be funded, but we still try. We’ve got kids to teach, imaginations to encourage, and curiosity to spark! We’ve got artists to build, and we need your help.
Please go to donorschoose.org, and look for teachers in your area to support classroom projects that mean the difference between 3 crayons per student, and an array of colors to choose from, and maybe some paper, too.
John Weeden is a husband and a dad, and the former Executive Director of the UrbanArts Commission. He used to raise money for art in public spaces, now he’s trying to raise it for kids in schools with little to no art funding.