Eighth-Graders as ROLE MODELS: A Service-Learning Art Collaboration for Social and Emotional Learning

Article excerpt

The art teacher, Mrs. Gross, led a small group of eighth-grade students down the hall toward a classroom of pre-kindergarten students. In typical adolescent style, the students were slightly rambunctious as they walked, joking playfully and giggling loudly while Mrs. Gross hushed them. When they arrived at the classroom of their service-learning partners, the eighth-graders' demeanor quickly changed. They walked through the classroom door as if passing through a time machine, quickly exhibiting much more mature behavior on the other side. This was not their first visit. They had been working with these particular children for several weeks, and knew exactly where to go, what to do, and how to behave like the role models they seemed to recognize they were.

The tables and chairs were much smaller than those in the art room, matching the size of the children, who appeared bashful, hiding their excitement about seeing their eighth-grade buddies. As the eighthgraders sat in the tiny chairs, they pulled out small painted canvases, sheets of rub-off letters, and pieces of paper with the header "Words that describe me." They worked together quietly, selecting words, rubbing off multiple letters onto the painted canvases, and preparing to present their work to the entire class while several adults snapped photographs. Two by two, the groups stood in front of the classroom to present their letters. In each case, the eighth-grader did his or her best to encourage the pre-kindergarten partner to tell the class about their chosen word. In several cases, the younger partner spoke quietly. In other cases, the smaller of the two looked up to the older friend begging with his or her eyes for the older one to do the talking. As they stood in front of the room, it became evident that the painted canvases placed together spelled "helpful," a word chosen by the eighth-graders to represent how they wished to collaborate with their younger partners.

After the short presentations, the eighth-graders said goodbye to their partners and left the room. This time, as they walked back to the art room, the eighth-graders talked about ideas for an art project. One boy suggested a recycled art piece made from plastic bottles. When they arrived back at the classroom, Mrs. Gross facilitated a discussion with them to finalize plans for the art piece. Students suggested ways to refine the painted letters and add to the meaning of the piece. When one student suggested they add their names to the piece, another student said that would be "conceited, by drawing attention to ourselves." Another boy suggested they add the initials of the younger student partners to make it more meaningful to them because, he said, "in kinda like their project." He was referring to the decision he and his peers had made early in the project for the art piece to belong primarily to the younger students.

Social and Emotional Learning through Service-Learning

In a recent article, Russell and Hutzel (2007), two of the authors of this article, propose a framework for teaching social and emotional learning (SEL) in art education through collaborative service-learning. As defined in that article, SEL is a "process through which children and adults develop the skills, attitudes, and values necessary to acquire social and emotional competence" (Elias, et al., 1997, p. 2, quoted in Russell 8c Hutzel, 2007, p. 7). The core competencies of SEL include self-awareness, social-awareness, self- management, responsible decision making, and relationship skills (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning [CASEL]1 2004), and within each competency is a set of skills (see Figure 1). Transcending the often implicit and indirect instruction of social and emotional learning in traditional art education practice, the goal of SEL for art teachers "is to teach explicitly those understandings, skills, and dispositions that positively affect student discipline as a regular part of the art curriculum" (Russell & Hutzel, 2007, p. …