Monday, May 02, 2005 | Imagine my surprise when (that’s like a bad-writing contest’s first line), Joe O’Brien pondered the sketch on my bedroom wall, and he says – “wow, you have a Picasso!”

That same weekend, we’re in the park, checking out the lovely little pool at the new Founder’s Plaza, and suddenly excited, Joe calls his cousin Ben over, gushing, “LOOK at this! There are Monet water lilies in this pool!”

So, are you that cultured? Joe and Ben are. They’re six years old – and they can’t even read yet.

Isabelle, at seven, penned a poem to “Mother Earth”: ” … trees blow through the air, the leaves fall down, we jump in the leaves.” Maybe she meant that air blows through the trees, but who are we to second-guess her? (Another of Isabelle’s poems – an exultant ode to her mother – noted, “My mom is as sweet as a loving dog.” Hey, to a canine-obsessed child, this is a perfect metaphor.)

At Harborside School, teacher Carol Encoe organized a first-ever poetry project with her second-graders. To her pleasure and even amazement, the children sponged up their own ideas for writing limericks and haikus and cooperated in group projects. Isabelle and her schoolmates wrote and recited their own poems, plus memorized and recited poems by other poets that they “loved” for their friends and parents.

At Temple Beth Israel’s school, Joe and his classmates learn, geography (Picasso’s from Spain, lived in France), music (Van Gogh: Don McLean’s “Starry Starry Night”), conflict resolution (Picasso’s “Guernica” ), and so on. Marc Chagall, Mary Cassatt and Jackson Pollock were added to the mix, in an ever-expanding program devised by Glenda Kacev and implemented in Joe’s class by teacher Jackie Snoyman.

Early-childhood expert and author Mimi Brodsky Chenfeld writes in “Creative Experiences for Young Children,” “… the arts are at the heart of our human heritage.” Teachers like Encoe and Snoyman know that children surrounded by the arts thrive in rich and unexpected ways. They make connections. They don’t need much encouragement for creativity to emerge – they’re natural poets, natural artists. (One crisp, sunny day, Ben and I are just sort of bopping along, and I see that he’s yawning, mouth agape, so I say, “Wow, Ben, are you THAT tired, that you’re yawning?” “No,” he replies, “I’m just tasting the air.”)

An expensive ad in the New York Times has this headline: “No Wonder People Think Martha Graham Is a Snack Cracker.” The point being, as its copy notes: ” … studies show parents believe dance and music and art and drama make their kids better students and better people.”

I say to teachers and parents: stretch! Even though public schools are more restricted, you can, with imagination, fight against headlines like this one in July 2003: “State’s arts budget slashed to $l million.” That’s down from $l8 million! Carol Encoe said of her poetry project that the depth of learning was stunning: “Creativity with words, freedom and empowerment of expression, self-confidence.” She – and others who I wish I could mention – gets just what Brodsky Chenfeld means when she says in “Teaching By Heart,” “Education is a moving experience.”

Laura Walcher is Principal Public Relations consultant to JWalcher Communications & the National Conflict Resolution Center. She is first vice-president of the San Diego Press Club.

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