by David Boffa, Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History
This spring, Art Historian David Boffa had students in his Art in and as Sport Class design and teach an academic and cultural enrichment program for middle school students within the Help Yourself Program, Beloit College’s community outreach initiative for low-income, minority, marginalized and under-represented youth. We all have something to take away from what he and the student educators learned.
After initially agreeing to do a Help Yourself activity with my “Art in and as Sport” class, I had a sudden wave of apprehension. The prospect of dealing with 20 to 30 middle school-aged children seemed more terrifying than anything I’d yet encountered as an educator. As my students and I were reminded during an introductory visit by Regina Hendrix (Director of the Help Yourself Programs), middle school can be a difficult, awkward, and transitional period for all involved.
Many of these initial concerns were greatly alleviated by that visit from Regina Hendrix. In addition to reminding us all what it’s like to be a kid in middle school — an important consideration when dealing with students at any life stage — Regina provided us with ideas and suggestions for how best to engage the young students. After our meeting with her we knew to focus on active, participatory learning — in short, anything that kept them moving and thinking. Also, having snacks on hand helps.
To these ends, students in my class broke into five groups, each of which developed an activity to teach the middle school students about aspects of art history and sports. One group planned a Jeopardy-style game; a couple put together drawing activities; another mixed elements of a quiz show with paper basketball. Over the course of several weeks, my students planned out every aspect: what supplies were needed and who would perform what duties in the group and how the interactions would be handled.
The only aspect we could not control was the most important one: the middle school students themselves. There was no way of knowing in advance how they would respond.
Ultimately, the Help Yourself activities were a great success. In every classroom (the program took place in Science Center rooms) the visiting middle schoolers were having fun and learning about the intersections of visual culture and athletics. Furthermore, the activities gave my own students a better appreciation of what goes into teaching a class. As several of them noted in a post-mortem discussion we had following this event, there are many variables that go into a quality learning experience — some under a teacher’s control and some outside it. Different groups of students have different dynamics, which can greatly affect the class environment, even when other variables — such as the material being presented — remain constant. This isn’t news to most professors, but to my students this was new — or at the very least the sensation of it from the other side of the podium was new. But they also realized that their own energy had a profound impact on the middle schoolers.
Overall, the Help Yourself activity was a great way to interact with some younger members of the broader Beloit community. In addition, it gave my students a chance to reflect on their own educational experiences; the act of teaching, as any teacher knows, is a great way to learn something. For my students, acting as educators provided a unique opportunity to appreciate their class experience from a new angle, and my hope is that it will impact them in future classes and in their time after Beloit.