This classroom is a chaotic family.
Middle-schoolers huddle around tables, comparing drawings and reading poems to each other. Loud laughter and shouts of “No way” are common. The students share stories, opinions, thoughts and always criticism.
The creative process needs collaboration, and art teacher Christina Schaffer fosters an environment of freedom for students in her literary magazine class. She calls the method “autopilot,” as she lets students work together at their own pace.
Schaffer, 35, teaches at Smithfield Middle School. She started the literary magazine four years ago, and this year, she won a $1,500 poetry grant for the program.
The magazine class is an enhancement class. During the daily period in which many students go to remediation, students at or above grade level attend enhancement classes to flex their critical thinking.
“If you’re creating art, that’s the highest form of critical thinking,” Schaffer said. “And if you’re evaluating art, which of course we have to do every day and then to evaluate to get into the book, that’s the other highest level of critical thinking.”
Smithfield Middle will name this year’s magazine Diverse Universe, a title chosen by the roughly 30 kids in the class. The students will publish about 150 copies of the 50-page literary magazine, which is printed in black and white and sold to fellow students for $2.
“Our motto and our mantra is, ‘For students, by students,’” Schaffer said. Any student at the school can submit artwork or writing; students in the class choose what to publish.
Schaffer calls the class a big family, and the students agree.
Rachelle Castillo, an eighth-grader, is in her third year in the class. In other classes, “you have to do this, you have to do that; you have to do it by this time and do it by this week; you have to do it this way, you can’t do it another way,” Castillo said. “Ms. Schaffer is just like: You just do your own thing.”
Castillo said she feels comfortable experimenting in her drawing. “You can try to do art techniques and people wont be like, ‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ or ‘That sucks,’ or whatever,” she said. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, hey, maybe you should change this a little or do that a little differently,’ and then you can learn new art techniques.”
The poetry grant will help pay for printing costs, a new computer and printer in the classroom and poetry books for the library. To try to encourage stronger writing in the book this year, Schaffer started Poetry Tuesday, which she explained as a mini-poetry slam.
Poet Mia Ramos-Lopez is a seventh-grader in the class. Her favorite day is Poetry Tuesday. Ramos-Lopez said she expresses her feelings with poetry and likes to write about all kinds of things, including trees, the wind, flowers and thunderstorms.
“I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have poetry,” she said. “Poetry is my life. I’ve been writing since I was 6 years old.” So far this year in the class, Ramos-Lopez has written more than 100 poems, she said.
Shannon Schooler, an eighth-grader in the class, said her favorite thing about the literary magazine is the people. She learns new art techniques at her own pace, unlike other classes with strict deadlines.
“This class is use your imagination, and just get it done,” Schooler said. She likes the class because she feels no pressure. “When I’m pressured, I don’t think as well as when I can just sit down, relax and draw,” she said.
Castillo said she is glad her class won the poetry grant because it gives Schaffer the recognition she deserves and shows people that the class really creates something.
Castillo’s enjoys the class because of her fellow students. “They’re the ones who keep you going, or they’re the ones you try to prove wrong,” she said.