Interview with Artist/Educator Linda Sirow
Linda Sirow, who has a Master’s in Art Therapy and Creativity Development from Pratt Institute, might well prompt revision of that old, unfortunate saw that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach, for like all the art faculty at the Dalton School she is a practicing artist as well as a classroom teacher. For her, that means working with different middle-school grades and in many media. Over the ten years Ms. Sirow has been at Dalton’s (with a few years in between at Brooklyn Friends), she has lost none of her original enthusiasm for inspiring and helping youngsters in grades 4 through 8 to express themselves and find joy in art.
Although she herself has moved over the years from ceramics to painting (lovely floral, pastel-colored abstracts are currently on view at Marder’s Gallery in Bridgehampton, LI), she is particularly committed as a teacher to introducing youngsters to the potter’s wheel. Its demands strengthen motor skills and prompt young people to see - and feel - the results of creativity. Seeing youngsters explore the possibilities of clay and develop self-esteem is incredibly rewarding, she says. She fondly recalls her own “fabulous experiences” with a potter’s wheel, both as a child and as a teenager, and thinks that clay is particularly suited to youngsters who, for a variety of reasons, might tend to hang back. Does a fourth-grader’s first try produce only “mush”? “Hmmm,” Ms. Sirow may remark, “what an interesting chocolate pudding or mousse, I’m glad you’re having fun.” But if a third attempt also produces only mush, she will then gently encourage the youngster to “make something interesting.”
At Dalton, where there are no grades until the last semester in the 8th grade, but where boys and girls know they are in a highly competitive academic environment, the arts are particularly important in freeing them to express themselves without criticism. Every student in the middle school takes art. Those in grades 4-6 have two periods a week, and those in grades 7 –8 make a choice among the visual arts, music, theatre and dance. Approximately 90%, Ms. Sirow believes, choose the visual arts (In Dalton’s high school division, art includes photography as well as more art history.) Part of Dalton’s art program is the opportunity to be seen at least once a year, and the school boasts some wonderful exhibition areas. This year, Ms. Sirow says, the 4th grade studied Georgia O’Keeffe and students were then encouraged to draw their own flowers. Exhibits are always “fun events” for the entire community. This year, because of O’Keeffe, the show took on a Southwestern motif, chef and all. The students loved it. So did their parents.
Art at Dalton also involves trips to museums, and it is Ms. Sirow’s dream that more such visits will be possible, if scheduling permits. A recent trip to the Met with the fourth-graders, she recalls, introduced the youngsters to mid-20th century art. Accompanying worksheets, which invited the students to focus on what they saw and sketch particular details, were part of a no-pressure experience. There is no doubt in her mind that such exposure to view and to create art improves academic skills all around. The children say they love art at Dalton and seem to thrive in an atmosphere that will not judge them. Indeed, what assessment of their art is made takes the form of teacher response to their effort and involvement. Outstanding work is noted on a checklist where teachers can note students who excel. “The art department is where students can shine, feel comfortable.” Ms. Sirow says, and she takes great pleasure in watching them grow, finding their creativity and then, after that inevitable rowdy phase, moving back to “settle down” with art again.#