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8 to 3: It’s a tough time to be a kid. Art can help

Graphic journalist Wendy MacNaughton in the DrawTogether studio in San Francisco.
(Alanna Hale)

This is the Oct. 11, 2021, edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

Hi, readers. I’m Laura Newberry, an education reporter with The Times, and I’ll be writing 8 to 3 for the next few months.

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In March 2020, when it became clear that San Francisco public schools would most certainly close, Wendy MacNaughton panicked alongside her friends who had kids. She felt heavy with the foreboding sense that the little ones she loved would lose their routines, their playtime with peers — at least temporarily.

MacNaughton, an artist and graphic journalist best known for her illustrations in Samin Nosrat’s best-seller “Salt Fat Acid Heat,” called her mom. “How can I help?” MacNaughton asked. Her mom suggested she teach an art class.

The night before San Francisco schools shuttered, MacNaughton announced on Instagram that she’d be doing just that. She expected 100 kids to show up, maybe. Instead, 12,000 tuned in, all eager to draw a dog.

MacNaughton’s wife recorded her on an iPhone. She started each class by leading kids in a warm-up dance, arms akimbo, and listing off the places they watched from: Iran, Japan, Zimbabwe, Tampa, Fla. She spent hours each day reposting photos of kids with their artwork; she wanted them to see each other, to feel part of something bigger even if they couldn’t leave their homes. This went on for several months, five days a week.

“I wanted to provide a safe space for them to feel creative and to have fun, and to give their parents a break,” MacNaughton told me during an interview last week. “Underneath that, I wanted to create a place where kids didn’t feel any judgment, where they felt really welcome and connected.”

I found out about DrawTogether through a TED Talk MacNaughton gave in September. I was moved by how passionately she insisted upon the power of drawing, how the act of paying attention and transposing what you see onto a page is a way to ground yourself in the moment, to slow down, to work through difficult emotions. It made me think about how art education can and should be a vehicle for social and emotional well-being — but also how hard those resources are to come by for many children, at a time when they need them more than ever.

MacNaughton has a background in social work, and she thinks deeply about this, too. Parents have told her that even before the pandemic, their kids had few opportunities to make art with the guidance of a trusted adult. As budgets are slashed, dedicated art programs at public schools are more and more scarce.

Nonprofits like L.A.’s Inner-City Arts have worked to bridge this gap for decades. Since 1979, the organization has partnered with L.A. Unified schools to provide ceramics, photography, dance, visual arts and other classes to the city’s most underserved students.

When the pandemic hit, the mission of Inner-City Arts — to cultivate creativity in young people so that they may grow into confident, collaborative adults — became all the more vital. The nonprofit moved its classes online and distributed art kits to hundreds of students. It wasn’t the same, of course; so much of the power of art education lies in the energy that charges a space when people come together to create. But it was a catharsis students could count on in a time of uncertainty, instability and loss, said Collette Williams Alleyne, chief education officer of Inner-City Arts.

“It takes students a little longer to get going, a little longer to be inspired. Some students in the beginning of the pandemic had trouble creating,” Williams Alleyne told me. “But once they got into it, it was an outlet for them, just as it’s always been.”

Research shows that participation in regular arts education can bolster self-confidence, academic performance and coping skills in kids, as well as reduce anxiety, stress and depression. A 2014 study found that children of wounded service members who participated in arts activities could more effectively communicate with their hospitalized parents, and adjusted more quickly to their new realities.

Saba Harouni Lurie, an L.A.-based art therapist, told me that it can take a while for children to process difficult experiences — an essential component of mental well-being. Like adults, kids need the time and space to feel how they feel without judgment.

“One of the ways they do it naturally is through artmaking and drawing,” Harouni Lurie said. “It gives them a contained place to work things out, to explore different boundaries and possibilities. And it gives them some control when life feels out of control.”

Feedback from parents that validates these benefits has motivated MacNaughton to keep DrawTogether going.

“We hear a lot from parents about the changes they’ve seen in their kids,” she said. Children who tended toward self-criticism and were afraid to make mistakes would first watch DrawTogether like a TV show. The next time, they would do the warm-up dance, scribble a bit and stop. By the end of the week, they might be drawing along with MacNaughton the whole time, and then ask to hang their artwork on the refrigerator.

“I hope that grownups can see and recognize how drawing is not just about making a nice picture — it’s about growing our hearts,” MacNaughton told me. “It’s an opportunity for kids to work out all of the perfectionism that the world puts on them. It gives them the space to explore and imagine and to try something, and to have something unexpected happen and figure out what to do with that.”

“If kids can learn to do that,” she added, “they won’t have to go to years of therapy in order to undo the expectation that they have to do everything perfectly all the time.”

With that mission in mind, MacNaughton is trying to expand DrawTogether’s reach. She rented the top floor of a small theater in San Francisco and built a set with the help of local kids. She’s shot 12 episodes so far that are similar in essence to the early DrawTogether classes but of higher production quality.

MacNaughton’s latest endeavor is DrawTogether Classrooms, a partnership with schools and community-based organizations to offer comprehensive, social-emotional-centered art programming at low or no cost. The idea came about when MacNaughton learned that many teachers were incorporating DrawTogether into their lesson plans.

“When something really resonates,” MacNaughton said, “we pay attention to it.”

On ethnic studies, racism and childcare

California has become the first state in the country to make ethnic studies a required course for high school graduation. My colleagues Howard Blume and Melissa Gomez wrote about the new mandate, which they say is a “compromise between advocates who wanted an activist, anti-imperialist approach and those who asserted that the first version of the state teaching guide was filled with radical ideology, obscure academic jargon and bias against capitalism.”

Some parents, meanwhile, have acted on their own to fight what they say are discriminatory practices by school districts in the way they discipline Black and Latino students. So they’ve filed suit against the state, demanding that it exert closer oversight. Melissa Gomez wrote about the suit.

The dearth of childcare is still proving to be a major hurdle to women reentering the U.S. labor market. Meanwhile, the expanded child tax credit is offering a lifeline to many parents who couldn’t otherwise afford clothes and school supplies for their kids, much less childcare. But The Times’ Alejandra Reyes-Velarde writes that there’s a hitch: Many parents find the application process daunting, and are not signing up.

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More news of note

Jeremy Poincenot is a dad and is legally blind. And he sees some parallels between these two conditions. San Diego Union-Tribune.

The pandemic changed a lot about how we view education. And for many parents, it was the impetus they needed to take their kids out of traditional school and begin homeschooling them. L.A. Daily News.

Four nonprofits in Santa Cruz County are trying to teach kids how to be healthier eaters, starting with greater awareness of how food grows. One organization even has a 150-acre farm in Watsonville, where kids help grow stuff. Lookout Santa Cruz.

The Girl Scouts have helped nurture the dreams of such young women as Sandra Day O’Connor, Mae Jemison, Queen Latifah, Hillary Clinton, Martha Stewart and Condoleezza Rice. But now, the organization is under threat. Hechinger Report.

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