When students began returning to schools for the fall 2021 term, educators noticed a distinct change. Enough students showed signs of being disengaged, unable to reconnect after the previous year of pandemic isolation, that school principals and teachers were concerned.

For art educators Andy and Yvette Benavides, the change necessitated a major shift in how they approached their Supporting Multiple Arts Resources Together (SMART) program, which normally teaches contemporary art to Briscoe Elementary School students from pre-K through fifth grade.

An Oct. 2 social media post acknowledges the disruptions caused by the pandemic and describes their shift:

We start classes Monday with our Briscoe students. Just like we do every year (with the exception of last year). Except that this is not like every year. For the past 2 weeks I have been taking the pulse in our school(s), listening to our teachers. For many students reentry into school is difficult at best. Students are returning with trauma and behavioral challenges, some are not speaking. We can not expect students (and teachers) to perform as if things were “the same.” They are not. SMART has scrapped its entire programming this year and has pivoted hard to support and engage students emotionally. First by connecting to themselves and then to one another. I can’t wait to see our kids on Monday. Let it begin.

Honey on your brain

To help students reconnect, the couple chose the subject of “Love.”

Aside from artist Robert Indiana’s famous “LOVE” word sculpture, the subject is rarely treated in contemporary art. Yvette credits Andy with the theme, who said he chose it “because of the power it has as a word, and how universally understood it is. A one syllable word that resonates like honey on your brain.”

He said he wanted the word to function as a stop sign, to momentarily end the turbulent ride of the pandemic, when many students experienced “energy overload for their little brains.”

The kids had listened to their parents talking about things that were difficult to understand, had obeyed rules regarding face coverings and social distancing they’d never had to deal with before, and several buried close relatives who died of COVID-19, Benavides said.

“That’s a lot of information for a little brain to process,” he said, and the goal was a complete reset.

They started off the fall term by asking fifth grade students to visualize common objects like a basketball, a goat, and a banana. They were asked to look up at the ceiling while trying to draw the banana, which had the students “laughing like five year olds, just uncontrollable laughter,” Benavides said, which he imagined was the result of having their brains “tickled” with something it could enjoy.

Next, they asked the students to imagine the sensory qualities of love: what does it smell, sound, taste, feel and look like?

Answers ranged from tasting like pizza and feeling like the cool side of a pillow, to smelling like the “Ariana Grande perfume” and “my grandpa before he died,” according to an Oct. 5 social media post.

The four-week program ended with the kids painting a love-themed mural, each class using one color to create an additive, layered expression of what they’d learned.

Art vs. fear

The efficacy of the visualization exercise is backed up by neuroscience, Benavides said, which through technology can image a “brain on art,” filled with color, versus a “brain on fear,” which appears gray.

He then placed their teaching in a larger social context. “We have to be aware just how effective we are as a society to keep everybody scared,” which he said impairs reasoning and stifles expression. To counter that trend, one primary goal of the SMART program is to empower young students to gain confidence in confronting difficult situations, and expressing their feelings freely.

Andy Benavides counts students before gathering for a group photograph with their work at SMART.
Andy Benavides counts students before gathering for a group photograph with their work at SMART. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

While the prospect of teaching a gaggle of independently minded fifth graders might appear daunting to some educators, the teachers and principal of Briscoe Elementary attest to the positive effects of the SMART program.

As the final session for her fifth graders convened for a class photograph in the SMART studio across the street from Briscoe, teacher Monica Dubuque echoed the Benavides’ key word in summing up the experience for herself and her students.

“Oh, I loved it,” Dubuque said. “I love that [the students] were able to express themselves in a time that they haven’t been able to. So it was very freeing to see them kind of just be who they are, and express in a way that they hadn’t in a while.”

Teacher Renee Ortiz also noticed a difference in her students over the 4-week SMART term. “They became a little softer around the edges, a little more caring towards each other, a little more respectful.”

Of the Benavides’ approach to nurturing independence and encouraging individual expression, Ortiz said, “It helps them to think differently. And that’s always been the challenge with kids, elementary kids especially, that it’s always about self, not about others.”

The results prove the ongoing effectiveness of the SMART curriculum, even as it pivoted from its primary focus on contemporary art to hone in on the kids’ emotional needs.

In education, “measurables” are ultimately what counts, and Briscoe Principal Jennifer Emerson said the SMART program produces for her students and her school. When she taught there 13 thirteen years ago as a substitute teacher, she said the whole focus was on academics and arts were not a priority.

Five years ago, Emerson became assistant principal, then took the principal position three years ago. In that time, in part thanks to SMART, Briscoe has gone from receiving a failing grade in state assessment to what she described as on track to become a “solid B school” prior to the arrival of COVID-19.

“With the confidence that the kids get, and the sense of ownership and empowerment, that does equate to better test scores,” Emerson said. “Briscoe has shown that, and I know that we’re going to continue.”

She said the change is evident in the culture of the school, which is louder than it used to be — in a good way, she insisted — and laughter can be heard pealing through the halls, in part because students are allowed to roam outside of classrooms to find their own workspaces.

“They do not have to be micromanaged, they know how to behave, they know how to collaborate,” Emerson said.

A community vision

As a 25-year resident of Southtown, Andy said that the decade-old SMART program is part of his long term, intergenerational vision for community-building. “It’s a big idea,” he said of unleashing the creative potential of neighborhood children SMART session after SMART session, year after year. “I think we’re demonstrating its potential … in a three square mile area of this school.”

Students are escorted  back to class at Briscoe Elementary which is directly adjacent to the South Flores Art Complex.
Teacher Monica Dubuque escorts her students back to class at Briscoe Elementary, which is directly adjacent to The 1906 studios, where they participate in the SMART program. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The successes of the SMART program are becoming evident, with other schools asking for the program to expand. But with sessions for each of the six grade levels once per week for four weeks each semester, plus side projects including a workspace design collaboration with Alamo Architects, and a budding community garden on the grounds of nearby St. Henry’s Catholic Church in the works, the Benavides’ have much on their plate.

However, Yvette said their work can provide an example for other schools.

“If we can be a role model for other community partners to step up in their local schools, really dig in and assist in effective, supportive ways … that’s going to help free teachers to do what they love to do, which is teach. It’s going to take the community.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...