The art class - far from a frill, it's a laboratory for original thinking

''You know what I'm going to let you do?'' ''What? What? What?'' ''You're going to work on colored clay and make some 'squirmy Ernies'!''

So begins another kindergarten art class, perhaps the 3,000th or so Frank Gyra has taught over the past 35 years. And that's just kindergarten. Mr. Gyra has taught every grade through high school during his 31/2 decades with the Woodstock school system. He was Vermont teacher of the year in 1982-83.

Today the 18 bustling five-year-olds will try something new. They'll roll out wormlike pieces of colored clay - the ''squirmy Ernies'' - stretch them along an index finger and press them on paper to draw a face. They'll also see how rolling together a blue ''Ernie'' and a red one, for example, can produce a purple line.

Paper and clay is passed out and the project begins. Up front, Mr. Gyra shows that it can in fact be done - putting an oval head on paper, then eyes, nose, grin, and finally a ''purple overcoat.'' The youngsters gamely follow his lead, with varying degrees of immediate success.

On one side of the class Bobby blurts out, ''It's a monster!'' Jessica lobbies the teacher to take a look at her ''Ernie,'' receiving a gentle ''that's a nice one - I like that.'' Josh glances at a neighbor's effort and observes, ''Hey, yours looks funny,'' then reconsiders, ''No, it looks nice.'' Mr. Gyra walks the C-shaped arrangement of tables, helping, encouraging. ''That's good - small, but good,'' he tells one little fellow whose ''Ernie'' seems to perpetually squirm off his forefinger.

What are the children learning from this encounter with bits of colored clay?

For one thing, says Mr. Gyra, they're learning about texture and color. They're learning, too, that there are a lot of ways to make pictures other than crayons and pencils. But beyond that, he continues, they're learning about themselves - about their ability to create something and express individuality. And that, he says, is what art instruction has to be all about.

A basic commitment of this veteran of countless spilled paint pots and numberless classroom epiphanies is that ''art education for all children on the elementary level is not a frill.'' What's involved, he argues, is quite simply the enrichment of a child's mind - the acquisition of ''alternate thinking.''

And when you're talking about creativity and self-expression, asserts Mr. Gyra, everyone's artistic efforts have ''dignity.'' ''If things look funny or peculiar, remember, it isn't the result that is important, but what has gone on in the mind that counts.''

His views get strong support from Samuel Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and a former principal himself.

''There is a feeling that the arts are a frill, when in fact they are a basic part of our learning process and of how human beings begin to communicate,'' he says. Dr. Sava is concerned this will be lost sight of in today's push for better instruction in math, science, and what he calls ''technical disciplines.''

For the youngest children, he continues, art provides a needed transition: ''Art is a family activity that they can transfer from home into school.'' He argues, too, that art bolsters children's efforts in other academic areas - strengthening their powers of observation and giving them an incentive to use language, instilling concepts of number and form that will prove useful in learning math.

Back at the Woodstock elementary school, art class is nearing the end of its 40 minutes. In one last attempt to stretch the kindergarteners' imaginations, Mr. Gyra suggests something for the blank space around their smiling ''squirmy Ernie'' creations. A sun, complete with rays, perhaps. Or, as one exuberant ''Star Wars'' enthusiast proclaims, ''a space ship.''

After class, Mr. Gyra does a little final straightening up - order is another of his tenets. Then he shares thoughts on some basics on his trade:

* Discipline. ''I've never felt the problem of discipline in a classroom. . . . Basically they feel involved, encouraged. And mostly I give them a feeling of lack of inferiority so that they can really feel that whatever they put down is going to be legitimately accepted by me at that point and time.''

What about the can't-I-do-something-else plea? ''On certain days you can, but certain days you cannot. Because you can't always do what you want to do. Period.''

* Planning and goals. ''If we're baby-sitting the class and just letting them entertain themselves through pure expression, that's one thing. But if we're using the class to verify and to strengthen the five basic constructs - form, color, composition, texture, and emotion - then you have a different reason for teaching. That's why I feel this construct approach is so important - it gives some substance for everyone to bite into.

''No matter who you are and what the project is, I can find some of these five elements and hence something to praise.''

* Materials. ''The worst enemy for a child is a pencil, as far as I'm concerned. If you're going to give them a pencil, give them paper about two by three inches. Then you'll have a ratio between the thin line of lead and the periphery of the drawing. . . . You need a broader return to meet the mind and the eye.''

* Patience and nurturing. ''You can't have it come at the pace you would do it. It's their pace. And you'd better hold off, even though you want to drag them through it.

''Whether it looks like spinach to you, or whether it looks like macaroni, the point remains that to them it is something. So we will go ahead on the assumption that it is something, and we will talk about that something and try to move forward from it.''

What's on the agenda for tomorrow? Mr. Gyra breaks into one of his slightly impish grins. Bits of colored yarn on papers, maybe? Or perhaps it's time to have the children mix their own powdered colors. That, he proclaims, is infinitely better than pre-mixed paints. The students have the excitement of seeing the colors take shape.

And Frank Gyra? He has, daily, the true teacher's excitement of seeing the ability to think take shape.

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