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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Chalk One Up for the Arts: A Record-Breaking Coloring Project

Schools and community pull together for the world's largest chalk drawing.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
Credit: Mark Wagner

The Kids' Chalk Art Project is a child's dream: Get down on the ground, draw all over it, get messy, and while you're at it, set a Guinness World Record.

For project founder Mark Wagner, a local artist and dad, the dream is less tangible but just as inspiring: to stoke children's creativity and demonstrate to the world what kids can do. Ultimately, he wants the spectacle of the world's biggest chalk drawing, created by children, to spawn a commitment to art classes in the elementary schools of Alameda, California, and beyond.

"Kids grow up unconnected to their creative spirit," Wagner says. Giving kids a chance to do art, he believes, taps the vein of their elemental creativity -- a force that will help them learn, interact, work, and play throughout life.

Elementary schools in Alameda, an island city on San Francisco Bay, haven't offered formal art instruction for years. The school district's Parent-Teacher Association provides materials to "art docents," parent volunteers who do periodic art activities with students. But in schools and classrooms without available parents or teacher buy-in, the kids get no art instruction.

Nationwide, such instruction has declined under pressure to emphasize subjects tested under the No Child Left Behind Act, and the impact has been severe in elementary schools. A survey released in 2007 by the independent Center on Education Policy found that since the law passed, 44 percent of districts have cut time in the elementary grades from untested subjects. (These cutbacks average nearly thirty minutes a day.) Even before NCLB, tight finances had squeezed out the arts in some schools.

Wagner's ambition is for local kids and adults this spring to cover a 100,000-square-foot swath of pavement at the decommissioned Alameda Naval Air Station with one seamless, communal chalk drawing. Kids will draw in shifts over two weeks, culminating June 7 with a festival and a satellite photo of the finished creation, to be used to promote children's art worldwide. The event will also mark the launch of Wagner's nonprofit organization, Re-Enchanting the World Through Art, dedicated to supporting elementary school art programs.

The Guinness World Record to beat is a chalk drawing measuring 60,439.3 square feet, made by more than 700 volunteers for an event in Eeklo, Belgium, in 2006. That's a square measuring more than 245 feet on each side.

"If people can see that kids are doing it -- kids with no art teachers -- imagine what they could do with regular instruction," Wagner says.

Among kids, Wagner's inspiration is infectious. When he visited Edison Elementary School in December to give students a pep talk for the project, the kids burst out with exclamations like "Awesome!"

The second and third graders pounced on the ground and quickly laid down thick layers of chalk in brilliant yellow, green, and magenta.

"I'm drawing a big one!" one girl said.

"I'm making a monkey with earrings!" a classmate added.

The teachers got their hands dirty, too -- Wagner insisted.

Principal Marcheta Williams says she jumped at the opportunity to involve her students in the project. She's also working on a districtwide task force to bring more arts into the schools -- the first step being the hiring of two art teachers this year.

Williams, who is also a jazz pianist, explains, "When I was a kid, I didn't think I was good at anything, and then I discovered that I was good at music, and I was able to transfer that to everything in my life."

For now, Wagner is at least $100,000 away from making his dream come true. He needs to pay for marketing, security, chalk, satellite photos, and his own time. Other parents and community groups are helping him plan and raise money.

"Being intuitive and being creative will be one of the most valuable assets in the future for hiring and helping to solve the world's problems," he says. "So you put that into kids, and that's how you invest in the world."

Editor's note: Mark Wagner and fellow Alameda residents broke the Guinness World Record for the largest chalk pavement art. Their winning painting, created by 5,678 local children, measured 90,000 square feet.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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