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‘Think like a child'

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Artist Simón Silva brings message to migrant education summer school in Fort Lupton

By Jeremy Johnson

FORT LUPTON — Mexican-born artist and writer Simón Silva believes that building confidence in youth is the straightest path to a career — not only in the arts — but in technology, business or any other career field of the 21st century.

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And while Silva’s message is as universal as his art, he and other educators feel it’s imperative to deliver that message to those who need it the most.

That’s where the Migrant Education Program and the Summer Creativity Camp come in.

 

An epicenter of
migrant students

Mary Ellen Good, board member of the Centennial Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) and regional director of the Migrant Education and Services program, said Weld Re-8 School District — one of 52 school districts in the region that make up the BOCES — is “kind of the epicenter for a lot of agriculture in Weld County.” 

Consequently, Fort Lupton schools also have among the highest number of migrant students in the state behind only Greeley, according to Scott Graham, executive director of academic support services for Weld Re-8.

Graham said the district currently has between 55 and 70 migrant students — a number that remains relatively high within the state but is down considerably in the district compared to just a few years ago. While the number of migrant students now makes up about 4 percent of the district’s 2,400 students, just a decade ago that number was closer to 10 percent, or about 200 students.

Graham said the need to provide additional opportunity for those migrant students came from academic studies of what’s called the “summer slide.”

“The primary reason for the migrant summer school is to keep kids academically engaged,” Graham said. “There is a well documented ‘summer slide’ when students fall back academically over the summer and need to catch up in the fall.

“This is especially true of migrant students who often change schools during the normal school year and may be significantly behind their peers,” he added. “Because the migrant summer school is grant funded, we are restricted in how long we can offer the opportunity and which students are eligible, but it is a great way to offer a little more to some of our most at-rise kids.”

Graham said there’s always been a “strong art component” to the migrant summer school over the first two years of the program — culminating with two painted murals that now adorn the Weld Re-8 board room — but migrant education advocate Nancy Wendirad suggested further upping the ante this year.

“This year, Nancy had an idea of expanding the part of migrant summer school focused on art to feature a professional artist,” Graham said. “So we worked with … Centennial BOCES to make this expansion.”

From there, Good wrote a proposal, secured additional funding from the Colorado Department of Education and invited Silva, whom she saw speak once at an educational conference, to host the one-week program for students from Fort Lupton, Fort Morgan, Greeley, Brighton and Commerce City.

“Fort Lupton was the epicenter when I first thought ‘Where can we do this?’” Good said.

Good said the program was approved on the condition that organizers draw at least “50 to 100 students.” On Wednesday, June 11, Good said there were 104 students in attendance.

Graham said Silva originally wanted only third through 12th-grade students, but wound up conceding to all ages. And when Graham suggested separating the older students from the younger ones, Silva balked. The artist, instead, decided to capitalize on a major theme of his teaching: Sometimes the younger students have much to teach the older ones, and the adults, too.

 

“Think like a child”

Silva is currently writing and promoting a new book called “Think Like a Child,” and he feels the title says it all.

“I’ve been working with as many kindergartners and first-graders as I can to try to mimic and get as close as possible to their brain activity,” Silva said. “See, I came up with this idea that the linear education system doesn’t necessarily work anymore.”

Instead, Silva said education is a lifelong process rooted in creativity. And nobody thinks as creatively, he said, as those who have yet to fall into dictated schools of thought.

“For example, I talk about how, as kids, we look at a cardboard box differently than we would as adults,” Silva said. “Adults see a cardboard box as simply a piece of trash, where as kids, we looked at it as an opportunity to apply 101 creative applications and solutions.

“That’s the kind of sensibilities these kids are going to need for the 21st century,” he added.

Silva also points to a comparison between top high school artists and those works produced by children, where he said the lack of critical and abstract thinking in the former becomes grossly apparent by simply examining the difference in themes and vision.

“If you look at (these works and how they) translate to the 21st century workforce, you can see these kids have their own way of thinking and their own styles,” he said. “(Young people) are very independent thinkers, and these are the kind of people I would want to hire.”

Silva preaches the ideologies of creative thinking as a path to more well-rounded characteristics, which in turn can lead to a multitude of careers. He said creative thinking leads to better problem-solving skills, communication, self-esteem, decision making, listening, life-long learning, curiosity, insightfulness, personal awareness and abstract thinking. And those qualities, ultimately, lead to more overall success in the both the job sector and personal lives.

For example, Silva points to a recent survey of tech-industry giant, IBM.

“According to this survey, CEOs say they are now looking for creative people,” Silva said. “They believe creativity is the most important leadership quality in business, outweighing even integrity and global thinking.”

 

 

Confidence
through learning

Before there can be true, unbridled creative thinking, Silva insists there must first be confidence. And that can be tough to conjure from a group of students weighed down by socio-economic factors that are often out of their control.

Silva said, of the many school districts he’s visited across the country, it is often those with large black or Latino student populations that see the most dropouts. And that, he said, worries him.

“I ask the parents ‘Why should we care?’ And the answer is, ‘Is it possible that one of these students who dropped out or will drop out took with them the cure to Alzheimer’s, or diabetes, or cancer, or some important socio-economic issue?’

“Essentially, what we’re trying to do here is to get these kids to shed some of their fear,” Silva said. “Some of these kids are afraid, they’re lacking confidence.”

So Silva employs broad, confidence-building tactics, encouraging students to not only think outside the box but to realize the unlimited potential of afforded them by creative, independent thinking.

Silva does this by engaging students in projects ranging from product design to Play-Doh self-portraits — anything, he said, to get the creative juices flowing and get kids thinking multi-dimensionally.

“One of the things we talk about is how (these students) can basically do anything they want,” Silva said. “They can own a company instead of working for one. I’m trying to expose them to as much as we can.

“My wife and I … asked our kids ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” he added. “We realized that was the wrong question to ask. The right question is ‘How many things do you want to be when you grow up?’”

Silva said, part of the challenge, is also changing the perception of education in parents, who often see it as a matter of dollars and cents.

“I come across a lot of parents who don’t understand what education is all about,” he said. “They think it’s about the degree or the money.”

Instead, Silva said it’s about a never-ending journey.

“I’m 53, and I feel like I’m still learning so much.”

Silva said his take on education is best summed up by a quote from American writer Will Durant, best known for his collection, “The Story of Civilization”:

“Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.”

For Twombly Elementary fifth-grader Samantha Cabrera, Silva’s message resonated loud and clear.

“I loved this program because it took away the scariness,” Cabrera said. “I learned to take everything out and just draw what I feel. I learned to be myself.

“You can’t hide what you have in you,” she added. “Let it out.”