September 13, 2006 - As Brian Jones gave instructions to his art students, some had trouble understanding what exactly he wanted from them.
Jones wanted them to sketch a white marble pedestal he placed - the teacher used the word "arranged" - at the front of the classroom. He wanted them to sketch the still life, whichever angle or part of it appealed to them.
That's it. That's all they had to do during a recent advanced art class at Marana High School.
"Decide what's important and draw what's important," Jones said.
The students seemed shocked to have such freedom.
"So it's just…" senior Marissa Mullins paused, struggling for the right word, "anywhere?"
Jones encounters this problem with many of his students. "They're so used to asking, 'What do you want me to do?'"
For much of the day, teachers tell some students exactly what to do and exactly how to do it.
No matter how much standardized testing, new technology and college pressures change the high school experience, some aspects of art class, however, remain unchanged. A paintbrush will always be a class fixture; a still life always will be still. To create, students will have to get, well, creative.
"It's been like that since the Renaissance," said Green Fields Country Day School visual arts teacher Jane Buckman.
Terry Forthum, the president of the Arizona Federation of Teachers, says this is true of other fine arts classes, such as music or drama. "All of your fine arts classes, they are based on observation and expression, as opposed to a math class where you have right and wrong answers."
Even at Green Fields, a private school that keeps its class sizes small and designs its curriculum to encourage free-thinking, Buckman thinks art classes provide a unique opportunity for students to find their own ways to express themselves.
"There's no one path," she said recently. "It's not like a straight line from start to finish. That's what's very exciting and interesting about it."
Students at Marana can take a computer-based digital art program. Catalina Foothills High School offers two classes devoted to graphic design. And, the newest class offered by the Canyon Del Oro High School fine arts department: digital photography.
Catalina Foothills fine arts teacher Maureen Byrne explains that classes in graphic design help students see the connection between their art classes and the media images constructed for television and the Internet.
Students in Catalina Foothills' highest-level graphic design class make T-shirts, tickets and posters for groups and events within the school district. Graphic design teacher Lou Garard tries to give her students experiences similar to those in the working world, where a designer's main goal often involves satisfying a client.
Once students make a connection between art class and jobs in the market, Byrne said, they more likely will consider the arts as a possible college major or career path.
Yet, some teachers say the requirements for graduating and getting into college shrink the amount of time students have for art.
Students at CDO sometimes take extra summer school classes to fit art into their busy schedules, according to fine arts department chairwoman Carolyn Seidl.
"It's harder to keep our students in the program," she worries. "They are being tugged in so many directions."
The problem isn't merely confined to art class. "You could ask the same questions about sports or any other program," Byrne contends. "Today's students' lives are complex as they try, like some adults, to do it all: school, household responsibilities, social lives, outside activities, dating, sports and on and on."
In a national Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll taken earlier this year, almost 80 percent of respondents said they were concerned that No Child Left Behind testing requirements, which include only math and English, would lessen the emphasis on art, music and history.
Their concerns appear well founded, said Forthum, of the Arizona Federation of Teachers. "(Testing) is not only squeezing out fine arts. Even science and social studies are being squeezed as well."
At Marana High, where like many area public schools students must take at least one visual or performing arts class, some teens take just one, lower-level art class to fulfill a graduation requirement.
Jones sees the most confused stares during these classes, and it's then that he has to coerce the students into not always waiting for him to tell them what to do. "I have to convince them, 'It's okay to sail off and go do your thing.'"
During class, Jones goes out of his way to highlight the individualist aspects of art for his students - "I try to keep it loose and free," he said. The teacher also remains laid back. For example, during a recent class he told his students to "be groovy" and described early-20th Century artist Robert Henri as a "hip" guy.
He reminded his students: "You don't have to apologize for the way you do art."