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CBD Interview with Sharon Jeffus

CBD: You have taught English as a second language, as well as Intensive English at the college level. You are also the developer of Visual Manna, a popular curriculum that uses art to reinforce the learning of core subjects. What inspired you to employ visual art to teach traditionally verbal subjects like English?

SJ: I believe creative inspiration comes from God and he gave me the ideas that are included in our books. Francis Shaeffer says that "The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars." Art permeates nearly every aspect of our lives; the clothes we wear, the buildings we walk through, even the science books we read are filled with illustrations created by artists. It is my belief that the more hands-on art that is introduced in learning core subjects, the easier it is for children to retain the knowledge.

CBD: Children have different learning styles. What types of students would best benefit from your teaching strategies? Can children who are not artistically inclined also benefit from your curriculum?

SJ: One of my favorite books is The Way They Learn by Cynthia Tobias. In order for education to be fun and exciting, in my opinion, children need to be taught in the way they learn the best. Diana Waring and Joyce Herzog also have excellent materials on this. Visual and kinesthetic learners would most benefit from our materials, but all children respond well to learning by doing. A good illustration is baking a cake. If you just read a recipe, how much do you remember? If you watch the cake being baked, how much do you remember? Now, how much do you remember when you actually bake the cake? This is what our learning style is all about: learning by doing.

CBD: Traditionally art has been relegated to elective status, but Visual Manna moves art to the forefront of the overall curriculum. What impact does knowledge of art have on the learning of subjects like history or geography? What about more concrete subjects like math and science? Can you suggest a few ideas to help parents get started in using art to teach text-based subjects?

SJ: One of the biggest values in teaching art is that it is a catalyst for independent thinking and problem solving. It is a time in the school day when it is OK to be different from the norm. There is only one answer to a particular date in history, only one way to do the math problem correctly, only one place that a comma is correct in a sentence; but art is a way to express your individuality and creative thought. Art is tremendously important in the study of history. Before the invention of the camera, you had artwork or verbal descriptions that would tell you what happened. The Bayeau Tapestry is an illustration of the Battle of Hastings. Remington and Russell illustrated the American West. Jacque Louis David illustrated the French Revolution. It is impossible to study a country and not be aware of its arts and architecture.

Science and art are fundamentally similar; the engineer applies his knowledge (science) of the world in an effort of creation, just like the artist. Both must be brutally honest about the nature of reality. The scientist must be brutally honest about the nature of the world around her. If her theory is wrong, she must abandon it and look elsewhere. This is the same mindset an artist must have. The realist must be brutally honest with his creation and how closely it reflects the world he wishes to describe. The expressionist must be brutally honest about his emotion as he paints.

To give you some project suggestions, you can talk about the science of a sunset or rainbow and then do a sunset or rainbow in art. You can study master artist Miller and Nelson and then do a unit on sea creatures. You can talk about the Parthenon and then have children build a scale model out of sugar cubes. In early American history, Robert Fulton, who studied painting in England with Benjamin West, is just one example of an early American art/science connection. Peale, Morse, George Washington Carver, Rufus Porter (founder of Scientific American magazine) were all artists/inventors. Martin Gardiner, in an article titled Arts May Make Kids More Smart says, "The arts have had an important role from the beginning in providing ways to express things. I am beginning to feel that it is no mistake that the biggest thinkers in history had a greater role for the arts in their lives. If we do not put them at the center of education, I think we are robbing ourselves of an important secret weapon." In our curriculum, we try to add core subjects to each art lesson and art lessons to enhance the core subjects.

CBD: Due to the influence of television, film, and computers, it seems we are well on the way to becoming a more visual society. How do you think this shift from the verbal to the visual will affect the course of education and our culture in general?

SJ: We as Christians need to be very literate in the most important communication tools available. Francis Shaeffer says, "The arts and sciences do have a place in the Christian life—they are not peripheral. For a Christian, redeemed by the work of Christ and living within the norms of Scripture and under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the Lordship of Christ should include an interest in the arts." We at Visual Manna have a burden to bring the arts into a paramount position in education, to equip the next generation with the tools to communicate the gospel of Christ.

CBD: What connection do you see between our knowledge of God as creator and the study of art?

SJ: I love what Dr. Jim Thompson, professor at Azusa Pacific University, has to say about this . . . ”My study of art, or really anything else, is approached with curiosity, wonder, amazement, and possibly awe as I am influenced by my creator, God. . . . Because our knowledge of God is limited by our small human insights and our study of art is an attempt to understand, then a connection would be our search for the importance of play, of adventure, of the act of creation. ‘In the beginning God created. . . . ’ If God's word begins with the act of creating, then it seems obvious that our desires to create are connected to God's creative acts. He made us. He made us in His image. Therefore, creative acts come from God. I believe when the artist creates some mysterious image and/or design that not all will respond in the same way. Some may look at the form and call it bad art or detest it. Their feelings about it, though, are a result of where they come from and how they choose to feel about it. Their feelings do not dictate the art, but do dictate their reaction to it. Thus, I would say that connections to God regarding art's study are related to the very ways God made us. He made us in His image. He made us to create. The question (s) becomes: Will our creations be surrendered to Him? Is He our Lord and Savior? Are our creative acts a form of worship to Him? If our answers are in the affirmative here, then I believe we are on the right track to creating in a manner worthy of God's blessings. The Bible says: ‘The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and He delights in his way.’ May God be delighted with our creations.”


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