BUCKTOWN — Energy and urgency crackle through an arts classroom where — with just 40 seconds to present their "studio work" — a group of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders are just as eager to share their art as they are to get feedback from their teacher and peers.
Wendy Rejman, the visual arts instructor at Drummond Montessori Magnet School, assigns one artist to be the timekeeper, another to ring a bell if she "sees someone not respecting," and a third to snap photos of the artwork to eventually put on the school's Tumblr page.
Student Joaquin Barrett used clay to make "a fudge pot," which he said was inspired by a trip to Margie's Candies, a local candy shop and ice cream parlor.
"I messed up the clay, but then I fixed it again," Joaquin said.
Another student, Yamile Padilla, 11, proudly displayed a landscape piece called "Color Change."
"I'm always thinking, 'Why can't the sun be blue or the water red?'" Yamile said.
Rejman told Yamille that she had a unique idea to "turn everything around" and adds that it was a diversion since Yamile is "usually very literal."
Rejman is familiar with Yamile's artistic style, not just from this school year, but the previous six years, since Yamile and several of the 24 students in Rejman's classroom have been taking the "SmArt Studio" arts class once each week at Drummond, a Chicago Public Schools magnet school at 1845 W. Cortland St. in Bucktown.
In the studio-based class, students conceive their own project, choose the tools or material/medium and see it through to the end, usually over a three-week session before starting a new project.
After the class, Rejman said she is "not really worried about the product" and wants her students "to value and understand the artistic process," which she bases around studio habits of developing craft, expression, observation, envisioning and "engage and persist," a habit the young artists said they use often.
Rejman structures her students' lessons around the Teaching for Artistic Behavior method, which regards students as artists and encourages them to see the classroom as their studio.
While the teaching method gives young artists freedom of expression, it does not provide them freedom to run amok in the classroom, which is highly structured under Rejman's careful watch, often from the vantage point of sitting on the floor in a circle or next to a child at a table.
"I resist using the word teacher and consider myself to be more of a guider," said the 45-year-old instructor, who began her CPS career teaching at Walter Gresham Elementary School in 1993 before joining Drummond in 1996.
In 2004, Drummond became CPS' first public Montessori school.
Montessori education is centered on the child and rather unique for CPS, where Drummond is one of just four Montessori schools in the Chicago Public Schools system and the first to offer a "whole school" Montessori program for grades K-8, according to the CPS Office of Access and Enrollment.
Rejman, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a National Board Certified teacher, said she has "never considered teaching anything else but art."
"I get to watch children learn, grow, be creative and share themselves," Rejman said.
Yamile, who has been a student of Rejman's for six years, said what she likes best is that Rejman "gives you a chance to mess up. She helps you and takes time to help."
Jennifer James, a parent of two Drummond students, said she has sat in on some of Rejman's studio classes.
"It's amazing the little kids can talk about what they are making and why they are making it," she said.
James credits Rejman for helping her children to "learn how to begin something and see it through the end."
"Sometimes they like their work at the end, and sometimes they don't. It sounds pie in the sky, but it has had an incredible resonance in their life, just engaging and persisting without being afraid from beginning to end," James said.
Though some parents have expressed fears that further budget cuts in CPS, which have already forced Drummond to lay off a Spanish teacher, could eventually affect Rejman's program, James said she is hoping that CPS can learn from Rejman's classroom.
"Drummond at its best is incredibly peaceful and very deep. There is no short answer to anything; the art room powers our community values and also reflects them. [Rejman's] art studio has a quiet power to it that I value as a parent, and I am grateful for that opportunity for my children."
Rejman said she considers her teaching mantra to be "be present and give selflessly" and at the end of the day, help children build their self-worth and esteem and learn how to reflect and to observe through art, which Rejman said "is so important for critical thinking.
"And on a superficial level, kids like art," she added.