Crumpled, torn-up grocery bags littered the tabletops and floor of a classroom at Quail Run Elementary School on Saturday.

A roomful of busy artists, fingers blackened with chalk, finished their task of transforming the bags into representations of petroglyphs - the kinds American Indians carved into rocks ages ago at nearby Saguaro National Park.

"Everyone hold your hands up," said Kelly McGarity, the Quail Run fourth-grade teacher whom everyone was calling Miss Kelly. "Let's see."

About 50 chalky hands shot into the air. They were teacher-size hands. They belonged to about 25 elementary school teachers.

Moments earlier, the owners of the hands had drawn story-telling figures on their bags - suns, turtles, mountains and birds. Some worked slowly, absorbed in the pursuit of perfection. Some finished speedily and then chatted with neighbors. Some followed directions exactly, others hardly at all.

"The idea behind this is that you experience it," McGarity told the whole bunch of them.

The occasion for all the creativity was a joint program of the Marana Arts Council and Marana Unified School District designed to improve art instruction for the district's elementary school children.

"Children develop passions at a very early age," said Meg Wallace, the Quail Run fifth-grade teacher who designed the program. "If you wait too long, they're intimidated and they don't want to try."

About 200 of the districts 275 some full-time teachers of kindergarten through sixth grade will attend, or have attended, the half-day program, Wallace said. In addition to professional growth hours, the teachers receive four detailed, age-specific lesson plans centered on art projects, and other less-detailed lesson ideas.

For fourth graders, who study the spirit of the Southwest, the American-Indian petroglyph art fits right in.

"To me art naturally integrates through the curriculum," Wallace said.

In 1997, the Arizona Department of Education adopted standards for teaching visual arts in schools. The state standards are vague, without specific activity suggestions.

The Marana Unified School District has no visual art specialist to help carry them out, Wallace said.

When teachers found out about the state standards, she said, they panicked.

"Teachers were just overwhelmed," she said. "They were saying, 'How am I going to do this on top of everything else I have to do? How will I find time?'"

So when members of the Marana Arts Council mentioned to Wallace, a member herself, that they wanted to benefit visual arts in elementary schools, she had a plan.

She'd been pushing art to her students since she began teaching at Quail Run Elementary School about 10 years ago. She had lesson plans, already, that jived with the Arizona's visual arts standards. With a bit of financial help, she could share.

The arts council produced about $2,000 to fund in-service days and to provide art supplies to this year's students for the projects suggested. It is trying to recruit businesses to adopt elementary schools and pay for their art supplies in future years.

The school district chipped in for posters, books and other supplies that can be used year after year.

Wallace set her mind to developing art projects so compelling that they would inspire even the non-artistic teachers to sell their students on art.

"My passion developed from elementary art," she said. "That hour of my week was my favorite."

The Arizona standards for visual arts naturally point to involved art projects. Students must learn that historical contexts - including social, economic and political ones - influence art. They must reflect on the meaning of their artwork. They must learn principles of design.

When chalky-fingered teachers crumpled paper bags Saturday to create their own versions of petroglyphs, they also got a lesson in applying these standards.

They found out about a book that gives historical context to petroglyphs, introducing American Indians' use of symbols in art. They were offered a writing assignment - students could reflect on artwork by telling stories about what the mock-petroglyphs meant. They worked with texture, shapes and lines.

The teachers left their half-day art workshop with binders full of other project-size art lessons as well.

Wallace said she hopes each teacher will take on one big project at least once a trimester, maybe twice. Perhaps, then, children who are intimidated by art will learn to love it.

In any case, the program aims to break down some of the barriers that keep some students from excelling in the visual arts.

"How do you know you're an artist," Wallace said, "if you're not exposed?"

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