Thursday, July 11, 2013

Interdisciplinary ART: Creativity, Curiosity and Collaboration

Do we effectively employ student effort, creativity, heart, and energy to teach all children well?  Do we design learning experiences with a focus on developing students' confidence, creativity, and contribution?

Christine Lucey Meagher is a Worcester, Massachusetts art teacher committed to teaching children well, building community, and developing students' essential skill with engaging, effective practice. Over the past three years, Christine has passionately researched, designed, implemented, assessed, revised, and developed an innovative high school-elementary school collaborative art and reading project focused on developing students' art and reading skills, appreciation, and interest.

In 2010, Christine decided to introduce her Art III class to art careers with a specific focus on children's book illustration. She chose this focus because she wanted her students to understand that book illustration is a career pathway in art. Her Art III students included junior and seniors in high school from diverse backgrounds and performance profiles. The collaborative project included the following steps:
  • Students reviewed famous children's books and chose one book as a focus: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • Christine focused the art instruction on line quality since Sendak's work exemplifies multiple line styles. 
  • Next, students made their own partner teams.  Christine also partnered with a student.
  • Christine enlarged several illustrations from the book to 11" X 17" black and white copies.
  • Teams chose an illustration (visual reference) from the collection to interpret or replicate.
  • The expectation for each team was to create one large-scale reproduction of a Wild Things' illustration including a pencil sketch, painting, and black-line detailed completion. Teams had the freedom to choose the best way to complete this task using their combined creative talents. 
  • The project also included the school-wide writing initiative. Each team viewed The Wild Things Movie, read the story, and then wrote a comparative essay.
  • The essays and paintings were then displayed in the main floor of the school. 
  • Later, the giant illustrations were added to the permanent art display at the Central Administration Building for Worcester Public Schools.
The project proved to be a great success for the following reasons.  First, the students enjoyed the collaborative process that allowed choice and voice. The students also enjoyed creating large-scale, colorful, whimsical, joyful paintings.  Finally, they truly enjoyed the positive reception they received when the paintings were placed on the main floor of the school building for all to see. Unlike art of a smaller scale, these paintings impacted the entire community with a "feel good" spirit.

The success of the initial project led Christine to develop the project further the next year. She aligned the following year's project with the NEA's Read Across America annual event.  With her lifelong friend, and elementary school principal, June Eressy, Christine planned an interdisciplinary project designed to boost reading and art appreciation and skill for both her high school students and June's Chandler Elementary School's first graders.

Similar to the first year, the class completed the art steps above, but this year they also planned to visit Chandler Elementary to share their art and read aloud The Cat in the Hat during the Read Across America celebration week. Prior to the visit, students advertised the event by placing the five large-scale and ten smaller-scale illustrations in a glass case in the main entry of the school. Also, the first grade teachers supported the project by introducing the students to Dr. Seuss and his books, particularly The Cat in the Hat.  The high school staff contributed too by making costumes, donating books, and photographing the event.

When the celebration day arrived, students dressed in character, divided into ten reading groups of two high school students, a first grade teacher, and 10 first graders, and spent about an hour reading, drawing and coloring with the students. First graders also had their pictures taken in front of the giant paintings. Ms. Eressy thanked the high school students by providing them with lunch. This event was met with terrific response from the teachers, leaders, high school administration, and most importantly, the students--high school art students and the elementary school first graders. An unexpected result of this project was that it not only introduced students to a career in illustration, but also introduced students to many aspects elementary school education. Students, particularly those who are often uncelebrated, displayed extraordinary skill, comfort, and creativity with young children which served to enrich the event significantly.

With two years of success, Christine continued to grow this project model with a third initiative: The Gingerbread Man Project. Similar to year's past, Christine Lucey Meagher researched the project during the summer months and decided to broaden the project to include all five art classes. She began with a book that her father had given her when she was in elementary school, "The Pancake," by George Webbe Desent from Tales and Legends, ChildCraft, Volume 4. Then she researched a number of Gingerbread stories from several authors including the following:

Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett
Gingerbread Fred, A Ready to Read Book, by Nick and Claire Page
The Gingerbread Boy, story retold by Jim Lawrence
The Gingerbread Man, retold by Eric A. Kimmel
The Gingerbread Boy, illustrated by Scott Cook
The Gingerbread Man, pictures by Karen Schmidt

She used all of the books above to differentiate her high school students' art projects. High school students were able to choose one illustration from the books to replicate or interpret with any medium and project size. Students chose a range of pencil value drawings, pen and ink, pastel chalk, colored pencil, and mixed media. Fourteen groups chose the large 5' X 5' poster boards donated by Jerry Daley representing Rand Whitney Corporation, Worcester, Massachusetts.

This year Christine used the project as an opportunity for high schoolers to look at "voice" in art by comparing, contrasting, and integrating the art from many illustrators. For example, one student applied Anime style to the gingerbread boy creating an original concept.  Another student applied his pencil drawing skill to accomplish an interesting value drawing, while a third student applied video game art with Jan Brett's style to create a contemporary illustration.  Collectively the students created a large variety of original art based on the Gingerbread concept.

Similar to year's past, Christine collaborated with Chandler Elementary School.  She chose Schmidt's version of the gingerbread man because the reading level was accessible to first graders, and because she could purchase a large number of books at a reasonable price. Christine also expanded the collaboration with the elementary school in the following ways:
  • Books were purchased for every classroom, and distributed to the teachers a month in advance of the project celebration.
  • All of the high school students had many copies of the books available for practice and study prior to the project share so that they could practice reading and prepare for the celebration.
  • Christine met with Dorothea Mahoney, a reading specialist at Worcester's South High, to learn reading strategies for engaging young children in a meaningful lesson--strategies which she shared with her own high school students.
  • Each high school group received a poster created by Christine to guide their work. The poster included questions related to common core standards, the Gingerbread story background (originally a European story about a thick, fat pancake), and a summary.
  • Christine asked the high school culinary teacher, Barbara Conroy, to collaborate as well.  The high school culinary class baked gingerbread cookies for all 80 first graders, 40 high school students, and 15 educators. The culinary class also baked and created an elaborate Jan Brett style gingerbread house as a gift to the elementary school which was met with delight.
  • Christine and her students also created a wonderful display in the school cafetorium with the gingerbread house surrounded by the 14 big board paintings.  
  • Instead of one coloring page, this time the students brought five different designs as well as all the coloring materials for the students. 
This amazing project included vertical teaming with elementary and high school students, art and reading mentoring by high school students, and a positive, uplifting, educational community celebration of cooking, art, and reading. 

Christine Lucey Meagher believes that in every system, students' art work can be used to engage, motivate, and inspire children throughout the school system with interdisciplinary project/problem base learning and cross-grade mentoring.  Not only did the young first graders at Chandler Elementary profit from this extraordinary learning experience, but high school students profited as well.  They were able to share their learning in a meaningful, relevant way which resulted in greater confidence, engagement, and success. 

Christine plans to continue developing this project model to benefit learners.  As she moves forward, Christine plans to include the successful elements above with keen attention to the best time of year, story genre, and optimal creativity. Most of all, Christine hopes that projects like this one will be replicated throughout the country so that students do not learn in isolation, and their creativity will be celebrated and shared in meaningful ways that develop confidence, passion, and life long learning. 

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