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Reneé Weissenburger

While integrating the arts in any form is sure to bring excitement to the classroom, carefully selecting an approach that compliments the learning at hand can deepen student comprehension and enrich a broader scope of connections. Recently, I had the privilege of collaborating with Valerie Barnes at Flying Hills Elementary. Our focus was literary analysis for the book Maniac McGee by Jerry Spinelli. This book tackles some difficult and complex topics and distills them down for young minds. However, because Spinelli never trivializes or condescends by oversimplification, our fourth and fifth grade fellow collaborators participated in an array of intelligent, empathetic and thought-provoking discussions on the three primary themes of the books: Belonging, literacy, and segregation. Each theme was carefully paired with an art form designed to underscore the importance of the lesson.

For belonging, students were asked to carefully select and draw a casing to, literally and figuratively, house symbols related to this theme. Since belonging applies to many components of the book, students were asked to demonstrate the nuances of their interpretation. Some focused on the issue of homelessness and transience by utilizing such images as Maniac’s shoes (which keep him wandering), Amanda’s suitcase (which provides protection for something precious), the buffalo pen (which serves as both cage and home), a bed (which offers comfort), or a home (which provides shelter and permanence). Other students interpreted belonging as it pertains to a family, group of friends or town, employing such frames as a house (filled with family), a school (filled with supportive friends), or a heart (for all those whom Maniac belongs to in the end). Once the vessel was chosen, students filled the space by drawing all of the symbols which supported their interpretation of belonging.

For literacy, students created image or text collages by using paper from an old book. In this case, we used pages from a yellowed O. Henry story collection (picked up for a quarter at a library bookstore), but any beautiful, weathered text will do. Some students cut out large letters to create phrases such as “Let literacy bloom,” “Grow you mind,” or “Find freedom in a book.” Others chose to cut shapes to collage symbolic pictures like wild flowers sprouting from books, books stacked in a mind, or loose pages drifting in the wind, waiting to be discovered.

The theme of segregation was explored through printmaking. Students created stark, symbolic images with black paper and white ink. As always, students were given freedom to demonstrate their understanding of the theme as it related to the novel. Some students chose to portray pivotal scenes or settings from the book, such as the divided town of Two Mills. Others chose to depict more symbolic images, for instance – black and white hands intertwined, stacks of black and white books (each full of wisdom and wonder), or black and white figures interspersed throughout the town.

When we began, this class was already prepared to perform a close and careful reading of the text. Giving them an appropriate vehicle to explore and exhibit their findings served as a catalyst for a depth of understanding that surpassed their expectations and inspired us all.

CoTA Artist Reneé Weissenburger and Flying Hills Elementary School Teacher Valerie Barnes talk about this project and arts integration in this KPBS segment: