This unit is an example of how teaching artists collaborate, and how well writing, drawing, and science work together.

This step-by-step documentation is by Lisa Annelouise Rentz; Melba Cooper's take on the project is in lesson plan form.


Don't miss the 12 minute audio by the kids themselves.




Ecosystems are Beautiful:
Four whole days of arts integration at St. Helena Elementary School: 5th grade science students use their knowledge of ecosystems and terrestrial & aquatic interaction to create paintings and poetry, combining curriculum standards from all three areas.

highlight: 12 minute audio reflection by these eloquent students about their work and the creative process.

This arts integration experience is part of the Lowcountry Arts Integration Project in three schools in Beaufort SC, supported by a grant from the US Dept. of Education.
day 1
 
5th grade teacher Nan Baron had assigned homework for the weekend, to prepare students for the project on Monday-

- Choose one of the five ecosystems we have studied that you are most interested in drawing (maritime forest, estuary/salt marsh, ocean, grassland, lakes/ponds)
- Begin sketching below some of the populations you would expect to find in that ecosystem. 
 
In class, for her usual warm-up exercise, she asked the students to write the answers to 10 questions, displayed on the smart board, from their completed ecosystem unit:

'- What is an ecosystem?';
'- Describe the interaction between these two populations.'
Answers were reviewed out loud. 
 
Nan introduced the project and the artists: "We are going to see how art, science, and creative writing are similar, and how the tools of art and writing deepen our understanding of science."  
 
Artist Melba Cooper introduced the visual arts aspect of the project with a powerpoint while using ecosystem and design vocabulary.

"You're going to express the essential question through your design."
She shared insect drawings from the 1600s, some of her own work that includes Lowcountry sea turtles and Alaskan sea lions, and student work as well.

The drawing are realistic while still being creative, for example cross sections of underground turtle nests with a patchwork of litter; Alaskan Klinket-inspired sea lions with digestive tract representations of their salmon dinner.

In addition to pointing out drawing tips throughout (angles, shapes within animals, composition) she mentions "I like to do paintings about ecosystems, that's one of my favorite things to do," and a story about saving a sea turtle nest from raccoons.

She emphasizes the qualities of beauty. “A beautiful design catches the eye; shows the action of the interaction in Nature; tells a story; uses line, color, shape, pattern, space to construct a unified design; expresses the wonder of nature.”
 
The students divide into groups based on their chosen ecosystems. Science vocabulary is used in conversation while students have 20 minutes to sketch.


Nan hands out stacks of full-color animal cards with profiles of animals appropriate to each habitat. The students are reminded that they are creating a first rough draft and that this project is a four day process. 
Note: some students will try to trace or draw the animal exactly as it is in a photograph. Students should be encouraged to draw expressively and in their own style.

 
Then teaching artist Lisa Rentz introduces the poetry component by asking about & reminding the students of the poetry they’ve read, and that they have worked with her before with creative writing. Remember-- poetry doesn't have to rhyme.

She asks them What is creative writing? (imagination, interesting, description.) The worksheet 'Poems about Interaction' is reviewed outloud, giving a chance for kids to brainstorm and share. Lisa also asked them what they observed about Melba's relationship with nature.
 
After the classes, the artists review student work and leave comments on the rough drafts-- encouragement and nudges. Also reviewed and obtained a stack of books from the library about the ecosystems, ordered by Nan and selected by the media specialist.
 

 
day 2
Nan commences each class with stating the goal of a good solid draft of design and poem, and shares student work. She reminds students what they've already done (researched and shown eco-interaction.) 
 
Melba starts with a brief talk about interaction with more slides similar to day 1, asking students for examples (predator-prey.) For their design she asks them to choose a focal point animal, show the terrain, and get to work. 
 
The students are in their habitat groups, reference materials on their tables. Teachers circulate, encourage, keep project on track as students work on their designs and poems. 

All the students need to be reminded about using vocabulary listed on the handout, which was printed on green paper so that it’s easy to find in the stacks of drawing & lined papers that cover the desks-- easy to grab and refer to, for students to make notes and cross out vocab. 
 
Design suggestions from Melba throughout classes:
- make it personal
- make it big
- make it bold
- "what we are doing now is gathering thoughts and images to find the dominant theme."
- "instead of using arrows, how can you show the interaction in another way? Look up your bird, and see what it looks like to include its characteristics."
- "what's the interaction in this?"
- "compositionally, people like to use the sun and the moon as the focal point. If you're going to use the sun and the moon, place them more in the center so the light is shining down on the parts you want people to notice. Not in the corner, that takes the eye off the page." Shadows and reflections were discussed, and a few students included reflections in their designs. 
- make focal animal big.
- "what do turtles eat?" "That's what you have to research."
 
Melba introduces tools- paints, crayons, color pencils, black fine point sharpies. 9x12 sulfite paper is used for the final draft, and made available. A border should be left blank all around, based on the size of the matte boards. 
 
Lisa prompts the students to work on their poems, making sure everyone has their worksheets, lined paper and pencils. She reminds the class to describe, focus, quiet, and dive right in. Quite a few students need to be reminded to include color (an easy way to be descriptive.)
 
Teachers continue to check in on each student; Lisa takes poem dictation from kids, many as they paint. She points them towards science vocabulary, including much review of the meaning of "multi" cellular, "uni" cellular and “a”biotic, and other definitions. 
 
One class came in during recess for an extra 30 minutes of work time. Lisa also worked with a small group of resource students between the other three classes.
 
Students are definitely into their work and the process is on a roll. 
 
 
Day 3
Nan asks the students— what's our goal, how are we doing that, how does that help us? How is your work showing the interaction? Student cite examples in their work. 
"Our objective for this project is to take all this content and express that descriptively in art and literature, visually and verbally."
 
"Summarize for me what we've been doing, what is our goal? Why art and writing?"
student: We're connecting with science since we're working on ponds, lakes, forests, estuaries. We've been gathering up and making an ecosystem of animal's interactions."
student: "Some people don't get it from just homework, so we're adding fun with art and writing, we're writing a poem so people can see what the drawing is about." 
 
"What do we want to show in our final pieces?"
student: How animals move and eat.
student: How we gather up all our knowledge and how we make the animals interact...the point is we can show the food chain to show how it works (points to example in artwork.)
 
Conversation throughout class time emphasizes using science and art information together to awe and inform people (Melba probably said that.) 
 
Melba reminds the students that "tomorrow we will matte the designs, so it's all one unified artwork, visual and poem interacting." The poem will be written on the matte. 
 
Melba reviews the art supplies:
- decide what you want to emphasize
- use ultrafine black sharpies to outline shapes- lines thick and thin, can make shadows that way
- good place to thicken is on the curve
- this creates repetition a beat, a rhythm, so that your eye moves across the page
- watercolor paints for stain on top. 
- hatching: drawing parallel lines
- cross hatching: going over with lines at an angle
"I'm so pleased with what you've done, artists capture the truth and beauty, when you do that, you influence people, make them stop and look, so they will stop and look, and appreciate the earth we have, and the interaction. You've done a good job of showing these interactions in nature and I am proud of you."
 
Melba sits at one group of tables to work with small groups of students on their final drafts. She also works on her own painting to show the use of the tools. "If you can include the truth and your learning of ecosystems with the beauty of art, you're communicating."

Lisa continued working with students one at a time, transcribing their poems. The slowness of handwriting should not hinder the flow of ideas, the natural wording of the students, or the progress of the project. Vocabulary choices are explicitly discussed, using the green handout for reference: "pick one from this column and use in a sentence"; "circle the ten you know"; "one of these from this part of the list"; "choose one." She also reads their poems aloud to them; poems are usually one page longs (student are instructed to edit and add on their own) and can be listy-poetic, minimal punctuation, skip lines, etc. 
 
One student who finished his work transcribed for another as she painted. 
 
One group of boys was not getting work done, resisting the process, upset with their first drafts- "I can't draw" "it's ugly." Lisa did quick sketches for them (they were trying to make realistic drawings) and pointed out that she's not an artist. This interrupted their doubt and got them rather excited. 
She asked them to set aside the first drawings, and worked with them on quick poems-- Close your eyes, be there in the ecosystem, describe the interaction. 
Then, she gave them 2 minutes 30 seconds to sketch. Then she told them to show the drawing to Melba and say ONLY- "Here's my poem, here's my drawing, what do you think?"
Melba commented that one of the quick sketches was very expressive, about decomposition.
To one boy, Lisa explained that learning to draw and write is like weight lifting-- what happens when you lift weights? [Your muscles get bigger.] That's how it works with writing and drawing, you have to practice. 
Nan told one boy she was pulling the negativity out of him, and did so by pulling long invisible strands out from all around his head (which he remembered and mentioned later.) 
Day 4
Time to get it done. Everyone gets to work. Teachers are making sure that everyone is working on final drafts, counseling on decisions and next steps. 
 
Melba brings out the mattes. Students are advised to divide up the draft of the poem, decide how to write the whole thing (or selected lines) on each side of the matte, with pencils. The hand-writing adds to the design.
 
A few mattes are cut and adapted to the drawing; students have to choose the centering of the matte over their drawing, cropping out a bit of their designs. 
 
Lisa interviews 5 students-- What did you learn over these past four days?
 
One boy doesn't quite finish a drawing he's unhappy with, so a collage is created with his poem and a fragment of his drawing, matting it like all the others. Lisa created Story Frames for two students who needed reinforecement— layers of drawing paper and lined paper on either side of a matte, with a short note about Keep on being creative.
 
Nan announces that the designs & poems will be displayed after the PASS test, and they can take them home for mother's day.
 
Students and teachers are very happy with the process and final products—beautiful paintings and poems about ecosystems!


The End.