Art and literature: alive and well at the island school
A visit to the Block Island School this week offered a view into the worlds of art, writing and literature as art teacher Teri McCombe and English teacher Nancy Greenaway enthusiastically discussed the ways they engaged their students in these disciplines.
McCombe, who teaches art to students on all grade levels, described a number of projects her students were working on. The sixth grade, she said, was completing a unit on gargoyles, the sometimes grotesque architectural figures used to decorate medieval architecture.
Since she works with her colleagues to coordinate art to the content areas of their classrooms, McCombe said the students learned about cultures of the period, as well as in this case the ways in which builders brought together functional and aesthetic goals. One practical purpose of a gargoyle was to drain water away from a building.
Her second graders were currently involved in a Native American unit and working with clay, McCombe said. While she was teaching them techniques of the clay medium, the results of their artistic efforts served the double purpose of having hand-made gifts ready for loved ones at the holidays.
McCombe’s ninth grade humanities class was “finishing a unit on the Greco-Roman era,” she noted, “doing wax encaustic painting.” Having to work on creating their own media “gives students a taste of the technicalities involved” in the process, McCombe added. This group had also just created parts of a Greek Temple frieze.
A fun drawing project that her high school classes were engaged in was drawing themselves in exaggerated poses. This was done, McCombe pointed out, to help the students understand foreshortening, a process by which “the figures on the page seem to be advancing toward you.”
Noting seventh graders had just completed their haunted houses in time for Halloween, she said they did drawings accompanied by stories. They’ve gone on to a project derived directly from a unit on microscopes in their science class. McCombe asked them to draw what they observed under the microscope, and then “when these images were blown up, they turned into abstract paintings,” she said.
Early gains in research writing
For Greenaway, who teaches eleventh and twelfth grade English, a more recent assignment has been working with sixth and seventh graders in writing, with particular emphasis on factual and research projects. The sixth grade has been focusing on earthquakes, with each student assigned a particular earthquake to research, looking into the causes and extent of damages, etc. In the meantime, seventh grade students examined the physiology of different systems within the human body. Each student was assigned a system to work on, for example the nervous or digestive ones.
In addition to learning to consult textual and other sources, “the greatest thing,” Greenaway said, “is for them to understand the reasons for the process — that is, to be able to think and read about the subject before they write about it.”
She emphasized that before they could formulate their own theses, she wanted them to be reading in depth and thinking deeply about the subject. Only then did she feel they could develop their own argument and “a real thesis.”
The research process, she explained, was one of organizing information using a variety of sources, “not just the internet.” However, she quickly added, if students do consult the web, they “need to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources.” In addition to online resources, Greenaway wants students “to turn to books, maps, journals, films and interviewing people.”
Finally, Greenaway wishes students to understand the conventions and development of skills involved in writing a research paper. Greenaway said that training young students to develop research writing skills was “a perfect mingling of English skills.” If the students “learn these and do so thoroughly, they’ll really develop all the skills they’ll need.”
For Greenaway, the most meaningful part of the experience, in addition to working with sixth and seventh grade students themselves, has been “becoming part of a team of teachers.” She cites the excitement of partnering with sixth grade teacher Marlee Lacoste and seventh grade teacher Shannon Cotter Marsella, with whom she has enjoyed a collaborative relationship.
Turning to literature
As to literature this term, Greenaway’s junior class has been reading “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, a book that has engaged them, leading to some very good classroom discussions, Greenaway said.
On November 27, David Tucker, author of “The Stone Wall” novels visited and spoke with Greenaway’s eleventh and twelfth graders. Much of the trilogy is set on Block Island during the eighteenth century. The author originally came here with his family when he was a youngster and the many stone walls that crisscrossed the island lodged in his memory, eventually inspiring him to write his series.
Greenaway said she was very pleased by the visit because it allowed her students to ask about how one begins research like this, “how you get inspired to do something like this.” Tucker told the classes he just became “so fascinated that it propelled him on to work that took him 12 years,” Greenaway added.
As she does annually, Greenaway has her senior class read Eli Weisel’s “Night.” After their class discussions they usually write to the author — sending him letters in which they react to his book and also ask questions. Each year, Greenaway said, “Weisel always writes back.” She fully expects the remarkable exchange to take place this year as it has in earlier ones.
Co-Principal John Canole said the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) was distributing an online survey called SurveyWorks intended to permit all constituencies of the state’s schools (students, parents, faculty and administrators) to participate in voluntary assessments. All fourth through twelfth grade students will be asked to take part in the survey. Since it is a voluntary undertaking, parents who do not wish their children to participate may opt out.
The survey will be administered online with the state’s intended goal being “to help local schools, school districts and RIDE improve our schools and support better teaching and learning for all students in Rhode Island.” Canole said that letters will be sent home to parents providing details.
According to Kate Butcher, chair of the recent pre-Thanksgiving pie sale and fund-raiser for the Block Island School Friends, the event was “a great success!” Crediting parents and community members, she had special praise for students, some of whom she said “worked for six and seven hours at a time.” Butcher was also very grateful to community members without either children or grandchildren in the school who lent a hand in this collective effort.
She added, “We sold over 185 pies and baked goods, all made by the School Friends and community people.” As an interesting post script, Butcher noted over 200 pounds of apples were used in the process. She expressed appreciation to the owners of Island Bound Bookstore and the Block Island Grocery, where pie sales took place.
Heather Hatfield announced another fundraiser, the annual “Green Sale,” would take place in the lobby of the island school, from Tuesday through Thursday, December 4 to 6, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Featured in the sale will be wreaths, poinsettias, Christmas cacti, amaryllis and a variety of seasonal plants. The sale will also benefit the School Friends, Hatfield said.
On December 6, third and fourth grade students and their teachers will go off island to Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence where they will attend a performance of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
The Block Island Handbell Players will perform at the Rhode Island State House on December 13.