By Tracie McCambridge
Above: Starling STEM PreK–8 students create works inspired by the exhibition Fiber: Sculpture 1960–present
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by Tracie McCambridge and Starling teachers
The start of a new school year means the start of Art in Action, which each year brings together teachers, students, teaching artists and the Wex to create art that effects change. As a Wex educator, I work with participating teachers to connect contemporary art to the classroom curriculum, and with local teaching artists to guide students toward awareness of (and solutions for) global, national, or local issues through contemporary art-making practices.
This fall, as we prepare to move forward with another such partnership—and this week in particular, as we recognize National Arts in Education Week—it seemed timely to look back at the Wexner Center’s most recent Art in Action collaboration, with Columbus City Schools’ Starling STEM PreK–8 School (located in Franklinton) during the 2014–15 academic year. As with any complex project, the year provided twists and turns that needed to be navigated but, truly, the beauty and learning was in the journey.
Who better to begin the story than one of the devoted teachers who made the collaboration happen? Loren Bucek is a longtime friend of the Wexner Center and works as a literacy specialist and 3rd grade teacher at Starling. She said this:
“Until last year, when Starling opened its new building doors as a PK–8 School, our students had very little access or exposure to engage in lots of the things that many of us take for granted. Our current student population is comprised of children and teens ages 4–15. All students subsist amidst challenging lives, e.g., 100% at or below poverty level, some experiencing parent/guardian incarceration, foster care or homelessness. As a staff, we know that it is far more challenging to engage in, make sense of and value academic learning when our student’s home lives are meddled with, disconnected, or frenetic. We work together to deliberately create and facilitate interdisciplinary experiences that help our students and teachers to negotiate personal experience, increasingly challenging academic studies and develop identity within community. Doing so is essential to our students’ (and teachers’) potential growth and citizenry.
To this end and with the Wexner Center’s assistance, the Starling school community aimed to work collaboratively to:
• Increase student and teacher engagement in personal and public spaces where meaning making is personally relevant and transformations are frequently negotiated.
• Engage cross-disciplinary involvement to design and implement inquiry and project-based curricula and instruction that reaches all 614 students.
• Learn how to critically engage, construct meaning and facilitate sustainable programming that embeds Wexner Center-inspired artwork, artists and art-making.
Art in Action projects normally revolve around an issue, theme, or big idea that is used to anchor and guide our planning. The Starling teachers immediately tossed around the ideas of “community” and “identity.” Who am I as a student or a teacher at a PK–8 school building? Who are we as a Starling community? What does healthy community look like? How is it fostered? What does it decidedly not look like?
As we moved along this thread, tragedy struck: three Starling students died in a two-month period.
At the end-of-year Starling Arts Extravaganza, originally organized in part to celebrate our collaboration, principal William Doermann described how plans for Art in Action shifted and were purposefully modified in the wake of the losses. He said:
“Our children and teachers focused on a school-wide theme that initially sought to develop our Starling identity and build a sense of community. This idea evolved throughout the school year, as we learned of the deaths of three 8th-grade students. We deepened our commitment to one another and sought safe spaces to feel and think, create and heal. We experienced personal transformations in and through art-making as community.
“Starling students and teachers were inspired by the Wexner Center for the Arts exhibitions Transfigurations: Modern Masters from the Wexner Family Collection and Fiber: Sculpture–1960 to Present. They worked with Columbus-based visual artists Queen Brooks and Emily Westenhouser to deepen their understanding of professional artists’ artwork and on their own art-making ideas and constructions.
Starling’s first large-scale multimedia fiber art installation, Starling’s Hope: Memory Sticks and Laces From the Heart is our gift to one another and to our blossoming Starling community. All 614 of Starling’s PK-8 students and 40 staff members personally contributed to this tapestry."
In the end, rather than being analyzed in a hypothetical sense, community was actively built and strengthened through co-making, healing, and learning. The arts created an authentic space for teachers, students, artists, and community educators to come together to play, create, share experiences, and grow.
“I was involved in almost every step of this project, and I loved how it shape-shifted and transformed along the way,” Bucek recalls. “Recently, I happened to be walking through the Common Space where the artwork is hung, and overheard a conversation between a dad and his two boys. The second grader pointed up at the artwork excitedly saying, ‘Dad, I did that one! That one, dad! Can you see it?! I just love this weaving! All of us did our part!’ With that, the boy’s dad hugged his son tightly and said, ‘I love it, too, son!” It’s beautiful!’"
Starling’s teachers participated in professional development activities as part of the collaboration. Wexner Center educator Tracie McCambridge and local artist Emily Westenhouser led the group in exploring the psychological sense of community (as outlined by McMillan & Chavis's theory) through playful making. Creations from this workshop were on display in the school’s library.
After exploring Fiber: Sculpture 1960–present, students learned about color theory and weaving back in the classroom with teachers Hilary Barnes and Amy Simmons. Each of Starling’s 614 students and over 40 staff members contributed to the making of Starling’s Hope.
Each “Memory Stick” represented one of the students who passed away, and was wrapped with and woven into the center of the tapestry using shoelaces decorated by Starling students. The three students may be gone, but they are still held close by their classmates.
In the artist statement for Starling’s Hope, art teacher Hilary Barnes wrote, “Every student, preschool through 8th grade, shared their vision of community by creating a bead, a weaving, or a shoelace for the artwork. Together we realized that we are all unique and that when we create something together we support and transform one and other.”
Photo: Maddie McGarvey
To celebrate a year of learning together, the school hosted its inaugural 2015 Starling Arts Extravaganza: Dedication, Art Exhibition, & Choral and Instrumental Music Concerts for students, families, and community members.
Photo: Maddie McGarvey
See all of the photos from 2015 Starling Arts Extravaganza: Dedication, Art Exhibition, & Choral and Instrumental Music Concerts here.