By Wendi K. Oster, Visual Arts Teacher at Platte Valley Middle School
It is a profound privilege to be teaching at the school I attended as a student. In the beginning, there was a shift of mindset and perspective as I transitioned from the experience of being a student to the reality of being a teacher. It was a hard truth that this was not the same school I had attended because the school culture seemed to have changed. I knew that I needed to be intentional in contributing to the change and promote a positive experience for students.
After a year of observation and reflection, I realized that there was something missing; there was not a presence of student voice or perspective to help encourage and promote student presence in the culture. At a fall conference for Colorado Art Education Association, I attended a keynote presentation by Steve Wood, from the Concrete Couch in Colorado Springs. During this presentation, Woods shared how effective collaboration exists when each person is allowed to bring their individual strengths, ideas, and aesthetics to the table when creating a collective work of art. He also shared that when people feel valued in their contributions, they are happier and have a stronger connection to their community. Concrete Couch projects range from public sculptures, murals, community events, etc. No matter what the project is, the cause becomes even more fruitful because it accentuates the value and skills of each member by providing a safe space to honor all ideas and abilities of those contributing to the project. Furthermore, it is because of this investment that the collaborative space becomes embedded with a sense of belonging, appreciation, and pride.
The words of community, collaboration, and legacy resonated with me, so I was faced with a few questions. How might integrating a collaborative art project foster a sense of belonging, appreciation, and pride while enriching the community amongst students, staff and the school? How might transforming the appearance of the school walls enliven the energy of the school culture? That is when it dawned on me that implementing a legacy project for the 8th grade students might be such an avenue for transformation of school community, culture, and creative expression that heightens awareness and voice.
One of my ultimate goals was that this experience be student generated, so I adopted the ideation process I had personally experienced during a collaborative art class I took during my Master’s program at the University of Northern Colorado. During this class, students contributed and assisted street artist Alice Mizrachi on a mural for the Colorado Model Railroad Museum. The ideation process began with an introduction to street art through visual exploration of design, aesthetics, interaction, and setting. Then we moved into identifying personal preferences by sharing out our top three street art examples that resonated personally. During these oral share outs, we were able to comment on what we thought was a strength in visual communication. It was during this process that we made a list of key words that led to a subliminal theme. Once a theme was collectively agreed upon, we were charged with the task of interpreting the meaning of the theme and how to represent it visually. At our next round-robin share out, we presented our interpretations and Alice noted key features of our composition that she then adapted into a new design that fit our theme. She created the sketch that served as our direction and layout for the large mural.
I mirrored this process for my students as we met at lunch to explore street art, discuss aesthetics, identify themes, interpret the meaning through visual representation, and express their thoughts through their customized message. I served as the recorder during these meetings, and I noted what was being shared about key features that stood out to the students about each person’s ideas. It is always rewarding to hear the rich conversation and discover the metaphoric thread that tends to be present in each student’s ideas. Then it was my job to plan out the composition based on the sketches of each student. This usually takes a weekend to process; then produce the final sketch. I incorporate visual elements and style from each student’s ideas into the final composition. This has allowed the project to be conceptually based on students’ ideation.
In our school, we have a beloved thoroughfare, a hallway that jogs through the middle of the school and tends to be a little hectic during passing periods. We have deemed it the “Crooked Hallway” which seems to be a place of contention due to its blind spots, making it an easy place for inappropriate choices and behaviors. This made the hallway a perfect setting to transform through a tunnel of murals utilizing eclectic collections of different styles, concepts, and processes. Rather than this area being a space of negative behaviors, I aimed to embed it with a sense of pride.
Our school has a Positive Behavior Intervention System and functions on Colt P.R.I.D.E. Each letter stands for a desired character trait we hope to empower our students to possess: positive attitude, respect, integrity, determination, and excellence. By using this conspicuous part of the school to house the mural, we are sending positive messages, promoting change, and encouraging expression of perspective. Thus, creating a sense of pride and honor as only a selected few are given an invitation to contribute to the Legacy Murals. This pride is founded on the source of personal contribution and voice, empowering students to take an active role in being a part of shifting the school culture.
I have worked to grow the mystery and celebration as each mural is revealed. We begin the mural on a Friday night and paint the majority on a Saturday. Then we cover the nearly finished mural with a sheet as classes resume on that following Monday. After school, on Monday, we add the finishing touches and sign it in time for an artist reception. At the artist reception, I have the students share how they contributed to the composition, what it means to them personally, and how having this opportunity of participating in a Legacy Mural impacts them. Parents, grandparents, teachers, and administration are present to acknowledge the success of the students. To date, we have explored the following themes:
Nature of Us- breaking through and asserting presence is represented in a tree overtaking lined paper.
To Be or Not to Be CHANGE- We all have the power and choice to take part in being the change we want to see. This is shown through the symbolic transformation of a phoenix taking off through the knowledge gained from experience and discovery.
Dreams Take Flight- we can explore dreams and allow them to carry us and motivate us. Demonstrated through a bird of many colors and contrasting from the darkened wall.
No Elevator for Success- hard work and effort pays off… there is no easy way through; the journey is illustrated by a panda navigating through obstacles and faced with climbing a mountain of stairs.
Embrace Joy- we have overcome the heaviness of Covid-19 and we can choose to participate to find joy and reconnect which is illustrated through the heavy weight of a dark dripping background, but we are being lifted through our connections and moments of joys like balloons.
Diversity in Unity- it is okay to be different and still work together; we are all unique and have something to contribute which is seen in the rainbow lettering of the theme and how standing together offers strength and power.
Explore Culturas- the more we step out and explore people who are different than us the more understanding we experience and can appreciate traditions of other cultures…we might even find that there are some correlations in our differences. This is represented through a Calaca sugar skull from Día de los Muertos looking into a mirror supported by books to gain perspective.
Speak Up- we all have a voice that deserves to be heard in classes, on the court, and in the community. We should not be silenced when we try to share our perspectives. This is shown through an otherworldly setting of a person being caged or silenced by the taunts of others but then finding the courage to take a stand and share thoughts anyway.
It has been rewarding to see the evolution of the hallway as it creates an appearance of a patchwork quilt documenting time and classes. I hope that the students who participate will experience a sense of relevance and resonance as they prepare for the transition to high school as well as reflect on the legacy they would like to leave behind for future classes. It has been years in the making yet there are still years to come; however, this is what it takes to build a right of passage that leaves a mark on our middle school.
Wendi K. Oster is an art educator at Platte Valley Middle School where she has taught for almost thirteen years, with the last eight years transforming her practice through the lens of Teaching for Artistic Behaviors (TAB). Empowering students is a focus for Wendi as she challenges students with critical and creative thinking through guiding questions, personal inquiry through cognitive coaching, and accessing contemporary artists to build community and foster empathy. She obtained her Undergraduate (2009) and master’s (2016) degrees from the University of Northern Colorado. Wendi has contributed to the art education community through independent presentations like Providing Feedback through Cognitive Coaching and the Creative Process (2018), Sharing heART to heART (2019) and Getting to the heART of Meaning: Making Thinking Visible, (2019) at the Colorado Art Education Association winter conference and Colorado Teaching for Artistic Behaviors Conference.