Going deeper, from Islesboro to Appleton

Student-told 'Stories'

By Dagney C. Ernest | Jun 06, 2012
Photo by: Andrea L. Curtis Islesboro Central School students interview, photograph and videotape residents of the Waldo County island's Boardman Cottage as part of "Stories of the Land and Its People."

Rockland — A quartet of small schools will make a big impact on downtown Rockland Friday, June 8. Some 140 students from Islesboro, Lincolnville, Hope and Appleton, along with their families, teachers and other community members, will gather at the Strand Theatre for a short film, introductory remarks and a ribbon cutting. Then they will fan out into the Farnsworth Art Museum campus and Julia's Gallery for Young Artists, all in celebration of a remarkable collaboration.

"We're even going to have a food tent on the lawn, so it really will be a four-ring circus," said Roger Dell, education director for the museum.

The event, which the public is encouraged to attend, will launch a new student exhibition titled "Stories of the Land and Its People." The show, which will continue through the summer at Julia's Gallery and in the Farnsworth's main building, showcases both the art work and the process that produced it during a school-year-long collaboration between the museum and four elementary schools — Islesboro Central School, Lincolnville Central School, Appleton Village School and Hope Elementary School.

The museum's education department had a pilot program integrating the arts into the curriculum three years ago on Matinicus. Expansion was always the goal, and "Stories of the Land and Its People" does that and then some.

"We went from 10 students to 140," said Dell.

The schools chosen were done so for their size and proximity to the museum, and all the students gathered there en masse to kick things off early last October. Students in yellow buses arrive from all over the state all school year long for tours, but the "Stories" project goes much deeper than a field trip.

"I'm a big believer in integrating the arts with the core curriculum in Maine — not an add-on or an art project … Education is all about an inter-disciplinary approach," Dell said.

City native Andrea L. Curtis, who came back to the Midcoast from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has led the program, working closely with teachers at the museum and on site.

"Since January, I've made over 50 school visits and I haven't counted up the fall yet," she said, adding the schools' principals have been very supportive of the project.

The Farnsworth offers a lot of professional development opportunities, she added, citing the Lincoln Center Institute International Educator Workshop that draws teachers from all over the country and beyond to the museum each summer. This year, the University of Maine is offering graduate credits for attendance.

But the effect "Stories" has had on its teachers may be farther reaching than degree credits. Curtis gave as an example how "Stories" played out in one fourth grade class in Hope. The starting point for all the collaborations was the standards expected for the particular grade — fourth grade is focused on the State of Maine and ecosystems, so she came up with a science lesson through art. First, the class read the book "Me, Jane," which tells the tale of primatologist Jane Goodall and includes observational sketches and drawings she made as a child.

"The students could relate to that and it led to a discussion of how a scientist uses 'deep noticing,' something we talk about at the museum," she said.

Then the lesson moved outdoors, with the concept of deep noticing applied to natural objects found around the schoolyard. Students used viewfinders to study them, sketching and drawing their observations. Gaining facility with the viewfinders led to using digital cameras to photograph the natural objects. Finally, the students researched to find the scientific classifications for the objects. This process will be exhibited at Julia's with examples of all stages.

"The teacher said to me, I will do this again and again, it's such a good way to teach science," said Curtis.

"It's active learning," said Dell. "The arts are so engaging, and child development studies tell us kids learn in many different ways. The learning is deeper when a subject is approached with something so rich as the arts."

Each of the schools' "Stories" are different and are told in different ways. On Islesboro, where both photography and video were used, some students interviewed residents of a nursing home while others focused on the island's sewing circle, the second longest continuing circle in the country. Lincolnville students drew on the knowledge of local historian Rosey Gerry. Appleton focused on products and those who produce them.

All the students acquired a thorough grounding in both the technology and artistry of digital photography, thanks to artist mentor Charlotte Dixon. Her involvement, Curtis said, has been a really valuable piece of the project. At first, the students were thrilled to simply see the photos they had taken. The concept of deep noticing again came into play as they learned how to critique their own work and others, based on what they had learned about composition and lighting and the values instilled in the medium as an art form, not just a documentary tool.

Recently, the students were all gathered again at the Farnsworth and the knowledge and confidence they have gained through the "Stories" collaboration was noted by the museum's docents, who had been on hand during that first fall visit.

"The docents were floored with the conversations the students were able to have with them about the art … vocabulary is something that is almost immediately enhanced when the arts are integrated with curriculum," said Dell.

The museum's staff members have been impressed with the project's results, as well. Part of "Stories of the Land and Its People" is installed in the main museum's downstairs hallway. Certain photographs were deemed exemplars, images that met the critical values being taught. These have been printed and framed and hung on the walls leading to the education department's small suite.

"We keep hearing people say, this was taken by a fourth grader?," said Dell.

The rest of the exhibition is mounted in Julia's Gallery, located at the corner of Elm and Grace streets. Entering the gallery, a map painted by local artist Jonathan Frost depicts the geography covered by these "Stories," while a back wall is dedicated to the process of the project. Four areas are dedicated to each school's output, and each incorporates some kind of interactive component. Books of images are being compiled for each school for thumbing through, and a continuous projector display will give every single "Stories" image its bit of glory. Making learning visible — sharing the project with the larger community — is an important element, both Dell and Curtis said.

And what of the middle- and high-school students whose work usually is featured in Julia's Gallery? They are supporting the "Stories" told by the younger students by documenting the project in a video, using cameras, lights and important equipment loaned by Maine Media Workshops. Still in-progress, the documentary will be premiered on the exhibition's closing day at the Strand. The trailer for the film will be screened at the theater during the opening program June 8 and then go into the rotation of short films in the museum's auditorium, outside of which an introduction to the collaboration is displayed.

"I can't say how very excited I am to be able to come back to my hometown and be a part of this — it's amazing," said Curtis.

She is a project-based employee; "Stories" will conclude with the project's materials returning to their respective schools for display in the fall. Dell said the museum is fortunate to have been able to fund the year-long project via grants and donations including support from the Bangor Savings Bank Foundation, Bank of America Charitable Foundation, Best Buy Children’s Foundation, Cabot Family Charitable Trust, Maine Arts Commission SMART Grant, NLT Foundation, Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation, Arthur K. Watson Charitable Trust, Ms. Joyce Tenneson, Mr. and Mrs. Peter McSpadden and Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Campbells.

"We of course would like to continue this work," he said.

"Stories of the Land and Its People" will run through Aug. 12, and Julia's Gallery will be open the same hours as the main museum and Wyeth Center. For more information, contact the museum's education department at 596-0949 or visit farnsworthmuseum.org/education.

Courier Publications' A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or dernest@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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