Students in five area towns have begun working on projects for the Farnsworth Art Museum's “Stories of the Land and Its People” program.

Now its third year, the popular arts integration program includes fourth- and seventh-grade classes in Appleton, Hope, Islesboro, Lincolnville and Rockland. Education Project Manager Andrea Curtis, whose position is supported by grants, is in charge of the program for the Farnsworth.

Curtis said Stories has grown. It started in 2011 with schools in Appleton, Hope, Islesboro and Lincolnville, and last year added Rockland. This year, she said, more schools applied to take part than she could accommodate without more staff. She visits schools each week, and runs a workshop for teachers every Wednesday.

The beginning

The year starts with an early fall field trip to the museum for all the fourth- and seventh-graders taking part, Curtis explained. The first thing she wants them to know is that “their voice is valid;” they do not have to be experts to make worthwhile observations about art. By starting with the question, “What do you see?” she makes each student his or her own expert.

The primary difference in the program for seventh-graders versus fourth-graders is the level of activities they are asked to do. Where fourth-grade students might take part in a discussion led by Curtis or one of the museum's docents, those in seventh-grade might have a writing assignment. Some schools choose to separate fourth- and seventh-grade students, while others, like Appleton and Islesboro, have the two groups work together, she said.

Students learn about visual concepts like vantage point, composition and lighting, and are given cameras to use for the school year. At the end of the year, they will be able to keep the memory card with all their pictures on it.

After some practice assignments to help them get used to the cameras, the youngsters brainstorm what they want to learn about, and Curtis works with their teachers to design activities that will support the different projects. Teachers match the learning standards their students must meet for the year to the projects, Curtis said, so that project activities connect to required classroom work.

Appleton focuses on culture

At Appleton Village School, fourth- and seventh-graders and their teachers work together on their project one period a week, and are joined by art teacher Anthony Lufkin.

“It's worked out really well,” said seventh-grade teacher Elaine Emerson.

This year they are doing projects on the St. George River and Wabanaki culture, she said. Early in the program this year, Appleton students took a photography field trip down the St. George, with 10 stops to take pictures. Emerson said she likes seeing how students' photographs evolve, as they move from shooting scenery to zooming in on a blade of grass, ripples on the surface of water or the bark of a tree. Noticing is an important part of what they learn from using the cameras, she said.

Part of the value of Stories is that it makes possible experiences the students would not otherwise have, teachers said. Through the program, the Farnsworth provided transportation and also covered admission for Appleton youth to the Damariscotta River Association in Damariscotta. There, they had a workshop with artist David Moses Bridges, a Passamaquoddy Indian, on Wabanaki culture. Students were able to ask questions of Bridges, they learned birch bark etching and also took photos.

They also had a workshop at the school with professional photographer Kelsey Floyd.

Since both fourth- and seventh-grades have a Maine history component, students will write about travel on the St. George River and research how it has been used over the years, Emerson said. They will also make model birch bark canoes to go with their exhibit at the end of the year. Some may write poems as well.

Emerson said she will have seventh-graders create their own legends in the Native American style, and students' photo collages will be arranged in the shapes of animals like beaver and moose.

She values Stories because it engages students in a way that is new and exciting for them and sparks their enthusiasm for learning.

“The photography has brought a new excitement to the curriculum piece,” she said. “Getting out has enhanced what we're doing here [at school].”

Hope takes on history

Seventh-grade social studies and language arts teacher Jonathan Davis said his Hope Elementary School students are still defining their project for this year. They will approach Maine history through interviews with longtime residents of Hope, some of which may be videotaped, he said. In addition, they will talk to more recent residents and interview business owners. Art teacher Jackie Cooper will also work with the students on their project.

Davis said youngsters will decide which residents and businesses they want to interview, perhaps with a focus on Hope's creative economy. Students will work in pairs or small groups and may do some of their interviews on their own time.

He said he appreciates Stories' strong emphasis on writing; in addition, the project-based nature of the program helps spur students' interest, builds critical thinking skills and connects classroom work with the world around them.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the program, said Davis and other teachers, is that students determine for themselves what they want to learn about and how they want to share what they have learned with their peers, teachers and others who come to the Farnsworth.

In a time when school budgets are under intense pressure, collaborations like this one are especially important, he said, because they provide exposure to the arts that students would not get otherwise, and allow them to “see what's out there in their community.”

Finally, the chance to have an exhibit of their work at the museum that their families and friends can attend is “powerful,” Davis said. He added that parents are “thrilled” to see what their children have created.

Reflections theme in Lincolnville

Robbie Lewis, who teaches seventh-grade at Lincolnville Central School, said her students will take “reflections” as their theme this year, with both a literal and a figurative interpretation. They have already visited harbors in Lincolnville, Camden and Rockport to take photos.

“The pictures are to inspire them to write,” she said.

Lewis said she uses an exercise in class similar to one Curtis uses at the Farnsworth: having students write about a painting or photograph. For example, since her language arts students are reading novels about the Great Depression, she employs period photographs as a springboard for discussion and writing.

Like Davis, she thinks it is important that Stories helps students understand their community more deeply and develop pride in it. Many of her students come from families that have been in Lincolnville for generations, she said, and as a transplant to the area, she finds herself learning about the town from them.

The exhibit, writing and art

Lewis said she was excited the Farnsworth — which previously had used its Julia's Gallery, which is dedicated to the work of student artists, for the Stories of the Land exhibit — will make available gallery space in the museum itself this year.

“This is so unbelievable,” she said of the opportunity for students to show their work in a venue of the Farnsworth's caliber. Every student will have at least one photograph in the final exhibit, she said.

Like the other teachers interviewed for this story, Lewis said Stories is valuable because it provides cultural enrichment for students in a rural area who have relatively little opportunity to be exposed to the arts.

“A lot of these kids have not even been out of the Midcoast area.”

Also like Davis and Emerson, Lewis said the emphasis on writing, which accords with Maine's recently implemented learning standards for schools, is essential. Moreover, the project encourages students to develop their own voice in their writing.

It “gets them to look at their world through their eyes and write about it.” She agreed with Davis that the element of student ownership was a big part of what motivates youngsters in the program.

Part of the Lincolnville seventh-graders' project will be to write poems based on the pictures they have taken; the poems will be compiled into a book.

Lewis hopes the exposure to the Farnsworth will plant a seed that will grow throughout her students' lives. She would like to see some of them to take part in the museum's programs for older teens, and even pursue art as a career.

The teachers all said they valued the chance to work with the art teachers at their schools and to take part in activities with teachers from other schools.

Curtis said teachers have told her Stories “enlivens their experience as a teacher.” They also say students who do not normally participate in class do take part in the activities for this program.

She hopes the program encourages youngsters to look at objects and ideas in a new way and to see connections between diverse areas of inquiry – that noticing what is going on in a painting is not so different from observing what happens in a scientific experiment or watching a political rally unfold.

According to the museum's quarterly magazine, Stories is also supported by grants from the Arthur K. Watson Charitable Trust, Jane's Trust, Chichester duPont Foundation, Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation, Bank of America Charitable Foundation, Barbara and Peter McSpadden, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Campbell, and Mr. and Mrs. Louis Cabot. Partners for Enrichment, an arts program for Appleton, Hope and Lincolnville schools, has also provided expertise and resources for the program.