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Art installation in Rexdale has students reflect on past, present, future

Art installation in Rexdale has students reflect on past, present, future

Monday, April 20, 2015
Categories: Great Things, Happenings @ TDSB, School Web Stories

Inspiring middle school students to engage in a process of self-discovery can be challenging, but when a project comes along that has students genuinely excited to explore and participate, the results are impressive. At Humberwood Downs Junior Middle Academy (HDJMA), the grade 7 team of Pat Burness, Nicolas Lemire, Sophie Panagiotopoulos, and David Umpherson came up with just such a project. They collaborated extensively to construct an eight-week unit designed to foster their students’ appreciation for their family histories, to introduce them to different aspects of their minds, and to goal-set for both the near and far future.

The core of the project would see the construction of life-size three-dimensional interactive statues that would both symbolize and summarize students’ learning. These statues would then be displayed in a “museum” setting to showcase unique attributes of each student.

HDJMA teacher Nicolas Lemire first discussed his dream of marrying his love of ancient Greek sculpture and a class Family Tree project with colleague Sophie Panagiotopoulos  more than a year ago. “Sophie solved all the technical details about how to construct the statues, and added the idea of creating compartments in the structures that would house some of the students’ information,” said Lemire.  The team agreed that the body of the statue should be reflective of the student’s actual height and limb proportions, but that the head should be more symbolically representative of each child’s appearance.  

The project incorporates many aspects of the curriculum, including Language Arts and Media Literacy, History, Geography, Art, and Design and Technology. Principal Beverley Muir said that was an important consideration. “As agents of the TDSB, we always want to honour and deliver Ministry curriculum in all that we do.  But as conductor Zubin Mehta has said ‘the secret of conducting is to know when not to conduct, when to get out of the musician's way,’ and this innovative project showcases the creativity of both our staff and our students in demonstrating curriculum in a meaningful, engaging manner that allows them to play the lead."

To begin, students needed to learn about and understand their pasts, so they spent several weeks researching their family histories, with the express purpose of uncovering, telling, and preserving important family stories. Students interviewed several family members, particularly grandparents, and summarized experiences involving bravery, occasions where they experienced loss (and joy), and immigration experiences. 

Another focus of the project was on developing students' understanding of three distinct aspects of their minds. Students learned about how they think in different ways (Multiple Intelligences and Thinking Styles), how they are perceived by others (personality), and how their core-self (character) is often somewhat distinct from their personality, in part due to the influence of birth order and other factors. 

“Students who at an early age internalize the habit of setting reasonable goals and consistently working towards achieving them, often experience greater personal and employment-related success in later life,” said Lemire. “Consequently, students set goals for themselves in two different areas: which personality traits would they like to enhance (or diminish) by the time they are an adult, and what goals and successes do they intend to have achieved in 10, 25, and 50 years.” 

To build their statues, students wore two t-shirts and loosely wrapped duct tape around the outer one. After the outer shirt was cut off with scissors, the torso was mounted over a cross-shaped frame supplied by the teacher, taped back up, and then stuffed with newspaper and other packing materials. Students then loosely wrapped packing tape--first face up, then face down--around each of their arms and legs. They carefully cut these off and attached them to the torso hanging on the frame. The statues were then papier-mâchéd to smooth over imperfections. Students then painted their statues with acrylics or used thin glue to affix different coloured tissue papers to each statue’s exterior.  

They didn’t stop there, however. “Students are much more engaged when they can touch and explore,” said Lemire.  To encourage this, various pieces of text summarizing each student’s learning were displayed both outside and inside every statue. “Each statue was expected to have at least five special features that would require an observer to touch and interact with it,” Lemire explained. Flaps were lifted up, compartments opened, scrolls unrolled, strings untied, and so on. 

Each head had three different parts, faces or compartments, designed to showcase the three different aspects of mind the students had studied. “The statue’s pose was also expected to inform the observer,” added Lemire. “The positioning of the statue reflected not only the student’s interests or persona, but also served as a metaphor or symbol for the experiences and essence of their family.” 

When the statues were completed and ready for display, a section of the school library was reserved and enclosed with curtains. The centre of the exhibit featured a silvery reflective “tree” with three spreading branches that reached the ceiling, each branch representing past, present, and future. The statues were arranged in a labyrinth-type maze, requiring observers to navigate through twisted corridors lined with more than 100 statues. Some statues were laid on the ground in specific poses, or were seated at desks or computers. An empty seat placed beside some encouraged viewers to sit with the statue and spend some time to interact with it. One corner of the room featured a large-screen projected film depicting how the statues were made, incorporating footage from all four grade seven classes.

The school invited parents to the official opening of the exhibit and the turnout was impressive.  Well over 200 people attended the gala on a rainy Thursday night. Many parents spent more than an hour meandering through the exhibit, lifting flaps, opening compartments, and learning about their children and their peers. The following day, the exhibit was opened up to other students at the school. Quiet whispers echoed through the exhibit as students gathered around statues, opening, reading, and reflecting, with many musing about and hoping for a reprise of the project next year. 


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