All About Place
“It. Took. Hours.”
—Gerry Whitaker , social studies teacher at Miller’s Run School referring to this stop-frame animation made by his students.
Miller’s Run is a PreK-8 school in Caledonia County. The entire school population, coming mostly from the towns of Sheffield and Wheelock, is about one hundred and twenty. An Artist in Schools Grant from the Arts Council supported, in part, ten days of work with Teaching Artist Evan Premo.The residency was a part of Gerry’s and his sixth, seventh, and eighth graders’ exploration of place and community; a unit called Thrive or Survive.
This is material they would have covered with or without Evan, but Gerry—a visual artist himself who says he’s “big on project-based learning”—was looking for added value. He, the school’s principal Patrick Ham, and Evan had all participated in the Community Engagement Lab’s Creative Schools Initiative. Gerry explained, “It’s not anything new for me to tie in art to history or to humanities, but there’s no way I could have done what [Evan has] done.” He cites Evan’s musical abilities and his ways of engaging the students. He acknowledges how kids love making music—creating sounds of their own, concluding, “This is a really nice major addition to a normal lesson that has them really invested.”
Evan worked with a team of grade sixth- through eighth-grade teachers and the principal to map out the residency over the course of the year. Their goal was to provide an arts-integrated, project-based experience for each grade level. In the end, they showcased their projects in a community festival. The school mascot is a dragon; DragonFire was the name of the event.
The sixth graders focused on a global sense of place, exploring recycling and sustainability. When Evan described his part in it he said: “We’ve been crafting a composition together that will accompany the slide show they made of the earth through different stages. Pre-human, or at least pre-Western human imaginings, through the industrial revolution and a lot of pollution. Then, warnings about the sixth mass extinction, and a hope for the future section.” This was performed live on made instruments at the festival with Evan playing bass. One of the kids played Evan’s washtub bass, which Gerry proclaimed “made his month!”
The seventh grade students made a project of cleaning the Wheelock Store and built a community bulletin board. They also put together a slide show with pictures of old stores in Wheelock, the last showing the store as it is now. Three boys worked to add the sound track. Two owned guitars and Evan taught them “enough so that they could record some cool-sounding licks.” Gerry noted “[Evan] had them playing instruments, which is really quite a thrill.” Referring to one particular student he enthused, “He needed this! This just hooked him in. He just took off on GarageBand.”
Eighth graders teamed in small groups built the stop-frame video in sections—work informed by a local historical society member’s presentation and additional individual research. Evan played a big part in this; the last step with him was adding music to the soundtrack. During that process, Gerry and Evan asked, “What does it sound like when a cow goes fast?” and, “What’s a word that would describe that?” then, “Musically, what does that sound like?” Experiments suggested by the nine students were played by Evan on his double bass; decisions were made as a class.
Gerry called this the entry point for all the projects. “We want them to be intrinsically motivated to make their community thrive. So we want them to have ownership of their community. Ultimately, their home, their town, their state, and larger.” Evan added “And we’ve really been driving home the idea of surviving vs. thriving . . . It’s an important distinction to be self-aware about–and as a community, as an individual, and as a planet.”
Gerry described the culminating event as “a true collaborative effort across seven educators, including principal Patrick Ham; music teacher, Lydia Ham; library/technology teacher, Peter Smyth; science teacher Mary Jardine; art teacher, Janet Youkeles, and me, the humanities teacher.” Crafts made by the students under the tutelage of community members were shown at the event. Some made art pieces, some learned knitting, one whose grandfather has a machine shop built a model Tesla wind generator. Someone learned about bee keeping. There was also food and drink, and the seventh graders presented the owners of the Wheelock Store with a signed picture.
Gerry declared it a success, adding “The most exciting thing is that through this process everyone learned something! We really thrived ourselves—as a community. It was amazing to look at the pride on the faces of the students and their parents as they spoke of the accomplishments the students had made. Some parents became emotional as they explained that the projects seemed to have impacted the lives of their children as people. At least three students expressed interest in pursuing the interests they discovered through their projects.”