I was thrilled when our school administration took the suggestion seriously. We began to move in drafting tables for the drawing and painting students and to create a space for the music students. Music students were not singing at that time but they had access to our Smart TV to watch performances, and they were able to sing outside throughout the Fall months. We also had a class of English learners present in the library every day. I enjoyed getting to know these students, and the school library became a valuable resource to support their classroom work.
Because of the variety of classes that were now meeting in the library, I was afforded an opportunity to get to know teachers in other departments with whom I had not previously worked. We began to talk about the ongoing social-emotional needs of our students and ways we could support them now. As the school year progressed and the anticipated second wave began, we soon realized this work would need to continue.
The chair of the Art Department and I brainstormed ways that we could support our students' learning and safely bring students together and celebrate our school community. She was taking a course on trauma in children at the time, and I was enrolled in a makerspace class. I had been trying to transition the library into a makerspace model for some time. The administration was tasked with so many responsibilities to adhere to COVID guidelines, that my makerspace planning was understandably placed on hold. The timing was perfect, however, to plan the necessary steps and to trial a large student-led, hands-on project.
Our mural was a reflection of the ideas of Jesse L. Martin, which were reflected upon during an Art Talk with the National Endowment for the Arts in 2011:
“This world is not one color or culture. Everybody has a story. To tell that story or see that story reflected through art is extremely valuable to the community. The arts belong to everyone and our work should reflect that diversity.”
The Art Department chair began by identifying students who were interested in leading the project. The core of the mural is a collection of individual avatars representing one moment in time when we were all in isolation, often connected only by Zoom and our shared experience of lockdown. The students planned their avatars using elements of their culture and their personal interests. Then, the avatars were designed and blown up, and the elements were brought together to create an abstract design, each design representing an individual student.
Those students with an interest in technology developed the project website, photography students took photographs throughout the work and created a time-lapse video, and we reached out to other departments and to remote students as well. One remote learner was involved with the school newspaper and started joining our weekly Zoom meetings to cover the project. The students in the Special Education Department and the Medically Fragile Department joined in the project. It was an incredible experience to watch these students share their ideas for the design using a computer voice recorder. The art students took their ideas and painted the images they described.
While the design was sketched and the painting began, I reached out to the English department and asked if they would be interested in a project to celebrate National Poetry Month, because our traditional in-person Poetry Out Loud celebration could not be held. During the previous summer, I had been in communication with the founder of the I Am From Poetry Project in Washington, D.C. It was inspiring to see what the artists were creating in music and dance and poetry, and the English Department and I collaborated on a poetry writing lesson as a part of the curriculum. We used the poetry template developed by the national “I Am From” Project. The poems allow students to use their voice to tell their story. Aguilar (2013) explains that “poetry promotes literacy, builds community, and fosters emotional resilience. It can cross boundaries that little else can.” The purpose of our poetry project is to celebrate the diversity of our school community, but by inspiring creativity and uniting students during a time of social isolation, it certainly fostered emotional resilience too.
Selections from the poetry program were added into the mural. I wrote three grants during the school year and I was fortunate all three were awarded. We were able to use the money to supplement the art materials and have the selected student poems made into vinyl lettering and adhered to the glass panels in front of the mural. The students worked every day during school and after school, painting with the ladders placed six feet apart. The students made new friends, listened to music, and enjoyed being together in school and creating something positive.
The project was so meaningful because the entire school community participated in a shared vision. A project like this is accessible to students in every classroom. The music students have even planned a music celebration for the reveal of the mural and poetry project during Teen Art Month in March of 2022, where they will be performing “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman. The final mural was installed on the walls over the summer and this year. As soon as our 21-22 year began, art students began meeting in the library on Tuesdays and Thursdays to complete the remainder of the work. We are hopeful that the students' families may be invited into the unveiling this March, so we can celebrate our school’s resilience as a community.