For the first time, I had the opportunity to join Culture PEI’s ArtSmarts program, and I must say it was an experience to remember!
This year, the program was organized in collaboration with the PEI Association for Newcomers and Sandy Macaulay’s Project-Based Learning class of pre-service B.Ed. students to fulfill the theme “Celebrating Diversity: Exploring Culture, Language, Identity and Global Citizenship.”
I was lucky to be matched with pre-service teacher Robyn Christensen and Todd James, 7th grade Social Studies teacher at Birchwood Intermediate School, to work on a project that would be displayed at the Confederation Centre for the Arts on the 11th of December.
The first month, from mid-October to mid-November, was spent planning with Robyn. Todd had given her free reign over tackling the chapter on World War I. Originally, we began planning a performance that would be a combination of narratives and acting, more in the spirit of mime, but pretty much a “silent film news reel” type of performance so the students would not need memorize anything, considering how little time there was.
At our second meeting, Cecile Arsenault, who was then in charge of the ArtSmarts program, reminded us of the “diversity” aspect. Robyn and I agreed that the students would interpret the War from the points of view of the different nations involved. The prospect of creating a full production was daunting, so I suggested we use Asian shadow puppets, called Wayang Kulit, to introduce a new art form to the students. Robyn was reluctant at first, but warmed up to it when Cecile and Sandy both thought the idea was exciting. At our last planning meeting, Robyn constructed a shadow puppet from a model I had made, and from then on, she was completely hooked.
We decided that, to simplify the construction of puppets, that I would create the templates for the students to cut out and assemble, which they did in one hour. We spent another hour painting the puppets. Then, we took a whole afternoon to piece together the whole performance.
That afternoon was pure chaos. Needless to say, we did not finish blocking the performance and the students were all over the art room, where we were rehearsing. At the end of the day, Robyn decided we should just record the puppet show on video. I suggested that we might as well dub it with the sound effects and the students voices, so that I could continue directing even as we recorded each scene of the puppet show. I did a quick rewrite and blocking of the script over the weekend in preparation for our Monday afternoon recording session. We took the whole afternoon and completed 13 of 20 scenes. Then, we took the whole morning of Tuesday and finished the last 7 scenes. Robyn did the editing and dubbing and we spent all day of Wednesday at the Confederation Centre showing off the students’ work–puppets and puppet show–to all comers.
I must say that 5 meetings of putting a 15-minute puppet show all together, from making the puppets to staging the show, was a HUGE accomplishment for 7th graders! Everything they did was amazing. Understandably, the process of recording, which took 3 half days, proved taxing for everyone, considering these were 11- and 12-year-olds we were working with.
I have suggested that more time be allocated to interaction between the artist and the students, especially in junior high. Our biggest disadvantage was that we had short isolated sessions sprinkled throughout the week, only 2 of which were full hours, the rest just half hours. All told, I had 6 scheduled meets with the students, but had to take over 3 half days just to finalize the project. If we could have collaborated with more classes or, ideally, with all the teachers of the class we were working with, and a full quarter with 2 or 3 whole days a week dedicated to the art project, then it would be an amazing integration of all subject matter into a single art project!
The only sad note was that our class did not get to see their own puppet show at the Confederation Centre. Neither did they get a chance to visit the Gallery@The Guild to see the artists’ works on display. One of the reasons the Arts Council mounted the artists’ exhibit was so that the students would get a chance to see works by the artists they were working with.
All that aside, I will definitely want to participate in the ArtSmarts program, every single year, if possible!