The Case for Arts in the Classroom: In Pictures

The Case for Arts in the Classroom: in Pictures

by Laura Gamache

My WITS work has allowed some terrific cross-genre experiments and collaborations with teachers and students, and I’m going to share a few of the more visually engaging ones in this blog post.

Eckstein Middle School, one of the two original WITS partner schools, was my WITS school community for seven years. In fall, 2002, I collaborated with art teacher Erin Shafkind, combining visual art with poetry to engage sixth grade kids who had art class fifth period because they didn’t participate in elective activities like language study, orchestra, choir or band. One of the activities was based on the color wheel. We made lists of the emotions surrounding the primary and secondary colors, and of things that are those colors, and combined the inner and outer color worlds in individual color wheels, and in a class-wide color wheel book where a poem for each color emerged by combining and ordering the separate students’ lines.


 Another project we worked on was to write poems that talked to, about and around paintings I had collected on post cards, in the long-time art feeding art ekphrastic poem tradition. I put various one line prompts in a bag and passed those out as the kids worked for those who ran out of steam, and, of course, in the spirit of learning art by doing art, we drew our own versions of the art works. This example is one of my favorites, a parody of painter Jacob Lawrence’s “The Ironers,” from his “Work” painting series.TheIronersElliotReid

moonbookback02Since it would be her first time working with a WITS writer, I asked Eckstein 8th grade language arts teacher, Tammy Moon, what she really hoped to accomplish. She said, “I want to have the kids’ stories appear in a real book.” I said, “Let’s do it!” and, in the Fall of 2002, with additional funding from a Seattle Arts & Lectures’ WITS Special Project grant, an Eckstein Transformation Grant, a Bill and Melinda Gates Education Foundation grant, and donated cover design by Todd Lininger, and the support of Team 8C parents, 122 8th grade authors had crime short stories published in Waltzing With Sin, published by Homies Incorporated Publishing Company, aka Tammy and me. Student Ben Moody drew the compelling cover graphic of elegantly gowned waltzing women.

In Spring of 2003, I worked with Patty Smith’s 6th grade World Studies elective class focusing on Nepal at Hamilton International Middle School. A handful of students in the class were from Nepal.


This is the only Tibetan Buddhist prayer flag poem that did not travel to Nepal to be a gift to the school Patty visited at the end of the school year. Before we decided to put the poems onto prayer flags, both Patty and I checked in with Tibetan Buddhists here, and were assured that anything a poet would feel good about having wave in the breeze and carry its message far away would be welcome on a prayer flag.

During the 2002-2003 school year, I worked with nearly all of the sixth grade language arts/social studies teachers at Hamilton. Emilie Clineschmidt and I had a lot of fun early on, adding a Mesopotamian poetry reading to the already rich sensory experience of the Mesopotamian banquet and project share. That interdisciplinary project has mostly been eaten, but this is a project from combining poetry with learning about ancient Egypt. Students drew as I read “Ozymandias,” Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet about a statue of the powerful Egyptian pharaoh, Ramesses II, whose name translates into Greek as Ozymandias. Will Davis’s visualization of the poem is, I think, superb!


HipWaltBlaine7th05There are many small visual pleasures working with middle school students. In Spring, 2005, in Mr. Carrol’s 7th grade L.A. class at Catherine Blaine K-8 school in Magnolia, I was walking amongst the students when I noticed how Omar had transformed our first great American poet of democracy, Walt Whitman, into a present-day man of the common people, the great sounder of the barbaric yawp updated, I thought, quite wonderfully. I asked him if I could use it as cover of our class collaboration poem inspired by “Song of Myself,” entitled “Today in America.”


The following are lines from 8th grader and musician Justin Cho’s accompanying poem, “Another Line Without a Hook”:

My poem will testify and say its last goodbye

Its demise will hypnotize and mesmerize…

You’ll read this and notice all the words that I took

And it’ll remind you of all the times your head shook

It’s another line without a hook.

One of the most visually exciting and compelling projects I have worked with came out of a conversation with 8th grade Language Arts teacher Randy Self at Catherine Blaine in the 2006-7 school year. He had seen a student self-portrait project in a teaching magazine, and asked if I could do something like that with his students. “Sure,” I said, with little idea other than from my own collages, how we would accomplish this in practice.

We got a WITS special project grant to have visual artist Deborah Lawrence, from whom I had just taken a Hugo House “Word and Image” class for developing my own work.

Deborah has much experience as a teaching artist as well as collage acumen, and she launched the project with a presentation of several of her own and many student portraits, all of which, compellingly, included a lot of text. She gave us terrific advice about beginning with a fairly neutral background and layering from there before cutting an 8×10 face shot in half and replacing the missing half of the face with images that came out of the poems. She talked to us about the importance of covering the back of paper to be added to the collage with glue stick, then flattening it carefully with a bone folder or the glue stick cap, if it is the long tube kind. Due to the size of the photos, the substantial quantity and quality of the magazines the students, their families, and teachers accumulated, the images were as wonderful as the images in the poems that begot them. The self-portrait collages and triggering poems were displayed at 8th grade graduation that year and the next, when we did the project in collaboration with Kylie Kypreos.


In January 2006, Randy Self asked me to offer poetry work with me as one of the option (extension) choices for the Options week. One of the requirements for credit was creating a final project. I showed kids how to make folded or sewn booklets to hold the poems we’d written together, some of them off-campus at the Magnolia Starbucks, a WITS collaborating partner, where we had the privilege of experiencing being coffee house writers together. Above is a page from Riley’s sewn binding book.

I’ll finish this round of sharing with an image from a 6th grade poetry residency in 2006-7 at Hamilton International Middle School. The kids were studying ancient Greece, so one day’s project was to listen to me read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats, while drawing what they heard, and then writing poems based on their drawings, Keats’ language, my theory goes, having permeated their minds. Santiago’s drawing arose from his deep encounter with that poem and stands quite stunningly on its own.



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