Have you ever returned to visit a school you used to attend? When former students of the Spoede Elementary School in St. Louis County, Mo., stop by, they usually first look at the large framed collection of their fifth-grade photos on display in the hall. Next on the agenda (or plan) is finding favorite former teachers and visiting with them.
Since 2000, however, students have something else to check out at their grade school alma mater (a school they once attended). That was the first year Jim Boland, the art teacher, had fifth-graders make a special art project to donate as a gift to beautify the school building and grounds.
The idea to display permanent art came from a parent who had two daughters at Spoede School that year. She had seen student wall murals brightening the entrances of other schools. In contrast, she thought the walls of her daughters' school looked bare when school was not in session. And she was right.
From September to June, Spoede teachers always displayed a great deal of colorful student work in their rooms and on nearby hall bulletin boards. But at the end of the year, students took their work home. So during summer vacation, the building appeared less inviting to visitors and new families walking into Spoede for the first time.
To help brighten up the hallways, Mr. Boland came up with an idea and asked the fifth-graders to help. First, he checked with the principal, who gave him the go-ahead for more permanent annual projects to make the school look more welcoming throughout the year.
The first project immediately added a splash of bright color above the three archways in the rotunda (round room) near the front entrance. Above the archways, Mr. Boland carefully glued five-inch square tiles designed by the students to illustrate favorite school memories. The tiles included images of the library, recess, and the Y2K computer problem in 2000. The space now feels more cheery.
One year, graduates used smaller tiles to create what has become Mr. Boland's favorite project – two colorful benches. The students designed 63 tiles that show reasons why it's good to be a kid. Some of the things they illustrated: hanging on the monkey bars, coloring, lollipops, playing tag, jumping rope, pin the tail on the donkey, and trick-or-treating. If you had been in that class, what would you have drawn? (Let me tell you a secret: Even though I am an adult, I still like to color, lick lollipops, and jump rope!)
Many art projects involve a lot of cleanup, but one project this art teacher probably won't try again was made with cement. It was especially messy and also involved a lot of muscle power because the 12-inch cement blocks were heavy to move. Students worked in pairs on their designs. Then after Mr. Boland had mixed the cement, the students put a veneer layer (or thin covering) on the pre-formed cement.
Exact timing was very important at this point. Wet cement sets within an hour, so the groups had to work quickly. One student drew an outline of a plant or animal, and the other students added beads, stones, and small colored tiles for decoration. But the students could not choose just any flowers or animals for their mosaiclike steppingstone. Because they lived in Missouri, they did research to choose a species that's native (or from) to their area. That's why you won't find my favorite animal, the panda, on the resulting pathway to the garden area in the school courtyard!
Mr. Boland never runs out of good ideas for art projects. One class made a beaded wire butterfly sculpture. It now hangs on a brick wall nearby.
One outdoor project – three totem poles – was created by three different fifth-grade classes. The animals on these totem poles were designed using clay in the shape of napkin rings (about two inches high). After firing the clay rings, Mr. Boland attached their surfaces with a strong adhesive. Then he put the attached clay figures through a pole of steel rebar set in a circular concrete platform.
The objects on traditional totem poles have important meanings. So, for the school totem pole, each student chose the animal that he or she thought best represented his or her individual qualities.
If you had to choose, which animal would represent who you are?
Each totem also has a deeper meaning. It symbolizes that the class was made up of individuals whose friendship was bonded by their common experiences that year.
I visit Spoede School near the end of school each year to see the most recent gift created by the fifth-grade graduates who will be going on to middle school.
If you would like your graduating class to leave a permanent art mark, it isn't too early to ask your art teacher and principal. If you have already graduated from elementary school, Mr. Boland's idea might also work at your middle school or high school.