Using the Community as a Classroom, Art Excursion 2015

As a visual arts teacher it is my duty to teach skills such as drawing and painting, enlighten students to the history of visual culture and how it relates to the development of the human being, provide guidance for them to hone their skills in developing ideas, and to encourage metacognition before, during, and after the art-making process. I’m lucky to have my own classroom, a dedicated ceramics studio, and a terrace, all of which assist in accomplishing these tasks. However, the classroom is not the only place this can happen, and several times a year it is beneficial, and more fun, to do this outside the school and inside the community.

The Galloway School, where I work, provides the students just this opportunity at the end of October when the first term finishes. For an entire week teachers plan excursions, the students choose which excursion to join and off we go for a week of school in places, not the classroom. Being new I hadn’t intended on planning an excursion, but fate had other ideas, and what was originally projected to be a drawing field trip to the museum became a four-day excursion. The head of the arts, Peggy Benkesser, joined in the fray and we planned a trip that would take the students to different parts of the city, looking at how symbols permeate our community and what they tell us about our culture.

After brainstorming and calling a host of different places our itinerary was settled. Day one we would go to Oakland Cemetery, a historic and functioning cemetery in the heart of Atlanta. Day two we would rent bicycles (from Beltline Bicycles) and look at the murals and public art along the city’s Beltline; a pedestrian project running from the historical worker’s village of Cabbagetown up to Atlanta’s large, public green space, Piedmont Park. No trip of this nature would be complete without a trip to the museum so day three we would spend at the High Museum of Art to see the current Hapsburg and American Encounters exhibits. We would end our excursion with a trip to the Hindu temple, BAPS Shri Swaminaryan Mandir, northeast of the city. Peggy had the excellent idea of making this more than just a ‘go and look at things’ trip, there should be an expressive component of it as well. So I got onto Weebly and set each of my students up with a blog so that they could be given daily, creative challenges and respond to them on the go.

Gallery D PlusGallery D PlusI’m not going to give you a moment-to-moment description of the trip, but here are some fun things that happened along the way. Our first day out was cold and rainy; my students remarked it was the perfect day to visit the cemetery. As we toured the garden like grounds led by Marcy Breffle, I thought of a book I read on haiku, combining a description of environment with reference to the sounds of nature. I immediately inspected my surroundings and tweeted a haiku of my own, then challenged the students with writing a poem using one epitaph.

gray skies over Oakland Cemetery

heavy autumn grass

steady drip on concrete


When she died, it was like exquisite music ceasing.
Just like the end of a long trip.
​Even like the aftermath and brutal destruction of a hurricane.
When she died, it was like a beautiful day turning to a gloomy, cold, grey one.
She was a kind of wilted flower.
Gorgeous and joyful for a while and then angry at the world the next second.
But most of all, she was loved.
So when she died, it was the end of my world.

After showing us the multitude of Victorian symbols used in gravestones around the cemetery Ms. Breffle provided the students with a scavenger hunt and I added to my poem challenge a landscape and portrait photo challenge

tberger05Gallery D PlusGallery D PlusThe Beltline was the favoured trip of my students and since we were riding bicycles, I decided to ride my bike all the way down there, I was quite tired at the end of the day. But on that bike ride, as I looked at the art and planned my challenges, I thought, not just photos of the art, but interacting with it, would help the students to appreciate it more. We started at the Forward Warrior murals in Cabbagetown, and worked our way north to lunch at the new Ponce City Market. Along the way selfies were encouraged as was recording soundscapes and short films, most ended up being very short. Trees Atlanta has labeled some of the flora with the Latin names, the students had to use these in a sentence. Here’s my favorite:

What do you call and African goldfish? An afrocarpus.

Gallery D PlusGallery D Pluslsmith02Gallery D PlusAt the High Museum the following day we first set out to see the American Encounters exhibit. This was my original fieldtrip plan because these still life’s are semiotic in their use of subject matter, exactly what the drawing class was working on. The docent was excellent and some students got so excited it was hard to keep them still, and these are high school students looking at eighteenth and nineteenth century still life’s. The students drew and developed their own symbols To represent their names. Also, back to selfies, they had to take a selfie with the Anish Kapoor sculpture in the contemporary wing.

The last day we went to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. As this is a religious place, I thought giving fun creative challenges would be irreverent. So we went along with the tour and had lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant. I was quite surprised by how intricate the temple was carved, much like I’d seen on my travels in Asia, never thought something like this existed in the American south.

At the end of the week I was first, quite tired, but also very pleased with the results. The trip had come together so quickly and worked out well in many respects. The students were exposed to, and reacted to their community from four different standpoints. The rainy weather was never terrible when were on bicycles, it reserved itself lunchtime, and served as a positive prop for the cemetery. However, there were also some deficiencies. Because it was planned so quickly, there was not enough to do, the students were left with too much time, especially during the afternoon. Also the blog was fickle, for some it worked fantastically, some never got it to work, and some blogs wouldn’t give me access. Would I do it again? Yes. In fact I’d like to do it again with even more activities.

I wrote this blog to provide evidence of what cold be done with a bit of energy and the city at your disposal. I encourage anyone, be it classes, schools, home school-ers, parents, or even yourself to undertake such adventures. It not only brings you in touch with your community, it asks you to flex your physical and mental strength and use your pluck and creativity at the same time.