June 05, 2003
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Photo by Diane Chiddister

Mills Lawn students Jacob Fugate, left, and Bryan Smith made a papier-mâché toy as Cole Honeycutt
talked with Joan Damankos during Damankos’s residency in April as part of the school’s ‘Looking In, Looking Out’ project.

A look back at the ‘Looking In, Looking Out’ arts project—

Recalling a year of artists at Mills Lawn School

Ask Salomé Garcia-Halpin and Christopher Johnson what they liked best about this year’s special artist-in-residence program at Mills Lawn School, and both of them will leap in the air like frogs and flap their arms in a West-African dance, laughing and glancing knowingly at each other.

“Hey, remember stepping stones with John Fleming?” Salomé said as she hopped forward with both feet. “And remember that Bi Okoto dance we were doing from Africa?” Christopher added, folding his body forward and springing back to a drum beat bouncing in his head.

The eight performance and visual artists who came to the school through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council led students in kindergarten through sixth grade on an expedition around the world as they tackled the concept of diversity.

During the program, “Looking In, Looking Out: Our Place in the World,” students explored diversity through the arts and experienced the differences and similarities between people from across the world as well as right next door. “We got a chance to learn things a lot of people didn’t,” Salomé said.

When the program started at the beginning of the school year, some teachers and administrators were anxious about their ability to develop students’ understanding of the concepts behind their creative experiences, said both Mills Lawn Principal Christine Hatton and fourth-grade teacher Peg Morgan.

“The biggest challenge for me was to take the adult ideas and weave it into the artists’ residencies,” Morgan said in an interview in her classroom. “The first initial times talking about the questions and concepts of diversity I was nervous.”

But not so for kindergarten teacher and program coordinator Becky Brunsman, who was more concerned about the logistics of accommodating so many artists in the small school, which was under construction almost all year.

“I was certain the kids would understand by experiencing it enough times and in enough different ways,” she said.

The unequivocally enthusiastic response each student expressed this week when asked about the artists provided evidence that their experience was meaningful and lasting. Each of them had their favorite activity: making a papier-mâché Eskimo, playing music with sticks and banakulaf, creating a quilt collage, acting out the life of a local elder or speaking a traditional African language.

But the students also had assumptions to overcome, such as learning what it’s like to be blind or realizing that people in Ghana have their own money, called a cedi.

Fourth grader Sam Lovering found out what it might have been like to grow up near Lake Erie when his class put on a play based on a biographical interview with local resident Mary Ann Bebko.

Fifth grader Ashanta Robinson realized that though other languages sound strange to her, English sounds strange to people of other countries. “When I hear Chinese people talking so fast, I can’t understand them and I think it’s weird, but when we talk fast they don’t understand and they think it’s weird,” she said.

The students seemed to like their challenges. First grader Danielle Williamson thought a dance taught by Margot Greenlee, in which two intertwining circles were kept in motion, was difficult but also fun. Zarine Giardullo agreed. “Miss Greenlee’s dance was hard because we had to remember our places, but I liked it because it was hard,” Zarine said.

And they seem to understand that their similarities and differences can be celebrated. They also realized that it’s not just people from different countries but also the person sitting right next to them in class whose similarities and differences count.

As first grader Bryson Lee said of a classmate with darker hair and skin than he: “Our skins are different, but we both like Sponge Bob!”

It is true that Yellow Springs students are raised in an open and relatively diverse community and that they might be predisposed to understanding the concepts better than those from a more homogenous community. But the students here still learned a great deal from this program, Hatton said.

“We study diversity across the curriculum because we value that here,” she said. “But studying it through the arts gives it more depth: we lived it and we’ll continue to do it.”

Though the residency portion of the program is complete, coordinators will spend the next year disseminating the information they have collected throughout the year and teaching other schools how to apply for grants and integrate similar programs into their curriculum, Brunsman said. Small groups of teachers and coordinators will recreate lesson plans to take to local and national conferences.

They will also show a video produced by local videographer Patti Dallas that summed up the year’s activities. The video premiered on Saturday, May 31, at the Little Art Theatre and was seen by a few hundred people.

“It’s paperwork time,” Theresa Mayer, a volunteer artist-in-residence coordinator, said of the end of the school year.

Mayer and Libby Rudolf have been intimately involved with the residency program, coordinating much of the activity behind the scenes. They find hosts for the residents when they come to town and volunteers to pack their lunches at school every day. They have attended almost all of the artists’ sessions and have now collected photos, writing and art samples, and all the work the students and artists have produced together into several bound teaching volumes.

Art teacher Amy Minehart was astounded at the amount of effort Rudolf and Mayer have contributed toward the project.

“These two have gone above and beyond. They are here every day, and I just cannot tell you what permanent fixtures they have become here,” she said. “They are the breath and the life of this thing.”

The three-year program has taken the utmost flexibility and willingness on the part of teachers and staff to adapt the activities and concepts to the daily school schedule and make it a part of all the students’ lives, Brunsman said. The direct results will always be elusive, Hatton said, just as assessing what students absorb from their regular lessons is not immediately evident.

But as the students arrived at school one recent rainy morning and descended from the bus, they were singing one of the songs resident musician Hal Walker had taught them about the rain, swishing their bodies in a synchronized motion, Hatton said.

“Kids remember what they do at Mills Lawn School,” she said, “and if there’s a purpose to it, they get that too with each stage of their development.”

—Lauren Heaton