21st Century Primary Center Students Find Nature at Home

 In The CAPE Blog

Last year, our kindergarten, first, second and fourth graders at 21st Century Primary Center in Park Forest, Illinois, got the opportunity to design, discover, and play sounds at home. An idea so fitting these days, as we all try to find the balance of finding creativity indoors and outdoors.

The big idea of Habitat and Home inspired teacher Andrea Mele and teaching artist, David Sprecher who were excited to have their students find nature at home. Throughout the school year, the students explored the inquiry question, “What can I learn about the animals and plants that live in my neighborhood?”

When asked to describe the student’s projects, Ms. Mele shared that, “for the most part, the classes were organized around observable facets of the seasonally changing environment. We also were always circling around and addressing ideas of ‘home’… During a typical class, we would all check-in and greet each other. We would then introduce the topic of the day and observe and talk about features of our immediate surroundings that pertained to the topic, i.e. the snow outside, our hands, trees, etc. We would then elaborate on the topic and introduce relevant artists through a slide presentation. For the second half of class, we would draw or making exercises demonstrated in real-time by the teaching artist based on everything we’d learned. And in the last ten minutes of class, we’d all share what we’d drawn and reflected as a group.”

The structure of the classroom looked a little like this:

  • In the fall, the students looked at leaves in conjunction with a basic color theory class as a way of thinking about their neighborhood homes through the work of Amanda Williams. The students got the opportunity to draw on leaves, all while learning about William’s take on color as a way to highlight a conversation on race, place, and value in cities.
  • The students then moved from thinking about their neighborhoods to looking at the solar system following “The Great Convergence” of Jupiter and Saturn that happened last December, when the two last passed each other almost 400 years ago.
  • In the final month of classes, the structure was devoted to exploring ideas of habitat and home through the “target” or “tree ring” pattern. Students looked at how tree rings function as a diary of a tree’s life and used concentric circles to map our own memories, home experiences, and emotions.

Ms. Mele and Mr. Spreecher had much more to share with us in this Q&A below.

How did you experiment with your curriculum within the grade ranges for remote learning curriculum?

When asked about the topics that were taught remotely for their kindergarten and third graders, Ms. Mele expressed that, “although each topic was introduced similarly, with the third graders, we would go more in-depth. When we addressed factual knowledge about the planets, continents, trees, etc., we adjusted to the knowledge base of each grade. In addressing certain drawing challenges (with the symmetry lessons, for example), we met each grade where they were at. We also allowed the students to express creativity in how they interpreted the art-making instructions and were generally supportive of any material-based response to the curriculum that they produced.”
Where is there evidence of STEAM teaching in students’ projects or artwork?

Students were inspired by the work of Agnes Denes and discussed what it would be like to live on this planet if it were shaped differently!

So Ms. Mele and Mr. Spreecher shared the following reflection, “we hypothesized about what it might be like to stand along the edges of pyramid-shaped earth or to be in the hole of a donut-shaped earth. We talked about how the ocean might behave along the edge of a cube-shaped planet. This geographical/geometrical imaginative projection integrated information about what our planet looks like, how big it is, what it’s made of, and an embodied awareness of how we’re situated on it. The students were required to mentally manipulate this information and draft hypotheses about an alternate reality based on those mental manipulations. Students then drew their alternative earths, and after each was presented, we collectively hypothesized about what it would be like to live there. We were very impressed with them, to say the least!”


How did students further explore the inquiry in students’ projects or artwork?
To explore the concept of bilateral symmetry, we began by exploring the relative symmetry of our bodies, with a focus on our hands. We prompted students to place their hands together in front of their faces and then open them like a book or the wings of a butterfly. We examined the difference between a symmetrical mirror image and a copy and pointed out that our hands were a reference tool for thinking through that difference. By turning one palm up and the other down, then turning them both down and then both up, we asked students to identify when the outlines of their hands were essentially congruent and when they were symmetrical. We then looked at a series of images and discussed how each was symmetrical or asymmetrical. For the drawing exercise that day, we drew a line that bisected our paper and encouraged students to turn their paper in any direction to draw images reflected across that line. The following class, we returned to our hands and looked at artists who use their hands as inscription tools. Leaving symmetry behind, students explored tracing their hands in different configurations, feeling out the variety of shapes that emerged through positioning their hands in different ways. They then used these lines as a framework for making colorful abstractions.


Final Reflection:

Andrea Mele: “I was pleased with how this lesson turned out. Initially, my concern was the concept of symmetry in relation to their hands might be too much for them to connect, especially the younger students. In reality, the connection between symmetry and their hands helped them tremendously connect symmetry to the world around them.:

David Sprecher: “I was excited about this lesson because it tapped into an embodied awareness of our hands to understand a concept that is broadly observable elsewhere in our surroundings. This kind of embodied understanding is at work under the surface of language decoding, metaphoric thinking, and meaning-making.”

Let us know your favorite part of this classroom learning, and let us know if you have any questions for us in the comments below.

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