The art of second grade in West Tisbury
There are no empty spaces on the walls on Michelle Mayhew's second grade classroom at West Tisbury School. Owls made of paper plates stare back at the class from one wall, while cornhusk dolls rest on a countertop nearby.
A group of students huddle around what looks like a giant green sea-monster in the center of the room that stretches almost 20 feet from one wall to the next. It is an almost life-size Saguaro cactus made of papier maché.
Robe del Torre, age 7, says that is his favorite project. "They're huge," he says. "You know, they don't grow arms until they're 70 or 80 years old, and they can grow taller than the school, but not wider."
And then he turns his attention to the cornhusk dolls. "These cornhusk dolls were not made from machine," he says, holding up his doll. "These were made by hand."
Abigail Hammarlund, age 7, explains, "It's a legend. The Wampanoags would put out the cornhusk dolls. The cornhusk dolls were supposed to watch the children because they were getting into mischief."
She delicately places a dab of glue onto a kernel of corn as she adds, "Some people believe the legend, others don't, but I do."
Ms. Mayhew is very pleased with her students' enthusiasm for the projects and just as pleased with the school's and parents' support for such projects. She gestures toward the Saguaro. "By using art-oriented, hands-on learning, the students are able to not only create but also learn about the plant and animal life in a particular region," she says.
"These types of projects depend entirely on the school's philosophy," Ms. Mayhew adds, "luckily with the Island's natural autonomy, we are able to explore those creative realms."
Her students recently began work on their yearlong Project Based Learning unit that focuses on art around the world.
Sheri Caseau, Ms. Mayhew's teaching assistant, oversees a group of students at another table. "These types of projects are great," she says. "This way, the kids are not just reading and studying, they're engaged."
The teachers advocate Project Based Learning, a method of experiential education, as a way to develop a student's sense of geography, social studies, and science, while also having the opportunity to create art while interacting with one another in a group.
"The importance of art," says principal Michael Halt, "is that it helps to bring the subjects studied alive; it gives students a creative outlet."
Mr. Halt regards art as providing cohesive ways to incorporate all types of learning. "Art-based education has that tactile approach which helps to reinforce the learning that's going on," he says. "In that way, it truly becomes something that students can enjoy and learn from."
While on a national level, financing for art has historically lagged behind support for the sciences, math, and language studies, Mr. Halt believes that on the Island, it's a different story: "There is always a rallying cry from parents and the community in support of the school art programs."
The class took a field trip to the FARM Institute in Katama, where they learned about the plants and animals on the farm and husked corn for their doll project.
"We began here on the Island with the cornhusk dolls," Ms. Mayhew says. "Now, with the Saguaro, we are moving into the southwestern United States, and next we'll travel to Asia."
This is her first year-long Project Based Learning project, and she looks forward to creating a digital portfolio with each of her students at the end of the year so that they can take a piece of each project home with them and keep it for years to come.
E. Conor Hagen is a freelance writer living in Edgartown.