Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Planting and Painting to the Tune of a Weeping Willow

Student 24's picture

As someone who loves being around children and doesn’t do that enough while in college, I had an absolutely brilliant time on Friday’s trip to Camden. We were introduced to the fifth grade students in the green house and played a name game with them. I was relieved that they weren’t shy or unenthusiastic to see us, because although I love kids, I get anxious about not knowing what to talk about. I’m not in tune with American pop culture or other things that could be easy conversation topics with them, but thankfully both my 5th grade buddies Janelle and Maria had plenty to tell me about planting seeds and their lessons in school about recycling.

First, we planted one tray with two types of tomatoes. The girls talked about their feelings regarding the taste of vegetables. Janelle said the first time she tasted salad, she really didn’t like it, but now she likes it a bit more. I told her that I used to feel the same, and now I love salad; when you grow up, your tastes change. We then planted another tray with yellow peppers. Maria chatted more than Janelle, but both were eager to keep my attention. I asked them questions about the lessons they had in school, if they had been to Philadelphia and what they thought about it. Just this week, Maria said, they’d gone to see an orchestra in Philadelphia, and they really liked it.

At lunch, I sat with fellow 360-member J. and three boys from the fifth grade class. One of the boys, whose name I forget, offered us all his chips and popcorn, under the condition that we say “please,” of course. Then he said to us, both to me and Jessica and his two friends, thoughtfully, “Can I ask you a question?” We nodded. “What is you goal for this year?” He had a very serious but curious expression. I said that that was a difficult question, and I wasn’t entirely sure, so I asked him what his goal was. He said it was to do well in school and then to do well in 6th grade, and eventually to graduate high school. I smiled and said those were great goals, and what would he do to make those goals come true? He said matter-of-factly he would work hard. Then he suddenly ran into the other room, and his friend at the table said he was probably doing his imitation of Jesus at the Last Supper.

I thought about the food they were eating. Some of them had brought lunch from home, which may have been a thermos with ravioli, or some chips, or popcorn, and most of the students had lunch from school. I can’t remember exactly everything they ate, but it consisted of chicken nuggets, a salad, an apple, and I think there may have been fries and some sweet for dessert. Not all of them ate the salad, but most ate the apple. I know that I wasn’t crazy about vegetables when I was younger, so I guess it’s not surprising that these children aren’t jumping on the salad and asking for more. But I’m just curious how their relationship with food will change or grow as they change and grow up.

After lunch, we were escorted by our buddies to their 5th grade classroom. There, L. and I (unfortunately S. couldn’t make it!) joined a group of 5 students so that we could give our lesson. We began with an introduction activity, where we went around, said our name, our favourite song or artist, and our favourite art, or creative, activity. Then L. spoke about Marian Anderson, her powerful voice, and the impact she had on people because of how she kept singing and performing even when concert halls refused her the space because of her race. Two of the boys had learned about her before, so they were able to add their own thoughts. I then spoke about Nina Simone and about music lyrics in general that use images of nature and the environment to communicate emotions.

Then I read out loud the lyrics of one of her songs, “Willow Weep for Me,” and told them to stop me when they heard an image of nature. Then they’d say to what emotion that image related. Some of the images were: “willow weep for me,” “bend your branches green along the stream that runs to sea,” “lovely summer dream,” “whisper to the wind,” and “when shadows fall.” They mostly spoke about feelings of sadness, as most of these images were representative of sad feelings. I realise that the execution of this activity wasn't as successful as I had imagined. I don’t think the the images were easy to pick out from the song lyrics, since the language isn’t really language that is easy to listen to spoken out loud. If the lyrics were printed on a page, then seeing the words related to nature might have prompted quicker recognition from the students.

The discussion we tried to generate came easier as we moved to talking about murals. We showed some photos of murals, but then they began to talk about the murals in their own neighbourhood. We discussed how the murals make buildings more beautiful, but they also can have a message. After the discussion we gave the students paper, paint, and markers and told them to pretend someone had asked them to design a mural for their building. What would they draw? What message did they want to show through the mural? The students talk about recycling and taking care of the environment. We tried to bring in the morning’s activities of gardening and growing vegetables, but the discussion didn’t carry as far as I had hoped. I think that was because we did a lot of talking and asking questions, as opposed to starting with short-and-sweet activities that would lead into some sort of message. I’d forgotten that at that age, it’s difficult to focus on discussion questions without objects or images in front of you that guide you somehow.

Once we started painting and designing the murals, however, a few of the students understood how to find a message and portray it with their image. One boy wrote down lyrics to a Michael Jackson song which he said held a message that we need to take care of our world. Another began sketching and said he would draw randomly and then stop, step back to look, and figure out what he drew. The other students weren’t totally decided what message they wanted, or didn’t know what message they should be drawing.

That made me question my role as a teacher in that situation. I couldn’t tell them, dictate to them, the message they needed to be portraying in an artistic or creative fashion. Art is about taking a message from the internal and producing it externally. If they didn’t feel internally a need to express externally a message, then I couldn't demand that from them, could I? As a teacher, I need to guide them better to a place where they can recognise within themselves an internal drive to express something. But all this talk seems heavy and grim in regard to the sunny dispositions and energetic chatter of a fifth grade classroom. How do I reconcile these two? What if a certain message doesn't inherently exist within a student in the first place, and I know I can't impose a belief system upon them?

Then I thought about the fact that this a Christian school, run by a Church. The institution revolves around a very specific belief system. In fact, it revolves around the fact that there is a supporting belief system in the first place. The belief system functions as a mechanism, a medium, through which messages can be transmitted and taught. If themes of caring for the environment, of caring for neighbourhood gardens, streets, playgrounds, schoolyards - if these themes were taught through the medium of Christianity, then they could be internalised by connecting with that pre-existing belief system. But then, that raises many issues of the ever-present problem of abusing religion to impose extra-religious mentalities onto people, students, followers.

Perhaps I'm stretching this too far and being overdramatic, but I don't want to ignore the bit of uneasieness I feel.