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Joining forces: integrating the arts.

On a sunny morning in February a small tribe of Eastern woodland Indians is at work meticulously painting false face masks. Their brushes dip in and out of the traditional red and black colors as they add ferocious snarls and frowns to their already grotesque creations. This tribe belongs not to the Iroquois nation but to the third grade of the Fieldston Lower School in New York City.

Why does FLS expose these children so thoroughly to another culture? Because the school is committed to the core curriculum as the keystone of its educational philosophy--the integration of social studies into every discipline the child encounters.

The curriculum presently carries the children from a study of early man in second grade, through the Indian year of third grade, to a long acquaintance with the Pilgrims in fourth grade. Fifth graders immerse themselves in the medieval world, while the sixth grade's focus is on our nation's immigrants, with particular attention to Blacks and Eastern Europeans, the ancestors of many of the students. Described here are the programs for third and fifth graders.

A typical third grade year

One way to begin to enter the consciousness of another people is to wear their clothing. With this in mind, the industrial arts program plunges the third grade children into the task of dyeing and sewing Indian tunics, breech cloths and leggings at the start of the school year. Being measured with a sinewy length of grapevine instead of a tape measure is a signal to the children that this is a different world. Selecting an authentic design and beading a tunic helps a child become part of that world.

Once launched, the children do a good deal of sewing in their class rooms at odd moments during the day, often while being read to. At other times they harvest the "three sisters" (corn, beans and squash) planted by the previous third grade tribe, and string them up to dry in the classroom. They learn of the Indians' demarcation of sex roles: the girls turn to making papooses while the boys settle down to the hard work of sewing wampum pouches.

Spring brings strenuous preparations for an Indian feast. The menu includes fish baked in clay, sassafras tea, crabapple pudding and, of course, dried vegetables stewed over an open fire. By this time the children have decorated their tunics with beaded designs and have made their moccasins.

The woodshop program also provides a rich adjunct to the core curriculum. Fire drills, the essential fire starting mechanisms of the Indians, are made early in the year. Students love to make lumi sticks: shaped, sanded sticks used for rhythm games and songs. Other Indian projects include simple musical instruments, miniature dugout canoes and cradle-boards for the papooses. The children master the chisel and gouge, rasp and file, plane, back saw, coping saw and crosscut saw. They learn to finish the wood so that its beauty stands out, and to work independently, making and following plans.

The fine arts program tries to allow room for imagination and dreams. One form of this is the diorama: a microcosm of the Indian world in a cardboard box. Over a period of many weeks the children pour into their boxes their accumulated knowledge of how Eastern woodlands Indians lived. Ponds and rivers are painted into place. Wigwams and long houses rise, their sapling structures simulated with basket reed. Crepe paper corn grows amid fat clay squashes. Building these scenes helps develop many skills. For example, awareness of perspective often dawns as a child tries to make a river recede into the vertical plane at the back of the box. Proportion becomes important if a six-inch bear lumbers into a scene containing a three-inch wigwam.

These dioramas require many media. Some other projects involve paint and clay. Modelling woodland animals, for example, can lead to the construction of a large environment for them. False face masks are begun with clay and completed in papier-mache. While they reinforce social studies, these masks offer a wonderful outlet for the children's love of the grotesque.

If there is time in the spring, the curriculum turns to Western Indians, and the class makes kachina dolls, a favorite project. We use scraps of wood cast off by the shop, enhanced by paint and feathers.

This program requires considerable self-control on the part of eight-year-olds. Thinking of themselves as Indians sustains their motivation, and their pride increases as they complete each new task. By the end of the year, the children have not only acquired unusual skills, but have developed the self-esteem that comes with such mastery.

The fifth grade program

The fifth grade medieval year provides an array of opportunities for collaboration between the classroom and the arts. Over the years the industrial arts program has been honed down to two authentic medieval crafts: banner making and bookbinding. The resulting products are among the most impressive of all the children's creations in their years in the middle school.

Heraldry, when applied to one's own family name, can be a springboard for all sorts of imaginative motifs. Students first research the meanings of both given and family names, after which they invent whatever symbols strike their fancies. The symbols are cut out of colored paper, placed on paper backgrounds and arranged carefully on the banner. The symbols are then made of felt and placed on a background of brocade or other "grand" material.

Bookmaking starts with the art of marblizing--an enticing way to begin a complicated craft. The resulting papers adorn the covers of the books. During ensuing weeks the students cut, sew and glue, going through every step of the process known to medieval monks and modern hand-bookbinders alike.

As the year progresses, medieval life becomes more real for the children. Many make swords and shields; or rod puppets--a collaborative effort between woodshop and fine arts. Children learn the value of fine workmanship as they try to make puppets that stay together and move easily. Dressing the puppets with handsewn clothes helps make medieval clothing seem more real.

Art is a great window on the medieval world. Making a medieval manuscript or painting a mural of castle life are experiences that mirror actual activities of the day and give students a way to enter that world. A field trip to a nearby cathedral can inspire great feeling for stained glass. To make our own stained glass, we generally end up using cellophane and heavy black paper. Although the results are fragile, they can magically transform a classroom window.

Gargoyles offer a rich clay modelling experience and an outlet for the vivid imaginations of many ten-year-olds. Designing bestiaries has proved highly satisfying, again offering opportunities for flights of fancy from the charming to the grotesque. One way of carrying them out has been to carve and print plaster blocks.

The climactic event of the year is generally either a feast or a fair. If it is a feast there must be entertainment, and suddenly there is a rush to make a dragon breathing cellophane fire or the head of John the Baptist laid on an aluminum foil platter. A fair calls for enormous quantities of goods to stock the booths: everything from herb seedlings in decorated pots to hand lettered indulgences. The energy with which this medieval paraphernalia is turned out tells a great deal about how the children feel about their year. When their parents gather, dressed in costume to enter their children's world, a special spirit seems to overtake the assemblage, as if the best of a vanished realm had come back for an evening.

The core curriculum

It may seem that the core curriculum encompasses the whole of the children's art experience. In reality there are, in every grade, many unrelated and open-ended projects, planned to provide a definite change of pace. Nevertheless, the teachers feel strongly that the core curriculum offers much scope for individuality and expression of feelings, if a delicate balance is maintained between authenticity and creativity, between engagement in a subject and wearing it out. Over many years the teachers have developed a sixth sense for this balance.

Maintaining this equilibrium is vital, but a close-working relationship between teachers is almost as important. In a profession which is often called lonely, this is hardly a disadvantage. Planning, when it is done by people with complementary points of view, can be a creative experience. Of ten ideas emerge which neither teacher alone might have conceived. Such stimulation is bound to be reflected in the response of the children to new projects. Thus the arts, while remaining arts, gain excitement and momentum when they become a practicum for social studies. For these teachers, all this adds up to the best arts program they can conceive.

This article was written by Meredith Meyer, in collaboration with Camilla Degener, industrial arts teacher, Florence Prindle, visual arts teacher and Marjorie Hoffman, wood-shop teacher, at the Fieldston Lower Shool. Photographs are by Florence Prindle and Margaret Katz.
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Author:Meyer, Meredith
Publication:School Arts
Date:Feb 1, 1990
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