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Promoting ecological responsibility ... through the arts.

The 1992 Theme Issue of Childhood Education (Cohen, 1992) was devoted to the topic of ecology, in recognition of increasing concern about the fragility of our environment and the role of education in promoting more responsible stewardship of our world. The authors build upon the work of this important volume by demonstrating how the arts can be used as a language for expressing contemporary ecological concerns and promoting responsible environmental stewardship. Teachers and students in two large Western New York suburban districts, professional artists and a local environmental organization collaborated to create two artistic productions, a play and a silent film (video). Both works reflected ecological concerns and examined ideas for ameliorating environmental problems.


This ecological arts project was developed under the direction of the Arts in Education Institute of Western New York. The Institute was established to promote aesthetic literacy in school-age children by building a partnership between practicing artists and classroom teachers and using works of art as the "texts." The model for this partnership, developed in 1973 by New York City's Lincoln Center Institute, is based upon the belief that teacher training in the arts and teacher/artist alliances in the classroom will promote art-centered learning that refines perceptions, develops imagination and encourages active inquiry and problem-solving in young children.

During a two-week summer training workshop, self-selected teachers from grades K-12 became students of professional artists, some of whom were later commissioned for the arts projects described in this article. Each artist led teachers through a personalized exploration of his/her respective art form by emphasizing the creative processes of the medium, using a specific work of art as the "text." The ultimate goals of this training were to emphasize process rather than product in the study of art and to better enable teachers and artists to work together to create similar art-centered learning experiences with children.

The following project descriptions illustrate how this collaborative venture promoted ecological responsibility through the arts with elementary grade children.

Ecological Theme Development

As a result of several planning sessions among artists, teachers and the Institute's administrators, "environmental responsibility" was selected as a suitable educational theme for the project. Two productions were then created over the next two years. The first project, "The Earth Is Our Home," was developed with primary grade children. Building upon the ideas explored in this production, the second project culminated in a work of art created by intermediate grade children, "Don't Be Silent About the Environment."


While exploring potential themes for this project, the issue of promoting environmental responsibility in children quickly emerged. The visual artist, a Native American of the Tuscarora Nation (part of the Iroquois Confederacy of New York State), shared her indigenous world view of respect for the earth with two other artists, a dancer/choreographer and a musician/composer, whose ideologies were influenced by the traditional Western view of humans as masters of the earth. The Native American artist suggested building upon an Australian Aboriginal creation story (Rickard, 1991). She selected the Aboriginal creation story rather than the Iroquois creation story because of her interest in exploring another indigenous world view that embraces respect for the earth, and because of its adaptability to a theater setting.

This creation story describes a world that was first inhabited by "sleeping giants" who peacefully existed beneath the surface of the earth. Consistent with the indigenous world view that the earth is a total living entity, the giants' actions and the changing conditions of the earth are interdependent. For example, as the giants moved across the earth, they created mountains, valleys and rivers. If the earth is damaged or polluted, the giants' existence is likewise threatened.

Children felt empathy for the struggle of the giants, leading them to an in-depth exploration of ecological concerns and potential solutions. This experience culminated in an artistic production based upon the Aboriginal creation story, beginning with the giants awakening to a world exploited by its inhabitants.

How Children Were Involved

The team of artists spent approximately two months working in classrooms. Once the artist team (teachers, artists, children) agreed that the creation story would be a strong focal point, the visual artist worked with children to create a set utilizing recycled trash. Kindergarten and 1st-grade students brought in cereal box tops to create a "wall of pollution" that would trap the "giants." Second-graders wove together plastic meat trays to create a "blanket of debris" to cover the "giants" as they awoke. Third-graders created pieces of colorful sculpture with recycled plastic bottles. At the end of the production, the children shared these sculptures with the "giants" as artful objects to be enjoyed, rather than discarded.

The dancer and the composer worked together with children to develop movement and sound imagery that might suggest the giants' emotional and physical conditions. These artists asked the children to use their bodies to show the giants being restricted by the "blanket of debris." When given several musical phrases from which to choose, students selected phrases that best described fear or imprisonment. The children's suggestions were then used by the artists in the creation of the final production. Artists enhanced the musical score with voice-over material compiled from interviews with the children regarding their personal concerns about the abuse of the environment and what they could do to improve the situation. The repetitive echo of the children's voices thus provided a haunting texture to the musical composition.

Parental Involvement

Parents were involved in a number of ways. Early in the project, for example, nearly 300 parents attended a workshop with their own children. This workshop was designed to demonstrate to parents the power of the arts in school programs and to describe the collaborative project under development. At this workshop, the Executive Director of the Arts in Education Institute discussed the goals of this project and the roles that the artists, the teachers and the parents would play. The Executive Director of Great Lakes United, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the restoration and protection of the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence ecosystem, also provided a presentation about grassroots efforts to promote ecological responsibility. The workshop concluded with the artists leading hands-on activities with both adults and children, exploring the art forms to be used in the development of this production.

During time periods that the artists worked in the classrooms, the parents contributed by: helping in the collection of trash to be recycled for set materials; discussing environmental responsibility with their children, emphasizing what they might do at home (e.g., shutting off lights when not in use, purchasing biodegradable products); working toward community solutions to pollution (e.g., collecting used glass, newspaper and plastics for recycling).

Culminating Activity

The Arts in Education Institute invited parents to attend the final performance. Children, parents, teachers and the community attended the play, "The Earth Is Our Home," at a local high school. Performers included project artists, additional artists (actor, dancer, musician and video artist) and the children who offered their sculptures of recycled material at the conclusion of the one-act performance. The play included an original score with voice-overs, original choreography with improvisational elements and original imagery created by the visual artist projected onto a rear-view projection screen on stage.

YEAR 2: INTERMEDIATE GRADE PROJECT "Don't Be Silent About the Environment"

The success of "The Earth Is Our Home" prompted the project participants to recommend the Institute offer this as a work under study for other schools. The production was performed again the following year at the Summer Teacher Training Session. In the subsequent year, this performance was made available to other schools interested in using a work of art as the focus for environmental study.

Intermediate teachers from another school district then chose to build upon this theme with their students. After the entire school viewed "The Earth Is Our Home," the intermediate grade teachers decided to develop a special project that would involve their own students in the creation of a companion piece. The teachers decided that the artistic medium for this piece would be silent films/videos.

How Children Were Involved

A team of artists (dancer, musician and video maker) was commissioned by the Arts in Education Institute of Western New York to work with teachers and students in creating this new production. Teachers selected silent films/videos as a special challenge for the students, since only music, movement and visuals could be used to communicate their ecological message.

Each of the five 4th-grade classes involved created a unique ecological vignette focusing upon an environmental problem. These problems included: noise pollution, water pollution, air pollution, littering and energy waste.

* The first vignette, "Don't Catch the Litter 'Bug'," shows how one or two pieces of trash multiplied by 30 children can result in a mountain of trash big enough to cover one 4th-grade student in a school corridor.

* The second vignette, "Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow," explores the perils of noise pollution. A young girl roaming the school hallways with a blaring "boom box" is unable to hear the fire alarm and narrowly escapes danger.

* "Formal Garbage," the third vignette, shows a class of 25 4th-graders merrily engaged in a "Save the Planet Party," unaware that their immediate environment is changing beyond recognition. Hundreds of plastic plates and utensils, excess tissues and assorted party favors carpet a once bare linoleum floor.

* "OOPS" explores the results of "one energy wasting day." Even the principal gets involved in the cast, as he provides a van for a group of commuting students who, in a previous scene, were traveling in individual cars. That scenario visually displays exhaust fumes as a blanket of smog covering the school entrance.

* The last vignette, "The Totally Toxic Tragedy," illustrates what happens when a 4th-grade class consumes Clearwater Lake water, unaware that it has been contaminated with toxins. After a rather dreadful, yet humorous, scene where children drop to the floor in hallways after drinking Clearwater Lake water, the nurse arrives to revive the stricken. Determined to change this threatening situation, the children dig for a natural spring behind their school and create Lake Betterwater from which they retrieve all their drinking water.

The dancer/choreographer directed the children to move with Chaplinesque, stiff-legged movement while the musician/composer played music typical of silent films (old piano roll music). The video artist edited in scenes from old movies to highlight the children's actions. For instance, a scene of the New York City power outage was edited into an "OOPS" scene where the school lights were flickering from over-usage. When the children were digging up Lake Betterwater, the video artist edited in scenes of bubbling springs and clean lake shores.

In every vignette all students and their teachers took active roles in the video production. Since these videos were designed to represent silent film techniques, the children provided subtitles where appropriate (e.g., "... many litterbugs later..." and " energy wasting day later..."). When the children drop to the ground after swallowing contaminated water, so do their teachers. Each vignette focuses on a serious problem in a humorous way and provides workable solutions for each.

The artist team later assembled these vignettes into a unified video production which the children entitled "Don't Be Silent About the Environment" (Arts in Education Institute of Western New York, 1991).

Culminating Activity

Students worked with their art teacher to design a poster/post card to announce the showing of "Don't Be Silent About the Environment." The title for the piece emerged from a consensus among all the classes. The design included elements from each vignette contributed by each class.

The final production was presented at Shea's Buffalo, a landmark theater in downtown Buffalo known for its popularity as a silent film venue in the early 1900s. Parents, grandparents and community members attended the premiere showing of "Don't Be Silent About the Environment." The showing was followed by an Abbot and Costello silent film (with live organ music), created purely for entertainment, as a contrast to the children's application of silent film art to an ecological message. A reception for the children, hosted by the parents, concluded the afternoon event.


For teachers this project aptly demonstrated the power of the arts in motivating children to express themselves. Artists learned to respect and, therefore, enable the voices of children and teachers as sources for artistic expression. Furthermore, the project demonstrated how the artistic resources of a community can be effectively integrated into existing school programs. Finally, this teacher/artist/children partnership demonstrated how the arts can be employed to engage children on a personal level in ecological concerns.

James L. Hoot is Director, Early Childhood Research Center, State University of New York, Buffalo, and Educational Consultant to this project. Margaret L. Foster is Executive Director, Arts in Education Institute of Western New York, and Director of this project.


Cohen, S. (Ed.). (1992, Annual Theme Issue). Promoting Ecological Awareness. Childhood Education, 68 (5).

Rickard, J. (1991). The Earth is our home: A resource manual for teachers. Arts in Education Institute of Western New York.

Arts in Education Institute of Western New York. (1991). Don't be silent about the environment. Video.

Acknowledgments: The authors wish to thank in a special way the project artists: Susan Przybyl (dancer), Randy Kramer (musician), Jolene Rickard (visual artist), Armin Heurich (video maker) and coordinating teachers: Mary Kay Randolph, Carol Lewis, Phyllis Morris and their colleagues who enthusiastically supported this venture in their classrooms. Thanks also to the children, staff and administration of Country Parkway (Williamsville School District), Hillview and Como Park Elementary Schools (Lancaster Central School District) who participated in this project and to Phillip Weller, former Director of Great Lakes United.

Note: This project was made possible, in part, with funding provided by the New York State Council on the Arts.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Association for Childhood Education International
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Article Details
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Author:Foster, Margaret L.
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:Let the story begin! Open the box and set out the props.
Next Article:A conversation with Christopher Schenk.

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