Connecting With a Town's Legacy Through Art: A Report Back from Minnesota

Place-based education in action in Minnesota.

September 2, 2020 |
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Thank you to Grants in Place Fellow, Kathrina O'Connell, for submitting this summary of her 2019-2020 place-based project, Avenues and Art in Audubon, Minnesota. Kathrina is a teacher at Lake Park Audubon Elementary School, and her project was part or our West Central Minnesota Hub partnership with the West Central Initiative.

Avenues and Art in Audubon, Minnesota: Melding the Past and the Present to Teach a Town about its History--Written by Kathrina O'Connell

The sixth-grade students at Lake Park Audubon Elementary School in Audubon, Minnesota, were geared up to teach others about their town’s history. Little did they know that COVID-19 would interrupt their project but ultimately make their work even more valuable.

The students started this multidisciplinary project in the fall of 2019. Students worked collaboratively to research the history of the town, the life of John James Audubon, and the connection between the two. In this process, the students learned that the town of Audubon was named after John James Audubon. They also learned that the street names were named after Minnesota birds as a way to honor the artist.

The students studied the paintings of John James Audubon and created their own masterpieces. The school owns a very large, 100-year old print of the American Crow, so it was relocated to the classroom to motivate their multi-disciplinary work. The crow painting inspired their own artwork but also served as a teaching tool when the students created and gave informational presentations to the third grade students.

The sixth-grade student teams worked collaboratively to create brief presentations for the third-grade classrooms. Students were given flexibility and choice for the lessons’ content delivery, so one group even created a video presentation. The presentations also incorporated the school’s American Crow print. The American Crow print is Audubon’s only unfinished print, so the third-grade students also enjoyed the hunt-and-seek game of finding the unfinished leaf. The third-graders were so interested in the presentations and the sixth-graders were so knowledgeable of the content, that the students engaged in this learning activity for much longer than originally planned. What were meant to be five-minute mini-lessons actually turned out to be 30-minute lessons filled with questions and answers. The third-grade classrooms invited the students back to provide lessons in bird drawing techniques. The kids-teaching-kids model used for both lessons was highly engaging and beneficial for both grade levels.

The sixth-graders then set out to teach more people about their town and its connection to John James Audubon. They again worked collaboratively to create informational brochures for the town’s city office. They wrote, edited, peer edited, and published their works so that the city of Audubon could distribute the brochures to new residents.

Taking their teaching one step further, the students planned to create a virtual walking tour of the town so that they could share their community with the world. Originally, they intended to produce the virtual walking tour in May, when the snow had melted and the leaves were sprouting on the trees. However, COVID-19 brought about school closures and social distancing mandates that prevented in-person student collaboration. Fortunately, one student’s media production savvy family stepped in and helped to complete this year-long project. The family strategically placed the students’ bird paintings along the streets in Audubon so that viewers could admire the town and identify local birds as John James Audubon would have done. Viewers simply click on the pictures and the sixth graders’ artwork appears. A modern-day virtual bird walk! The online accessibility of the walking tour not only provides a resource for the students and residents, but it also allows people around the world to take a virtual birding walk in our special, little town.

This year-long project was an amalgam of history, literacy, science, technology, and art. The sixth-graders created and executed lessons for younger students, produced their own bird paintings, composed printed materials for the city of Audubon, and developed a virtual walking tour of the town that was shared on the town’s webpage.

The goal of this placed-based, Rural School Collaborative national grant project was for the students to teach others about the history of their town and its connection to artist John James Audubon. As leaders at the elementary school, they executed valuable learning lessons for younger students. As leaders in their community, they produced informative literature for their town. As global leaders, they were able to educate people worldwide using the online delivery of their virtual walking tour. As a result of these project components, the sixth-graders have shared their knowledge of the town’s origin, the life of John James Audubon, and the connection between the two. COVID-19 may have altered the original plan for the final project element, but in the end the students’ use of varied teaching modalities enabled them to educate people far beyond the boundaries of their small, rural town.

Bonus! A video from one of Kathrina's students

We are now accepting submissions for our 2020-2021 Celia B. Godsil Grants in Place Fellows Program! The Rural Schools Collaborative’s Celia B. Godsil Grants in Place Fellows program provides grant awards to rural school teachers who engage their students in exemplary place-based learning action research. Deadline is October 16th, apply today!

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