The ABC's of John James Audubon: Art, Birding, and Conservation

This Minnesota project is a primer on place-based learning.

April 28, 2019 |
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Lake Park Audubon Elementary School students show off their paintings from The ABC's of John James Audubon: Art, Birding, and Conservation.

Kathrina O'Connell's "The ABC's of John James Audubon: Art, Birding, and Conservation" received $1,000 in Grants in Place funding to support a cross-curricular, place-based project, which focused on the artwork, birding, and conservation efforts of John James Audubon. Students explored Audubon's influence on the small Minnesota town named in his honor, and they created original paintings that reflected their experiences.

Kathrina believes it is of the utmost importance for Lake Park Audubon Elementary students to learn about John James Audubon, their community, and the wildlife surrounding them. We believe she accomplished her goal!

Thanks to West Central Initiative, a regional community foundation based out of Fergus Falls, MN, for supporting our Minnesota Grants in Place program.

We are pleased to provide the following summary from Ms. O'Connell:

“The Grants in Place funding provided my sixth graders with the materials and support required to adroitly study their town’s history. Students engaged in an extended multi-disciplinary unit that incorporated literacy, language arts, science, history, and art. Together they learned about John James Audubon, the attributes of his art, the benefits of birding, and the role that conservation efforts serve- especially for those living in a small, rural town.

In order to build background knowledge of the town and school’s namesake, students spent time collaboratively researching John James Audubon. They learned about his life and his art, then created their own project to demonstrate knowledge mastery. Some students wrote a report or quiz, while others created games and posters. One group even wrote and performed a song! All of the information was displayed in the hallway for other students and adults to view.

Thanks to the Rural Schools Collaborative Grant, my students were able to acquire various picture books about John James Audubon and read them to other students. They enthusiastically shared both the stories and their research with younger students in kindergarten through third grade.

Once background knowledge was built, students focused on the artwork of John James Audubon. Guest artists from the local Cormorant Art Club provided lessons in drawing and watercolor painting. Students learned how to first identify shapes in objects and then ‘add the skin’. They then learned how to apply and layer watercolors.

The guest artists guided students in the drawing and painting process, helping students create artwork that highlighted the birds’ features, just as Audubon would have done. The drawing and painting process required multiple two-hour art lessons, where students maintained praiseworthy attention and engagement. The final artwork masterpieces were proudly displayed using the special cardboard stands and artist frames, that were provided through the grant.

Nearby, at the Hamden Slough Wildlife Refuge, bird watching was facilitated by field experts from Audubon Dakota and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This hands-on activity connected students’ research and artwork to the local birds that Audubon would have painted. These birds also provided a reference for the street names of our little town in Audubon.

In order to preserve the habitat that John James Audubon’s niece viewed when the town of Audubon was named, and the wildlife that is still present today, students set out to germinate and plant native Minnesota prairie plants. The sixth graders are currently germinating milkweed plants in the school’s greenhouse, and will be working with nine conservation organizations to expand the school’s pollinator garden in May. It is hoped that the larger garden will attract more of the birds that Audubon enjoyed studying.

The Rural Schools Collaborative Grant provided resources and materials for my students that would not otherwise be available for them. I believe that the most memorable element of this project was the relationship created with the area art club. The students were extremely grateful for the fun, yet challenging, painting project. In the end, they recognized that the activity pushed them to try new things and that their hard work and determination paid off. The students’ thank-you letters were so heartfelt, that the guest artist returned with individual sketchbooks for each students so that they could continue their drawing practice. She will also be offered to return this spring, to teach another watercolor art lesson about trees.

Student engagement and enthusiasm produced from this project reflect the value of rural school support. Programs like this help my students recognize the potential of their ideas and actions. They are going to accomplish BIG things in their community, region, and in the world. Thank you, Rural Schools Collaborative, for supporting my students with this place-based learning opportunity!”

We invite you to learn more about our 2018-19 Grants in Place program, and you can check out other west central Minnesota grants awarded in collaboration with the West Central Initiative! Also, we encourage you to check out our web section on the value of place-based education.

Please read an earlier RSC feature on how the West Central Initiative is supporting school-centered philanthropy in their region.


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