Fact No. 56 – The people make the place

‘The People Make the Place: Creative Placemaking & 6th Grade Social Studies’

This residency introduces the concept of ‘creative placemaking’ (CP) to two 6th grade social studies classes at IS 96 Seth Low, and guides them through a complete CP project.  CP is a process in which artists, business and government leaders, and other community stakeholders work together to answer the question “How do the arts make a neighborhood more livable?”  The residency’s objective is to have students experience civic engagement by collaborating on final ‘public’ art projects, installed or performed within the school, motivated by the question “How do the arts make a school a better place to learn?”  Student teams will each be given a budget of $75 to create a proposed ‘public’ art project for the school community, subject to approval of teachers and school administration.  The residency comprises 10 in-class sessions for each class between Oct-Dec 2013, and culminates in a joint showing at which the students share their projects and process lessons learned.

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Last semester, I had the pleasure of working with two 6th grade honors social studies classes at IS 96 Seth Low in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and their ultra-gracious and intrepid teacher Jeff Bravstein, during a 10-week in-class arts residency funded by the Brooklyn Council for the Arts.  In this residency, we explored ‘creative placemaking’ and made projects inspired by the question: ‘How can the arts make Seth Low a better place to learn?’

Over the course of our ten weeks together, we accomplished a lot.  We started with sensory exploration exercises to awaken our ‘inner artists’ and practice looking at our immediate surroundings (the 3rd floor of Seth Low) with new eyes.  Using all of our senses, we explored and mapped our classroom and the hallways of the 3rd floor, detailing examples of human/environment interaction, natural resources and works of art in the ‘geography’ of our educational space.  Then we studied several examples of public art projects in Brooklyn and other cities and asked questions about who the projects were designed for, why they were placed where they were placed, and what the artists might be communicating through them.  With this background, we divided into 14 different teams to work on public art projects of our own, for display within the school.  Each team had a budget of $75 to spend on art materials, which I bought and supplied for the teams.  As part of the process of creating the projects, each team had to work hard together to complete a project proposal that outlined intended audience, materials needed, budget, location, duration, whose permission was needed, etc. – all the logistics any professional artist would need to think through for a public art project.  Finally, with materials in hand, the teams worked to get their projects completed by a deadline, in time to display or perform their projects for Seth Low’s Winter Concert, just before the winter break.

Among the many different projects that the students pulled off (beautifully!) were decorated bulletin boards with anti-bullying themes, uplifting posters about treasuring your education, creatively designed button-pins promoting reading, a social studies themed board game to aid studying about the stone age, a performance about making room for girls’ voices, and posters that translated encouraging adages from Mandarin to English and Spanish.

It was a challenging and ambitious assignment but the students rose to the challenge and exceeded my every expectation.  They’re not the only ones who learned!  The more experience I gain as a teaching artist, the more I realize that simply asking the question ‘How do the arts make life more livable?’ could be a lifelong education.

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