Building a Schoolyard Aquatic Habitat

Two women examine clay sculptures

Joan Oates and Joyce Crown-Wilkins

In the fall of 2010, Joan Oates, founder of Partners in the Arts (PIA), and director Liz Sheehan visited Hanover County Public School‘s Cold Harbor Elementary. Art teacher Joyce Crown-Wilkins and her school received an Engaging Creative Thinkers (ECT) Award from Partners in the Arts to create an “Artsy Aquatic Habitat” on school grounds.

Joyce and Joan (pictured) looked at some of the marine-themed ceramic items students made for the project. The habitat will be a wonderful place for students to learn the K-5 science curriculum, especially life processes, living systems, and the Earth’s patterns and cycles. The project also supports 3rd grade social studies SOLs and 4th grade writing SOLs and will be an enduring connection to nature on school grounds.

Students work near the season mosaics. Photo from Cold Harbor E

Joan and Liz were fortunate to meet Sarah Calveric, principal of Cold Harbor Elementary, and Nina Julio, a VCU student teacher who has been working with Joyce in the art room. They were impressed by Joyce’s terrific organization of the project’s activities and events for the year, as well as how the PTA and other community members, including businesses, made contributions of time, skills, and materials to this initiative. The work was focused mainly on creating the habitat – excavating a pond, for example – as well as the students’ creation of stepping stones and decorative items that represent marine life and the natural environment.

On a Saturday morning in the fall, students, teachers, parents and others in the community were invited to participate in the schools’ Beautification Day. Everyone worked together to build the Aquatic Habitat’s water feature and take care of the school grounds. The Award did not fund capital improvements or the purchase of certain types of equipment, so the PTA helped to raise funds and a lot of volunteer labor was contributed. In the spring, a blacksmith helped create a bridge and a visiting ceramics artist worked with students to create murals representing the four seasons. This project engaged the whole school community in connecting classroom learning to nature while transforming the school grounds forever.

Drawing of Cold Harbor Elementary School

Photo from Cold Harbor Elementary School

Partners in the Arts (PIA) awarded Engaging Creative Thinkers (ECT) grants to teachers from 1994 to 2021. These grants made possible over 200 innovative, interdisciplinary projects in Richmond area schools. Since then, the PIA consortium has supported both educator professional development and in-school project implementation through the Joan Oates Institute for Integrated Learning.

The ECT Awards provided opportunities for teachers to reach all students across content areas, while developing critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, and citizenship. ECT projects engaged a class, grade-level or whole school and connected teachers, students, families, and the community.

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