A Learning Garden Where Curiosity and Creativity Grow

Greenwood student artwork of a fish hat

It’s hard not to smile admiring student artwork along the walls of a school. Partners in the Arts (PIA) director Liz Sheehan visited Greenwood Elementary School in Henrico County Public Schools to see the work 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders were doing on a large mural for Greenwood’s Learning Garden, a 2011 PIA Engaging Creative Thinkers (ECT) Award project.

Walls Filled with Student Work

Greenwood ES Teacher

Ms. Slinkman near the mural drawing plans

Anne-Marie Slinkman is Greenwood’s art teacher and the coordinator of the PIA funded project, which allowed students to work with ceramics artist David Camden to create a circular mural, about 5 1/2 feet in diameter, that depicted animals, birds and fish native to Virginia in an outdoor setting.

The fifth graders first researched and prepared worksheets with information about each animal as well as words, ideas, and feelings they associated with each one. They also made drawings of the animals, which were then transferred to the paper drawing of the mural. These would later be depicted in ceramics on the actual mural. The fourth graders drew the rocks, plants, trees, and streams to create the landscape in which the creatures would be situated. With David and Anne-Marie’s guidance, the third graders pressed the clay base into the big wooden frame that would hold the mural.

Students not working on the mural were creating bugs, making sure that no matter how imaginative their creations were, they still had “what three components?”

Student artwork of a diamondback terrapin for the mural

Liz saw the site where the finished artwork would be placed: a sunny wall facing a grassy area near the entrance to the school library. Native Virginia plants would be cultivated in the garden. Each grade level had a plot to plant what they choose. A whiteboard was installed nearby and parents and other volunteers helped build benches.

Cross-Curricular Collaboration

In addition to Anne-Marie and David, the team working on this project included Kindergarten teachers Ginger Hudson-Banta, Nicole Barker, and Krystina Stansbury; 2nd Grade teacher Nicole Hunter; and Special Education teacher Courtney Gibbons-Plowcha. Greenwood’s principal, Dr. Debra Smith set the tone for such creative teaching at her school.

The mural in the Gator Garden continues to shine (photo from Greenwood Elementary)

Unfortunately, many students across the country get little to no time in their days to be creative and innovative. Putting a science teacher, art teacher, and visiting artist together in one classroom, and for more than a 45-minute block, could revolutionize instruction. The benefits to student choice, critical thinking, 21st century skills, academic achievement, and community connections are endless. At the time of this project, education paradigms were changing – as illustrated by  Ken Robinson’s popular 2010 talk. More educational settings around the country are shifting and more educators are becoming open to integrated teaching. Students will succeed as a result.

“We had fun today, Mrs. Slinkman!” Anne-Marie reported the students saying. Who wouldn’t want to spend a little part of their school (or work) day creating magic out of clay? And by connecting it to academic content, it built not only engagement, but also and meaningful, memorable learning.

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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One Comment

  1. I just visited this blog for the first time, and it’s wonderful. I am fascinated by the Greenwood mural project and so admire educators like Anne-Marie Slinkman who are facilitating this kind of deep, multidisciplinary learning. Kudos also to PIA’s Liz Sheehan and Rob McAdams, and to the visionary who started it all, Joan Oates.

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