Green Thumbs at Greeley

I see huge benefits…to the society that teaches its young people to think, dream, create, and imagine something new.

-Teaching artist Sonja Henderson

Who knew that Greeley Elementary was full of young up-and-coming environmentalists? Visual art and nature formed a harmonious duo at the school, where 6th through 8th grade students participated in a year-long residency focused on community improvement with teaching artist Sonja Henderson.

Sonja worked with Greeley science teachers to introduce these students to the concepts of composting, gardening, and organic vs. GMO foods, and to discuss “global footprints”. Students even charted where their food came from. Sonja also guided 1st through 3rd graders in a gardening project where they designed and created a community garden at the school, making photograms and observational drawings of the plants they helped nurture.

We caught up with Sonja to learn more about this multi-faceted green residency. Check out her interview (and the some adorable gardening photos) right here!

UG: For the purposes of this residency, what was the correlation between visual art and the concepts of sustainability, recycling, and nutrition?

Sonja: Firstly, one of the easiest links between the visual arts and sustainability is the idea of using what is around you. We made photograms from flowers, stones, leaves, twigs, and whatever was around us at the time. We also created magical little terrariums from mini plants, stones, shells, and figurines. These terrariums taught students about self-sustaining biospheres as well as aesthetics. We also made seed journals and illustrated/planted our community garden using seeds from a seed swap.

Secondly, creating something from nothing or from recycled materials is a no brainer in the classroom. We grew healthy organic sprouts such as alfalfa, broccoli, and radish from used spaghetti and pickle jars. We used origami and newspapers to create biodegradable pots for starting seeds. And, with my older students we made pencil cases, back packs, and market bags from fused plastic bags from the grocery stores.

And thirdly, the visual art created around nutrition is similar to photo documentation of the process of creating a garden and the growth of the garden itself. There is also the potential for countless observational drawings of herbs, fruits, vegetables, birds, and insects.

Having worked with science, geography, language arts, and social studies classes during this residency, why do you feel it’s important to integrate the arts into these other curricula?

Art integration is extremely important because it connects math, science, history, and language arts through the “act of doing.” Art practice (ie. drawing, painting, sculpting, cooking, etc.) is applied learning. The students will have a working knowledge of geometry if they learn perspective drawing; they will understand fractions from cooking and measuring. They will apply laws of physics while constructing a sculpture, gain an understanding of chemistry while blending color, and will have a greater grasp of history, politics, and culture by studying an ancient vase or garden. While all of this is happening their language skills and knowledge of the world are growing along with their new vocabulary.

So applied learning is the easy answer to that question; the more complex answer is that through the arts students ponder, visualize, go through an ideation process, and then create something that has never existed in the world until they made it. I see huge benefits to the students and to the society that teaches its young people to think, dream, create, and imagine something new!

What role did community play in this residency? Why do you think it’s important for students (and Chicago students especially) to form a strong sense of community?

Having a strong identity within a community starts in homes, then classrooms, then schools, then the greater community around us. Having a sense of community is important because it is the way an individual first relates and responds to a larger group dynamic. What a child gains from a communal setting is a sense of safety, love, support, guidance, and participation. Community allows us to be individuals who contribute to something greater than ourselves. For the Greeley Garden, the students learned how to plant seeds and seedlings, take care of them, and harvest the fruits of their labor. For now, the role of community members is to provide support for the small organic garden and to learn alongside their children about the importance of good, nutritious, organic food, the benefits of eating and serving healthy food, and the knowledge of how to plant and sustain their own container or small plot gardens. In time, as Greeley’s Garden becomes larger, the community’s responsibility will grow as well; they will water, weed, and maintain the garden throughout the year, and let Greeley know what fruits, vegetables and plants they want grown. This can also lead to harvesting, preparing, and even selling the produce at a local farmer’s market or right there on site!

In the end, I think it is extremely important for young people to have a strong sense of community because it is their first sense of the world. Students will give back to a community that is friendly, healthy, and supportive of them and their ideas. Community is also one of the first investments that we make. If a child feels a sense of responsibility toward his community he will be more likely to serve it in a positive way.