George B. Swift Elementary Specialty School
5900 N. Winthrop Ave
Darren Fuller, Science
Samantha Gamble, Music
Sara Knox, Visual Art
Angela Maniaci, Music
Swift School is located in the Edgewater neighborhood on the Northeast side of Chicago. Our school population is directly impacted by the refugee and immigrant services offered by organizations located in our neighborhood. Many of our students are new to the United States. There are over 60 languages spoken by the students as well as families coming from more than 50 countries. This level of diversity creates an environment of curiosity about cultures of others, and acceptance of differences.
The idea for the overarching theme of stewardship—instilling in the students how important it is for each individual to take responsibility for caring for the land and water—came from daily observations of the way that students interact with the world around them. Many of our students displayed a lack of understanding of how their actions in their day to day lives can impact the natural world and rivers in particular. Using rivers, and water in general, to teach how human behavior negatively impacts the natural environment was a way to give my students a sense of personal responsibility for caring for the world around them.
Being involved with this project gave our students opportunities that they otherwise never would have experienced. The collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave them the once-in-a-lifetime experience of interacting with musicians from the Civic Orchestra and the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant Yo-Yo Ma. Having Yo-Yo Ma come into our classrooms, interact and work with the students, and share his passion for learning and education demonstrated a model of intellectual curiosity that we, as a staff, try to impart to the students. Seeing cultural icons from outside the school having such passion and commitment helped instill this same passion in our students.
The dynamic level of diversity at Swift school has led to a focus in the general music curricula on world music as a response to student need. We observed, however, that the students had little understanding of Western classical music. We were also surprised to find that the students were not aware that there was a river in Chicago. We surmised that if students composed music themselves, their understanding of composers’ choices in Western classical music would be deeper and more meaningful. Therefore, composition was chosen as the medium for this project, and the river, the theme.
The Rivers project began in the music classrooms with listening lessons in order to familiarize the students with classical composers who used the idea of a river as the inspiration for their compositions. Each of the selected pieces came from a different style period—Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and 20th century—and the students reflected on the differences between the ways that each composer used sound to express a concrete idea. After some structured experiences with improvisation and two field trips to the river, the students had the opportunity to create their own original compositions centered on the theme of rivers and stewardship.
The students’ compositions proved to be surprisingly insightful. Their descriptions of the choices they made to express their ideas and feelings matched the sounds of their music in a clear and thoughtful manner.
Having the project centered on the Chicago River, as well as crossing multiple disciplines, gave it a weight and seriousness that would not have been there otherwise. The students’ awareness of our interaction as teachers, created a unity and an excitement throughout the school. The planning and professional development offered by the CSO was crucial to our team because it allowed time for collaboration, and offered connections with experts in multiple fields from which we could apply to our own project. The Rivers Project became one of the most complex, and enriching experiences that we, as a staff have ever participated in. The students’ engagement in the process, and the beautiful, insightful musical compositions they created, were proof of the profound worth of this work.
This unit connects with National Standard for Music Education 4.
The main objective of my unit was to give my students a stronger foundation in two-dimensional art including concepts like composition, illusion of space, and perspective. The creation of pinhole cameras was one new way students could explore some of these concepts in my classroom in conjunction with the Rivers project. I felt it was crucial to introduce a different form of creativity, photography, which the 6th graders could experiment with, both in my classroom and on fieldtrips along the Chicago River.
I wanted the 6th graders to take charge of their own learning with the different types of information and tasks I provided them with in the context of my classroom and the field trips. I believe this approach—giving a student responsibility for their own learning—motivates and encourages them in a different way, rather than enforcing a structure that might be restrictive to their own creative and experimental thought and application.
Students individually read through six different articles that in some way described pinhole cameras—their history, how to build one, etc.—and looked at photographs taken with pinhole cameras. They discussed the articles and new vocabulary in small groups. Then, they made their cameras by choosing a container and lining and painting the inside. Finally, the students took their pinhole cameras on their field trips to the Chicago River and took a 3-5 minute exposure of the river. Back in the classroom, they learned darkroom techniques and developed both images.
A second part of the unit included activities to illustrate composition of a landscape—foreground, middle ground, and background—as well as perspective and illusion of space. After the field trips to the river, the students were able to use their new vocabulary (composition, illusion of space, and perspective) to compare and contrast the images they took at the river.
Artistic independence is difficult to teach and its importance is difficult to convey to middle school students. There will always be students that will take an activity, project, or experiment and run with it; however, there are many students that remain creatively stagnant and unmotivated without structured expectations from the teacher. This resistance to taking risks also occurs with scientific experiments. Students are consumed mostly by pursuing the correct outcome instead of focusing on the significance of the process.
I wanted the 6th graders to take more artistic ownership of what they do in environments that are conducive to creativity, making predictions, and taking risks. In addition to having more ownership of their creativity, it is important to sometimes experience discomfort. It is crucial for them to take risks and invest their time and motivation into the process of experimenting with art, science, and music.