Thomas J. Waters Elementary SchoolThomas J. Waters Elementary School
4540 N. Campbell Ave

Participating teachers:
Amy Vecchioni, Visual Art
Nadine Zelle, Language Arts/Social Studies

Context  |  Process  |  Reflections


AMY VECCHIONI, visual art
NADINE ZELLE, language arts

“A Senegalese poet said ‘In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.’ We must learn about other cultures in order to understand, in order to love, and in order to preserve our common world heritage.” –Yo-Yo Ma

The purpose of this project was for students to explore the rivers of the world as a metaphor for our connectedness as human beings: as families, as neighbors and as global citizens. Waters School has a long history of and a deep commitment to environmental stewardship and arts integration. This project was a great way to build on these commitments while providing students the opportunity to experience the world-class musical traditions of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Students looked at the Chicago River through the lenses of science, social studies, writing, technology, drama, music and visual arts. As teachers, we worked as a team to investigate the waters of the world and create personal meaning for our students and inspire environmental advocacy. Our partnership with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra provided us with professional development in all of the core content areas and essential time to plan, collaborate, and reflect on our work as a team and with our colleagues from other schools.

In our arts-integrated units, students explored rivers through action-based, hands-on learning in a variety of disciplines, using narrative writing, scientific inquiry, art-making, and video journalism.

The springboard of the project was the students’ narrative writing curriculum. They used their classroom social science and science curricula to inform their narratives and document their own experience of rivers via scientific study of the Chicago River; their parents’ experience of rivers via oral history interviews; and their studies of rivers of the world via internet research and use of primary sources. Students continued their written exploration of rivers through poetry, comparing what the Chicago River is today, based on personal experience and water quality testing, to what they dream it could be. They also wrote poetry based on their ancestral rivers as captured in interviews with grandparents and parents.

In visual arts and technology classes, students applied this creative writing and research to create two forms of fine arts publications: a traditional literary arts journal and a video journal of their work. In art, students created a Zentangle-patterned artwork using insoluble art media (oil and glitter in laminating pouches) and gouache to recreate how pollution mixes and remixes as it goes downstream in the Chicago River. Additionally, students created a mixed media exploration that utilizes water-soluble art materials including water color pencils, water-based inks, water-based gel markers and water motif stencils to demonstrate the beauty of the Chicago River. In technology, students practiced video documentation utilizing digital software including iPhoto or Photoshop, iMovie or Premiere, and Garageband.

Finally, in drama class, students created free movement interpretations of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and continued their musical exploration of the Chicago River—a journey that began on their first field trip in 2nd grade—through a vocal celebration of original songs that have been a tradition at Waters School.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Rivers Festival Educational Program was a great experience for us as teachers and for our students. As teachers, we were able to collaborate with colleagues and experience top-notch professional development from educators and experts in their field.

This project provided a great opportunity for collaboration across disciplines to teach students the significance of preserving the ecology and history of the rivers of our homelands, our ancestors and our world. Using the arts integration approach to learning we were able to reach a diverse group of learners and access multiple intelligences in a way that traditional instruction cannot, giving students a canvas on which to create their own learning.