- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2001

The projects theme —"Bridging Communities: Stories Bound Together" — only hints at the challenges involved in making such high-minded words matter.
Under the auspices of Everybody Wins D.C., a literacy and mentoring group, a third-grade District of Columbia class was paired with an Arlington, Va., high school art class to learn the art of making books. The project also had the cooperation of the Childrens Book Guild of Washington, D.C., and the National Museum for Women in the Arts where the work that resulted from this venture is on display through Sept. 3.
The lofty theme hardly conveys the energy and enthusiasm of some 50 participating students, which increased rather than diminished over the eight months leading up to Fridays opening of their work in the museums ground floor educational resource gallery.
If coping with the concept of a self-generated story wasnt difficult enough, the class of 21 8- and 9-year-olds at Oyster Bilingual Elementary School in the District had to write their book in both Spanish and English. Some in the class were only beginning to learn a second language when the project began last October. Half the class started writing in Spanish, and the other half started in English. They then reversed the process.
Like the Yorktown High School students, who were their mentors, the children did all their own illustrations as well, the difference being that the students at Yorktown were older and more advanced and were given different guidelines.
Oyster third-grader Briana Mendez, 8, produced an extra large accordion-style book called "The Sailing Boat" that drew on her familys background in the Dominican Republic. She decided where on the pages to place the paragraphs and the illustrations, with Spanish and English words shown consecutively. It was the first book she ever wrote.
"At first I thought it would be easy. Then it got harder," she says, describing the experience.
Ingmar Molina, 9, from El Salvador, had the opposite impression, saying eagerly how "at first it sounded hard. Getting the ideas were hard. You had to do a lot of work. I thought of the dog I used to have. Then I thought of my friend." The book that resulted, titled "In Search of the Ball," took three drafts to complete. His mentor, he says, told him, "Were both a little shy" when they met at the museum for the first time.
"It makes a huge difference to the kids," says Oyster art teacher Carole Whelan. referring to the partnering method. "Many of them dont get a lot of individual attention this way. You cant give them so much attention in an average class of 20 or more. The high school students brought different art styles and suggestions on how something might look. It lent an air of almost like family."
Brianas Yorktown mentor was graduating senior Sarah Brown, who recalls their time together as "a really interesting experience." Shadia Hafiz, a junior who was a mentoralong with fellow student Nile Ruff, says "its just nice to work with children, seeing them smile."
Principals at bothschools backed the project, and at Oyster both art and language teachers as well as the librarian were instrumental in the project meeting its goal.
Oyster children make books as part of the regular curriculum from first grade, but doing it with so many professionals helping and with older students involved was unusual.
Six professional artists and illustrators acted as outside coaches. One of them, David Wisniewski of Monrovia, Md., is a Caldecott Medal winner and former circus clown. Another was Heather Gary, of Arlington, who calls herself a community artist familiar with working in groups "to create experiences where people get a sense of themselves." She remembers the third-graders as "incredibly open. It was very ambitious for them to do a book from beginning to end."
For Yorktown students, the challenge was creating out of their own imagination a stand-alone prototype cover in three-dimensional form, in either a so-called tunnel or concertina style, as well as relating to younger children whose backgrounds, for the most part, were entirely different from their own. The focus for them was strictly on art, where Oyster students worked across several disciplines.
Computers took a back seat throughout. The only time that machines came into play was when Oyster students wrote out final drafts of their stories. They used peer review to polish their work.
The museum at 1250 New York Ave. NW annually underwrites what it calls a youth-enrichment project, but this years plan was the most inclusive one to date. In addition to having students explore creative bookmaking techniques, the idea was "to have the younger students emphasize the diversity within their neighborhood," says Kathy Glennon, the museums associate curator of education.
"We feel we are part of a neighborhood," Ms. Glennon says. "And when students come here a few times with this project, they will feel more comfortable coming on their own and will get to understand art in other places, too."
Mrs. Whelan is no stranger to such schemes. The art teacher has been part of no fewer than nine different student exhibits this year alone, although some lasted only a day. "This one is bigger than most," she says. "It lasts longer. And this time were talking marble floors."
The elegant interior of the museum was the site of the students first meeting in December. Prior to that, they had introduced themselves to one another in the form of self-portrait cards. Yorktown students sent descriptive cards about themselves to their partners at Oyster who reciprocated in kind. At the museum, all were introduced to the institutions collection of special artists books and then sat down to do small sample books of their own.
In March they got together again for a papermaking workshop hosted by the Oyster school team. The handmade paper that resulted became part of their final individual books along with more basic materials such as cardboard, glitter and paint. The methods employed were a choice or combination of watercolor, drawing, bas-relief and collage.
Then in April, the third-graders visited Yorktown to work on a scrapbook that provided a record of the project.
The Oyster students made storyboards to outline the order and form of their illustrations. Story webs were employed in language arts classes to help stir their minds and think through the kind of story they wanted to write, either fiction or non-fiction or a combination of both. They learned about character, setting and plot and about the long process required to produce a finished piece of writing.
Finally, each one punched holes and bound his or her own book.
The high school class learned decorative and faux painting techniques as well. The challenge in their final product was more abstract, since the goal was to play on what a book is as an object rather than on what is inside it.
"They came up with some amazing things," Ms. Glennon says. "Their power of imagery was impressive."
"The mentoring was an unexpectedly powerful part of the project, too," she says. "Every day the young students would ask about their partners. The third-graders were terrified at first. Both groups were anxious about meeting the other. What impressed me was the willingness of students in high school to give of themselves."
Yorktown art teacher Denise Phalan says that at first when she was called upon to participate "I had no clue what I was getting into." She chose an Art II class, composed mostly of sophomores, "because their schedules were the most flexible." They worked on their books off and on throughout the school year. One of her students filmed the workshop sessions to create a 21/2-minute documentary video that runs continuously in the museums exhibit space.
"The success of the project didnt surprise me," Ms. Phalan says. "We dont often hear too many good things about teen-agers. They worked so hard at it. This should be in everybodys face." Parents volunteered to be chaperones on the bus trips, with museum foundation grants paying for transportation. "I had all the parent chaperones I needed," she says.
Ms. Phalan emphasizes how impressed she was witnessing the creativity of the students working within a certain formula for either the concertina or tunnel books fashioned as 3-D objects.
"It showed a sophistication and just with sheets of paper," she says.


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