Jane Percival, Language Arts
In the program we see Thornton Wilder's play Our Town being explored through the lenses of language arts, social studies, visual art, and music. What other ways did the Prisms class relate to Our Town?
In science they studied energy and looked at how energy was produced and used in 1901 in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Students also used their experience reading Our Town when formulating appropriate interview questions to ask residents of a nearby long-term care center. Responses to these questions became short story “seeds” that germinated and grew into fully developed stories that we later bound into an anthology and presented to the residents of the center. The theme of Our Town – to realize life fully while living it – became a touchstone for journal reflections during the end-of-the-year field trip to Boston.
What had students read in the past that left them loving Thornton Wilder?
The eighth-graders had read Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth the previous year. They were totally captivated by the play because of its constant surprises both in content and staging. They appreciated the play’s humor, depth, and accessibility, so it stimulated rich discussions.
How may class sessions, over how long, did it take for the class to read Our Town?
We read and discussed the play over a period of about three weeks. The vocabulary of the play was introduced and studied prior to the reading and discussion period. Also, the historical context had been explored in social studies prior to the play’s being read in English Language Arts.
As a charter school, how do you relate to state curriculum frameworks and to standardized state tests? How do you think the integrated instruction that your team does affects the students’ performance on those tests?
As a public school – and a charter school – in Massachusetts, Hilltown Cooperative Charter School (HCCS) is required to follow the state curriculum frameworks. HCCS also takes the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test batteries on the prescribed schedule for all public schools in the state.
For a variety of reasons, much learning occurs during an arts integrated project. For example, students find the opportunity to immerse themselves in an area of study very motivating. They also witness their emerging interests guiding the development of the project - as do the state's curriculum frameworks. As a result, the students' performance on both state and in-house assessments consistently shows substantial growth.
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Joy Kinigstein, Visual Art
You mention that mask-making is particularly appropriate for adolescents. What insights do you think the students got out of the mask-making process?
For students ill at ease with their own self-image, mask-making provides them with the ability to alter that which is. Students can change their self-portraits, subtly or drastically, and they can literally hide behind them during a presentation. For shyer students it gave them the sense of a safe environment. For those with more theatrical leanings, masks forced them to go beyond acting with one's face alone.
What was the process that students went through in transforming the masks into characters from Our Town?
In language arts, students had been assigned a specific character from Our Town. Some students were assigned the same character, but in different scenes and at different times of the character's life. Because Our Town provided few clues about what characters looked like, students made decisions relying on their understanding of age, the period, consensus, and pure imagination.
In the art room, paired students made molds of each other's faces by applying plaster gauze strips directly onto their partner's face. The resultant masks were then used as molds into which liquid plaster was poured, creating a positive of each student's face.
Students then applied clay to alter their plaster positives, transforming their self-images into the characters from Our Town according to the decisions they had made. Changes included exaggeration, accentuation, aging, and even change of gender. Students put papier-mâché over the clay-transformed positives and finally painted their masks as realistically as possible, with particular attention to skin tones.
What challenges did you face in the Our Town unit?
There were several. First there was the challenge of technical craftsmanship and cooperation - some meticulous students ended up with positives lacking in detail and having distorted features because of their partner's poor craftsmanship.
Second, it was challenging for students to rely on their own understanding of age, status, gender, and death to create the physical characteristics of their masks. This proved especially difficult for students who needed to cooperate to create the same person at different stages of their life.
Some students became precious with their self-portraits and were reluctant to make changes to their own faces. These students required strong encouragement to take risks and distort, exaggerate, or alter their self-images.
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