For seven years in a row now, I have been the visiting teaching artist for the fourth grade classes at Mill Road Elementary -- a school so committed to Arts-in-Education programs that EVERY grade in the school gets to work with a visiting artist. It’s a great environment -- dedicated teachers, inspiring kids, an administration that supports and appreciates the work we visiting artists do...and the school also happens to have an amazing school garden.
With each year that I return to Mill Road, I can’t wait to see the ways in which their garden has grown. Approaching the main entrance of the school building on my first day back, I was greeted by gourd birdhouses hanging in the trees and a cold frame bursting with greens. Walking down the hallway of the fourth grade wing, I found a “Garden Appreciation Quilt” hanging on the wall.
I begin the workshops by singing a few topical songs to the kids, and asking them to share some of their personal gardening and local farm experiences, and then I open up the floor to allow them to offer up ideas for song topics. Though it would be easier to come into the workshops with specific song ideas in mind or refrains already written, I like to leave things wide open, trusting in the kids’ creativity and the fertile soil of their imaginations. It’s a messy but thrilling process, with some students calling out ideas (sometimes entire rhyming couplets!), while others write their contributions on paper. Sometimes we divide up into small groups, assigning a verse to each group; or I give the students time to quietly think and write down their ideas, which we then go through as a group.
At some point on the second day, the messy scribbles evolve into lines of verse, a refrain might begin to emerge, and the song starts to take shape. Four hours is not much time to write and rehearse a song, so we have to work fast!
This year, Mrs. Paccione’s class decided to write a song about the plant life cycle, from seed to seed. The students had lots of ideas, but finding ourselves stuck at one point we decided to back up and take a moment for each student to complete the following statement, “ A seed is...” Reading through all of those scraps of paper later, I was moved to tears by the beauty of some of their sentiments:
A seed is...
hope in a shell;
a new beginning;
something we all need;
a baby waiting to be born;
hope for the children who believe it will grow and that hope will make them more confident in themselves.
Though none of those precise words ended up making it into their class’ song, it was a beautiful step in the creative process which, to me, is a very important part of the work we teaching artists do. We don’t simply use the arts as a vehicle to teach standard curricular concepts, but the art form and the creative process itself becomes the lesson. And when engaged in the creative process as a whole group, other valuable lessons come into play as well -- lessons that are often considered to be the domain of “team-building” exercises. I love how curricular content, creative expression and community-building are all rolled into one residency.
Back to this year’s crop of fourth grade garden-themed songs from Mill Road Elementary...which proved, once again, to be a veritable feast! In addition to Mrs. Paccione’s class’ song, “What Came First - The Flower or The Seed?”, we had a song on the potato life cycle (Mrs. Clark’s class); one on the water cycle (Mrs. Dunn’s class); Mr. Hart’s class’ “Decomposition Composition,” chronicling the decomposition of a mouse whose carcass provided nutrients for the soil; two songs addressing the web of life -- Mrs. Mill’s class’ “One Bee in the Hive” and Mr. Goble’s class’ “We Are Part of a Circle”; Mrs. Chenevert’s class’ “Save the Bees,” a groovin’ plea to do what we can to help these essential pollinators; and a ballad about a worm named Johnny D who was undergoing an existential crisis (Mrs. Hickey’s class), which contained the lines:
Maybe I could be a composer
like Mozart or Beethoven
You’re not a composer!
You’re a decomposer!
So, not only do we get to share the experience of genuine learning in a wonderfully welcoming environment, but we do it while having lots of laughs, too. Thanks, Mill Road Elementary, for another wonderful year!
Red Hook Mill Road School - Mrs. Chenevert's 4th grade class song (Rural Traditions, Community Connections songwriting residency, 2012, in honor of the Town of Red Hook's Bicentennial Celebration)
Harvest Hudson Valley - Mill Rock School documents the school garden
Arts-in-Education - School residency program entitled "Journey to Ellis Island"