Ellen Rayner never considered herself an artist, by any means, she said, but when her students at Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School were having trouble focusing on a writing assignment after reading the book “Number the Stars,” she decided to try to get their attention by creating an art project on the subject matter.
“I spent a lot of time asking people how to do things,” she said, and eventually, the non-artists figured it out.
She’s not the only fifth-grade teacher to do so at WHAM.
Rayner said co-workers Cheryl Donnelly, who teaches science and social studies, and Alicia Jarreau, math, have all been able to bring their subject matter alive with creative projects.
Rayner, after assigning her students a story about valuable art stolen from Jewish families during the Holocaust, had her students pick a work and draw their own interpretation of what they saw.
Donnelly, in studying the travels of Marco Polo, had her students craft a work of fiction based on what they thought Polo would have written about, while using realistic dates and facts.
The students dyed paper with tea to make pages look old and printed the journals on those.
When they studied cell structure, Donnelly said, the students made edible cells, using Mandarin orange slices as mitochondria, oranges for the nuclei and green grapes for the chloroplasts.
All three teachers go out of their way to incorporate art in their lesson plans, Rayner said, and have become a solid team, and good friends , in part because of these shared passions.
It just works, Rayner said. Students develop a richer understanding for the subject matter they’re learning, in addition to art and creative expression, when art is worked into the mix.
Their efforts caught the attention of the Association for Childhood Education International, Rayner said, thanks to the efforts of collaborators at LSU, and the trio was invited to teach their techniques to others — teachers, parents, social workers and stakeholders in education from around the world — at the Global Summit on Childhood in Costa Rica.
When the faculty and students at WHAM realized the honor came with significant travel expenses, they pitched in to help raise money in perhaps the most logical of ways — they created art — nearly 450 pieces — and offered them for sale at a silent auction Feb. 12.
While buyers browsed, school counselor Lynn Mitchell said, students listened to music and danced in the gym for the Valentine Social sponsored by the Parent Teachers Association.
The events raised about $2,600, Mitchell said, and that, paired with partial funding from the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, will be enough to cover costs for the teachers. Any additional funds will go to buy art supplies for the entire school’s use.
For information on ACEI, visit www.acei.org.