Clutching clipboards and pencils, fifth graders from Damariscotta’s Great Salt Bay Community School explored Darrowby Farm Sanctuary in Jefferson in the early-afternoon sunlight on Thursday, Nov. 16, each searching among the sanctuary’s animal residents for the perfect subject to sketch.
This, said GSB art teacher Coreysha Stone, is “place-based learning” in action.
By bringing students outside the traditional classroom space in order to learn within their wider community, Stone hopes to help them apply the concepts they learn in school to the world they know, boosting their learning while helping them stay “really connected to the place they’re standing in,” she said.
When students learn in the real world, said Stone, they can more easily connect abstract ideas “to concepts close to them that they can really understand, and that they can start to build meaning from.”
On Nov. 16, this meant applying drawing techniques – like drafting a sketch by breaking a subject down into simple shapes and using pencil strokes to create texture and shading – to the task of drawing Darrowby’s personable farm animals.
The animals, who number 50 and have all found a forever home at Darrowby, seemed to enjoy the attention, curiously gazing back at the children while their portraits were drawn.
Place-based learning is a “more holistic” approach to teaching, said Darrowby co-founder Amanda Glenn. She added that she and her husband and Darrowby co-founder Andy Theriault are both former educators and are thrilled when they get to share the sanctuary with students.
“We know how difficult it is to create experiential curricula,” she said.
“We want to be easy for teachers to work with,” Theriault added.
GSB’s fourth and fifth graders have now traveled to both Darrowby Farm Sanctuary and Morris Farm in Wiscasset this year, but they are not the only students at GSB who get to participate in Stone’s hands-on, place-based curriculum.
Stone said she has collaborated with several community organizations to develop a different hands-on project for each grade level. This way, the students’ hyper-local learning is a continued process. Each year, the students “know there will be something special for them” during art class, she said.
These projects include a sculpture study undertaken by sixth graders at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, in which students set out to find Danish artist Thomas Dambo’s enormous “Guardians of the Seeds” sculptures.
In the gardens, students learned about the artist and his works, which take the form of trolls crafted out of recycled wood. Among the diverse plant life of the botanical gardens, the students also learned about the natural history of the coastal Maine environment. Now, upon their return to the classroom, they will use recycled materials to craft their own sculptures inspired by Dambo’s work.
Seventh grade students completed a portrait collage project centered around themes of social justice and grounded in the study of Frances Perkins, U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first woman to serve as cabinet secretary, who had roots in Newcastle.
Visiting the Perkins homestead and museum helped ensure that the students’ approach to making art about social justice issues was rooted “deeply in (the study of) a local social justice hero,” Stone said.
Next, the students will research a leader in a social justice area of their choosing and create a collage portrait of that individual.
Eighth grade students participated in two community collaborations this year. The first involved the Chewonki organization, based in Wiscasset, which provided six different live animals – from an opossum to a skink – as models for students to draw.
“It’s a lot of fun for the students to have live animals to work from,” said Stone.
The other eighth-grade collaboration was conducted in partnership with the Damariscotta Police Department, who taught a unit on forensic fingerprint analysis. Officer William Smith and Chief Jason Warlick worked together to teach the students about the materials and steps required to obtain fingerprints during an investigation.
The students learned about the six basic kinds of fingerprints and analyzed their own, taking into consideration visual attributes like line, space, shape, and texture, which are also essential parts of the art curriculum.
These collaborations are just some examples of how art and science are interwoven, and how place-based learning can be memorable and impactful for students in their art education and beyond, said Stone.
“I am really glad that organizations like these exist and allow kids to see all of the really great, varied work that people are doing in this community,” she said.