By Liz Hamilton
It’s not every day that students get to engage with a deep question across all of their core classes. But at St. John’s Episcopal School, it has been a common sight as sixth grade students embarked on a cross-curricular PBL (problem-based learning) to investigate the question: “How do we use the arts to share the story of a culture?” Their exploration of how artistic expression influences cultural narratives began months ago in mid-November. This is the first interdisciplinary PBL undertaken at St. John’s, the students will draw from the curricula of all of their classes, including math, science, history, art, music, language arts and PE.
For the majority of the trimester, students engaged in the “sustained research” portion of the project, in which they applied skills and knowledge from their coursework to create an authentic production of “The Jungle Book” to share with students from surrounding elementary schools in the east Dallas community and to perform for students and families at St. John’s.
Drama teacher Tom Parr stresses the importance of incorporating multiple academic disciplines into the project to spur students to consider the bigger picture about the role of art in society. “Our goal is to engage students on every level using every subject. By fully integrating a project into the entire grade we hope the students can draw connections and answer for themselves deeper questions, like: ‘why do we create art, tell stories, learn history or project budgets?’”
Students studied Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” as an example of a culture expressed through poetry from an outsider’s perspective in language arts. They used this insight to write their own original poetry which was later incorporated into a project they did in art. In art class, students created illustrations that complemented their poetry and compiled them into a 48-page coloring book, which students distributed to their audience after each performance.
Science teacher Didi Coker incorporated an exhibition of Indian dance presented by Bhuvana Venkatraman of Tejas Dance — to build a unit about the water cycle that explores the impact that water, and its absence, has on the laws of nature in a rainforest. Students gained insights into the water cycle, the causes of drought, the domino effect that drought has on land, people and society.
Meanwhile, as the students auditioned for parts and began rehearsal of the play, all of the other parts of the performance began to come together. In PE, the students worked for months creating and practicing the choreography for the musical numbers in their play. The budgeting for the entire production has taken place in math class in addition to their current curriculum. Each of the three sections of the sixth grade worked with Art Integration Specialist Donna Knox to make costumes, props and design sets for their own theatrical production of “The Jungle Book.” In history class, units focusing on pre-colonial Indian history informed the development of the mise en scène (arrangement of props in a play). Students made deliberate efforts to incorporate historically accurate details into the costume and set design.
In the final phase of the project, students were able to complete their examination of the question “how do we use the arts to share the story of a culture?” by sharing their own art themselves. And who better to share their art with than other children in the community? Students staged performances at three local elementary schools.