Joining Forces: Integrating the Arts

By Meyer, Meredith | School Arts, February 1990 | Go to article overview

Joining Forces: Integrating the Arts


Meyer, Meredith, School Arts


On a sunny morning in February a small tribe of Eastern woodland Indians is at work meticulously painting false face masks. Their brushes dip in and out of the traditional red and black colors as they add ferocious snarls and frowns to their already grotesque creations. This tribe belongs not to the Iroquois nation but to the third grade of the Fieldston Lower School in New York City.

Why does FLS expose these children so thoroughly to another culture? Because the school is committed to the core curriculum as the keystone of its educational philosophy--the integration of social studies into every discipline the child encounters.

The curriculum presently carries the children from a study of early man in second grade, through the Indian year of third grade, to a long acquaintance with the Pilgrims in fourth grade. Fifth graders immerse themselves in the medieval world, while the sixth grade's focus is on our nation's immigrants, with particular attention to Blacks and Eastern Europeans, the ancestors of many of the students. Described here are the programs for third and fifth graders.

A typical third grade year

One way to begin to enter the consciousness of another people is to wear their clothing. With this in mind, the industrial arts program plunges the third grade children into the task of dyeing and sewing Indian tunics, breech cloths and leggings at the start of the school year. Being measured with a sinewy length of grapevine instead of a tape measure is a signal to the children that this is a different world. Selecting an authentic design and beading a tunic helps a child become part of that world.

Once launched, the children do a good deal of sewing in their class rooms at odd moments during the day, often while being read to. At other times they harvest the "three sisters" (corn, beans and squash) planted by the previous third grade tribe, and string them up to dry in the classroom. They learn of the Indians' demarcation of sex roles: the girls turn to making papooses while the boys settle down to the hard work of sewing wampum pouches.

Spring brings strenuous preparations for an Indian feast. The menu includes fish baked in clay, sassafras tea, crabapple pudding and, of course, dried vegetables stewed over an open fire. By this time the children have decorated their tunics with beaded designs and have made their moccasins.

The woodshop program also provides a rich adjunct to the core curriculum. Fire drills, the essential fire starting mechanisms of the Indians, are made early in the year. Students love to make lumi sticks: shaped, sanded sticks used for rhythm games and songs. Other Indian projects include simple musical instruments, miniature dugout canoes and cradle-boards for the papooses. The children master the chisel and gouge, rasp and file, plane, back saw, coping saw and crosscut saw. They learn to finish the wood so that its beauty stands out, and to work independently, making and following plans.

The fine arts program tries to allow room for imagination and dreams. One form of this is the diorama: a microcosm of the Indian world in a cardboard box. Over a period of many weeks the children pour into their boxes their accumulated knowledge of how Eastern woodlands Indians lived. Ponds and rivers are painted into place. Wigwams and long houses rise, their sapling structures simulated with basket reed. Crepe paper corn grows amid fat clay squashes. Building these scenes helps develop many skills. For example, awareness of perspective often dawns as a child tries to make a river recede into the vertical plane at the back of the box. Proportion becomes important if a six-inch bear lumbers into a scene containing a three-inch wigwam.

These dioramas require many media. Some other projects involve paint and clay. Modelling woodland animals, for example, can lead to the construction of a large environment for them. False face masks are begun with clay and completed in papier-mache. …

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