Pixar’s Coco familiarized many with the tradition of Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead.” And before Nancy MacBride‘s fellowship to Oaxaca, Mexico, the annual holiday inspired Voluntown Elementary’s singular art project honoring Latin American history and culture. Now, the celebration honoring life and death is just one in a series of year-long art opportunities linked with Latin culture in a preK-8 school that only offers 60 hours of social studies instruction annually.
“Voluntown, CT, is a rural, homogenous community with only one school (ours) where only 1% of students have other languages spoken at home,” explained Nancy. “The insular culture creates challenges for children to learn about different cultures and accept the differences in others. I felt our students needed cultures, not walls, so I designed a fellowship to make it happen.”
Usually Fellows’ implementation of their summer grants begins upon their return to the classroom, but Nancy started the learning when she applied for her FFT grant in the fall of 2017.
- Through the school’s PTO and a local Mexican restaurant’s sponsorship, three groups of Mexican folk artists visited the school.
- Older students read Esperanza Rising in English and created ofrendas, or altars, for loved ones who’ve passed away.
- Kindergarteners created multi-media collages of a Mexican desert landscape.
- Second graders learned Zapotec weaving techniques.
- Fourth graders read and illustrated a Mexican legend and painted portraits of Frida Kahlo.
- Fifth graders created metallic masks inspired by Pre-Columbian versions.
- Multiple grades watched PBS’ “Craft in America” episodes on Mexican art and were introduced to an artisan Nancy would meet on her fellowship.
The “pre-learning” culminated in a community Noche Mexicana last spring, attended by students, their families and government dignitaries.
This summer, students followed Nancy (a working artist herself) via Instagram as she lived out the learning they shared the year before. Nancy spent a month in Oaxaca, staying in a community that caters to local artisans, taking language classes, sketching World Heritage Sites and experiencing Pre-Columbian and folk art in surrounding museums and cultural centers. She practiced weaving through the Weaving Oaxaca initiative alongside a twelve-year-old teacher whose family has dyed natural wools and created art for generations; she also worked with Zapotec ceramist Adrian Martinez for a week. The highlight was visiting the artist studio of Magdalena Pedro Martinez, whom students came to know through the “Craft in America” series.
This fall, Nancy’s experiences in Mexico continue to inspire projects and discussions with students. Fifth graders are preparing to create wooden assembled animals inspired by Mexican alebrijes. Sixth graders are creating their own versions of sculptures modeled after artifacts Nancy brought back from Josefina’s Oaxacan workshop. And beginning this week, students of all ages will have the opportunity to join a new Spanish Club Nancy initiated as an elective.
Perhaps more importantly, students have a new appreciation for “our neighbors to the south,” according to Nancy. As a volunteer with the Voluntown Peace Trust, she collaborates with the Hartford Catholic Worker to bring urban minority children out of the city to enjoy the surrounding nature. Nancy’s leadership as a role model through this effort, combined with the cross-disciplinary learning she provides, is creating a new culture in the school community.
“My admiration of artists from other cultures helps break down the walls and build bridges to other cultures for students,” she said. “My Fund for Teachers fellowship wasn’t just about the place visited, or knowledge, skills and capabilities I gained; it also moved appreciation of Mexican culture from my head to my heart and that passion is now spreading to my students.”
Nancy (pictured with a state selectman and superintendent at Noche Mexicana) has taught art for 31 years, a career that has included teaching sculpture to widows and orphans in Zambia and earned her Connecticut’s Outstanding Elementary Art Teacher award. She frequently exhibits her own work in galleries and museums, which you can see on her website. (Top picture of students dressed as Frida and her fawn at the Noche Mexicana.)