Project Based Learning: The Perspectrum Project

Project Based Learning: The Perspectrum Project

The Motivation

Paulo Freire, in his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, passionately challenges his audience to love one another actively and empower each other through dialogue and self-reflection to create and re-create with the purpose of being more fully human.

If I do not love the world—if I do not love life—if I do not love men—I cannot enter into dialogue … How can I dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own? How can I dialogue if I consider myself as a case apart from other men—mere ‘it’s’ in whom I cannot recognize other ‘I’s? …Dialogue further requires an intense faith in man, faith in his power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in his vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of the elite, but the birthright of all men) (76–77).

This challenge, although idealistic, became the driving motivation of what would eventually be called the “Perspectrum Project” for my grade 12 art students. I teach at an independent Christian high school in Hamilton, Ontario, where character, learning, and service are the mission of our school. Although my school takes academic excellence very seriously, we measure the success of our mission by the habits of our graduates, specifically: competence, reflection, compassion, resilience, and creativity. As an art teacher, it is important for me to nurture each of these habits in my students, but it is particularly important to define “creativity” and “compassion,” to help illustrate the importance of using the creation of art as a platform to promote dialogue between my students and their neighbors in the community.

Creativity: A graduate is playful, finding joy in all of God’s creation, in exploring and discovering, in imagining and creating. His or her creations are beautiful, strong, and excellent. As image-bearers of God, graduates understand that they are craftsmen and artists.

Compassion: A graduate shows respect and compassion for others as equal image-bearers of God and for all of God’s creation. He or she is able to see from another’s perspective, to be in another’s place. This compassion should be evidenced in lives of service and integrity, concern for justice and ethics, and extension of generosity and grace (“Growth and Learning” document, Hamilton District Christian High, 2012).

Since I share the beliefs of my school—that every person has been created equal and is a creative being, and that we are meant to respect and serve each other with integrity—it is important that my students be given an opportunity to build relationships and create art in their own community. Maxine Greene would agree, and suggests that, “we (and those who are our students) must be given opportunities to choose to be persons of integrity, persons who care” (36). It is absolutely not optional, but a necessary mandate to provide opportunities to exercise compassion and integrity in order to empower students with the birthright of creation and re-creation as Freire adamantly argued. Interestingly, an opportunity for my students to fulfil this mandate was made possible at an outreach art studio in downtown Hamilton called “RE-Create.”

Almost two years ago I met Betty, the director of the “attachment” program at Shalem Mental Health Network in Hamilton, and the artistic director of the RE-Create Outreach Studio. Betty is a parent in my school community and has been providing art studio space for street-involved youth in Hamilton’s downtown since 2003. The idea of providing an open art studio for homeless, at-risk, and street-involved youth was inspired by a space in Toronto called “Sketch.” RE-Create began in a shelter called “The Living Rock,” moved to the basement of another shelter called “Notre Dame House,” and finally became established in an independent space in partnership with the Urban Arts Initiative in Hamilton’s art district on James Street North. A few doors down from RE-Create is the Notre Dame House School (NDHS), which is a high school that provides an opportunity for street-involved youth to get a high school diploma in a more flexible learning environment. The NDHS students use the facilities at RE-Create for their high school art class, but the studio is also available to other youth from the downtown core during and after school hours. When I indicated to Betty my interest in creating a collaborative artwork with my students and the youth at RE-Create, Notre Dame House School and the Hamilton Urban Arts Initiative were eager to be involved as well. We saw this project as an opportunity for the youth from both schools to become social and cultural contributors and cultural creators. It was a chance for them to develop a sense of identity, agency, and a sense of place through authentic and community engagement.

The Project

The idea to create a piece of collaborative artwork existed between Betty and myself for over a year before I presented the idea to my grade 12 students and it finally took shape. The project evolved through a project-based pedagogical method. My school has implemented a three-year strategic plan to reduce, and ideally eliminate, a hegemonic approach to instruction. We no longer view the role of the teacher as the expert who rations out portions of knowledge to each student, but rather, a facilitator who acts as a guide and works alongside the students to aid them in their own discoveries. Many students feel that the traditional method of teaching is “lock-step, top-down instruction” (Lin et al. 31). For this reason, in project-based learning, the students design and implement their own projects in response to a driving question. Every project has a practical application and is presented to an audience, or implemented in a real-world context. Giving projects purpose provides motivation for the students, and they are held accountable by deadlines that matter. Of course educators must scaffold projects with lessons on technique, just as “a musician must learn the musical tradition, the notation system, the way instruments are played before she can think of writing a new song” (Csikszentmihalyi 8). For this reason, project-based learning at a senior level is very effective, since most students have already established basic technical skills, knowledge, and some autonomy.

With my grade 12 class, I introduced the project by telling them about the RE-Create studio and the opportunity for the collaborative project; the students were immediately enthusiastic about the idea. I used the momentum of the discussion to introduce the driving question: “How can art unify people while celebrating their differences?” In response to the question, the students took control of their own learning as I facilitated the discussion towards a project design. A concern my students raised quickly was that they did not want the RE-Create students to feel that they were being exploited or pitied. The students realized that this project needed to be about building relationships to unite communities in Hamilton. This could not be a project about “us” helping “them.” The collaborative project needed to be a partnership with “mutual benefits and responsibilities” (Russell and Hutzel 8). The students came to realize that “we do not perceive and understand the Other thanks to some act of empathy; we do so by understanding what the Other is saying, thinking, and feeling, and through our ability to converse with the other” (Chalmers 304–5).

The students first observed that since they attend a private school in an economically prosperous part of Hamilton, there is a fairly obvious socio-economic, cultural, and life experience difference between themselves and the RE-create students. They realized, however, that they also shared many interests, such as music, film, fashion, and adolescent culture in general. Csikszentmihalyi observes that “it seems true that centers of creativity tend to be at the intersection of different cultures, where beliefs, lifestyles, and knowledge mingle and allow individuals to see new combinations of ideas with greater ease” (8–9).

Later in the project, it became clear that the mingling of different beliefs, lifestyles, and knowledge challenged the students to consider their approach to their art in a new way. As the students reflected on the diversity of the participants of the project and the overarching theme of unity, one of them suggested that all adolescents are emotional. The project should enable the students to communicate their individual feelings since emotions are universally experienced, but also unique to each person at the same time. Finally, another student suggested that the emotions should be in response to a color. Each student would respond emotionally to an individual color on the color wheel, but they would be unified by the circular color spectrum. It was suggested that we purchase gallery-style canvases, paint the sides the different colors of the color wheel, and exhibit the finished pieces by hanging them in a circle.

The Process 

The collaboration took place during three separate workshops over the course of a month. For the first session, I travelled downtown with my students to the RE-Create studio to start on the canvases. When we arrived, we started with a simple icebreaker activity to get the students acquainted with each other. We divided them into teams, making sure to mix up the students from different schools, and provided them with cardboard, glue, string, and makers. The task was for them to create a sculpture in ten minutes, and afterwards they would vote for their favorite one. By the end of the activity, which included a lot of laughter, the students were familiar with each other and at ease.

Next, the students each chose one of twelve colors on the color wheel (the choices were limited to primary, secondary, and tertiary colors). Since there were twenty students, eight of the twelve colors were represented by two canvases. The students were asked to choose a color that they felt an affinity towards, and, incredibly, after all of the students made their selections, all of the available colors had been selected.

While they began painting the sides of their canvas, Meghan, the art coordinator at RE-Create, spoke to them about connecting their color to sentimental objects or emotional experiences. They were encouraged to think about how to incorporate those experiences, emotions, objects, and memories of these things into their artwork since “meanings of objects are derived from a continuum of memories” (Keiffer-Boyd, Arburgy, and Knight 20). Meghan showed images of a favourite mustard-yellow knit hat, a yellow room that she felt comfortable in, and images of other mustard-yellow objects that evoked in her feelings of comfort. The students were encouraged to engage in self-reflection and make personal connections to their color to communicate something about their identity. It was important to get the students to talk to each other about their ideas, memories, and stories related to their color to establish an emotional investment in their artwork. Olivia Gude argues that “a core objective of quality art education must be that the students increase their capacities to make meaning,” and I would agree. Encouraging learners to include autobiographical ingredients, emotional connections, and personal objects causes the artwork to be an extension and expression of who they are.

For the second session, the RE-Create students came to my studio with my class with their partially completed artworks. We began by sitting in a group, discussing individual progress, and explaining the stories, memories, experiences, and ideas behind each artwork. One of my students showed how she was including real children’s rain boots into her artwork. She was in the midst of explaining that it was inspired by her favorite children’s book, when a RE-Create student exclaimed, “Big Sarah’s Little Boots! I have that book beside my bed!” The connection was remarkable and with increased collaboration, the connections continued. Simple things, like children’s books, button collections, and favorite television shows gave the students a platform to build community and create personal artwork.

Inspired by each other’s work, they completed their art by the end of the month, and the third collaborative session was at the RE-Create studio again. Because the artwork would be hanging in a circle from the middle of the gallery, the reverse of each canvas was covered in black paper to hold the artist statements, a photograph of the student, and a thumbnail image of the front of the canvas. The biographical information in each artist statement was the only indication of where each student attended school, since the students’ work was mixed together in the display. The subtleness of the students’ school affiliation was crucial to the show, because the point of the exhibition was to expose Hamilton to adolescent art rather than having the viewers compare the work of street-involved youth to the students of a Christian high school. The show was intended to put aside stereotypes of street youth and private school students and to celebrate their individuality as persons and their unity as adolescents living in Hamilton.

The Product

The exhibition was set up in the RE-Create studio space for the Art Crawl, a monthly celebration of the arts on Hamilton’s James Street North. A RE-Create student combined the words “perspective” and “spectrum” into “perspectrum” for the name of the show. The other students readily agreed to this title since it clearly captured both the individuality and unity of the students involved in the project. In the end, all of the students contributed to the exhibition in their own way. They all fulfilled their responsibilities and benefited from the experience.

Reflecting on the art-making process and the exhibition, Betty recalled that her “students became animated with excitement when they talked about their art. They were willing to try new techniques and incorporate different materials into their work.” She observed that they were proud of their work and felt that there was richness in their experience of participating in a learning community. Students in a larger school community have more opportunity to receive praise for good work and creative expression, and RE-Create provides street-involved youth a place to feel like they belong and to receive that positive feedback.

The Perspectrum Project benefitted my students by giving them a better understanding of what it means to be “a street kid.” As they developed relationships with the RE-Create students, they came to realize that many of their preconceived notions of what it means to be “street-involved” or “at-risk” were inaccurate. They discovered that, although the RE-Create students are unique individuals with unique challenges, they struggle with the same issues of identity and belonging, and they enjoy the same things like fashion, music, books, social media, and television.

Both groups of students benefitted from the experience of participating in a public art exhibition for an audience of hundreds of family members, friends, and members of the public. In this way they were empowered to explore their identities as adolescents, reflect on their own stories, memories, and experiences, and contribute to the culture of downtown Hamilton. The students came to realize that, although they are shaped by the local culture, they have the power to be shapers of that culture too. In fact, “if everything is shaped by culture … [then] we … create our reality. We therefore contribute to it and can change it. This is an empowering way of living and of seeing ourselves in the world” (Guay 302).

The students learned that if they were able to develop an idea for an art exhibition, work collaboratively, and produce a product that the public was interested in, they had a voice and could communicate a message about who they are and what is important to them. Some friends and family members of students came downtown for the first time in months, and came to James Street for the first time in years to see the exhibition. The culture of those “on the mountain” (a more prosperous area of the city) and those from downtown came together to create one supportive community of adolescent art appreciators.

The Perspectrum Project was a collective entrance into dialogue for both me and my students. I believe that all of the participants acknowledged their own ignorance and became open to developing new relationships with others from the same city with different life experiences. The students were able to create art and new relationships and re-create ideas about what it means to be an adolescent in Hamilton. They learned from each other with grace and integrity. Lilla Watson, an Australian aboriginal, asked that “if you have come to help me, don’t bother, but if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together” (Chalmers 305).


Works Cited

  • Lin, Ching Chiu, Juan Carlos Castro, Anita Sinner, and Kit Grauer. “Towards a Dialogue between New Media Arts Programs in and out of Schools.” CSEA 9.2 (2011): 24–37.
  • Chalmers, F. Graeme. Celebrating Pluralism’ Six Years Later: Visual Transculture/s, Education, and Critical Multiculturalism.” Studies in Art Education 43.4 (2002): 293–306.
  • Clark, Roger. “Doors and Mirrors in Art Education: Constructing the Postmodernist Classroom.” Art Education 51.6 (1998): 6–11.
  •  Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Collins, 1996, 1–12.
  • Freire, Paulo. “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” In David Flinders and Stephen Thornton (eds.), The Curriculum Studies Reader (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 2004, 125–33.
  • Greene, Maxine. “Art and Imagination: Overcoming a Desperate Stasis.” In Allan C. Ornstein, Edward F.  Pajak, and Stacey B. Ornstein, Contemporary Issues in Curriculum: International Edition. 5th Edition. Germany: Pearson Education, 2011, 33–40.
  • Guay, Doris. “The Dynamic Project, Contemporary Issues, and Integrative Learning.” In Yvonne Gaudelius and Peg Speirs, (eds.), Contemporary Issues in Art Education. Upper Saddle River, NH: Prentice Hall, 2002, 302–16.
  • Gude, Olivia. “Aesthetics Making Meaning.” Studies in Art Education 50.1 (2008): 98–103.
  • Keiffer-Boyd, Karen, Patricia M. Arburgy, and Wanda B. Knight. (2007). “Unpacking Privilege: Memory, Culture, Gender, Race, and Power in Visual Culture.” The Journal of the National Art Education Association 60.3 (2007): 19–23.
  • Russell, Robert, & Karen Hutzel.  “Promoting Social and Emotional Learning through Service-Learning Art Projects.” Art Education 60.3 (2007): 6–11.