Where Art Plus Writing Equals Communication

Posted: December 04, 1986

Mark Wangberg, a bunch of mostly 5-year-olds encircling him, asked his kindergarten class at Sullivan Elementary School to conjure up images of single objects.

One of only two artists-in-residence in the Philadelphia School District, Wangberg is teaching Sullivan's 600 students in kindergarten through sixth grade creative writing and art. (The other artist-in-residence, Maria Rose Blake, is at the C. W. Henry Elementary School on Green Street and Carpenter Lane.)

"Let's talk about some things that come in one," Wangberg said.

"One ball of clay, one scissors, one notebook," he said, picking up each object.

"One nose, one mouth, one chin," the youngsters quickly responded.

Then Wangberg asked his young artists to close their eyes and imagine. ''You're going to make a picture of one of your favorite things," he said.

At the end of Wangberg's five-month stay at Sullivan in January, these children will have written, illustrated and published their very own book on numbers.

"I want them to appreciate how words and images can go together," he said, as the children drew with crayons images of one house, one Christmas tree, one heart.

Wangberg's interdisciplinary course is part of Sullivan's emphasis on writing across the curriculum and, in particular, thinking about the process that leads to a finished product, a stage called "pre-writing," principal Herman Bell said.

"Four years ago, we didn't even know what pre-writing was," he said. ''Now, practically every child keeps a daily journal. Writing has become a core of the school."

The result, reading teacher Bill Bachrach said, has been better student writers. "Children who were fifth graders sounded like third graders when they had a pencil in hand," he said. "That gap has narrowed

significantly."

Bell said he sought an artist-in-residence program because of the school's emphasis on writing and its strong art program. (Art teacher Bonnie Gevurtz won the District 7 Teacher in Excellence award last week.)

In just a few weeks, Bachrach said, the school's first artist-in-residence program helped to further channel students' interests to writing. "We have more descriptive writing, more cohesive writing," he said. Bachrach helped organize the artist-in-residence program, which is sponsored by the school district, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kimberly Camp, the state council's director of artists and education and minority arts, said the council had sponsored artists-in-residence in schools since the 1970s. Camp said only 2 percent of the state's schools had applied to the program, which is open to any nonprofit organization. This year, the council had 200 artists available for residencies, but only 117 groups throughout the state applied.

At Sullivan, Wangberg visits classes four days a week. He teaches youngsters to manipulate words and images to communicate their feelings.

Second and third graders in a learning-disabled class baked bread and wrote notes as Thanksgiving Day presents to their parents. Fourth graders made paper models of their favorite shapes. Fifth graders studied poems written by American Indians and then tried to write in that style.

Five-year-old Jason DeVivo drew a jumble of lines with a red crayon. "I like to make pictures," he said. "I like to make houses."

According to Jason, Wangberg's class is great because "he teaches us stuff - how to make pictures - and he lets us cut stuff out."

In a fifth-grade class, students wrote about something that scared them. Mark Crawford, 10, described his great-grandfather's home in the mountains and his fear that aliens lived in the outhouse.

Classmate Raymond Baird, 12, said, "We express our feelings . . ., write little stories."

Wangberg, 34, who has taught for more than 10 years, said one of his goals at the school was to publish students' works. "I want to see kids produce books that are in this school library and that other kids can take out."

During the residency, Wangberg also will spend time on his own artwork - colorful prints, paper weavings and abstract designs. Sometimes Wangberg writes poetry to accompany his art.

He has held residencies at more than 20 schools, including the Mayflower School in Nigeria; at Graterford Prison in Montgomery County, and with several community arts organizations. He has had about a dozen shows, including an exhibit at West Chester University, and has had his writing published.

His interdisciplinary interests crystallized at Alma College in Alma, Mich., where Wangberg majored in art and minored in English.

"The whole world works as one thing," said Wangberg, who grew up in Pawpaw, Mich. "So often, everything is broken up into different subjects. I looked for details in one subject and applied them to other areas."

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