“As an administrator, it is important to allow teachers to take risks” says Christina Ramsey, principal at McKinley STEMM Academy. Not all risks pan out. But when a project comes together: “that is truly where the magic happens,” she says. Students at the academy, part of Toledo Public Schools, recently benefited from collaborations with two out-of-state professional artists who visited the academy and conducted workshops with students. To find out more about the collaborations and the artwork that was produced, we contacted Ramsey and McKinley art teacher Erin Clinton:
Q: Tell us about McKinley STEMM Academy and how it fosters STEMM education. Is there a unique approach toward STEMM at the academy?
A: McKinley STEMM Academy is an urban community school that serves 275 students, of which 80 percent are minorities and 100 percent are on free/reduced-priced-lunch programming. The mission of McKinley STEMM Academy is to provide innovative experiences in STEMM to cultivate lifelong learning and to help students become critical problem solvers in the 21st century.
We believe that all students learn differently and that by offering a STEMM project-based learning (PBL) curriculum that allows differentiation through the various learning styles, all of our students can show success in their academics as well as have opportunities to engage in STEMM-related concepts that will generate interest in STEMM-related college or career paths.
McKinley STEMM Academy has an additional “m” that stands for “medicine.” ProMedica, a northwest Ohio health-care system, has been a dedicated partner with Toledo Public Schools for years and provided funding for our STEMM catalyst lab as well as for a mural that will be painted on our playground.
At McKinley STEMM, we are always looking for ways to engage our community in our PBL projects, and our students are in frequent contact with experts such as artists, doctors, scientists, etc., to find answers to their driving questions.
Q: How does the school’s art curriculum fit in with STEMM lessons?
A: Art and music are embedded in our PBLs and the STEMM curriculum throughout all grades. Our specialists meet regularly with our general education teachers during teacher team meetings to plan PBLs that incorporate the arts.
In art, students have the opportunity to create, design, engineer, think critically and reflect on what they know and/or have learned about in their core classes. Art class provides an opportunity for students to naturally create a public product, which is a huge component of the PBL curriculum.
Q: How did the joint art project with muralist Kevin Bongang come about?
A: Last year during the pandemic shutdown, in an attempt to engage students in art in a virtual setting, our art teacher Erin Clinton asked her fourth- and fifth-grade students, “What do you want to learn?” Overwhelmingly, the students said that they wanted to learn how to draw bubble letters.
Erin asked them what types of messages they would write with their bubble letters, and the students came up with what would become their driving PBL question, “How can we spread positivity through art in our school community during a pandemic?”
Erin followed Kevin Bongang, a Georgia muralist, on social media and asked him if he would host a Google Meet class with her and her students to teach them his style. His work is colorful, bright and engaging, full of positive messages … and bubble letters!
The students learned a lot from him about his work, his artistic style and how he uses murals to spread messages of positivity in communities. Kevin is an accomplished muralist and has created private and corporate sponsor murals throughout Georgia, Tennessee and Ohio. He has also worked with Jamba Juice, Vans and other corporate sponsors. So to have him work directly with our students during a pandemic was truly amazing.
He developed a relationship and rapport with our students, and they were so inspired by him that after talking and meeting with him they began to question, “What could we do to bring Mr. Bongang to Toledo, Ohio, and could we create artwork with him that could be put on public display?”
That is when the discussion began to gravitate toward our community partner, Matt Yarder, executive vice president of Yarder Manufacturing, and the question became, “Could we work together with Yarder collaboratively to create a public art installation to spread messages of positivity in our community?”
Q: What did the joint project culminate in?
A: Kevin and his wife, Britney, came in for a week in September as visiting artists and worked with all of our students in grades K-8, although their primary focus was working with last year’s fourth- and fifth-graders to begin creating a portable art installation piece, which was fabricated by Yarder Manufacturing.
Students each had a modular panel in which they painted their messages of hope and positivity using Kevin’s signature mural colors. Once completed, these panels will slide into a metal frame to create a public art mural.
Kevin and Britney also worked with our seventh- and eighth-graders on a project titled “Leave Your Legacy.” The students collaborated with Kevin and Britney to research his work and words that embody STEM learning, Habits of Mind and growth mindset.
Each student created several rough drafts, reworking the design several times. Once each student’s design was complete, he or she painted the final image on a wall brick in the hallway of the school, leaving a permanent legacy.
Students in grades K-4 also worked with the Bongangs that week, creating shape collages, functional art and logos.
Q: How have students, parents and the community reacted to the project?
A: The overall response to this project has been incredible. We have been working closely with Toledo’s Arts Commission to have our portable mural put on public display throughout the area, and it will be a part of the Momentum Arts Festival in downtown Toledo next summer.
This project also opened the doors for our students to work with Gabe Gault, a Los Angeles-based artist who created the images for the Glass City River Wall (GCRW), an Urban Sight project. The sunflowers and Native American images that are being painted on the grain silos on the Maumee River in Toledo are a part of the largest mural in the United States and tell the story of the origins of the area including native flowers and the original farmers of the area.
The leadership crew from Urban Sight and the GCRW project had come to visit our school and were so impressed by everything we are doing with project based learning and incorporating the arts into our everyday STEMM curriculum, they wanted to bring Gabe in to work with our students.
Gabe and representatives from Urban Sight conducted a sunflower workshop with our students and shared the message of the power of storytelling through the arts.
Together we created our own Glass City River Wall mural, which is displayed on the wall in our cafeteria.
ProMedica has been a generous community partner in Toledo and has always supported Toledo Public STEMM Schools. They continued to provide support with this project by funding Kevin’s return visit to McKinley STEMM to paint a mural on our playground in collaboration with our students.
Our students have really benefited greatly from this project. Those original fourth- and fifth-grade students who began their work with Kevin during the pandemic have learned that their voices matter and that they can create something that can have an impact in their community. All of our students have been impacted in one way or another by Kevin’s visit, as well as Gabe’s.
For many of our students this was a much needed creative outlet as we try to navigate back to a sense of normalcy coming out of a pandemic. I truly believe that art is the birthplace of creativity and allows students to become creative thinkers and problem solvers.
Q: As a school administrator and an educator, what have you learned from this experience? What advice would you give to other educators who might want to tackle such a project, especially one involving an “outside” partner?
A: My biggest takeaway from this has been to not give up. We heard a lot of “no’s” before we finally got a “yes,” in regard to bringing Kevin to Toledo to work with our students. Many of the organizations that we reached out to for support thought it was a great idea, yet they were unable to help fund the project.
Once the door was finally open for him to come, that is when the project really took off. Multiple doors began to open, not only with the Bongangs but with Urban Sight and Gabe Gault.
The entire project was a great learning experience and has definitely laid the groundwork and paved the way for us to have future collaborations with the artistic community.
My best advice would be to share your story, and then share your story again. Networking is such a vital component of the success of your program. Time and time again we have heard people say, “We had no idea …” when we share our stories and tell people what we do here. As an urban school, I feel that sometimes we are overlooked in the community, however, as McKinley STEMM educators we are committed to changing that.
I feel my role as a school administrator is to support teachers especially when it comes to PBL. Allowing students to have “voice and choice” in PBL can be daunting for teachers who need to plan a curriculum that supports the standards around topics that interest students.
As an administrator, it is important to allow teachers to take risks. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and that’s OK. It is still an opportunity for growth and knowledge. However when it does work out, that is truly where the magic happens.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about this project?
A: Here is a link for a segment that Toledo Public Schools created to showcase this project: Toledo Public Schools Bongang Project
Q: Is there anything similar coming for McKinley?
A: We are also continuing to reach out to artists, activists and community members to give our students multiple ways for their voices to be heard.
We are in ongoing conversations with Urban Sight and local conservation and documentary photographer Christy Frank to bring a photojournalism program to McKinley STEMM. In addition to working on environmental projects with our students, last year when we returned back to school in the spring, Christy started to teach our students how to use a digital camera. They learned about composition and depth of field to capture the perfect shot that has become a part of their PBL projects.
Christy, Erin and I began talking about the importance of storytelling through the lens of a photojournalist and had many conversations regarding the field of photojournalism and why representation is so important.
People of color and minorities are rarely found in the field, and many of the images that we see in the media are through the lens of a white perspective. Thus began the conversation, “What if we could get cameras in our kids’ hands and show them the importance of storytelling through the art of taking pictures, and could that perhaps inspire them to pursue careers in photojournalism or other media outlets?”
Many of the projects that we do with our students are on topics that concern them, such as access to clean drinking water, food deserts and the importance of maintaining the integrity of bee populations. Christy, Erin and I are working to create an after-school photography club that would connect our students to their community and showcase the importance of conservation efforts in our area. By sharing students’ stories documented through their camera lens, it is our hope that they will see that their stories matter and can have an impact on those around them.
Finally, Erin has continued to reach out to the artists whom students are studying in class. Seventh- and eighth-graders will be interviewing Victoria Villasana, a textile artist and activist from Guadalajara, Mexico. Working in her style, students are continuing their work to learn basic photography skills and embroidering over the top of their images, similar to Victoria’s process.
Our hope is to not only continue to expose them to photography, a medium that is often underrepresented in urban communities, but also to teach them life skills with embroidery, and give them an opportunity to let their activist voice be heard through art.