From garbage to treasures

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Cook School 3rd-graders Shalonda Brown and James Cox manipulate abacuses they made from scrap materials. The devices are a springboard for lessons not only on math and Chinese culture, but also on ecology, including pollution, landfills and recycling. “I’m trying to teach the children how to reuse,” says teacher Alice Smith-Jones, whose motto is, “Other people’s garbage is someone’s treasure.” Once the abacuses have been assembled, students write short research papers on the history and culture surrounding the abacus. Then they learn how to manipulate the beads to solve problems. “I have many children who are really having problems academically,” says Smith-Jones. “Art does bring out the best parts of them.” As an example, she says, learning about recycling led some kids to add creative slogans to their finished projects, like “Save the Earth” and “Garbage is Gonna Eat Us Up.”

In Katrina Baughman’s 1st-grade class at Columbus School, “quilting” is the thread that ties together lessons in reading, writing and social skills. Each child makes a square for a paper quilt, writing his or her name on it and adding a drawing that conveys something personal, such as likes, dislikes or character traits. Baughman then joins the squares and has students practice reading the names. “Many of them cannot read at all when they come in,” she says, “but one of the things they’re really interested in is how to read their own names and those of their classmates.” Finally, Baughman pairs up students to interview and write stories about each other, using the squares for inspiration. Her class also has done a second quilt with a “future career” theme. New to classroom teaching, Baughman is trying still other ideas; she and three colleagues have applied for a grant to do multimedia projects on a different culture each month. Baughman feels strongly that most of her students learn academics best through the arts. “They get into it so quickly,” she says, “they don’t even know they’re learning.”