by Mark McGowan
Some of the most valuable lessons NIU teacher education students learn come from inside – and then outside – the Art Building.
That’s where they encounter Mira Reisberg, a professor of art education and illustrator of children’s books who truly loves the opportunity to work with tomorrow’s classroom teachers.
It’s partly because she knows how teachers and children can connect through art, and that well-taught art lessons open children’s eyes to the visual culture around them. Yet Reisberg also makes sure her NIU students grasp that art projects can teach children about the importance of serving their communities and protecting their world.
“In class all day, you catch them looking out the window at the snow, and then you get them back on task. I say, ‘Use it as a teaching opportunity,’ ” she says, quoting Dan Kriesberg’s “A Sense of Place: Teaching Children About the Environment with Picture Books.”
“Take a nature walk with kids. You can teach everything through snow. A snowflake has incredible math and science involved in it. Or have scavenger hunts. You can teach so much by looking at what’s around you. It’s just what you choose to focus on,” she says.
One of Reisberg’s students teacher’s students “brought in pictures of four or five of their favorite environments, including a waterfall, a beach and a forest, and asked their fellow students what they would do if they were taking their future kids on nature walks in these environments,” she adds. “What would they look for? What activities? The students responded that if it was fall in the forest, they could have the kids do tree rubbings or leaf rubbings or make mobiles doing all kinds of things with the leaves.”
Reisberg has 725 compelling reasons to prove that her ideas about good education are right.
She and her students will travel Wednesday, Dec. 5, to Hope Haven, where they’ll deliver $725 raised from animal-shaped art banks that the students made in class and then placed in businesses around town. They’ll also perform a sock puppet poetry jam for the children there.
She also has the words of some of her students.
Jason Mitchell, who’s majoring in special education, says Reisberg’s class “is not just about art. It’s learning about the environment. It’s learning about where you live. It’s learning about different political issues.”
Mitchell now has strategies for using art to teach children with special needs.
“If they were to draw, or do some kind of art that has to do with an animal or the environment, they might understand better than by just reading a book or having me lecture them on it,” says the sophomore who has created art projects for his three sons ages 10, 8 and 6 since taking Reisberg’s course. “She’s brought out a lot of different ideas and different aspects to art that I probably would never have thought of.”
“We learned about the three basics – place-based education, multicultural education and visual culture education – and we really incorporated that into every project,” adds Shardai Bell, a sophomore pre-elementary education major who hopes to teach fifth-grade. “It was a lot of fun. We did a lot of projects that I can incorporate into my own lesson plans in the future. These are projects you can do with your students to have fun while learning.”
During the summer, students in Reisberg’s courses took their own nature walks to explore the world outside the Art Building.
They drew pictures of the East Lagoon. They met local artists with rich heritages in their community and their artwork. They made sculptures of recycled materials for an organic farm where they also planted flowers and vegetables in an aesthetically designed “art garden.” The owners of the farm then donated some of the food to help nourish local hungry people. They also created “ecological” family trees with photos and their own illustrations about each family member to describe their relationships to the environment.
Retired NIU art education professor Helen Merritt accompanied Reisberg and Co. on a guided tour of Merritt Prairie, which Helen and her husband donated to the county.
The students saw sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy, the British artist whose works are constructed with all-natural materials and are left to decay and return to nature. In response, they made a mandala, “bringing together bits and pieces of organic things on the prairie” to represent the cosmos from their own human point of view.
“Helen is this exquisite older woman – truly exquisite – who is just this incredibly generous community-minded person. She is truly inspirational,” Reisberg says.
“While we were at the prairie, we experienced this huge rainstorm with enormous drops of water, and we had to flee. It added another layer of awareness to the power and beauty of nature,” she adds. “There’s a pine forest there as well, with all these pine needles, and we went and hung out in there. It was so fragrant. The ground was this really soft reddish-brown from the colors of the pines. It was just beautiful.”
Local sculptor Bob Blunk took the students to his studio, where the octogenarian still practices his craft, to display his creations and to help the future teachers to weld theirs together. Those sculptures, including a tomato cage, later were placed in the organic garden near Elgin.
“Bob Blunk is truly a local treasure – we don’t take advantage of our local treasures and how knowledgeable they are – whose work is really impressive. It’s large-scale stuff, and he’s still doing it,” she says. “He’s phenomenal, and just a really delightful human being.”
Reisberg’s knowledge of her community and its people is somewhat remarkable: The native of Australia came to NIU in the fall of 2006, but she serves as a living example to her students of learning about “your place” and striving to improve it.
Those are lessons she also draws from children’s books. Students in her courses must choose books to teach to their classmates.
The story of “Prietita and the Ghost Woman” touches on the problematic border between the United States and Mexico and the importance of protecting the environment for many reasons, including the health-promoting herbs and plants it gives. “The writer wants children to learn to look beneath the surface of things,” Reisberg says. “Things are not always what you’re told they are. Be critical thinkers.”
Another book titled “What’s the Most Beautiful Things You Know About Horses?” was written by Richard Van Camp, a member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation from Fort Smith, NWT, Canada. Van Camp asked members of his tribe, which reveres dogs, to tell him what they know about horses.
“We learn about horses – all these beautiful and poetic things – but we also learn about the people he asks,” Reisberg says. “We rarely get to see representations of contemporary Native Americans. It’s either ‘the spirits guiding us’ of long-dead Indians; or stereotypes of the chief with the headdress whose images and names have been appropriated for all sorts of products, such as clothing, tobacco, cars and sports mascots; or the cowboys-and-Indians movies with Native Americans as either noble savages or just plain savages. In contrast to these images, this book has depictions about, and by, the indigenous people themselves.”
Children learn from the many one-dimensional images that they are exposed to, she say, which often simply reinforce stereotypes that are hurtful. “Visual images construe our reality,” she says. “We learn about life from pictures.”
In the spring, Reisberg will teach a new graduate seminar on cultural and environmental connections and the intersection of social justice and environmental stewardship in visual culture through the art education program. Registration is still open.
Students will look through post-colonial and visual-culture lenses at traditional art, contemporary art, indigenous art, multicultural art, children’s books, film and advertising in search of those intersections. As a final project, student will create pieces of art to demonstrate what they’ve learned, which can take any form from performance to video to making a children’s book.
“I’m so very fortunate that I get to do work I really, really love. This is work that I hope makes a difference to help make a better world, and I try not to do it in a way that’s hitting kids over the head. They develop a love of place and, through that love of place, caring,” Reisberg says.
“I feel really proud to be these students’ teacher,” she adds. “Many of them haven’t been exposed to this kind of thinking before, and now they’re going to incorporate these things into their teaching. You absolutely can teach everything you need to teach through art. It’s just a matter of gaining confidence in your creativity.”