Tag Archives: 2nd Grade

Animals in their Habitats: Decoupage Dioramas

The second graders at Paul Dunbar School are learning about animals and the specific habitats that they live in as part of their science curriculum. For our Progressive Arts Alliance residency partnership, we decided to construct these habitats using decoupage in three-dimensional dioramas. Each student independently selected an animal, and conducted several pages of research determining the various needs and interesting features of their animals. Compiling their research, students  then sketched out full-color plans for their three-dimensional decoupage dioramas where they could bring to life their animal in its habitat.

We discussed the three-dimensional opportunities that dioramas afforded, and determined which aspects of our plans would be in the background, middle ground, and foreground. We also determined that our animals should be the primary figures within the space.

Some landscapes were wide open skies with grass, others were the thick of a jungle, or a wooded environment, several were underwater, a couple were ice and snow covered regions, and one was deep into a dark cave. Students selected the respective colors for their determined habitats and got to work tearing and layering down their background first, their middle ground next, and lastly their foreground.

While the interior surfaces of their dioramas dried, students began drawing their various and specific landscape features, including: tress, vines, rocks, caves, nests, coral, floating ice, and rivers, onto cardstock that would be inserted into their space. They also drew and decoupaged their animals.

Students with Dioramas

Students with their Habitat Dioramas: Bat and Giraffe.

All of the various animal and landscape elements were constructed with folded tabs, so students could make spatial determinations for where all of the figures would layer into the space, moving them around like game pieces until they determined their final layout. We discussed activating both the middle and foreground to keep the primary focus of the dioramas on their animals.

Animal Diorama Fox and Whale

Student Habitat Dioramas: Arctic Fox and Whale.

After all this researching, and planning, and pasting — this is when the magic happened at last! Suddenly students brought their brightly colored boxes to life, completely transforming and filling them with detail. Inspired by the full-spread habitat photographs within their research books, students excitedly pored over and created all the details of  their specific animal environments.

Animal Diorama Dolphin and Bear

Student Habitat Dioramas: Dolphin and Bear

Tabbed orange coral stood tall upon the ocean floor in the foreground of the diorama that featured a long gray dolphin gliding underwater. Turtles crawled through the sand of a shore, leaving a nest that contained eggs still waiting to hatch. A spotted and stretched-tall giraffe mingled in its savannah landscape dotted with a few trees.

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As a Matter of State: Solid, Liquid and Gas Decoupage Dioramas

During my recent residency at Paul L. Dunbar Arts Academy, 2nd and 3rd grade scholars engaged in  many conversations and much investigation into matter’s various states. After their investigations, scholars decided to build three-dimensional decoupaged dioramas to demonstrate their understanding. The class was divided into three groups: solid, liquid, and gas. Students brainstormed ideas within their categories and then ultimately selected their favorite liquid, solid, or gas to create a three-dimensional diorama. Some ideas were difficult to categorize, resulting in robust classroom discussion. For instance, oatmeal. Is it a solid or a liquid? And then there was basketball. Is it a solid filled with gas? How about ice? Is ice a liquid frozen into a solid state? The states of matter discussions, and the excitement for making a three-dimensional dioramas of their item generated a lot of enthusiasm.

With an idea in hand, students sketched in their diorama planners making sure they considered the background, middle ground, and foreground for their object’s environment. They drew their objects as the main figure within the space of their 3-dimensional dioramas.

hot air balloon plan

Hot Air Balloon Plan and Decoupaged Diorama.

Next was the most unexpectedly difficult portion of the project: tearing the tissue paper into pieces [without shredding, wadding, or other frustrated efforts]. This fine motor skill proved far more challenging for the students than anticipated by myself or the teacher. The victory of finally getting all five interior surfaces of the diorama boxes covered in thin layers of tissue was a major feat!

The figures within the dioramas were created on tabbed card stock, so they could stand and or hang from the space as desired. The students excelled at this construction method quickly after the greater learning curve of the technique of decoupage had been mastered. As we placed and adhered the finished objects into their created spaces, students were alit with accomplishment and the room was filled with the fervor of their excitement and pride.

bricks diorama

Student showcases her solid state of matter diorama; a brick wall.

water diorama

Student showcases her water state of matter diorama; water.

wind diorama

Student showcases her gas state of matter diorama; a gust of wind.

Upon reflection, it continues to amaze me at how profoundly important even these seemingly simpler residency projects are. Students initially struggled at every technical interchange of the process: in creating small pieces of tissue paper, applying the right amount of adhesive, and in covering the surfaces with flat but overlapping thin layers. These struggles, however, paved the way for hands-on learning that was so rich, and ultimately provided the reward of successful projects. Seeing and coaching the students as they pushed through these challenges, turned out to be the most memorable aspect of this residency.

orange balloom diorama

Student showcases his gas and solid state of matter diorama; a balloon filled with helium.

Students were absolutely beside themselves with pride, standing next to their brightly decoupaged boxes with wide smiles and sticky hands.

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When teachers learn … design notes from iterating a project


As I prepare to teach a pinball-inspired kinetic sculpture program for the third time, I think back and realize just how far this project has come and how much I have learned by teaching it. The first iteration of the project consisted of a cardboard base, hot glue and tape for the connections, and a variety of activities where students learned about forces, motion, geometry, and measurement. The goal was for the boards to be able to stand at several different inclines so that the students could experiment with gravity and friction. To accomplish this, PVC pipe legs we provided were interchangeable and they attached to the base with nuts and bolts that penetrated both the PVC and a bracket made of cardboard. The legs fit into a base that was supposed to hold them square. What I learned during the first iteration of this project was that the amount of force applied to the sculpture by the students was greater than the structure I designed could handle. Also, the amount of content I was covering was more than a ten-week residency would allow. Our work in the schools is referred to as residencies. Each residency is one curricular unit that takes place once a week for ten weeks. Despite some setbacks, the students were extremely eager to test variables, they understood forces and motion and had an introduction to math concepts that were several years beyond their grade level. They rose to the challenge and took great pride in their projects.

Fast forward two years. The pinball project was reintroduced to new students after a complete makeover. The cardboard was replaced by pegboard and plywood, the PVC was replaced by a variety of slanted plywood bases, and the tape was replaced by machine screws, nuts, and corner brackets. The focus of the project was on construction, forces, motion, and measurement to ensure that all of the students would really grasp the concepts. There was still experimentation along the way. Several balls were used to experiment and determine the appropriate size and weight for the sculptures the students created.  Additional pieces of wood were also used to prevent the ball from flying off of the board. The project was successful and the students’ work was showcased at the Superelectric Pinball Parlor at 78th Street Studios as part of the monthly art walk.

This year, the goal is to take the project to the next level. There were four key design challenges that were identified last year that I plan to address. The first challenge I identified was that the bases ended up not all being the correct size for the board. In my drawing plans of this year’s project iteration, I’ve included considerations for the slant needed to determine the length of the bases. The second design challenge is finding an appropriate dowel for the peg board.

PAA Program Coordinator Ainsley Buckner fabricates bases for the pinball project using the band saw at the think[box] at Case Western Reserve University.

PAA Program Coordinator Ainsley Buckner fabricates bases for the pinball project using the band saw at the think[box] at Case Western Reserve University.

Previously, the smallest dowel we could find was too thick to fit into the pegboard. This year we will attach paint stirrers to 4″ nails or golf tees (both of which fit into the pegboard) so that the students will be able to create a variety of interchangeable paths for the ball to travel on through their sculpture. In the past, students had one fixed path in their sculptures. The third design challenge to be addressed is the edges of the board. In the plan I have designed, the edges have been altered and a 1/8″ plexi-sheet has been added to

Materials for the current iteration of the pinball project.

Materials for the current iteration of the pinball project.

the top that can be lifted off. This will prevent the ball from leaving the board once it is activated by the plunger. The fourth design challenge is mastering the plunger apparatus. This year we ordered 7″ long springs from a pinball machine part supplier. It has been difficult to find springs that are longer than a few inches and are easy enough for students to fully compress. Also, with a thicker edge (1/2″ plywood) and an extra block of wood in the center to guide the rod, we should have a more consistent pushing force. Instead of using pre-threaded rod from a store, we are using smooth rods. We are threading the top and bottom of each smooth rod using a die in the think[box] lab at Case Western Reserve University. Our threading should further enhance the spring driven force and reduce friction. The threading is needed to attach the plunger’s handle and prevent the spring from flying off.

I’m looking forward to sharing this project with a new group of students and yielding even greater results. Stay tuned for more updates on the implementation of this project.

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It’s what we talk about in Cleveland.

I am writing this during a day off from school (the fifth in less than two weeks) due to ‘continued, dangerously low wind chill temperatures’ or ‘extreme weather conditions’ as some news channels proclaim and am thankful this was a fall residency and not scheduled for now. The second grade students at Michael R. White STEM school scripted, performed and recorded their own weather reports from both their news room and outside. With this age group repetition (each class produced three reports throughout the fall and into the winter) was not monotonous, it was an opportunity to learn new vocabulary, improve upon past experiences and polish the performances. There were less than twenty students in each class and everyone was engaged at all times, rotating through different production roles as the sessions went on.

On our first production day there was a student who seemed less than thrilled to be selected as a news anchor. His demeanor made it apparent that he was frustrated and angry, but it quickly became evident that he was just afraid of forgetting lines and messing up. Through positive reinforcement and witnessing his co-anchor forget her lines a few times (without any negative repercussions from the others in the class) he began sitting a little straighter, his hands no longer covered his mouth when he spoke, his legs lost their jitters and his voice began to project. All of this over the course of ten minutes. He had transformed into someone new. He began to smile when he made a mistake instead of covering his face and putting his head on the desk. From that point forward, regardless of his assignment, he was also the default script assistant, memorizing the words for each production and mouthing them to the new anchors from his role of camera operator or lighting technician. As an educator, it was really amazing to see how much this program impacted how he held himself and I see so many more situations where this confidence can serve him as he grows.

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Collaborating for Deeper Understanding in the Classroom Lab

Read more about the Kindergarten/2nd Grade Shapes and Boat Residency here.


Artist Educator, Dina Hoeynck, guiding the build phase of the design process with an Orchard kindergartener.

My favorite part of this residency was being able to work in small groups with students and empowering them to use real tools to build from an authentic boat plan.  In most residencies there is only one artist-educator leading the class, so you have to come up with broader activities that engage a classroom of 25-30 students.  However, with this residency for Orchard STEM School’s kindergarten and 2nd graders, I had the opportunity to collaborate and co-instruct with another PAA artist-educator, Dina Hoeynck.  Having a team of two artist-educators allowed us to delve into areas of instruction with younger children that require a more contained learning environment.  Because of this, we were able to work one-on-one with students and transform the classroom into a lab for creating and experimenting. We introduced students to the proper use of tools throughout the various steps of the lab’s design process.  Students were able to develop focused work practices and proper safety procedures.  Through this collaborative work, we saw students gain a new skill set and exercise and refine their  fine motor skills.  The result: Students used their new skills to help measure and cut one-dimensional plastic boards into multiple shapes for the construction of the boat and demonstrated a deeper understanding of how to create a three-dimensional object.


Reading boat plans with students.


Measuring and cutting the coroplast (corrugated plastic) for our boat.



Dina and student Preston assembling boat during the final stage of the design process.


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A Residency of Firsts

This residency had so many firsts for me as an artist-educator. It was my first time teaching a mixed grade level residency, combining Kindergarten and 2nd grade classrooms. It was my first time co-teaching with another artist-educator. And perhaps most significantly, it was my first time learning how to build a boat. Overall, it was a great experience, and I definitely could not have done even half of what we did without the creativity and hard work of my co-instructor, Ainsley Buckner.

We started the project by having students experiment with boats and determine what shape sail would work the best. This reinforced their knowledge of shapes while giving them a real-world context for that knowledge (plus, they got to play with toy boats in a tub of water, which they absolutely loved).


Experimenting with fan-powered model sailboats.

Students learned a great deal about the cultural history of boats during this residency. We looked at Viking long ships, European tall ships, and First Nations canoes for inspiration on how to decorate our boats to reflect our values and culture. Students drew tiles to adhere to the sides of the boats that illustrated their individual interests, and later created letters using geometric shapes and primary colors to spell out the words “Orchard Stem School” on the boats’ sails. They also used cut paper in primary colors to collage double-sided signal flags, demonstrating their mastery of the art concept of symmetry.


Ainsley demonstrates how to decorate the letters using geometric shapes and primary colors.

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The Magic Voice


Performance Day in 2nd grade at Mound STEM School came and went the first week of December.  Students spent three weeks drawing together everything they learned about the weather patterns of snow, combined it with our storytelling games, and created original “Weather Plays” with character, setting, beginning, middle, and end.  Each play was different and unique and we found ourselves in settings like downtown Cleveland, Lake Erie, a farm in the country, and non-surprisingly their own classrooms.  While most plays shared the theme of a blizzard forming and blowing all around them, little details made each of the 56 stories delightfully charming.  In one story, Ms. Brahler had a cat at school that was scared of the snow; one student braved the sidewalks after the storm and ended up skating on one foot down the street; in another story students marveled at the blizzard while drinking hot chocolate (some characters took marshmallows, some took whipped cream).  What I love most about narrative writing with lower elementary students is that while they are learning about structure and the “rules” of writing, there is still so much room for their imaginations to run free.  Within the “rules” of capital letters, cause-and-effect, and periods at the end of sentence, students have a safe place to take creative risks and communicate all the wonderful ideas they have bouncing around their heads.

Brining their words to life was a truly magical session.  Because there were a total of 56 stories across both classrooms, we needed to streamline and edit so that everyone could be represented in one mass story.  I culled highlights from every Weather Play and combined them together, so that when we read out loud the play as a class, students heard their words and their ideas.  I could have brought in a story already written by someone else and it surely would have been less chaotic to start the residency knowing what the final performance story would be, but as we advocate for “voice and choice” in our residencies, it is vital to remember that creative and arts-based learning is a process-based experience.  It is at its most effective when teaching artists and students decide and discover together what their creative content is going to be.  That might mean not knowing what you are performing because the students haven’t told you yet.  It might mean allowing for a flexible vision to carry you from week 1 to week 10. Content will change and evolve as the students tell you and show you what they are good at and what is important to them.  The students must represent themselves through the activities and art we teachers bring with us.

The light in the students eyes when they heard their bits of the story is such a moment of ownership and agency for them.  That moment will forever be theirs, and no one else’s.  In that moment they were recognized by their peers and their teachers as valuable members of the artistic process.  In our tech-heavy, autonomous world recognition is a valuable commodity for students, especially recognition for positive contributions.  With the second grade residency there was place and space for students to contribute and be recognized for their creativity, ingenuity, and most importantly, their voice.

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Starting our installation in the Mound library

Today was my first day with the second grade students at Mound STEM School, and we kicked things off with a bang! Students rotated around four stations, producing pieces that will ultimately be used to turn the reading area of the library into a coral reef. I had never used stations before as a teaching strategy, but it worked so seamlessly that I will definitely find reasons to use it again in the future.

At the first station, students worked collaboratively to produce these clusters of “sea anemones” using rolled up paper. It was great to see them work cooperatively to produce one finished piece, rather than each being so focused on his or her own individual work. These pieces will be installed on the library shelves amongst the books, to enhance the feeling that we are really in a coral reef.


Rolled and fringed paper representing seas anemones.

The sea urchin station was a big hit with everyone! We made all sizes of sea urchins, too. These will also be tucked in amongst the library books when we are done with everything.


Sea urchins made from styrofoam balls, toothpicks, and acrylic paint.

Our jellyfish are looking really gorgeous. Altogether we produced about 7 really great looking jellyfish between two classes of students, which we will hang from the ceiling using fishing line so they look like they are floating in the water. One of the students touched the “tentacles” and pretended to be stung, because he remembered that jellyfish have stinging venom in their tentacles. It was pretty adorable. 🙂


This “jellyfish” is upside down and in progress– trust me, they look great now!

To tie into our art vocabulary of texture, we used rubber casts of real fish to create Japanese style gyotaku, or fish prints. Students spread our rubber fish with tempera paint, then pressed paper over them to get a detailed impression of the fish: scales, fins and all. The anglefish will be cut out and attached to the wall as a swimming school, while the starfish will be mounted on cardstock and propped up on shelves.


Gyotaku is so much fun! Someone always asks if the fish are real.

The students really enjoyed working in stations, because it gave everyone a chance to try lots of different activities, but never for long enough to get bored. I am so happy I did it this way, and I will definitely use stations again anytime I have a project that requires lots of different processes.



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