Tag Archives: collaborative work

Illuminated Artist Books: Robots

After laying down seemingly miles of copper tape–practicing complicated bends and turns–the fourth graders at Hannah Gibbons were ready to see if their skills could be applied to complete circuits and illuminate tiny LED lights. They masterfully wired a simple circuit, and celebrated 100% success as a class on their first try, each of them rewarded with the soft glow of a single LED light. Eager to master multiple lights, they dove into their parallel circuits with equal success and much enthusiasm.

Robot creative writing template and parallel circuit planning sheet.

Robot creative writing template and parallel circuit planning sheet.

Next up, we’d really investigate the line as well as our understanding of circuits. [Remember our Essential Questions regarding the line in this semester’s artist book residencies incorporating circuits and LED lights] Students each created a unique drawing of a robot that they invented through a creative writing exercise. With their completed drawings, students identified several areas where lights could enhance their robot illustrations; think eyes, antennas, hearts, and laser hands. The robot drawings were completed on the outside surface of a folded lift-the-flap structure to allow for the creation of parallel circuits beneath the illustrations.

Planning light placement with a student on her robot illustration.

Planning light placement with a student on her robot illustration.

Students plotted out the placement of their lights, and got to work designing and creating their custom parallel circuits. This was a huge challenge, and as a result offered the greatest reward. After weeks of practice, students adapted and translated their understanding of circuits into a line drawing of positive and negative parallel but never touching tracks looping back to the power source to illuminate the lights beneath their illustrations. There was an excitement of challenge, mixed with a little head-scratching, many super tight turns with copper tape, and a few frustrated re-starts.

Student reflects on his completed robot illustration.

Student reflects on his completed robot illustration.

Completed robot fox illustration ready for parallel circuit planning below.

Completed robot fox illustration ready for parallel circuit planning below.

And then, it was absolute magic. Every student mastered a unique parallel circuit for their book spread, and then folded down their robot drawing to lay flat over the lights. “Oooh”s and “Aaah”s sounded out in a cacophony as students celebrated in both amazement and disbelief of how their robots lit up exactly where they had hoped; their smiles as bright as their lights!

See the students in action in their classroom by watching the YouTube video below:

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Illuminated Artist Books: Plugged In

With the 4th graders at Mound Elementary School, we started off our illuminated artist book residency with discussions and experiments focusing on our understanding of the line. We laid down inches and miles of copper tape for our material practice worksheets, then we moved on to create a simple and a parallel circuit. We discussed the importance of continuous lines and loops, and connectivity.

Brainstorming Illustrations

Discussing parallel circuits with students.

We discussed and expounded upon our essential questions that are navigating our Illuminated Artist Book Circuit investigations:

What is a line?

How can we use the line to both draw and illuminate our drawing?

Charged with all of this conversation about line, coupled with a good foundation of craft, as well as increased electrical understanding, we shifted our focus to discussions of technology for this residency. Specifically, to the lines of wires, cords, and plugs. We discussed the shifting ground of technology, and questioned what is now wireless, what still plugs in, and how we still have wires and chargers that plug in to recharge? Investigating the electronics of our every day experiences, each student determined an object that requires electricity to operate at some capacity for their individual contribution to the collaborative book.

Class Discussion

Class discussion of electronics.

We decided to title the book “Plugged In” employing a pun about being in touch and engaged with the current time, while taking all of our electric illustrations a note back in time by plugging them all in with lines that tethered ankle of our illustrations together. We were inspired by the illustrative style of the picture book Follow the Line.

While students brainstormed their individual electronic illustration ideas, we spent an afternoon honing our line drawing approaches and our understanding of connected drawings by creating some fabulously funny exquisite corps drawings. Exquisite Corpse is a drawing technique first employed by the Surrealists; see some examples right here.

We created class lists of our individual electronic items, making sure we had no repeats, and students got to work with their lines creating their plugged in drawings, and making them connect to the page prior and the page following.

Student Illustration

Student with completed illustration.

Next, students determined where they would place lights, and what color they desired for the lights in the various locations. Students made notes, and then transferred down the placement of their lights beneath their illustrations.

Circuit Light Planning

Student with LED light planning stencil.

Copper Tape Circuit

Student laying down copper tape for his parallel circuit.

Mapping out their unique parallel circuits to accommodate their plans was the biggest challenge in this residency, so their success there also reaped the biggest reward in earning their determined sense of accomplishment.

Students Working Together

Students working together on copper tape techniques for their parallel circuits.

For me, however, nothing beats the moment — that flicker of the quickest second in time — when student faces light up with sheer amazement in the success of their unique parallel circuits working!

Moment of Illumination

First excited moment of circuit illumination!

Then, as they fold down their illustration over top, and seemingly magically those brightly colored lights illuminate their illustrations.

Student with illuminated illustration

Student with illuminated illustration 2

Students with illuminated illustrations

Student with illuminated illustration 3

Those smiles? They are absolutely priceless, and positively beaming with the pride of their achievement.

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The Force and Motion of Life

As an Artist Educator, my goal is to deepen the learning experience for students and educators through engaging and innovative project-based learning residencies. In these residencies the scholars participate in hands-on learning experiences that provide opportunities to learn and practice transferable skills. They develop and nurture critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, and communication skills. These skills not only enhance comprehension of the content from their academic classes, but they also apply to their lives outside the classroom.

Design plans for a chain reaction sculpture.

This fall, PAA organized a kinetic sculpture residency hosted at think[box], Case Western Reserve University’s innovation center.  The goal of this collaboration was to integrate the middle school science curriculum content standard into an experiential learning workshop, including content focused on force and motion. Five schools participated, serving approximately 150 students over a one week intensive residency.  Each scholar participated for two full school days in designing and building chain reaction kinetic sculptures at think[box].  Experiential learning opportunities like this provide avenues for students to explore force and motion in a hands-on way; enhancing their ability to incorporate theory into real life examples. Students worked in teams to collaboratively plan out their design based on the materials provided, thinking critically about the relationship between the material and the science.  They continually learned from their mistakes and tested out new methods and materials to come up with creative solutions.

Construction phase

Construction phase at the think[box].

These innovative residencies also provided invaluable teachable moments. I observed instances where the students referenced their own perceived abilities related to force and motion. Many students struggled with their self confidence in their ability to build a working chain reaction sculpture. In particular, one student struggled to recognize her own potential.  At the beginning, she expressed to me that she identified as being “stupid.”  I explained to her that what we are capable of is often determined by our mindset.  With coaching and encouragement she built up the self-esteem to participate in the project. Metaphorically, she is a ball at the top of a ramp filled with potential energy and the support we provide as instructors is the gravitational force that allows the ball to roll down the ramp and change into kinetic energy.  The hands-on learning of force, motion, and chain reaction became a relevant metaphor for her own lack of self-confidence transforming into kinetic energy.

Completed kinetic sculpture

Completed kinetic sculpture

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Playing with Light


As an artist-educator, I especially enjoy working with curriculum content where art and science naturally overlap. The study of light, part of the 5th grade standards in science, is a perfect intersection of these two fields. In my 5th grade residencies at Michael R White and Hannah Gibbons this spring, I introduced students to the concept of light-based art through the work of artists such as Rashad Alakbarov and collaborators Tim Noble and Sue Webster. After this we explored a range of different methods of creating original works using light and shadow. Hannah Gibbons students used long exposures on a digital camera to write with trails of light, while students at Michael R. White created luminaria with laser cut designs that cast delicate patterns when lit from within. As their artist-educator, it was a treat to watch students’ surprise at how the process of scanning and laser cutting their designs transformed them, and how the patterns were transformed once again as students experimented and played with shining light on and through them.

Students at both schools also experimented with creating shadow patterns using black tape on clear acetate, and those at Hannah Gibbons built a shadow cityscape using found objects and repurposed cardboard placed behind a backlit sheet. It was interesting to watch them negotiate the placement of different objects in their shadow cityscape as they realized that each object’s distance from the sheet affected both its size and clarity. They had to work together and rearrange the objects through several revisions until they achieved a visually pleasing composition that highlighted a range of objects. The students extended these collaboration skills to their creation of a dramatic sculpture of branches that creates striking shadows when lit. I was so impressed by their ability to organize themselves into different roles with minimal adult intervention as they built this sculpture; rather than orchestrating the construction, I was able to serve as another member of the team, holding branches together while students bound them with wire or vice versa. Seeing that I had created a context in which students were given the motivation and tools to work unassisted as a group was one of my most satisfying moments as an educator. Not only were students thrilled to discover how humble materials can be transformed by the careful manipulation of light and shadow, they were proud of their creation because it was truly theirs as a group.


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Trying Something New With Fibers


Detail shot from a finished flag.

When tasked with designing an installation piece that students could produce for the library atrium at the Hannah Gibbons STEM School, I sought out the librarian’s advice first — after all, she was the person who would have to spend the most time with it! She mentioned that the light filtering in through the atrium could be too intense at times, and I realized that a fibers project was the right choice: not only would the fabric be beautifully illuminated by the light streaming in, but it would also serve to filter the light and reduce the afternoon glare.

Initially, I wanted to design a batik project for the 5th graders to complete. However, the more I researched it, the more I realized how prohibitive batik (the application of hot wax to resist a dye) would be in terms of cost, time, and safety. Struggling with this problem, I discovered a method by which we could work with pre-dyed fabrics then use a bleach discharge process to remove the color. The project as we ended up doing it still gave students an understanding of how resist methods work while having the added benefit of integrating new technology through the use of digitally plotted vinyl stencils.

Students began by researching the different organisms that make up the food web of the tropical rainforest. They worked cooperatively to decide who would draw each organism, then used iPads to find high quality reference images and wirelessly print them out. After they had drawn the images, I scanned and vectorized them, then scaled them up to the size of each flag and plotted them onto adhesive back vinyl. When the students adhered these vinyl stencils to their flags, they served as a resist against the sprayed bleach solution, allowing the vibrant colors of the flag to remain in the shape of their drawings while the sprayed pattern around it bleached out.

Blotting excess bleach from the flag.

Blotting excess bleach from the flag.

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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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Warp and Weft

“Reading Wetu” is a project created with the first grade class of Ms. Erin Shakour at Orchard STEM School located on Cleveland’s westside during the fall 2014 semester. The reading Wetu occupies an 8′ x 8′ x 8′ area in the corner of her classroom, and houses her small library of children’s books.  The structure is built entirely from 3/4″ thick plywood and yarn, and fabricated with a CNC router at think[box], a public access maker-space located on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.  In the weeks preceding my residency, Ms. Shakour led her class through a curriculum about a kind of shelter made by Wanpanoag Native Americans, known as a wetu.  Before my arrival, the students constructed small wetus made from drinking straws, string and tape. Her curriculum emphasized the reasons why people and animals build shelters, in order to survive during inclement weather.


Wetu structure

As with all of PAA’s arts-integration residencies, it was important that my project tapped into and enhanced the work Ms. Shakour was already doing.  It had been a long time since I was in the presence of first graders and about 25 years since I’ve been one myself, so I relied on my memory as a point of reference.  As a boy, I loved to build blanket forts and play in them with my sister.  I think that children generally enjoy inhabiting spaces that are scaled to their size, as opposed to larger more adult-sized spaces. These smaller spaces can trigger imaginative play, a quality that if fostered can develop the faculties of creative thinking and problem solving as children grow into adulthood.  I thought it would be fun and interesting to work as a team to build a large structure emulating the building practices of Wampanoag Native Americans.

Building this structure in the context of Ms. Shakour’s classroom provided a particular set of conditions that needed to be addressed in order for the project to be successful.  The structure needed to be big enough to accommodate multiple children and bookshelves, and at the same time maintain a feeling of a small enclosed space.  It needed to be accessible from all sides, so that during the building process all 22 students could participate.  It was important that the structure resembled a Wetu so that it connected to Ms. Shakour’s curriculum.  It was also important that the design considered safety, and was open enough that Ms. Shakour could look into it from across the room and monitor her students.  After a number of drawings and 3D models, I decided on a circular structure made of curved wooden supports with a series of holes and notches that allow yarn to be threaded through and around the frame.


Concept sketches


3D Model

The first session of the residency class did not go as planned.  Initially I wanted the students to weave the horizontal (weft) and vertical (warp) strings of the structure.  I learned that first graders have a large propensity to tangle yarn, and little patience to untangle it.  I also learned that the edges on the holes and notches did not allow the yarn to move as freely as I anticipated.  At the end of the first day I decided to reorganize my plan.


Day 1 – Building

After a brainstorming session with a few trusted peers, I decided that the best approach was to have the students weave the warp with fabric strips through the yarn weft.  The second session was a huge success.  We divided the students into smaller groups and gave individualized attention.  Weaving the warp proved to be an activity perfectly suited to the first graders’ abilities.  It was easy enough for them to quickly grasp the concept of over-and-under, and difficult enough to challenge their hand-eye coordination and to keep them engaged for an extended period.  The work progressed steadily and the students could see their hard work paying off. At the end of the day, with the weaving completed, we moved the structure into the corner of the room and rearranged Ms. Shakour’s bookshelves inside of it.  As a group, we sat down and revisited why people build structures and applauded our group’s efforts to get a large task completed.  We also talked about the purpose of the new Reading Wetu as a place to read and quietly play with friends.


Day 2 – Learning how to warp


Day 2 – Collaboration in progress

This project was so much fun to make, and would not have been a success with out the help of Ainsley Buckner, Stephenie Lee, Ben Horvat, Ben Guengrich, Kate Sopko, Jared Akerstrom, Ms. Erin Shakour and her wonderful first grade class.


Completed “Reading Wetu”



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Inspired by Eric Carle

Sometimes a collaborative project just clicks. On my first meeting with Ms. White, a first grade teacher at the Hannah Gibbons STEM School, I discovered we both love to teach using Eric Carle’s beautiful picture books. Her class had been reading “The Mixed Up Chameleon,” a charming story about a chameleon who adopts the characteristics of many different animals. We agreed that the book would provide a natural starting point for an experience linking artistic exploration with learning about life sciences and animal adaptations.


Making paste papers.

In emulating Carle’s style, students especially loved making their own paste papers. In this process, a cornstarch paste is tinted with paint and then blended and scraped across paper to create a variety of textures and colors. The paste is slippery and fun to paint with, and produces wonderfully rich results.


“It’s like Toothless!”


Once their papers had dried, students drew and cut their animals’ body parts, then had fun assembling them into finished creatures. They loved playing with their assembled animals before gluing them into our collaborative mural; one pair of boys even commented on how their flying animal reminded them of Toothless, a character from “How to Train Your Dragon.”

The finished mural, depicting fanciful animals of sea, land, and sky.

The finished mural, depicting fanciful animals of sea, land, and sky.

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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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A Mound of Clouds

During my first residency with Progressive Arts Alliance during the fall 2014 semester, I had the pleasure to work alongside Miss Ainsley (“Paisley” according to some of the more affectionate 7th graders) Buckner and the Mound STEM School 7th graders to develop, make, and install LED lit “clouds”.

cloud first

The 7th graders formed small teams to accomplish this project. Each team had to construct an acrylic armature that would be covered with gauze and poly-fill (the stuff that is inside of pillows) and build two circuits of LED lights.

To build the clouds accurately, the students looked at and identified different types of cloud formations. They drafted what the armature might have to look like for each type of cloud. An armature is the framework on which a sculpture is molded. Ainsley and I emphasized the importance of planning before making.


Each group then began to build their specific clouds, if someone was having trouble, the groups would work together, or combine themselves to make the process smoother. For the most part, Ainsley led the construction of the armatures and showed the students the proper way to use hot glue and a heat gun. The heat gun was used to add curvature to acrylic rods, allowing more natural looking forms to be built.


While some groups worked on their armatures, I took the rest of the students and showed them how circuits work, and how to effectively build them. Each student had the opportunity to build their own circuit in series, which would later be attached to the interior of the cloud for illumination. Continue reading


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