Students “Re-Create” the United States

Creativity. Interpretation. Argument. Collaboration. These were just some of the skills utilized by our nation’s founders as they haggled, debated, and compromised their way to the formation of the American republic. The exhibition Creating the United States explores the work of the founders and their struggle to create a nation according to the principles of a free society and a populace with the power to govern itself. Working together, setting aside differences, and considering the future played key roles in establishing the country we now know.

Exploring similar processes is at the heart of the work of students at Granada Hills Charter High School who are participating in the Skirball’s 2012 In-School Residency, “Re-Creating the United States.” Working with Otis School of Art and Design faculty members Patty Kovic and Michele Jaquis, directors of the award-winning NEIGHBORGAPBRIDGE interdisciplinary design course, the students are thinking about how to communicate the relevancy of these skills and ideas to Skirball visitors.

The GHCHS group participating in the residency is an eleventh grade English class. Their teacher, Lauren Kleinberg, has focused her curriculum of late around argument, rhetoric, and the effective communication of meaning to an audience. What a perfect opportunity, I thought during a recent visit to their school, that these studentsin the midst of considering the language and style of the current political candidates—are now looking back at the ways in which language, the turn of phrase, even the ink and paper the words were printed on, all played crucial roles in the establishment of our country.

W.D. Rev. Mr. Cooper. "Americans Throwing the Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston," 1789. Engraving from The History of North America. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

W.D. Rev. Mr. Cooper. "Americans Throwing the Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston," 1789. Engraving from The History of North America. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.

Early in the residency, the students looked at a selection of objects included in Creating the United States: a tea box from the Boston Tea Party; an early, handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence indicating editing marks; a collection of stars from George Washington’s inauguration flag. They started to consider the legacy of these objects and think about the relevancy of these documents today. How do we communicate with one another now? What is the twenty-first-century version of the political pamphlet? What are our current tools for propaganda?

This was the premise of this residency: to enable students to reinterpret the messages and ideas expressed by these artifacts for today.

The day I visited the class, the students were beginning to conceive of their projects. Patti and Michelle had already begun working with students on group dynamics, researching objects and historical events, and starting a Tumblr site to track their progress and share reflections.

Congressional Pugilists. Congress Hall, in Philadelphia, February 15, 1798. Philadelphia: 1798. Etching. Collection of Dr. Gary Milan

An understanding of group dynamics could’ve come in handy during the founding of our nation. Congressional Pugilists. Congress Hall, in Philadelphia, February 15, 1798. Philadelphia: 1798. Etching. Collection of Dr. Gary Milan.

A few days before, the students had created visual analogies to objects in the exhibition: for example, the Congress Hall armchair from the Constitutional Convention to a modern school chair. The groups are now crafting projects that explore this kind of association and will become part of interactive installations located around the Skirball campus on Saturday, November 3. The public is invited to attend this “Re-Creating the United States: Student Takeover Day” and experience political-button making in our Founder’s Courtyard, a lounge in the amphitheater for student-led discussions about democracy, a performance of a modern interpretation of “Yankee Doodle,” a chance to sample Thomas Jefferson’s recipe for scones, and so on.

One group is basing its project on Thomas Jefferson’s writing desk, on view in Creating the United States. They rescued an old school desk at their school and are covering the desk with quotes and images related to freedom. Another group looked closely at a colonial flag, reflected upon contemporary definitions of freedom, and is sewing its own flag. Skirball visitors who attend the “Student Takeover Day” will be invited to add to the student-made flag.

Come by on November 3 and see the results of six weeks of thinking, research, discussion, and creativity. Take a look at what these young people have done to “re-create” the United States. In the end, the American experiment will be in their hands anyway!

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Posted in Around Campus, Democracy Matters, Exhibitions, School Outreach and tagged , .

About Jason Porter

A former classroom teacher, Jason Porter is currently the Skirball’s Assistant Director of Education. Over the course of his teaching career, he served as a department chair, an administrator, a dean, and for one ridiculous semester, the biology teacher. Outside of his work in education, he is a published writer, parent, husband, cyclist, tennis player, soccer dad, and a collector of antique lunch boxes from the 1970s and 1980s (with thermoses only). He hates downhill skiing and the Eagles.

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