Illuminating Student Work and Enriching Learning Experiences
Materiality plays a key role in amplifying the impact of student work and creating a more engaging and rewarding learning experience. A passive approach to memorizing facts and reciting them out of context is not enough to equip students for success in the 21st century. As a graphics and social studies teacher at Rangeley Lakes Regional School, I have always understood the value of performance tasks* and project-based learning.* My personal teaching philosophy aligns with the work of McTighe and Wiggins*; content needs to be interpreted to be truly understood. For students to become effective thinkers, they need skills, motivation, and awareness of when to apply those skills. Performance tasks support these aspects, especially awareness. Students learning the creative process in a real-life context, and making choices, helps them to understand and improve their thinking patterns. As a teacher, I guide and coach the acquisition of thinking skills rather than control. Despite my eagerness to step in, I remind myself to keep my input concise. Students should explore on their own to foster curiosity, and my guidance should be simple, such as suggesting impactful materials or referring them to resources.
Over the past three decades, I have worked toward creating a student-centered classroom.* Students participate in inquiry- and project-based activities in this environment where they are actively “doing,” so that they can demonstrate what they have learned and then apply this skill to what they have learned in other contexts. As an artist and historian, I view the material as equally important as the form or idea behind the product. I have seen how much my students enjoy and find meaning in manipulating materials and getting involved in the creative process, whether in developing and printing film, sculpting, or designing solutions to real-world problems. Regardless of the idea behind the piece or how it is created, materiality in art plays a crucial role in both its meaning and concept.
Materiality in Performance Tasks in the Humanities
The Rangeley Lakes Regional School Humanities curriculum includes a variety of performance tasks that allow students to demonstrate their understanding through the visual arts. As students learn about globalization, they uncover the changes caused by it. The Humanities program was co-taught by the ELA teacher, Tim Straub, the Art teacher, Sonja Johnson, and myself. Frequently, the science teacher conducts an acidification demonstration to help the students understand the environmental consequences. To express the impact of globalization, he created an iPhone filled with concrete to represent the things we don’t see that go into the production of a cell phone and its negative social and environmental impacts. As a result of the concrete material, the cell phone has a different meaning.
An interactive box titled Deadly Threats to Turtles at All Stages of Life also depicts globalization’s impact on the environment—the box is filled with messages describing its negative effects.
Additionally, a turtle logo with a flower-filled butterfly in the middle represents the effort to protect and preserve the environment, which is silkscreened on T-shirts and stamped on posters. T-shirts have been used for both personal and political messages, and when it comes to sustainability and the environment, but they are contradictory materials as their production leaves a large environmental footprint. Another student chose to discuss the impacts of single-use plastics on the natural world by creating a fish out of plastic bottles. The finished product also included a single plastic bottle hooked on the line to fully define the student’s message.
Another favorite performance task among students is the civilization roject. Students reflect their personal style through their choice of materials. As part of creating a civilization, each student applies, emphasizes, incorporates, and interprets the different facets of civilization in their own way and with their own choice of materials. In the first example, it appears that three civilizations coexist with one another, adapted to their environment. The second example illustrates the importance of protection with a display in which the city doors open as the sun and clouds move, with circular city planning and strong doors. The third example illustrates class distinctions as well as specific farming practices like terracing in a fully 3D model.
Illuminated Letter and Chinese Calligraphy Projects
The 2022–23 school year’s performance tasks included the illuminated letter and Chinese calligraphy, which allowed my students to interact with people, materials, and ideas from different worldviews and cultural traditions. The Book of Kells, an 8th-century illuminated manuscript, created on calf vellum using iron gall ink, offers insight into a culture and a universal appreciation of beauty and art. The students included their own identities in an illuminated letter with Celtic designs and established connections to themselves and their communities.
In addition to making the learning process more interesting, using authentic equipment and techniques like Japanese Tomoe River paper, gold leaf, and Sumi ink, enables students to understand the significance of these cultural treasures. Learning Chinese calligraphy allows students to comprehend and appreciate beauty through another worldview and to understand how Chinese culture has influenced other cultures such as Japanese and Korean. Students discover new methods of approaching visual expression. Their comprehension of the Taoist idea of Wu Wei is deepened and what it means to be human. Teachers help their students appreciate the complexities of human nature via empathy and understanding.
It is possible in Chinese calligraphy to convey a person’s thoughts, emotions, and artistry with one line, through the unforced energy that flows into the line. Western students of art are so unfamiliar with this. There was a constant desire by my students to fix lines and hide imperfections in their work. The way they held the brush felt strange as well.
Materiality in Graphics
Linoleum cuts evoke a sense of materiality by bringing in texture to emphasize the image. The texture of linoleum may not be as special as wood grain but it can still change simple graphic prints, bringing the plants to life.
From paper to binding, photography to design, book art presents its own material challenges. To portray a unique composition, message, and meaning in The Family, the student incorporates multiple elements: a spiral binding, cutouts, pencil drawings, typography, multiple perspectives, collage materials, and himself.
Another student tells the story of a family tradition using a unique electric tape binding to blend with the black cover. The photographs record the history of this event in layers of time and space. The book is divided by days of the week, yet each day tells the story of decades on that day, and we see children growing and parents becoming grandparents. In Island Party, the incorporation of birch bark infuses the book with a distinct Maine essence. Similarly, within The Lord of the Rings‘ book cover, the utilization of birch bark underscores the significance of the white tree of Gondor as a symbol of the king’s triumphant return.
The Holga camera leaks light and the plastic lens creates the trademark vignette look that makes the photos dreamy, and 120 film gives the negative a much wider surface area.
Materiality is crucial in enriching student work in both Humanities and graphics. It adds depth and significance to their creations, making their ideas more powerful. By using materials creatively, students can express complex concepts more effectively. This also helps others understand the work better. This approach benefits education as a whole. Encouraging students to actively engage with their learning materials fosters a more complete understanding of the topics. This way of learning combines knowledge, critical thinking, and creativity, shaping well-rounded learners. Recognizing students’ efforts (in contests and Portfolio Night, for example) boosts their confidence and shows them that their work matters more than just the acquisition of a grade. I hear student comments like, “the quality of the work I produce matters more than the grade I receive.” This validation empowers students and encourages a culture of exploration and innovation, benefiting everyone involved.
Maryam Emami, the 2023 Franklin County Teacher of the Year, has been teaching graphics and social studies at Rangeley Lakes Regional School since 1995. With a BA in Asian Studies from the University of Vermont and design training from the School of Visual Arts in New York City, she also holds an MS in Education from the University of Maine at Farmington. Her diverse background includes roles as a designer, photographer, technology integrator, ski coach, and agricultural producer. Committed to innovative education, she fosters inquiry-based learning and interdisciplinary collaboration. As of now, she’s working on a photo-documentary on The Rangeley Region at Work, collaborating with art teacher Sonja Johnson to publish Words of Wisdom: Portraits of Rangeley, and working on a compost system and greenhouse project with science teacher Darlene Woodman. Maryam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Performance tasks tasks are a pedagogical approach that enables students to showcase their learning by connecting concepts, going beyond mere exam success. It involves actively demonstrating understanding through tasks integrating skills, judgment, reflection, and innovation. This approach, as per Wiggins and McTighe, allows students to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and receive feedback to refine their performance and application of knowledge across various contexts.
*Project-based learning involves students creating practical solutions by designing, developing, and constructing hands-on responses to a problem.
*Mctighe and Wiggins are veteran educators who wrote the best-selling Understanding by Design series.
*Student-centered classroom is an instructional approach shifting focus from teacher to student. Students actively engage in their learning, working at their own pace to cultivate independence.
Image at top: Students in Humanities work on their illuminated letter project, 2023 (photo: Maryam Emami).