As a science teacher for thirty years at Gardiner Area High School in Gardiner, Maine, traditional education has dictated that evaluations generally be in the form of a paper and pencil exam that basically assesses memorized information. Research, however, clearly indicates that integrating art is beneficial for neurological development and is highly effective in evaluating critical thinking, individuality, originality, and creativity. Incorporating visual arts into my curriculum, book arts in particular, has not only increased scores and student engagement in my classes, but helped me “get the picture.”

In the fall of 2019, I began analyzing lab biology test scores from the previous years. I continued to note that students that had been successful in daily work, quizzes, lab work, and other formative assessments were not doing as well as anticipated on summative assessments. Formative assessments indicated the students understood the concepts, yet test scores were not meeting my expectations. Were the tests poorly written? I edited and revamped several with no real change in the results. Was stress the issue? Students reported high levels of anxiety when taking timed or high-stake tests. They also felt stressed with lab reports and projects, but they scored well on them. I eventually determined that a larger proportion of students simply didn’t test well. Things were out of balance.

Earlier that summer for my own personal learning, I had taken a couple of classes at the University of Southern Maine Summer Book Arts Workshop that was run by Rebecca Goodale. Staying true to my science roots, I decided to experiment with my lab bio students and use a cascading book as a summative assessment for the phytoplankton unit. Replacing the typical paper and pencil test, I instead handed students a project descriptor detailing requirements of a handmade book: name of plankton, the food web of the plankton, actual size in microns, an illustration depicting the species, characteristics of the species, and a free choice option. The results—amazing! I was truly blown away with the quality of work. Images were beautifully hand-drawn, the information on each species exceeded the standard, and the layout or designs were astonishing. Then COVID hit.

After being sent home on 13 March, I started getting messages from students asking questions about their books: when were they going to get their books back, were the books safe in the building, and could they stop by and get them if they wore a mask? I had never been asked if a test was safe in our school building. I instantly knew this could be a gigantic shift.

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Plankton Books from Sharon Gallant’s Lab Biology class.


Within a few days, I had organized a book arts professional development opportunity for the teachers in my building to share this potential game changer. For forty-five hours, over a period of six weeks, we worked in my science lab with windows open, ten feet away from each other, and only touching our own tools. These teachers quickly saw the benefit. One of the participants was our librarian, Debra Butterfield. Debra, my partner in all things wonderful, suggested writing a grant to purchase supplies to truly incorporate this form of assessment into our high school curriculum.

Debra and I received a $5000 grant from the Oak Grove Foundation and we immediately set to work. The premise was simple; each teacher would share the content and we would provide all of the material to make the book, and come to the educator’s room to teach how to create the structure of the book. Teachers assisting in other teacher’s rooms for the benefit of our students—unheard of in my high school! Suddenly, previously closed doors were opening and relationships between content areas were exploding. The culture in our building shifted dramatically. That was just the beginning. Student volunteers in the library became part of the project by cutting the paper and assembling materials. They soon started to form their own peer group and it was “cool” to be found hanging out in the library. Enthusiasm spread rampantly throughout our school and because our program was so successful, the Oak Grove Foundation gave us another $5000 to continue. With this money, we invested in take-home bags so students who couldn’t finish in class, because they were so invested in doing it to the best of their ability, could have supplies at home. It was common to have thirty or more bags signed out as students worked diligently to create a book that allowed them to show what they had learned.

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Meal Tower Books from Patty Young’s French 3 class.

As a result of the incredible shift, more teachers signed on and we were asked to display books at our district’s K–12 Art Extravaganza, our yearly art exhibit. We accepted with the condition that everyone’s book be displayed. When I asked one particular student if it was okay for me to display her book, she looked at me with huge eyes and said, “You want my book? No one has ever asked to show my work.” I had to step back for a second. There are moments in teaching that throw you off balance and this was one of them. How did she get to be a sophomore, and in all those years, not feel as though anything she had done was worthy?

Book art changes the onus from what the teacher wants to see they have learned to what the student wants to show what they understood. A visible shift to student-centered learning.

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Middle East Country books from Dominic Foster’s class.

In our third year now, book art has become a staple in our building as an alternative form of assessment. Our principal believes so deeply in it that he added a line in our school’s budget for an annual amount of $2000 to be spent. Our students are excited about trying new book structures and more teachers join in each semester.

For me, the changes have been the most meaningful in my thirty years of teaching. Watching students create, seeing teachers collaborate and invite other teachers into their classrooms, and hearing the pride in student voices about finally being able to show what they know has changed me. Come to find out, balance is something you find, it is something you create. By integrating visual arts into my classroom, students are demonstrating comprehension artistically to express their thoughts and higher-order skills and creating stunning works of art. Get the picture?

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Decades of books from Susan Leclair’s class.

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Susan LeClair’s books at Art Extravaganza.

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Inside of a Great Depression Book.

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Mrs. Allard’s Country books.

Sharon Gallant, the 2023 Kennebec County Teacher of the Year, has taught science at Gardiner Area High School since 1998, and facilitated many professional workshops for educators at all grade levels. Certified K–8 and 7–12 in life and physical science, her master’s degree is in geosciences from Mississippi State University. She is recognized for a teaching style that is participatory, interdisciplinary, and academically sound. She is also a Maine Master Naturalist, outdoor enthusiast, handmade book artist, avid reader, and keen observer. She can be reached at


Image at top: Students working on books.