School’s volunteer-led effort taps students’ creativity

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The first-grade students listened patiently and watched as parent-volunteers used a Smartboard to explain the purpose and method of making prayer flags common in Tibet.

Next, they received a sample of symbols they could draw on their colorful square flag. Ella Torrez chose a fleur de lis "because I live in St. Louis and also because I like Mary because she's nice to the baby Jesus," she said.

Classmate Margaret Barnes chose a cross "because it's Lent and Jesus died on the cross," she said. "I want people to remember that." Margaret wanted to send a message for "people to be happy and so nobody hurts anyone."

Five years ago, St. Margaret of Scotland School established a volunteer-led art program called Art@SMOS because the school lacked a formal art program. Today the school has a part-time art teacher for the upper grades, but kindergarten through second grades still rely on parent volunteers.

About 25 volunteers help — generally three volunteer teachers per classroom, six per grade, with lessons about twice a month. Mary Lisa Penilla developed and tested lesson plans, and two moms are co-coordinators of the program this year: Valerie Hahn, who has a first-grader and third-grader in the school; and Kim Thoma, who has a second-grader. They make sure supplies are purchased and prepared for the students.

"It would take a classroom teacher a lot of time to do this, all this prep work, and it would take time away from other things," Thoma said.

The parents enjoy their involvement in the school, and the students look forward to the art lessons, which include basic art concepts, techniques and background on artists. The first- and third-grade children of volunteer Shannon Grass recently returned home talking about geometric shapes of famous artists. "Look at you — you paid attention," she told them.

Each grade develops a unique project tailored to their age, but students participate in a school-wide art project for Youth Art Month each March. Past projects include a giant weaving that now hangs in the school lobby, a Dale Chihuly-inspired chandelier made of plastic cups that hangs in the stairwell and flowers made of recycled plastic that hung outside on the building and on a fence. The project this year was the prayer flags, creating art that can be displayed as a public community project and sometimes including parishioners' participation.

With the prayer flags and other projects, the school teaches students about cultures and religions around the world — about Tibetan monks, Mexican papel picado and more. This also acknowledges a diverse community and expresses healing and prayers of goodwill.

"I think we're all agreeing that prayers are something that the wider community needs right now," Hahn said. "I think the kids will feel good about doing something unique to help make that happen."

Grass stressed the importance of her children learning that religions around the world are "united in the sense of good wishes, peace, hope and love."

The lessons "only make my Catholic faith and my roots at St. Margaret of Scotland stronger," she said. "I want my children to grow up to think that as Catholic people we love and respect and support people of all religions." 

>> Art education

Mary Lisa Penilla recalls that art education five years ago at St. Margaret of Scotland School was conducted by classroom teachers.

The parish community had enough volunteers who had the talent, time and energy to help "introduce our children to a deeper understanding and love of art," she said. They built on other parent-led art education models, and were pleased with the program's results.

"When we started putting the kids' artwork up on the walls it got other parents, faculty and administration on board, and now art is really a key part of what we do at St. Maragret's," Penilla said. 

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