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Using Art To Help Students Connect With The Environment

Courtesy of Priscilla Stewart

A handful of middle school aged students opted to pause their summer break for a few days of school, swapping out textbooks and classrooms for sketchbooks and mountain views.

I met up with the group of 10 students at a cabin in Big Cottownwood Canyon which served as their home base for the week. They had just finished up an early morning hike and were hard at work in the kitchen making pancakes. 


7th grader Eliza Griffith showed me the sketchbook she kept with her at all times. It was filled with drawings and each one came with a story. The group had been all over Salt Lake County, visiting Red Butte Gardens, a bird exhibit and plenty of moments spent simply soaking in the surroundings.


Eliza only mentioned her sketches as an afterthought. She was much more excited about the things she had seen this week.


“When you make a drawing of a place you sit down, think, kind of meditate and take your time to experience the things around you,” says Priscilla Stewart, an art teacher at a charter school in Draper.


That moment Stewart describes, when she observes students sitting in silence, drawing, meditating and taking in their surroundings, that’s the inspiration for what she’s calling Mountain Art School. It’s a grant-funded project in connection to a master’s degree she is finishing up.


“The first time we were driving up the canyon they just asked so many questions about the canyons about the rocks about the animals about the trees,” Stewart says. “And you definitely wouldn’t get that in a classroom environment.”


Stewart inserted impromptu art history lessons throughout the week and the group was visited by an environmental biologist who discussed the effects of climate change. But Stewart’s favorite moment was one in which she learned something.


The group had driven to the Great Salt Lake to visit the Spiral Jetty. But when the kids jumped out of the car they only acknowledged the art installation for a brief moment and then ran straight into the water to see how deep it was.


“The spiral jetty is a great work of art," Stewart says, but she was reminded that these were kids and that they simply wanted to experience things.


Getting out of the way and letting students have authentic learning experiences. That’s a goal often difficult for classroom teachers to achieve, which is why Stewart took the classroom out of the equation and let her students lead the way.


Lee Hale began listening to KUER while he was teaching English at a Middle School in West Jordan (his one hour commute made for plenty of listening time). Inspired by what he heard he applied for the Kroc Fellowship at NPR headquarters in DC and to his surprise, he got it. Since then he has reported on topics ranging from TSA PreCheck to micro apartments in overcrowded cities to the various ways zoo animals stay cool in the summer heat. But, his primary focus has always been education and he returns to Utah to cover the same schools he was teaching in not long ago. Lee is a graduate of Brigham Young University and is also fascinated with the way religion intersects with the culture and communities of the Beehive State. He hopes to tell stories that accurately reflect the beliefs that Utahns hold dear.
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