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Community Action through Collaboration and Art: An Experiential Learning Initiative at Wellan

Voyager students paint a mural to raise awareness of food insecurity in Newton.

As we come to the end of another school year at Wellan Montessori School, we feel proud of all our students as we look back at how much they have grown and accomplished this year. From research, to creative writing, to experiential learning projects, our students approached academic challenges with the kind of confidence and intrinsic motivation the School strives to instill in them. One such project completed this year by Wellan’s Middle School Voyager students — who collaborated with three local nonprofit organizations to raise awareness about food insecurity through art — illustrates how Wellan’s curricular balance between freedom and responsibility equips students with the motivation and executive functioning skills necessary to take on challenges with a spirit of adventure.

Voyager students worked with Artists for Humanity, the Newton Community Farm, and Centre Street Food Pantry to design and create a mural depicting the increase in visits to the Pantry since 2016, raising awareness about food insecurity in Newton and neighboring towns.

Hands-on learning is a staple of the Montessori philosophy of education. Having limited ability to go out into the community on field trips during the past two years due to the pandemic, Julia Tatsch, Middle School Program Designer and Humanities Teacher, began thinking of alternative ways for her students to participate in projects that would sustain the adventurous, innovative spirit of Wellan’s Middle School program. This inspired her to contact Artists for Humanity, a nonprofit organization based out of Boston that provides under-resourced teens opportunities to achieve self-sufficiency through art and design. After Lizzy Mayer, STEAM to Schools Director at Artists for Humanity, invited Julia and several other Wellan teachers to tour the building and attend an open studio event, the Voyager teaching team was inspired by the passion they saw in the incredible artwork by young local artists. Thus, the project began.

The first step in starting the project was finding a client. This brought the Voyager team to the Newton Community Farm and the Centre Street Food Pantry, both organizations with whom they had previously collaborated. In the fall, Voyager students volunteered with the Pantry during Thanksgiving, when they delivered goods collected from Wellan’s school-wide food drive and helped stock and organize the products. They decided that food insecurity was an issue they were passionate about, and they wanted to complete a mural for the Pantry to raise awareness of increased food insecurity right here in Newton. Calum, an eighth grade student, shared his thoughts:

“. . . even before the global pandemic, food insecurity was rising. While spending time at the Pantry is still very helpful, art spreads a message in a way that even hours of work cannot. The Middle School students of Wellan Montessori School decided that in order to serve their community, they wanted to create a mural, raising awareness about food insecurity.”

Preliminary ideas and sketches for the mural drawn by the Voyager students.

The Voyager students spent six weeks designing and creating the mural on their own. To begin, they interviewed the Centre Street Food Pantry about what they wanted and needed from the project. Kathi Martuza, Voyager Integrated Learning Support Teacher, commented on how the Voyagers appreciated the experience of servicing a client: “The food pantry was our client, and the kids loved that part. That’s what AFH promotes: it’s not just about what you want in the mural, it’s about what the client wants and what they need, and you have to take that into account.”

Throughout the process of creating the design, the students kept in contact with mentors at Artists for Humanity via Zoom, who helped them polish their ideas into a final product. The landscape of the green hills in the background of their final design depicts the rise and recent influx of household visits to the Centre Street Food Pantry from 2016 to 2021. This aspect of the mural was inspired by the work of Jill Pelto, an artist who incorporates climate change statistics into watercolor paintings. The silhouettes featured in the design are those of the Voyager students of this year's Middle School class.

Dr. Montessori believed in giving adolescents opportunities to experience their own self-worth and value through work and educational experiences. Kathi Martuza reflected on how this project achieved that:

“I have seen an increase in community awareness over the course of the project — the students have been able to see the impact they can have even in 7th grade. It’s easy to just move through the curriculum, which is what most schools do, but a project like this teaches children their value in the world… It brings back the magic of what learning can be.”

Wellan is so proud not only of the incredible final result that the Voyagers created, but also of their character development and increased community engagement that we have had the privilege to witness over the course of this project.

The completed mural displayed at the Newton Community Farm.


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