SchoolArts Room

May/June SchoolArts: Ecology

By Nancy Walkup, posted on Apr 10, 2011

So far my students haven’t complained about all our bird-themed projects this year.

We’ve explored birdhouses, mixed media birds, clay owls, and other birds in nests, penguin collages, and prints. This all started when I received a grant to purchase enough recycled birdhouses for my entire fifth grade. A considerate company called GreenBird makes these from recycled paper. (Good for Birds. Good for the Earth. Good for You.)  The birdhouses are intended for actual use but the questions they prompted for exploring ecological issues may be their most lasting value for my students.

There is a reason canaries were used in coal mines; birds are often the most susceptible of creatures to environmental toxins from fertilizers and pesticides and to loss of habitat. For all these reasons, birds seemed like an engaging focus to approach a theme of Ecology, the study of the way that living organisms interact with their environment. And it seems clear that humans have most impacted our environment, for better and for worse.

I adapted some of GreenBird’s instructional materials as questions to guide inquiry with my students: “What are some positive things humans do to the environment around us?” “What are some negative things humans do to the environment around us?” “How have artists depicted these concerns? And more specifically, “What can you do to make the world a better place for birds?”

One of the artists I featured in our study of birds was Mark Dion, a contemporary artist (guest speaker at NAEA in Seattle in April and featured in April 2011 SchoolArts) whose work investigates ideas of nature through ecological issues. Birds appear in a number of his installations, known for their combination of natural science collections with taxidermy animals and found objects. Dion’s admiration of Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon provided me with additional ornithological artists to include in our classroom inquiry.

Now I’m back to bird watching out my window, hopeful you will use Mark Dion’s tools of humor, irony, and metaphor and SchoolArts’ articles this month to explore ecological issues with your students.