The Phoenicia School 4th Grade Residency
A year ago, I applied for and received a generous grant from the Dutchess County Arts Council. The grant paid for me to teach a six-week residency in Onteora School district, in Phoenicia Elementary School’s fourth grade. My job as a teaching author/illustrator was to augment the regular spring curriculum. New York State History was the subject, and we decided to focus on local history. I began reading about the Stony Clove Valley where the school stands, 147 years after the first settlers, Frank & Lemuel Chichester, came to the valley to build a furniture factory. Here they found abundant hardwoods and a stream to power their factory. The Chichester Chair & Cradle Factory was established in 1865.
History is not an easy subject for nine- and ten-year-olds. We began by assigning subtopics to pairs of students who worked together to create one page of a class history book. The book is titled, “How the Land Shaped History and History Shaped the Land”. Focusing on the industries and trades that first attracted people to the central Catskills, we researched our subjects in the computer lab. Each child began with questions: Why was bluestone quarried in our area? What kind of community grew up around the furniture factory? What did blacksmiths do? What role did hemlock tanneries play in the local economy? What plants were foraged for medicine? When did tourism in the Catskill Mountains begin? Where was the first ski slope opened? We gathered as much information as possible on the internet and from library books.
Now it was time to use what we learned. Each child tried to write a cohesive paragraph about the history of their trade. We played “editor” and critiqued each other’s work, always returning to the basics of good communication. Then we started our sketches. Initial sketches were done in pencil on tracing paper. It was hard for the children to keep these simple. A good sketch should only establish size, shape, and placement of visual images. All the kids were eager to fill in details and textures.
After our sketches were complete, we taped them up on the windows and traced the outlines onto sturdier drawing paper. Coloring was fun, although some students found it challenging to draw animals, plants, and buildings accurately. Some children were highly motivated and did a very thorough job on their drawings. Overall, I was impressed with their work and very proud of the result.
You can view our class history book here!
In addition to the class book, we wanted to make a mural from the writing and art we created. For the mural background, I made a paper collage of a rocky stream tumbling down between mountains. Then the class decorated this collage with trees and plants. Finally we mounted it on the wall and added all the images and text of our individual subtopics. The mural is a wealth of information!
This was a major assignment for young students, and I think they came away from the project with a real sense of accomplishment. I know I learned a lot about the history of our community. If you look at the class book, I bet you’ll learn something too!
Special thanks to teacher Cindy Scherry, who manages the entire fourth grade as one large class. Her flexibility and patience were remarkable. These children are fortunate to have Mrs. Scherry as their teacher, and I was fortunate to work with her.
And thanks to DCAC, I’ll be teaching another residency beginning next week at the Rosendale Elementary School. Using my book WHILE YOU ARE SLEEPING, our focus will be time zones and cultures around the world. I’ll also be teaching again next year in the Onteora school district, this time with seventh graders. We will be writing and illustrating about stream wildlife in our Esopus Creek, which flows across the street from the middle school. I’ll be working with the students’ biology teacher and art teacher – a great combination!
Thanks also to Eve Madalengoitia of DCAC; to the Phoenicia PTA for their assistance with corollary expenses; and to substitute and assistant teachers who helped facilitate the project.
Click here to find out more about Durga Yael Bernhard’s children’s books.