Eighth grade teacher Kelly Waters is conducting a literature class in a dimly lit, crowded brick attic. That’s the way it seems, anyway. In truth, the bricks are painted on boards and the dimness is because the classroom lights are turned down low.
But it achieves the desired effect. When asked how the environment makes them feel, her students use words like “gloomy” and “foreboding.”
“I kind of feel like I’m in the house with all of them,” said one student. “I have the feeling of having to be quiet all the time.”
Which is exactly what Waters and art teacher Doug DePice intended.
“We’re in the process right now of reading the play ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ ” said Waters. “We’re actually listening to it because I like them to hear.”
“We thought of working together because we wanted to emotionalize it,” said DePice. “We wanted to do it on a much more guttural level. I tried to create an environment for the kids that’s not just abstract. I wanted them to feel it.”
“At this age they’re very visual,” added Waters.
Getting into it
DePice, a professional artist as well as a teacher, has been running interdisciplinary classes since 1995 when he received a Dodge Foundation grant, using art to engage students in subjects such as math, science, and history.
The current project began its genesis about a year ago at a teacher workshop, where DePice and Waters brainstormed on ways to work together. Nothing happened at the time, but some months later Waters mentioned she was planning a class on Anne Frank.
“I said I’d love to try to do a piece or two,” said DePice. “I really got into it.”
Working at the time on creating fake brick backdrops for a school production of West Side Story, DePice noted that “They really looked like sections of the wall of the Warsaw ghetto. And I thought this really would create a feeling of confinement.”
“I tried to create an environment for the kids that’s not just abstract. I wanted them to feel it.” –Doug DePice
“I tried to express in the pieces some of the psychological struggle, the torment. I taped some of the paper up to start drawing and there was a tear at the top of the paper. I taped the tear, and the light bulb went off, so I drew with the tape as a symbol of bondage and confinement – charcoal on top of the tape, the tape on top of the charcoal. It’s a weird thing, it looks so interesting.”
Altogether, DePice created 11 brick panels and eight artwork depictions of Anne Frank. “We made it like a little gallery,” said Waters. “[The students] came in, they had no idea it was set up like this. We had done this the day before so it was very shocking for them. If you bring it to a real life situation for them, they’re ready to understand the atrocity. Before, it’s very surface for them. They really don’t get it. But introducing these things and getting them to feel the way that Doug created these, it’s a deeper understanding, a fuller understanding.”
In a thoughtful and perceptive class discussion, the students discussed the pieces of artwork that spoke to them personally and the things they felt in common with Anne Frank, such as questions of identity and conflicts with parents. The images for them evoked darkness and pain, a sense of being trapped, fractured, and fragmented. And also a sense of heroism.
“I don’t know how someone can treat someone like that,” said a female student. “I don’t know how I’d feel if I couldn’t express myself.”
“This really added so much more to it,” said Waters after the class. “We have to do this more. We’re already on to the next project. I’m thinking of doing ‘The Outsiders.’ Bring back these walls for ‘The Outsiders.’ ”
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.