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Teachers use 'amplifier art' to teach students

Margo Swanson and Jontie Meehan introduce Anne Frank.

By Kaye Hult

Language arts co-teachers Margo Swanson and Jontie Meehan were in a quandary. The eighth grade at Lakes Middle School in Coeur d'Alene was to read The Diary of Anne Frank, written by a teenage Jewish girl in hiding from the Nazis for two years during the Second World War.

They realized that 80 years since Anne lived and wrote, their students lacked background to understand what she described.

So they created a project using amplifier art to help students dig into the meaning of her diary.

"Amplifier art has more meaning than is evident on the surface," Jontie explained.

"Art is more than beauty and decoration. It has the power to serve as a catalyst for change," they wrote in the introduction to the project. "It can unite people with shared values in ways other mediums cannot.

"Art gives us symbols to gather around, builds community and helps us feel like we are not alone. Amplifier art serves as a compass and points the audience to the future we want to live in. We hope these pieces of art will help young people feel represented, listened to and empowered to make the change they want to see in the world."

Margo and Jontie provided  background on World War II and the Holocaust to set the context.

"The students looked at various types of artistic expressions and how they shared messages, such as music videos, street art and poetry," Margo said.

"We provided questions to give them a lens through which to analyze and understand what they were reading," she said.

The questions were:

• To what extent do trauma, tragedy and adversity build resilience?

• What is the role of hope in survival?

• How does the way we treat others reflect who we are?"

Then they read the book, analyzed and discussed it. Even though Margo and Jontie teach a language arts class, the project required the students to create art in response to one of the questions.

They suggested options for the artistic product, such as a "Canva Amplifier Artwork" poster—essentially a collage—or an original art piece, such as a sculpture, 3D model, painting or drawing. More options were to create a poem or a photo series or a video.

amplified art
amplified art

One student, Emerson Rakes, chose to respond to the question, "How does the way we treat others reflect who we are?" She decided to paint and write a poem.

Another student, Zac Kerns, chose the first question, "To what extent do trauma, tragedy and adversity build resilience?" For his artistic product, he put together a series of photographs he had already collected. 

The students analyzed their projects by responding to their chosen question, using evidence from The Diary of Anne Frank or related texts and describing how their artistic piece represented their response to the question.

"Part of the project required putting the students' work before an audience," said Jontie, "to help them realize that what they are doing is life-giving. It also could help to bridge the gap between then and now. I love their 'Aha' moments."

The Gallery Walk, as this is called, consists of two events.

First, in class, everyone's artwork was displayed for all to see. The students separated into small groups, where they presented their projects to their peers.

"The way we treat others reflects who we are by spotlighting our past traumas, personal growth, upbringing and empathy," Emerson wrote in her essay. "Empathy reflects. Here's an example from the Diary of Anne Frank, 'In spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart.'  If Anne, facing systemic hatred, thinks that these people who are quite literally hunting her down are good, doesn't that show how good she was?"

"The project made me think," said Zac of his photo series going from cold and dark to bright.

"Trauma can build resilience as a reference to how strong we are after we've overcome," he wrote in his essay. "My photos demonstrate this. Each has its unique answer to the question, but all connect to a theme of overcoming. Once we overcome trauma, we can look back at how strong we are for overcoming it. Trauma may be strong, but we are stronger."

The second Gallery Walk event is yet to come. The students' art will be displayed during the Friday, Jan. 14 Art Walk at the Human Rights Education Institute (HREI) in Coeur d'Alene. Some student essays will be there for people to read.

"HREI is proud to host the student exhibit and share human rights history through the lens of our young artists," said HREI executive director Jeanette Laster.

"The story of Anne Frank is a powerful reminder of the victims of the horrific Holocaust and how, through lived experiences and storytelling, we can share the importance of sharing compassion, kindness and love," she continued. "It will be our youth who create a world without hate and bigotry through this educational experience."

The artwork will stay up at HREI for six weeks, through the end of February. That time includes Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday, Jan. 27.

The amplifier art project demonstrated the community building that takes place within classrooms of Lakes Middle School, an inclusive school, the teachers said.

"Having special education students included in the regular classroom, with no student knowing who is or is not special education, increases their learning tenfold," Jontie commented.

She works in special education and also co-teaches at Lakes. This is her second year teaching there, her ninth in the Coeur d'Alene School District.

Jontie was born and raised in Alaska. She moved to Coeur d'Alene 10 years ago. She went back to school at 37 to go into education and became certified in K-12 special education and K-8 teaching. She began as a behavioral interventionist. 

Originally from Sandpoint, Margo has been at Lakes for six of the 11 years she has been teaching. She teaches eighth grade language arts. She worked with Teach for America after college and taught English at North High School in Denver, a school with a 95 percent Latino student body. She and her husband moved back to North Idaho to be with family.

"I love challenging students to grow past their expectations," she said.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January, 2022