Jefferson students explore world cultures with gallery
by Margaret Hurlbert
May 25, 2023

MUSCATINE, Iowa–As the school year ended, sixth grade students at Jefferson Elementary School looked beyond their town to explore the question, “How do we become who we are?” In an interdisciplinary study, students culminated their learning with the exhibit Global Perspectives: A Portrait Gallery for the public on May 25.

Students started learning about culture by exploring their own. Then, teachers connected them with friends, relatives, and neighbors, in and out of Muscatine County, who came from different cultures to do interviews. Though many students had to conduct their interviews virtually because of distance and time constraints, several volunteers visited the school and talked to the young people in person.

Following the interviews, students created attribute analyses to compare the culture of the people they interviewed to their own. Then students worked with their art teacher, Wendy Waltert Stansbery, to create pieces for the gallery. First, students made books exploring their cultures, using collages and mixed media elements to talk about their lives and interests. Then, they created large portraits of the person they interviewed, often incorporating collage elements to highlight aspects of that person’s culture. Because of the scale of the paintings, Waltert Stansbery had students use their hands and fingers to paint all but the finest details. Students took pride in their work, often putting in time outside of class to complete them. In the end, Waltert Stansbery felt they turned out beautifully, “I think they’re great for the amount of time they had,” she shared.

On the day of the gallery, students displayed all their work in the Muscatine Performing Art Center’s (the former Central Middle School’s) gym and invited the public to peruse them. They also spoke with guests about their work, teaching them what they learned. Sixth grade teacher Stacy Beatty found the students in top form that day. “It has surpassed my expectations and anything I could have thought of,” she said.

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Isabelle Koehler and Bryann Waltert with their portrait in the Global Perspectives: A Portrait Gallery exhibit. Photo by Margaret Hurlbert.

Students interviewed people from a vast array of places. Isabelle Koehler and Bryann Waltert presented about Ronda Estey, a member of the Ojibwe Tribe. In their interview with her, they learned about the symbols of the Ojibwe Tribe, specific art forms they practice, such as beading and quilting, and when they wear traditional ceremonial dress versus modern American clothing. The students found their research eye-opening. Isabelle shared she found it interesting, “that they are so similar but so different.”

Austin Hunt and Jillian Gordin interviewed Knud Ullerup, an immigrant from Denmark who first came to the United States as an international student and later ended up staying. Ullerup got involved with the project when his friend, Becky Holland, shared that her niece’s grade needed people from different cultures to interview. Ullerup enjoyed coming to Jefferson to let the kids learn from him and returning to see their final presentations. “I couldn’t even imagine what they put together,” he observed.

Ullerup felt the unit and gallery helped broaden all the students’ horizons. “If nothing else, they must realize the world is bigger than Muscatine is,” he said.