The halls of Trails West Elementary School regularly transform into exotic locales, sites that host mythical monsters and fantastic imagery from faraway places.
That's thanks in part to the work of Trails West Art Teacher Jeanne Richins, who's made a focused effort to enrich the school's environment through the creativity and artistic flair of her students. Earlier this school year, she worked with students to build a massive prehistoric cave out of cardboard, yarn and other materials. That fabricated grotto became a canvas for young artists from the school – to align with lessons about the artwork of human beings' earliest ancestors, students scrawled prehistoric mammals, scenes from nature and other imagery on the walls.
More recently, Richins helped organize a unique parade through the Trails West hallways, one that celebrated the Chinese New Year on Jan. 28. Each fifth-grade class at the school constructed their own massive dragon puppet, colorful creations that sported googly eyes, vivid colors and unique designs. Groups of three, four and five students carried the dragons through the hallways, wearing the puppets' giant heads as masks and greeting the younger Trails West kids as they made a circuit of the school.
The celebration, ceremony and creativity of the event was exactly what Richins was hoping to inspire.
"I get crazy ideas sometimes," Richins admitted, adding that the idea for the Chinese New Year parade stemmed in part from recent lessons about Asian cultures and the history of the Silk Road trading route. "I love to tie into the curriculum, and I've assigned a culture to cover with each grade … I try to come up with anything I can think of to help the students more about a culture we're covering."
In this case, Richins worked to gather as many materials as possible to help the students create the massive dragons. Drawing on funding support from the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation, Richins and her students made mythical monsters pulled straight from Chinese mythology out of cardboard, paper plates, paint and other easy-to-find materials.
It was an artistic effort that resonated with the fifth-graders, as well as all the other students and teachers who lined the halls on Jan. 28 to watch the creatures pass by.
"I have never seen the kids so engaged," she said. "I had kids who liked gym more than art class who were staying after school and asking to come in during lunch and planning periods. I've never seen that kind of excitement."
During the month that the students worked on the project, they picked up important lessons in a wide range of topics. In addition to the art lessons that undergirded the effort, the crafting process incorporated learning rooted in construction, engineering, culture and geography.
"I love to tell them stories about Chinese legends and stories," Richins said, adding that the fifth-graders' enthusiasm spread to their peers. "We cruised all of the hallways twice for the parade. What made me so happy was seeing the lift on the fifth-graders' faces to see their art validated and hear the other kids cheering them on."