It’s just another Thursday morning for this classroom of 8th grade CPS students. But little do they know they are in for an awakening experience.
“Okay, I’ve been in the room for maybe 15 minutes…I want you to write down 5 questions you want to ask me.” — Cecil McDonald Jr.
Those questions are the beginning of an interactive journey, an artistic endeavor, aimed at having Old Town middle-school students tell their personal stories through intimate, interpersonal interactions. Students from three different schools will interview and photograph each other as a way to externalize their personal narrative.
Each student will then use their photographs for the building material to create a kite as an embodiment of their discovery. In May, all of the students will get together and fly their kites, share their stories with the world, and display a comprehensive record of what it means to be part of the Old Town community.
Cecil’s request is the beginning of this art project. And what’s the best way to start a conversation and dive deeper into telling meaningful stories?
One question you may be asking is, “Who is Cecil McDonald Jr. ?”
Cecil is the artist in residence at Art on Sedgwick. He is an artist, a visual artist, working mainly with photography and video whose work has been displayed all over the world and all over Chicago. Cecil is also a professor at Columbia College and this morning he’s at the Franklin Fine Arts Center to launch the beginning of this amazing project he put together alongside Art on Sedgwick.
For the next two months, Art on Sedgwick and Cecil are facilitating this multimedia, multidisciplinary project for students in the neighborhood. The first step, and probably the most important, is for students to work together, interview each other, and dive into developing their personal stories.
Students will be paired up with other students and adult community members from different schools. Once partnered up, they will interview each other — much like they did to Cecil this morning. They’ll sit down with a stranger and find out about their lives. They’ll ask each other questions, open-ended questions, to let the storytelling and discovery flow.
It’s a beautiful project. Cecil’s vision is to show students the art of storytelling, the art of communication, the art of talking with strangers to understand yourself. This project goes full circle and is a perfect reflection of the interconnectedness and interdisciplinary characteristics of art, and the Old Town Community in itself.
Some of the students immediately put their pen to paper and started writing down questions for Cecil. A couple looked around, maybe not sure how to start. Some of the students flew through all five questions. Others paused after the first one. What was certain, though, was that Cecil’s exercise engaged all of these students and put them in a mindset that was perfectly aligned with the organized chaos of the classroom we were in.
The art room at Franklin has a special energy. A unique place within the school setting. It has a refreshing and purposeful essence. Mrs. Koreman, the art teacher at Franklin, and her student teacher Jenna flowed around the room with a relaxed purposefulness that reflects the importance, and passion, they have towards art and education. They are serious about it, but it’s not stuffy. It’s meaningful. Art is important to them, teaching students through art is their passion, and this morning you could tell they were extremely excited about Cecil’s exercise and the project the kids were about to start.
Cecil gave the kids about 2-minutes to write down the five questions and moved on to the interviewing phase. He pulled out a recorder and placed it in the middle of the table. He had the students ask their questions, quickly moving from one to another in rapid fire mode. No room for being shy here.
The rest of the session was spent going through different photographs Cecil created, showing how stories are told through art. The session ended with an amazing photo, probably my favorite of the entire set. Two kids in a room, shades down, full of records all around them. On the left side of the room was a big, white, roman column. On top of this column, or pillar, was a record player and one of the girls playing with it. On the right side of the room was the other girl, holding a record sideways and carefully observing it. Next to her stood the cover of Funkadelic’s album, Maggot Brain.
Cecil pulled out his recorder and asked the students to start writing questions again, this time about the photograph. They all diligently started writing and were quick to ask their questions, all together creating the story of the last photograph.
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The session ended soon after as the energized students wandered over to their next class. This icebreaker and introduction clearly left the students stimulated and motivated to create.