Bulb Archived: Waters SCALE 2017-2018: Stempel, Mendoza & Perez

School Name: J. Thomas Water Elementary School

Teacher Name: Rachel Stempel

Teaching Artist Name: Juan-Carlos Perez

Big Idea: Switching Roles From Student To Teacher

Inquiry: As an ESL student, can teaching Spanish make you a better English speaker?

1. Planning: What interests and curiosities were brought to the planning by each of you? 

Teacher response: My main interest is to explore ways that each project provides opportunities for improving English. I’m curious to see how I can challenge those I feel are a level or two above the average and still continue to address those who have difficulties with a particular skill, like spelling for example. 

We added two new projects after teaching Spanish.  Juan Carlos suggested working with clay,  referencing the works of  a variety indigenous groups in Mexico’s early history, those contemporaries of the Mayans and Aztecs such as the Totonacs, Zapotecs, Miztecs, Nahuas, etc.  Our students were familiar with most Mexican cultures and took pleasure in the creations represented in several texts from a variety of Mexican history art books such as The National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico, Aztec Art, etc.  I saw this as an opportunity to try expository writing.  We have previously written scripts for plays and accounts of our journeys to the U.S., but writing exposition requires research, note taking, and explaining the information one has learned without copying. Building paragraphs is challenging because it requires details rather than generalities and presenting facts in a logical sequence.

“A long time ago . . . 

During the prehistoric age the people invented containers to carry food and water for the community. The materials they used to create the containers were clay and water and fire.

My vessel was inspired by love. I made a little heart to keep jewelry safe.

The technique: I used clay, water, a small rolling pin an my hands. I made two shapes of hearts, one for the top and another for the bottom. Then I rolled some coils. the first was a long line the size of the container. I cut the edges and closed it like the ring. I alternated my thicker coils with little coils between and stacked them. I “brushed” the coils with my fingers to make the lines disappear and to make the final container smooth with no open lines.”  – Gema

Our last project again involved a kind of clay different from the one we had used earlier.  This time we were stretching our imaginations to create our own fantasy-inspired animals, alebrijes. Like Pedro Linares, the creator of alebrijes,  we looked to our dreams to create mystical animals, an owl with strange ears for example. We talked about our fantastical dreams and who or what inspired them. Students were asked to describe their alebrijes and write about their inspirations.

Alebrijes our students made along with their writings/

“In my dreams my wings are clipped!

In my real life I am very sensitive because I feel strong emotions about the people in my life. Emotions of pain and of the deception of life.

My friends, in my dreams, I will go to a beautiful, magical place and we will celebrate every day without pain. I also have a magical fantasy of a colorful, magic spirit like my Alebrije”

Teaching Artist response: I felt that our students were falling into some very familiar grammar issues they have had in the past: past, present and future tense vocabulary structure, translating and narrating, speaking English in-school and outside of school social settings, etc. Our students have already taken this on and have passed and created some pretty amazing art projects/experiences based of the ESL subject matter. They’re English is always phenomenal by the end of the school year. So why are we here at the beginning of the NEW school year and our ESL students are back to square one when they have already shown they can do it? They are getting too comfortable and it was time to shake things up again! So for the 1st part of our project this year we had our students teach Spanish to the English population, have one of our class members teach her own project such as knitting, while we created prints.

 For the Spring we had our students  work with clay, referencing the works of a variety indigenous groups in Mexico’s early history, those contemporaries of the Mayans and Aztecs such as the Totonacs, Zapotecs, Miztecs, Nahuas, etc. Our students were familiar with most Mexican cultures and took pleasure in the creations represented in several texts from a variety of Mexican history art books such as The National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico, Aztec Art, etc. Our Students were also introduced to Alebrijes a Mexican folk art created by Pedro Linares. 

We had the opportunity  to view the work of Mexican Artist, Esperanza Gama,  whose work, sculpture and painting,  is exhibited at The National Mexican Museum of Art in Pilsen here in Chicago. She made a special trip to meet with our class and to tell the story of how she knew at nine that she wanted to be an artist,  took her first art lessons at 16.  She spoke to us about how she had been on vacation in Europe at the age of 17 and while there took the initiative to not go back to Mexico but to continue on her own to explore her life and her investigational art process. A very hard decision for a woman to make at a time when women (especially Mexican women) were expected to continue their traditional role in society implemented by a traditional, culturally, dominant masculine ideal.   Our students could sympathize with her about the difficulty a young Mexican woman would have going against their parents to travel so far on their own. Our parent group were inspired by her art and her strength as a woman. 

2. The Project: Tell the story of your project. What happened in the classroom?  

Vicki taking on the role of the teacher.

1st part of our project: 

We decided it was time for Vicki, our ESL Teaching Assistant of many years to teach her own class. She has excelled as a ESL student and as an artist (starting an art business of her own). Being part of class planning and putting projects together with us, it was time for her to brainstorm an area in the arts to teach, write a curriculum and implement it–IN ENGLISH!

Vicki called her class “Vicki’s Knitt-Knatt Club”. Her class was in 2 parts. 

1st part: Intro lesson taught us how to knit a small square, 4×4 inches.

 2nd part of the project we each knitted our own scarf.

Vicki took responsibility for bringing the materials.  She explained how needles and yarn were suited for our particular project.  As in other projects there was a new vocabulary to learn; gauge, cast on, cast off, purl, knit, stitch, etc.


3rd part of our ESL project: I had hoped we would sit around the table and converse in English, like in an old-fashioned sewing circle. It was difficult to keep the group from lapsing into Spanish though Juan Carlos and I nagged a lot.  I decided instead to read some folktales and keep the discussion focused on what the morals of the stories might teach.

In our second project, we created a class in Spanish that our regular students would teach.

We had our students put together a lesson on how to teach basic Spanish to English speaking parents in the Waters School community–AND TEACH IT! Our students had to review past lessons that helped them learn the English language and create similar learning structures and translate them into Spanish. A,B,C’s: 1,2,3’s: Name: Address, etc. Then they had to practice and translate what they were going to teach in English. As for the art portion, our students designed A,B,C flash picture cards that could be used to teach the alphabet. We also created sentence word structure games suggested by a student who recalled that she liked them. Juan Carlos created a project about learning how to carve linoleum  to make prints.  

Learning how to engrave on linoleum.

This was something English and Spanish learners could do together.  Not only did we make prints, we formed our own joint community.

Our students learned many different ways create line images that best fit the printmaking technique.

In our 4th project-carrying over into the rest of the spring  we had our students work with clay, researched a variety indigenous groups (and their art) in Mexico’s early history, those contemporaries of the Mayans and Aztecs such as the Totonacs, Zapotecs, Miztecs, Nahuas, (and more). 


Our students were familiar with many of these indigenous group. They studied the many different clay art forms specific to certain regions of mexico.  

Our students learned to create vessels out of clay using coiling technique similar to the Mayan people. Students researched many ceramic art forms from a variety of indigenous groups in Mexico.

Our Students were also introduced to Alebrijes a Mexican folk art created by Pedro Linares which was used to inspire the creation of their own fantasical-magical creatures. The beautiful Mexican inspired folk art prompted eloquent personal writings true to the creative voice of the student.

Our students decided to make their own Alebrijes out of clay.

“Sitting by the window

I gave a look to the sky

And I was grateful of another day

Time to sleep

Just past, wonderful tiny wings appear on my back

Woo, the view is beautiful and the feeling on my face

Is soft and very clean.

I see green, very green around me

There us a path between the trees

Flowers, flowers everywhere

I am flying!

My magic dream

Magic wings and freedom!” – Lupe

Students researched many different types of Alebrije designs and patterns that helped them come up with their own. Students had earlier in the year met artisans from Mexico at The National Mexican Museum of Art. 
Our Alebrijes embodied a spirit that no one could quite describe. They became very special instantly.

“I had a dream that my parents were with me.

I was so happyI had parents again,

But when I woke up I realized that it was a dream,

And I was really sad and cried.” – Paz

3. How did you check in throughout the project to plan and adjust plans as the project unfolded?

Teacher Response: We taught Spanish on Thursdays and on Tuesdays we reviewed with our students the things that worked or did not work in our Spanish class. We used this time to prep for our Spanish and to continue our ESL students’ English learning.  Our students also continued to learn new ways to work with the art of linoleum printmaking. This prepped them to teach it to our English speaking students who wanted to learn Spanish. In one way or the other we were ALL teaching in English. Our students spoke Spanish, Greek, French and Spanish so English became the common language. We thought it be best for ALL of us to plan together.

By the third week, we had lost 2 of our English speaking students.  It meant I had to become a more active participant.  That wasn’t difficult because I need a lot of help with Spanish. I was concerned that our reduced numbers might diminish the success of our effort.  However after the class concluded we had a discussion with our Spanish teachers and Juan Carlos pointed out that they had the experience of successfully switching roles.  They took the responsibility of helping their students learn to identify, pronounce, and use new Spanish words. Juan Carlos asked how each felt about teaching.  Responses were positive. They were impressed with how fast their students learned.

As the weeks have flown by and students converse more casually in English, I have noticed some serious grammar mistakes, ones that make English teachers cringe, but ones that students often hear on the street.   Two common problems are double negatives and misusing subjective and objective pronouns.  So I’ve been stopping students when I hear mistakes or reporting something I have heard or read, teaching grammar in short doses. Our parents want to speak correctly.

On our last day of formal class, I brought in some level 4 English Learning Texts, explaining that I felt students had made great strides and we would try some more advanced English ( Present Perfect).  The formal designations are often off-putting. “How long have you been living on Wilson Ave.?”  “How long have you been studying ESL?” The responses require past participles, ” I have been studying English for 5 years.” I was surprised at the students’ interest and wished I had brought in those books earlier.

 What are the conflicts, contradictions or challenges of your teacher/artist collaboration? 

Teacher response: I guess we have learned to zig and zag so much that differences hardly seem like conflicts.  Most recently there was some whining that carving linoleum was going to be too difficult.  (I thought it would be for me) But Juan Carlos said we would have to try anyway.  I could hardly believe how beautiful the finished prints were.  I laughed internally when he said mine had a lot of “personality.” (I recognized his strategy immediately.  I’ve used it myself on others.) Still I was reminded how important it is to be tough, especially with English.

Time is usually a concern.  We have the luxury of being able to add a little time at the end of the class.  Both of us watch the clock and understand the needs of the other.  In the long run I believe we come out even.

Teaching Artist response: We have so many creative ideas and sometimes it’s hard to hone-in on one project. We also have a lot of past project ideas logged. We skim over them every year and add to it. Some times we are creating a project that we worked over from a past idea. Rachel and I have some of our favorites and we warmly fight over which ones to do. There is never enough time in the year to do them all. And we keep coming up with new ones all the time. 

Sometimes Rachel is teaching and I notice an area where the students get stuck. Our students will speak to one another under their breath (in Spanish) if they don’t understand. They forget that I am listening. I sometimes interrupt Rachel and will ask her to explain or if its something that is due to a cultural mis-understanding then she will patiently give me time to translate and explain. Sometimes this can take a bit of time away from her lesson but she is patient and understanding.

5. What are you learning as a result of collaborating with one another in terms of teaching and art making? 

Teacher response: I love participating in the art projects.  I enjoy watching Juan Carlos go around the table offering each student some personal ideas to improve her/his technique. His advice is right on. “Too many feathers on your ostrich. Less is more.” he told me. I was proud of my results and love to sketch when I’m relaxing. I know our students have experimented with many of our newly learned art projects as well.

We have this backlog of projects that we put on reserve, so when Juan Carlos came up with these last two projects, I was a bit disappointed.  But Juan Carlos was wise in choosing two projects that appealed to our students’ Mexican heritage.  They appeal to our group  strongly and that’s what keeps them coming. The patterns and the colors of the alebrijes were so amazing that they challenged those done professionally and displayed at the Mexican Museum of Art that we visited last year on our field trip.

in certain regions of Mexico, the artists used the natural resources to make designs on to their ceramic works. One of our students found thorn-ed vines and used them to create intricate patterns on her artwork. 

Teaching Artist response: We are constantly trying to come-up with new ways that will not only keep our students freshly engaged but ourselves as teachers as well. I am always fascinated with the many creative ways Rachel teaches English. Sometime I feel that maybe I should retire. When she brings in a fresh new way of approaching the English language, it gets me going and my mind begins to take off. Her creative teaching style keeps my mind fresh at coming up with new ways to infuse the arts into the content of English learning.

6. How has the community-focused component of the project contributed to or challenged your teacher/artist collaboration? 

Teacher response: I loved seeing how comfortable our class is outside our classroom.  For example, the good attendance at our visits to the Hairpin Gallery and to the Breslow Gallery (our community-focused activities) tells me that students look forward to exploring outside their neighborhood.  They are willing participants even though it requires our moms to make special arrangements in their family schedules.   I also believe that attending these activities is one way they feel they can say “thank you” to CAPE and to us.

Teaching Artist response: It worked very well. Our students stepped out of their comfort zone to socialize in (English) with English speaking parents. They were very attentive and forgot about their fear of speaking in English. Because they had their own students to teach, they never used one another as a crutch to help them translate. They were very invested teaching. They taught one day a week the other day they continued their English lessons while at the same time prepping for their Spanish class.

I have been creating art for over 37 years. I have studied many art forms: classical, modern, traditional, mural, etc. Knitting was by far the hardest!

“A cool breeze brushed across my face and I smelled pine needles and wet leaves beneath my feet. I opened my eyes to see that I was at the edge of a small group of trees lit by a full yellow moon. “Whoo, Whoo.” I heard the owl, before I saw her. “I’m so glad you came,” she said. I searched carefully to find the source of the voice. There above me I could see the faint outline of a magical creature. It was an owl to be sure, but what an owl. Her feathers were the colors of an alebrigis; orange, blue, turquoise, and yellow.

She gave me a sudden wink. “How are your students? She asked. What about the one who always comes late.

Comes late… Comes late? I was startled and shook my head. My students? Oh, my gosh! I’m late for class. I must have been dreaming. I only have 30 minutes to get to class at Waters.” – Rachel Stempel