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Students Express “Dream” With Umbrellas

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By Claire Walla

This year, art teacher Meg Mandell pushed the limits of what her students could achieve in the Pierson Middle School art room. She took on a project that bridged artistic endeavor with social justice — and had real-world significance.

It started with an umbrella.

Mandell and 44 of her sixth grade students participated for the first time this year in a national movement called “The Umbrella Project.”

Started in 1990 by a woman in Washington D.C. named Hilda Brown, the project disperses white umbrellas to participants across the country who are then asked to decorate the silk panels. Each year, Brown chooses a new theme. This year’s happened to be “I Have A Dream.”

In August, the umbrellas will be part of an art show in Sedona, Ariz., where they will be sold for $50. All proceeds will be donated to the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington D.C.

To prepare for the project, Mandell showed her students footage of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial, then asked them to jot down some ideas for how they might be able to translate those concepts into visuals.

“My idea was to have people holding hands on an umbrella that said ‘love’ all around it,” said sixth grader Aryanna Lyons. She worked together with five other students to turn this concept into an actual design.

“Everyone had really great ideas,” Lyons continued.  “It was really fun.”

Students ended up creating a variety of images, from umbrellas with individually designed panels incorporating words like “faith,” “hope” and “love,” as well as smiley faces, butterflies and rays of sun, to a more conceptual design featuring two birds, each draped across one half of the silk canopy.

“The kids really surprised me, they really rose to the occasion,” Mandell said. “I was impressed with how seriously they took it…. They knew other people were going to see their designs and they wanted to be proud.”

Mandell initially broke all students up into groups of five or six, and each group was assigned one umbrella. (In total, Mandell sent away for eight.)

“I labeled the roles for the students,” Mandell explained, saying some students colored and some drew designs, while others kept everyone on task, or became the team “go getter.” The only role Mandell hand-chose were the leaders, but other than that she said the students themselves naturally fell into comfortable positions on each team.

“It as amazing to see the different levels of skill [the kids exhibited],” she continued. “They all found a niche.”

The class also included several special education students.

“Every student had their hands in the project,” she added. “I really saw the best in the kids. They helped each other and were encouraging to one another.”

Mandell herself first heard about The Umbrella Project through her sister, Kerin Crowley, who teaches art in the Sachem School District. She said that after several years of administering the program, her students have come up with some impressive designs.

Mandell added that she’s excited to build upon what her students achieved this year, perhaps even turn it into a fundraiser for the school. (While The Umbrella Project asks for $50 per umbrella, schools and organizations are encouraged to sell the pieces of art for more money and then donate all profits.)

“Every year it’s going to get better,” Mandell added. “I will definitely be doing it again.”