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Signs of the Times

Foote students are learning to use their voices for change and encouragement—all thanks to some creative teaching and piles of recycled materials.

Over the past few weeks, signs have cropped up all over campus that are bursting with color, love, support and conviction. These grade-level projects have beautified campus (especially our new outdoor learning tents!) and led to engaging conversations about how students can use their voices to make positive change in their communities.

Grade 4: Community Signs of Support

On a five-day bicycle trip through coastal Maine this summer, Grade 4 teacher Toby Welch started photographing the signs of support he saw along the route. Messages like "Joy, Health, Gratitude" and a tribute to essential workers that read, "Thank you for all that you do!"

He quickly realized it would be a terrific project for his fourth graders. So together with colleagues Denise Quinn, Ashley Schnabel and John Climie, Toby put together a grade-wide project. First, fourth graders saw Toby's photographs, and were asked to consider several questions. Which signs were effective at demonstrating support, and what made them effective? Was it the words used, the messages written, the color scheme, or something else?

After considering these questions, fourth graders were tasked with making their own signs with messages to support Foote students, faculty and parents. Every student made a sign, and they now line the length of Loomis Place, as well as other campus locales.

While the presidential election has made this fall a season of signs, Toby says he designed the project to be apolitical. "I wasn't aiming to politicize this whole deal. I wanted them to consider how we encourage ourselves and others through visual means. I didn't get too deep into the pandemic. Just more generally like, 'These are challenging times. This is hard. How can we help each other feel better about these times?'"

The project also connected to the students' "classroom charters"—a RULER-based project in which students agree on how they want to feel in their classrooms, and on actions they can take to ensure those feelings are met.

"I think this project empowered fourth graders to feel they are taking action and making a difference in a situation that feels very much out of their control," observes teacher Ashley Schnabel. "They were thrilled to come up with words of encouragement to add positivity and happiness to our community during a particularly challenging time."

Adds Toby, "I see action as the cure for the anxiety that can sometimes feel overwhelming."


Grade 8: Protest Pile

"Protest Pile" by Branford-based artist Cindy Tower


The Grade 8 outdoor learning tent, alongside the Highland Street traffic circle, is adorned with messages of a different stripe: signs with messages about Black Lives Matter, the environment and reproductive choice.

Humanities teacher Alison Moncrief Bromage found inspiration for the project in a piece titled "Protest Pile" by her neighbor, the Branford-based artist Cindy Tower. It's an interactive art installation currently showing at the Ely Center for Contemporary Art in New Haven. The installation features messages and faces painted on logs from trees blown down in last summer's tornado.

Students were tasked with doing a close reading of the installation and writing about what they observed. They were asked: Where are your eyes drawn? How many different messages can you find? Are there certain colors that capture your eye? What do you notice about the faces in the installation?

Eighth graders then made their own protest signs to adorn their learning tent—any message, as long as they could stand by and defend it. 

"Be original," Alison instructed her students. "We encourage you not to simply draw Black Lives Matter in black-and-white paint, or simply write TRUMP 2020 in red, white and blue on poster board. This is your turn to be original and make a statement."

Alison added, "Don't buy a thing. Look around you. What is lying around you which could transform into a sign or some type of statement? How can egg cartons, bottle tops, old barrettes or the back of Friday night's pizza box be made into a claim, be made into your voice?"

The answer, from students, was to get bold, bright and creative. One student's wrote "Let us vote by mail" on a canvas comprised of return-mail envelopes.

The 8th Grade Humanities team—Alison, Deb Riding, Frank Alberino and Beth Mello—put together the project as a complement to the theme of their course, which is "A Seat at the Table." Students have spent time examining the work of change makers like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis and discussing what constitutes, in Lewis's words, getting into "good trouble."

The project highlights the passions of these eighth graders, as they develop their voices and value systems in a time of political and social unrest. Alison says students are encouraged to express any and all points of view "so that we are really representing all flavors of democracy."


Grade 3: Tent Flags

Across campus, on a patch of grass between two classroom buildings, you'll find the Grade 3 learning tent, where inspirational flags blow gently in the breeze. Grade 3 teacher Susie Grimes brought this idea, loosely inspired by Tibetan prayer flags, as a way to beautify the tent and to support the emotional development of the children.

The students transformed old bed sheets into beautiful and peaceful intentions to send positivity to all who pass by.

Explains teacher Cara Hames, "This connected to our identity work in that some students brought pieces of their identity into their design. You may see words like 'play' or 'be unique' where kids thought about things that are important to them. You may also see uplifting phrases to keep our community positive during this strange time."

Like the 4th Grade sign project, this one also connected neatly to the RULER program that supports the development of students' emotional intelligence and wellbeing. It was undertaken by the whole Grade 3 team, which also includes teachers Chester Sharp and Rob Withers. "There is science behind our thoughts and how they impact our mood," says Cara, "so having the children think about a positive message they want to send out to the community helps us, in turn, to be more positive."

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Since 1916, The Foote School has provided child-centered education that nurtures creativity, excellence and joy in learning.

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