An Art Teacher Goes Abroad

When the opportunity to accompany four of my students to Peru this summer arose, I was more than thrilled (if not also a little apprehensive) to take on the role of “chaperone.” Almost as soon as the school year had ended, my students and I, along with four other adolescents and their chaperone from Green Acres, boarded our plane and set off for Lima.

The trip, an exchange really, places students with host families for three weeks. Two of those weeks they attend school at Leonardo Da Vinci, while the other week is spent visiting Machu Picchu, Cuzco, and the abundance of archeological sites in the region. Like many chaperones to come before me, it was this latter week that I envisioned as the highlight of the trip. That week, which I now affectionately refer to as “the summer of rocks,” was indeed an experience of a lifetime.

But something else marvelous and magical happened on this trip, quite organically and without any hype:


This here is a bottle cap mosaic. During one of my first days roaming the campus of Leonardo, I came across a large collection of colorful bottle caps. They filled a glass aquarium (something I find particularly amusing looking back), and overflowed into a series of plastic containers. All of this sat in a kind of enclave, seemingly designed to house a large flower pot or sculpture. In this regard, I almost immediately read the collection of caps as a contemporary art installation. My second thought took me to the Maker Space at my own school, where we have our own collections of objects, occasionally in such large quantities that I am left perplexed as to why anyone would have accumulated so many foam snowmen, monographed stickers, or metallic pizza trays. But I digress.

Mosaics had been on my mind for a while. Some of the best projects I can recall from my early teaching days had been mosaics. Like these:


The tree and the flower were made by a group of 3, 4, and 5 year olds during my days as a preschool art teacher. Students were free to meander through “centers” like math, science, reading, and my own “art studio”, spending anywhere from one minute to one hour. This choice-based approach (which I have written about in a previous post), is a great way of getting students excited about learning because it cultivates curiosity and autonomy over the monolithic culture that dominates the majority of classrooms in the United States and elsewhere. In the art studio, Choice lends itself well to collaborative projects because it is centered around process. Students can contribute however much or little they want, but they are all investing something towards a larger goal. And the contribution is authentic, enthusiastic, and un-forced.

Despite having  a huge supply of ceramic mosaic pieces in my current classroom, and having successfully made collaboration a cornerstone of my teaching philosophy,  in my first year at Barnesville the list was long and those ceramic bits sat waiting for another year. The idea, however–to facilitate another collaborative mosaic–would not.

As chance would have it, the same day I came across the bottle caps, one of the English teachers at Leonardo asked if I might be interested in doing an art project with her sixth graders. Not only that, she wondered if I might somehow use the bottle caps. I enthusiastically agreed and the bottle cap mosaic was born.

In another twist of fate, the sixth graders were entering a unit on the environment, a passion of mine and a theme I return to frequently with my own students. The bottle caps lent themselves so well to a conversation about plastic in our oceans, and it was from that conversation (and some help from the internet) that project planning for an ocean-themed mosaic emerged.

Students sort caps by color.

Operating on a limited time frame, I recycled a lecture (I use that term loosely) from a previous lesson, which discussed how artists use data, or “visualize data” to make work that engages with some of the most pressing issues facing our world. In this case, the issue is water pollution, the data is how much plastic is dumped into the ocean (more than 8 tons per year), and the artwork is a mosaic made out of plastic and a snapshot of the ocean.


Barnesville and Green Acres students, along with the sixth grade class. Our students helped with various aspects of the project. 

What I love about this project is how it functions simultaneously as a celebration of the diversity of life and beauty within the ocean and as a warning of how human activity is threatening this natural resource. As students worked sorting and gluing the caps, it seemed there was a never ending supply. Even when we ran out of yellow, it happened that one of the host families was connected with the Inca Kola factory, and the very next day they brought in a large plastic bag filled exclusively with yellow caps. I was at once thrilled to submerge my hands into the pool of caps, and alarmed by how easily they were acquired.

The prevalence of plastic in our lives has become such that it is hard to envision a time when it did not exist. In truth, plastic as we know it today came about less than a century ago as a result of one of the most deadly wars in history. While great measures have been taken to encourage the recycling of plastics, the process is costly and fails to address the need for more biodegradable alternatives.

One of the most effective ways of changing the way plastic is regarded (cheap, disposable, efficient) is by simply drawing attention to its pervasiveness. The speed at which we were able to collect and create this artwork documents the powerful role plastic plays in our lives, and in a more nuanced way, underscores how the rampant use of plastic communicates our values as a society.

Art can become the platform for changing how we see and think about the things that have become engrained in our daily lives. Put more simply, art makes us tourists in our own lives. From this unique vantage point, we can begin to do the work of deciding what sorts of objects, people, relationships, and values we want for those lives.




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