The Time My Fifth-Grade Art Students Declared War On Each Other

My fifth grade students declared a war against each other. What began as an art project about immigration and identity quickly escalated into a frightful dispute over land and borders. It led to conflict. It led to disunity. Marks, lines, stamps became weapons and students used them with all their might. If it weren’t for two 10-year-old peacemakers the entire experience would have resulted in a true paint shed.

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

At the time, my fifth-grade students were learning about immigration. The topic was not only familiar to them, but deeply connected to their families’ personal histories. Most students, with very few exceptions, were great-grandchildren of immigrants who fled to Brazil during WWII. Belonging to a tight-knit community they grew up hearing stories passed down from generation to generation about the daunting hardships their families faced upon leaving their countries of origin.

In Visual Arts, I planned a printmaking project that would allow them to experience immigration through art-making, while exploring several related concepts, such as identity, adaptation, trajectories, borders and boundaries.

To put it simply, here’s how the project began:

STAMP-BY-STAMP

1. Students began the project creating a symbol to represent themselves and then created a stamp of their symbol.

2. Students were then introduced to a large sheet of paper that would be used collectively by all 5th grade classes. The sheet of paper was approximately 15 feet long and 3 feet wide.

3. The large sheet of paper was divided into 22 equal spaces and each student selected one space to work on.

* Since all four 5th grade classes would be using the same large sheet, each space would be shared by 4 different students, 1 from each class.

4. Using their stamps, students began to occupy their spaces, stamping their symbols.

There was just one rule for our first class: they could only stamp their symbol in the space they selected as theirs.

THE BIRTH OF A BORDER

The following week students arrived and found the large sheet almost entirely covered with symbols. Their eyes wandered back and forth in fascination. Varying in size, shape, intensity, and level of detail the symbols were pleasing to the eye. Each one was unique in its own way, carrying a piece of its creator's identity.

However, during this initial moment of observation one student noticed the same symbol inhabiting two different spaces. She immediately demanded everyone’s attention. “Look! Look everyone! Someone’s symbol is in two different spaces!” Students quickly gathered around her as she pointed at the same symbol on opposite sides of the large sheet.

“How dare he or she occupy two different spaces,” she added.

The other students in the class agreed with explicit discontent.

“I know!” One student said. “I have an idea! Let’s determine a space just for our class and create a border surrounding it.” And so they did.

The following class to arrive immediately questioned what the bold yellow outline was. “A Border” I told them, followed by a quick explanation of what lead the previous class to create it. Perhaps not surprisingly, this class decided to follow their footsteps and created a border of their own. Theirs, occupied nearly half of project and completely annulled the pre-existing border.

When questioned whether their action was fair, or how they thought the other class would react, students seemed careless. “Now is the time to take-over!” one student said.

DECLARATION OF WAR

From this point on there was no consensus amongst the classes. Every class became a threat to another class for weeks on end. Even border guards were created using cork stoppers to defend one classes’ land. “Stamps aren’t enough! We need to build upwards,” was the insight that led to the creation of the border guards.

Their was no desire to coexist amongst the four fifth-grade classes. They were determined to protect what they considered to be their land, while continually trying to conquer the lands of others. In addition to this, there was a recurring pattern where one student would voice his idea and all others would embrace it without questioning or exposing their thoughts.

In the midst of uncalculated thought followed by uncalculated action, one student raised his fist up in the air and said, “Let’s declare WAR against all other classes!” A handful of students began to nod in agreement, followed by “Yeah!”. Others, remained silent. I encouraged students to share their thoughts. “Does anyone have another idea? Or, disagree with initiating a war? Are there other ways to approach this ongoing land dispute? They were ready to go to battlefield. The idea of a war was too exciting to contest.

They began creating war symbol stamps. These symbols included images of knives, bombs, guns, skulls and the word “WAR”. While inking and preparing the symbols students engaged in chanting. Every stamp was accompanied by a war cry. Their gestures, words, and actions thrived with excitement.

As I observed them I kept wondering whether or not to intervene. I did not want a valuable teaching moment to go by, but I also did not want to interfere with the intense student-led experience that was taking place. I choose to continue as an observer, knowing that no matter what happened we already had a powerful reflection ahead.

PEACEMAKERS

Students arrived the following week curious to see all the changes. Their individual stamps faded in the distant background amongst layers and layers of war symbols. The most eye-catching change being that the project was no longer flat.

Bothered at the sight of the border guards, two students walked over to the project and swung their arms out and back; knocking over nearly all of the border guards onto the floor and at this exact moment a student approached me with a request.

“Miss Catlett, I no longer want to take part in the project.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Everyone is fighting. They do not know what war really is. War is something horrible, they need to stop. I have tried sharing my thoughts, but no one listens.”

Feeling unheard she removed herself from the group dynamic and watched her classmates plan the next step from a distance. I encouraged her to find a way to give voice to her thoughts. At the end of the class she approached me, this time with a classmate.

“Can we come to the art room during recess? We would like to make an intervention on the project.”

They told me what their idea was and I granted them permission to come outside of class hours. They had only one request: “Please keep our identity anonymous.” “Our classmates will make fun of us if they know we are trying to stop the war.”

I assured both of them that I would respect their request for anonymity.

Later that evening, I came back to find them working in the dark. The lights were off and the curtains were pulled. The tables: filled with paint trays and a variety of stamps they had prepared.

The project was covered with peace symbols, which included: doves, V signs, broken rifles and the word peace itself. The two students were radiating with a sense of accomplishment. I was also proud of them while secretly hoping that neither a conflict or war would re-emerge.

FINDING PEACE

Classes arrived the following week surprised with the peaceful intervention. Their reaction? For the most part, relief. Although the ongoing dispute for land and war excited them, their relief was an acknowledgement that they had gone too far. Luckily, two voices of reason granted all of them peace. The two students decided to come forward and their classmates did not make fun of of them - as they had imagined - much to the contrary.

It was now time for us to reflect. To make meaning of everything that had taken place. As once said by the educator John Dewey, “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” Surprisingly, most students could not remember why or how the war had begun. Once reminded, I asked them: “Do you think that maybe the symbol inhabiting two different spaces may have been stamped accidentally? Or that possibly, this student misunderstood initial instructions?”

They looked at one another startled. No one had considered this possibility.

One of the many advantages we have as teachers’ today is how easily we can document processes - whether through video, or photographs. I then invited students to watch a video with some of the most significant moments throughout the project, which included: the creation of the first border; students war strategizing; the inking and stamping of war symbols and the endless moments of chanting followed by war cries. Seeing themselves from a distance, as spectators, offered an entirely new perspective. Some students were astonished. Others, openly admitted to being ashamed of acting repeatedly on impulse. A handful of students assured everyone that they would not have done anything differently.

“The entire world has fought for land. Some countries continue to fight for land. That’s just how it is. It’s our nature.” One of the students said.

“Borders, boundaries are all around us. There’s a border between our class and the hallway. There’s a boundary when two people speak. It’s part of our everyday lives. There are natural limitations that exist between everything and everyone. The difference is that once these boundaries are imposed out of fear, they lead to separation.” I responded, followed by the question: “How were the boundaries and borders in this project any different?”

Their responses: “It was visible.” “It was unequal.”

Together they came to the realization that they placed their interests above all else. They also recognized how easily they were influenced by their classmates during all stages of the project, even when they disagreed. Visible or invisible, equal or unequal borders, their ongoing dispute was driven by a need for entitlement. Their fear of being at a loss took away nearly all opportunities for them to negotiate, problem-solve, and coexist.

TAKEAWAY

Borders, boundaries can be imagined and experienced in different ways. If only we allow ourselves. For so long borders have determined where something begins and ends, as opposed to where something meets, transitions, or transforms. In a world where building walls is acceptable (sometimes even praised), my students made visible the deep-rooted relationship between entitlement vs. coexistence and how threatening a line can be: whether real or imaginary. Art allowed them to find themselves, lose themselves and find themselves all over again.

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