2015-09-10

By Molly Haig '15, AmeriCorps member of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Team at Hennigan School
Header photo by Kayla Parr '15, AmeriCorps member of the MFS Investment Management team at McCormack Middle School

A “starfish student” is a student with a measurable success story—failing to passing, below grade level to back on track. When my team leader asked me who one of my starfish students was, I voiced the nagging fear of every corps member—what if I don’t have one? What if I’m not making a difference?

I’d built strong relationships with many students this year. I’ve given band-aids and (side) hugs, filled water bottles, checked math problems, and sharpened pencils galore. But in the big picture outlook of the year, I wasn’t sure I had the traditional story of service.

After a short pause, my team leader said, “What about art?” That got me thinking. Maybe my starfish “difference” is an idea: art matters, and your art matters. You are doing something you care about, and it is legitimate and important and special.

A couple months into the school year, I started a lunchtime writing club.  Most days we had a quick write and a discussion, but once, as a special treat, I brought in my tin of 40 high quality colored pencils. We read “Fog,” by Carl Sandburg that day, and talked about what “imagery” meant, and how Sandburg used it. I asked them to imagine how they might represent the poem using only images. Finally, I showed them how to rub pencil shavings to make a smooth foggy wash, and encouraged them to add surprising colors; fog appears in many hues. Their drawings featured cats and clouds and cities wreathed in fog, just like the poem.

My students began to request the colored pencils at every meeting, so every few weeks, we did a literacy-related art project. We used images to capture the main idea of a book chapter. We drew the differences our protagonist experienced when he moved from Sudan to New York. We illustrated one of our own quick-writes about sensory details in a haunted house.


They create art now out of an intrinsic drive to create, and I want more than anything for them to keep feeling that rush of inspiration, excitement, and determination to reach a goal.


While drawing, my students became motivated and engaged in academics in a way I had seldom seen. I started encouraging creativity in students outside of writing club. If you observed my classroom closely, you would notice that many students are engaged in their own little projects—ink doodles in the margins of worksheets, origami pinwheels, 3-D pen-string-eraser structures. I started letting my students see my smile when they created something. I also started sharing my own sketches, and sometimes even sketching my students. In exchange, they shared their art with me:

Dylan* is fascinated with ink-drawings and graffiti fonts. When I invited him to lunch to draw with me, he showed me a graffiti instructional video he says he watches every day.

Emmy* is an aspiring dancer with a great sense of rhythm and a lot of energy. We trade step rhythms and practice pique turns down the halls.

Sophie* once expanded a 6-minute writing club prompt into 3 page scary story. In the future she wants to go to Mass Art.

Nate* sometimes leaves class upset. He loves to draw, so I’ve used sketching as a way to help him refocus.

Forrest* is a budding origami master and dismantler-of-pens. We perfected our paper-crane making techniques together at lunch.

Sarah* folds, writes and illustrates fairy-sized books, and always calls me over to share her creations.

Alex* had never expressed much interest in drawing, but he tried it out with the rest of my writing club students. At the end of the year, when asked about his favorite piece of work, he held up a drawing that captured the honeycomb scene from his book in a burst of yellows and oranges.


Maybe my starfish “difference” is an idea.


As the year drew to a close, I met with students whenever I could to spend deliberate time creating art. I also drew each of them a personalized goodbye card. Big, tough Dylan had tears in his eyes when he saw name in his favorite graffiti font on the cover of his card.

In the short term, my students may not receive recognition or access to specialty art classes or professional-grade materials.  Maybe they’ll formally study art later. Maybe they’ll just explore it on their own. Maybe art will quietly inspire their other academic learning, as it did in writing club.

Maybe they’ll find other things that ignite the same kind of excitement they experience now about art—they might fall in love with science, or persuasive writing, or fixing things, or helping people. Whatever it is, I hope my students engage in what inspires them. They create art now out of an intrinsic drive to create, and I want more than anything for them to keep feeling that rush of inspiration, excitement, and determination to reach a goal.

That is the legacy I want to leave. That is my “starfish idea.” I want my students to feel excited about something for its intrinsic value. Art gives them a chance to do this, and my year will feel like a success if I have convinced my students even a little bit that exploring your passions is a legitimate and vital part of educating yourself.

*Names changed to protect student privacy

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