Magical Creatures Via Design Thinking

“It’s like a space alien robot,” said Marcus Benard

As his classmates glued, cut, pasted and painted around him, Ada Vista Elementary fourth-grader Marcus Benard quietly alternated different colors of permanent markers to create what he had dubbed “Blacktron.”

“You can never have too much glue when you’re trying to get hair to stick,” declared Caroline Olsen
“You can never have too much glue when you’re trying to get hair to stick,” declared Caroline Olsen

“He’s like a space alien robot that has a green mask,” Marcus explained.

On the other side of art teacher Jenn Gregory’s classroom, Ariana Recio was putting the finishing touches on a furry crackerbox-turned-lion with paper towel legs and fire shooting from the top of its head.

“I’m going to put a unicorn horn on it too,” Ariana added.

The reason nearly 100 fourth-graders were creating magical creatures: to help solve a mystery.

When students at the Spanish immersion school returned from Thanksgiving break, Gregory shared something strange that had happened while walking her dog at her family’s Traverse City-area apple orchard.

Ada Vista art teacher Jenn Gregory helps a fourth-grader with his creature concept as the class gets going on their designs

As Marcus explained it, “She saw this light, like a thunder thing with a crash. Then she saw a ring, made maybe of tin, that was dried up from being on the ground for such a long time ago, like when the Indians were here.”

BYO Creature

Building on a week spent in the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Immerse program, where they learned that magical creatures often develop from natural mysteries, students “let their imaginations soar and began to create artistic solutions that would help to explain the mystery,” Gregory said.

Design thinking met art in a magical way in teacher Jenn Gregory’s third- and fourth-grade classes

Fourth-graders were so intrigued by the story that she extended the at-school part of the project to third-graders as well. Gregory said it helped her introduce design thinking to students, and rubrics for them to think about and share their work.

“They are loving it, and I am finding that their responsibility with materials is improving by leaps and bounds,” said Gregory, who, in a rare move, threw open the art closet and let students choose all their own materials.
She said the project also incorporated communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and empathy.

“This is the first time I have done this, and I feel like it is the direction art should go,” Gregory said.

Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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