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Creating a picture of community and kindness

Students team with artist to paint hallway mural

Artist Mary Bent-Buist passed around a sketch of a mural she was making to second graders sitting in the hallway. It showed little images emanating from an open book: two children holding hands; a heart; a cloud; a light bulb; the Earth.

“I see the cloud of kindness,” a girl piped up. “I see friendship,” said a boy. Others: “I see caring.” “The world represents all of us.” 

Later, another class offered equally touching reactions. Said Annalise Fant of the light bulb, “In darkness, there is always light.” 

Using permanent markers, Gracin Magnacca and other second graders helped create their hallway mural

Her teacher, Jaci Jackson, choked up at this, as she watched her students help outline a mural taking shape on the hallway wall at Crestwood Elementary School. Their own drawings had been incorporated by Bent-Buist into the mural expressing a moving message for all who pass by: “One kind word can change someone’s entire story.”

The wall-high painting, completed this week, culminates a weeks-long project for Crestwood second graders. It blended academics with art around ideas of kindness and community in collaboration with Bent-Buist, whose murals are infused with a heart for children inspired by the loss of her own child.

The students’ ideas about kindness – and their response to the mural – exemplified the theme she hopes it communicates to others, said Bent-Buist, whose daughter Rory died of cancer in 2017 at age 3. 

“I was painting at the school on a rather difficult day for me, and every child I came into contact with had only positive things to say of the mural,” said Bent-Buist, of Lowell. “They made me feel like Vincent Van Gogh because of their kindness and that changed my story … even if just that one day.”

Students’ ideas about community and kindness helped design a sketch of the mural

A Community Effort 

The mural evolved from a project-based learning activity initiated by Crestwood’s second grade teachers: Jackson, Lauren Gleghorn and Sharayah Gariepy, who call themselves “community organizers.” They teamed up to create a project for their 60 students that would connect different subject areas and “help them find meaning in their work,” Jackson said. The central idea was creating community in the school and “setting expectations (for) “the way we’re going to be treating each other,” she said. 

Although initially focused just on reading and writing, their discussions led them to widen the canvas by linking literary and artistic story-telling, Jackson said: “We came up with the idea of creating a mural, and that’s the way we would create community.” 

Happily, Jackson had the perfect artist for the project – her sister, Bent-Buist, who’s employed her art and other activities to raise funds for curing childhood cancer, including a nonprofit, Rory’s Journey. Jackson’s students know about Rory and collect pop-can tabs to raise funds. Bent-Buist met with the classes to talk about the project and gather their drawings to help make the mural. 

Students also studied the work of Pat Perry, a Michigan-based artist whose works include a pair of murals in Maine and Iraq created in collaboration with students in both places. While the artists provoked students to think deeper and wider, students also broadened Bent-Buist’s concept of the mural, she said, “because they were really thinking bigger about the world.” 

Artist Mary Bent-Buist incorporated images from students about what kindness means to them (photo by Dianne Carroll Burdick)

The second graders’ ideas about kindness drew on interviews with fifth graders and a Skype session with an Arkansas community organizer. They wrote a letter to Principal Nicole Peterson to get her permission for the mural. Then, in mid-September, it began to take shape.

Bent-Buist met with students to tally up supplies needed, then let them outline the design with permanent markers on a projected image. “You guys will actually get to draw on the wall and be part of it,” she told them. 

They did so meticulously, one by one, each contributing a thoughtfully drawn line to the story of Crestwood’s kind community.

Asked what the picture is about, Annalise Fant answered succinctly: “Crestwood, and how it’s a great place to be.” The message? “Being kind, cooperation.” How she hopes people will respond? “That they like it, and know that kids put a lot of effort into it.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio

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