Healing With Art and Animals in the Chicago Public Schools

by | January 09, 2013 | Articles, Spiritual Leaders and Educators, Visual Artists

by Karlene Mostek

The incredible story of the universe and its evolutionary process through billions of years in galaxies, solar systems and earth is a fundamental interest in my art. We know now that earth itself and all beings on it evolved from the dying supernovas of the universe.

This “stardust” has, in fact, created life here on earth in such great diversity and abundance of forms that we realize no human ingenuity of itself could have created it. Though human history is only a wink of an eye in the four billion years of earth time, consumerism and dominance have created a great deal of suffering for human and non-human alike.

Around the world at the grassroots level, however, there is a growing consciousness that human partnership with nature constitutes true wholeness and harmony rather than the “we/it” relationship that we have been locked into for so long. I believe that art is one way to help others reflect on the beauty and the inner mysteries of the natural world. Support for these beliefs are easily found in the spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples. One of the expressions from the Lakota peoples is particularly appropriate: “Mitakuye Oyasin…All Beings Are Our Relatives.”

For nearly thirty years, I was a teacher in the Chicago Public School system, certified to teach from General K-9; English 6 – 12 and ESL K – 12. The classroom teacher was responsible for teaching all the subjects, including art and music. Teachers created their own projects around classroom work and materials consisted not only of paper and crayons, but sometimes watercolor resist with crayon, clay and weaving of small objects. Students also made finger puppets for role playing in social studies as well as dioramas.

In 1979, the school at which I was then assigned had a sudden enrollment of one hundred Southeast Asian students, all of whom were survivors of the Vietnam War and Thailand refugee camps. Few families had identification papers and most spoke little or no English. I was assigned the older student group and had approximately 30 students from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, ranging in age from 14 – 17 years. The students and their families had experienced trauma from the effects of war and the refugee camps. In addition, everyday life in the United States produced various degrees of culture shock.

At that time, the school did not have materials for that kind of situation, so I wrote my own curriculum using a set of Teacher Made Animal Pictures. These were available in teacher stores in the city. The pictures were non-threatening and showed healthy outdoor environments with animals in family type settings. The pictures were loaded with rich colors and possible activities. From these, a great deal of basic language structure skills were developed. Also, from the first day of our program, our wonderful  Cambodian teacher aide helped with the situation enormously.

After two months, a sponsor donated money from her church, and I was able to buy two sets of textbooks which were directed to advanced beginner levels of English. The classroom reflected the culture of the students in so far as that was available to us and student work was hung in many places of the room.

Art not only became an aid to needed language skills,it also helped to affirm a student’s culture and personal identity without criticism.

.I believe that using the animal pictures was the entry to healing the deep and painful experience of war and refugee camplife for these youngsters, rather than the textbooks available at that time. While the books eventually began to fill in the next levels of needed skills, Iooking back now, I don’t believe they would have been the correct entry point for this situation. Animals really are not only our partners, but also, often enough, they are our healers.

Karlene Mostek was born and raised in Chicago and has lived here all of her life. She received a B.A. in Social Sciences, an M. Ed from Loyola University, Chicago, and M.A. in ESL/Linguistics from University of Illinois at Chicago. Karlene has exhibited in shows locally and regionally. Numerous trips to our national parks with their teaching of animal habitats, plant life and geology have increased her understanding of the relationships that exist in the earth’s ecosystems.

Share this post:


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *