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September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

The Anansi Connection

Future teachers and urban adolescents share experiences with folktales from around the world through artistic expression—and discover their own talents and interests.

There is always more to experience, and more in what we experience than we predict.—Mary Warnock, Imagination
Reflecting on Mary Warnock's words, I recently connected with a program at the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Northern Illinois University, which had a partnership with elementary students in Chicago urban schools. I teach preservice teachers a course on multicultural children's literature, and I wanted to explore the possibilities of connecting children's literature and art. I had team members who would contribute to the project: aspiring art and elementary education teachers.
The Colleges of Education and Visual and Performing Arts formed a team. We would relate art projects to children's literature geared to the ethnic backgrounds of various Chicago school communities. Everyone on our diverse team embraced the idea of Maxine Greene (1991) that the arts can inspire images of possibility.

Getting There

For weeks, we prepared the college students for the one-day workshop in the city. My university collaborators and I oriented the students to specific neighborhoods and schools, storybook read-aloud techniques, and the preparation of art lessons.
It was no easy task to get into the city. Our university is situated in a farming community bout 80 miles west of Chicago. Our team assembled at 6:30 a.m. and boarded minibuses at 7:00 a.m., driving two hours through the intense morning traffic. Once there, the student teachers set up their instructional programs, carrying large trays and boxes of art supplies up and down staircases in aging city school buildings. Three hours later, they were cleaning up and packing to leave, eating brown bag lunches on the bus in order to get on the road before the evening rush hour.

Picture Books and Pastels

Our first project this year was with 8th graders in a Chicago public school with a 100 percent African American student population. For these students, I chose two books: Julius Lester's (1994) Caldecott Honor award-winning picture book John Henry and Leontine Price's (1990) Aida, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.
Why picture books for 8th graders? I believe that picture-book use can extend well beyond the primary grades if the plots hold the interest of older students. In addition, because African American authors and artists had written and illustrated the books, the students in this school could see award-winning work produced by members of their own ethnic group. I also felt that these beautiful picture books would easily lend themselves to art projects.
Using the folktale of John Henry as inspiration, the college students worked with the 8th graders as they made drawings with crayon-pastels on black paper. With Aida, the future teachers provided cloth and paper materials for collage projects, pointing out the use of photographed collages in the book. The adolescents listened intently as the college students read the stories aloud, using props and costumes. The school librarian commented that she could not believe how focused the young students were.

Folk Heroines and Creative Forms

The next semester, we added 7th graders at an elementary school with a 100 percent Hispanic population, in another Chicago neighborhood. This time, I chose folktales from Robert San Souci's 1993 collection, Cut from the Same Cloth, which stresses regional folk heroines. Our team had two art projects in mind: creating mosaics to illustrate a tale from the Ojibway tribe, whose members once lived near Chicago, and assembling wood scraps into brightly painted animal sculptures in the Mexican Oaxacan style.
The art students showed the 7th graders pictures of famous Mexican mosaics and noted several mosaics in the neighborhood of the school. The 7th graders then decorated cardboard boxes with mosaic scenes.
Many students incorporated culturally respected symbols into their artwork. In describing his design, Ricky said “Mine is an Aztec person, which reminds me of my great-grandmother, who is still alive.” Another student said, “Mine is a Mexican flag, and it's my heritage.”
The elementary students particularly enjoyed the Oaxacan sculptures. Three-dimensional animals grew from the wood scraps, coming to life in bright fuchsias, blues, and turquoises. The classroom teacher allowed her students to save their paints and continue to work after the college students left. “This project is wonderful. I want them to be able to finish it how they really want to,” she said. In addition, two television stations in Chicago covered the project.

Animals and Expression

Our most recent partnership took us back to the 8th graders. Our college art students wanted to introduce these students to the wood animal sculptures.
I suggested that we use a folktale of African origin dealing with animals for this project. The college sudents chose Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock, retold by Eric Kimmel (1988) and illustrated by Janet Stevens. Anansi the spider is a beloved trickster character from West Africa who has been adopted into Carribean culture. Although this story is typically used with younger children, I thought that the clever plot would hold the 8th graders' interest and that the many animal pictures would supply ideas for the sculpture project. I had found that literature was an important springboard for art ideas, particularly for students not used to having art classes. We were apprehensive, however, that the streetwise adolescents in the class might laugh at our choice.
Before we read the folktale, team members located for the students several West African nations and Carribean areas on maps we had brought. We also showed wooden African sculptures borrowed from the university's anthropology museum. We had to wear special gloves so the oils from our hands would not damage the centuries-old artifacts. The 8th graders watched with fascination as we carried the sculptures around to them for viewing.
As we sat in the aging public school classroom, I noticed the high plastered ceilings and darkly stained woodwork and furniture of a bygone era. Walls had been painted in bright yellows and oranges in an attempt to enliven the heavy structure. The bulletin boards neatly displayed historic, white-faced characters. And here were white-faced future teachers carrying wooden sculptures, carved by African village artists, for 25 African American, urban students to see. It was a mosaic of unforgettable images.
As our team members read the story, the students laughed out loud, but not in derision. They enjoyed the story line, in which the spider found a magical rock that could cast a spell on his jungle neighbors long enough for him to steal their food. One small deer outsmarts Anansi and tricks him into accidentally getting cast under the spell long enough for all the other animals to retrieve their food.
After the reading, we asked, “What did you think of Anansi?”
One student answered, “He was a thief!” Classmates voiced agreement. Then another said, “He was smart. Well, he could have been smarter if he ate the food right away.” Everyone laughed. Then another student said, “I think the story is trying to say, 'What goes around, comes around.'” Other students said, “Yeah, right.” It was a wonderful interaction about literature.
Soon students were experimenting with the wood scraps, learing the basics of design as they struggled to discover animal shapes in their manipulations. They were forced to think abstractly and form visual solutions as they explored the materials. Many students created animals seen in the book, some blended real and imaginary creatures, and all worked intently. One young man said, “I love doing stuff like this; I'm going to be an architect. I'm good with my hands.” Eighth grade students spontaneously helped one another – collaborating on animal forms, gluing limbs and tails, painting the sculptures, admiring one another's work. “Mine's a flying dragon,” one boy announced. Another student said, pointing to his gray hippo, “This ain't no movie, you know, this is realistic.” Some students began naming their creations; others looked for wood chips to fill the gaps. The room was humming with constructive activity.
The realities of the outside world did creep into the project that morning when the classroom teacher realized that two boys had painted their sculptures in gang colors. The principal, who was visiting the three rooms participating in the project, firmly told the boys to paint the animals over: “I don't care if you paint them black and pink, or black and green, or black and purple. Just change them by the time I get back here.”
Other students became aware of what had happened and began to complain to the boys for wrecking the nice event. The classroom teacher said, “Peopel, now let's remember, only two kids did this out of three classrooms. Let's not let them ruin a nice activity.”
Things settled down, and the two young men quickly repainted the black and red sculptures to black and green. The students ended a productive morning by orally presenting their creations to their classmates. “This is a mountain lion,” one boy announced. “His name is Leo, and I like it.” “Mine is an American bird.” “This is a wolf with a disease,” laughed one student whose painting efforts frustrated him. “Hey, that spider is really pretty, man! Who made this?” asked another. Then one student began to pretend to auction pieces. Everyone laughed.
One of the girls, passing by the African sculpture on loan named Queen Mother, gently patted her head with a cloth and said, “Hello, Mama Africa. How are you?”
The small classroom, so carefully organized and visibly cared for, despite its aging condition, proved to be fertile ground for cultural and artistic ideas. The 8th graders and their teachers had done more than execute the project – they had embraced it and spiced it with their own flavors. The most basic of instructional materials – a story, wood scraps, paints, and glue – provided an engaging, successful learing experience.
One further outcome of the program: Thanks to a Crayola Dream-makers Program grant, we provided students at the elementary school with art supplies for future endeavors.


  1. Select a picture storybook that emanates from traditional or contemporary groups ethnically matched to the students' backgrounds.
  2. Use high-quality children's literature that includes an interesting plot, informative cultural background, and engaging illustrations.
  3. Read the stories aoud, with appropriate expression, sound effects, and props.
  4. Use structured art projects and readily available materials.
  5. Engage other classroom teachers, the librarian, and administrators in the project.
  6. Provide opportunities for students to present and talk about their projects.
A good basic source of engaging art projects can always be found through local, state, and national arts organizations, such as the National Art Education Association and the National Alliance for Arts Education.

The Importance of the Arts

We believe that this project exemplified the words spoken by President Clinton following the publication of Creative America by the President's Commission on Arts and the Humanities (1997):[The arts are] an essential to complete education....Through the arts, students learn to express ideas in nonverbal forms, create multiple solutions to problems, and work collaboratively.
The integration of art and literature in urban classrooms certainly provided “more to experience,” not only for the adolescents but also for preservice teachers and their professors. At each site, the college students worked with people and cultures new to them and came away with great respect for urban students and classroom teachers. Some college students even spoke to me of considering urban taching as we packed to leave. One student said:The kids were great, so receptive. You know, my parents aren't happy about my going into teaching because of the low salaries. But I tell them, money isn't everything. This is what makes me feel fulfilled. I loved working here today. I'm looking forward to the next experience. I'd love to work in a school like this.

Greene, M. (1991). Blue guitars and the search for curriculum. In G. Willis & W. H. Schubert (Eds.) Reflections from the heart of educational inquiry: Understanding the curriculum and teaching through the arts (p. 3). New York: SUNY Press.

Kimmel, E. A. (1988). Anansi and the moss-covered rock. New York: Holiday House.

Lester, J. (1994). John Henry. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers.

President's Commission on Arts and the Humanities. Creative America: A report to the president. Washington, DC: Author. Available online at http://arts.endow.gov/Resopurce/PCAH/First.html.

Price, L. (1990). Aida. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace.

San Souci, R. (1993). Cut from the sam cloth: American women of myth, legend and tall tale. New York: Philomel Books.

Warnock, M. (1978). Imagination. Berkeley: University of Caifornia Press.

Chris Liska Carger has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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