Picture this: Teacher brings the world into his art classroom

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Kathleen Jakey asks art teacher Ken Wojciak (right) a question while the rest of Jackie Melton’s kindergarten class colors. Because Wojciak likes to integrate social studies learning with his art classes at Rogers Early Elementary School in the Melvindale-Northern Allen Park School District, Melton’s kindergarten class is learning about Germany by coloring cuckoo clock pictures and listening to folk stories by the Brothers Grimm.

Downriver Sunday Times

ALLEN PARK – A local art teacher is using his field to open a window to the world for his students.

Rogers Early Elementary art teacher Ken Wojciak combines art projects form different cultures with math, science, and social studies to create an “immersion environment” which he said allows the children to travel the world from their desks.

Past classes have visited a mock 1880s Parisian café to study Vincent Van Gogh, hung out in a faux castle during a lesson on medieval times, and toured locations ranging from Africa to New York City’s Times Square–without leaving the classroom.

“It’s being informed about culture and diversity and how one culture may be different from another and that’s OK; we’re all different but we need to figure out how to work together,” Wojciak said.

He said he is also broadening their perception of what art is while the children hone their own abilities and skills.

At Rogers he teaches art to nine kindergarten and eight first grade classes. They learn about a different culture every quarter. For this quarter, covering Germany, they studied the country’s Black Forest region and learned about the different artisans there, including cuckoo clock makers, while listening to a cuckoo clock placed in the classroom.

They also practiced drawing objects found in a forest using different geometric shapes and incorporated the shapes into their cuckoo clock designs.

Later in the class they heard the Brothers Grimm German folk tale “The Shoemaker and the Elves.” A poor shoemaker, who can’t afford food or rent, is helped by two elves that come to his shop at night and make shoes for him to sell. The shoemaker gives some of his shoes to the poor, the elves help him prosper, and they all live “happily ever after.”

After hearing the story, Wojciak suggested the children close their eyes and think of a way they could do something kind like the characters in the story to help someone else at their next period, lunch time.

For the German unit he is painting a large mural against one wall of a traditional Bavarian-looking village.

The large wall murals he creates are one of the techniques Wojciak tries to use for each immersion environment to help the students feel like they are experiencing a culture.

“I do try to get one central focus area,” Wojciak said. “We need to have places where kids can be inspired, not just boring walls. But to figure out how to do it on a shoestring budget… that’s why I do my own murals.”

Within the last year his Rogers students have learned about Japan, China and Africa.

When they studied Japan he lowered all the tables so the students sat on the floor. He had paper lanterns strung overhead, and he had the sound of water flowing, which he said created a really peaceful environment.

“There was a pond there… a sled kind of thing that I draped with plastic… and we had (live) fish in there – koi – and stuff in the ‘pond,’” Wojciak said.

The next unit at Rogers for kindergarten and first grade students will focus on Native Americans.

He hopes they will gain an appreciation for culture and how art “permeates all that we do.” His goal is for them to recognize and connect what they learn in the classroom with what they see in the world around them.

Wojciak also teaches art to second through fifth graders at Allendale Elementary School in Melvindale every Tuesday. He also teaches social studies the last hour of every day to a fourth grade class at Allendale.

At Allendale he is studying the Renaissance with his art students, and he has a mural of the drawings of Italian Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci on one wall.

He said that da Vinci was really interested in perspective in a calculated way, so he has his fourth and fifth grade students doing cityscape one-point perspective drawings, which use lines and right angles to suggest distance.

“(They’re) figuring out how to use a vanishing point, how to get the lines on the buildings so they angle the right way, right angles, all kind of math skills,” Wojciak said. “They’re creating this incredible cityscape… and they can’t believe they did this.”

Wojciak has been teaching at Rogers for 11 years. He said he started creating immersion environments about eight or nine years ago with a rainforest theme, and noticed immediately how excited the students were to be there.

“I saw how when they came in you could do anything with them – they were so excited to be there and have that around them,” Wojciak said. “We had running water, we had trees, it was just very fun and they were part of helping.”

Wojciak, who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Art Education in 1977 from Buffalo State College in New York, taught at Bishop Borgess High School in Redford for seven years. He then taught religion and was a campus minister at Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills for 12 years.

He then worked for Hospice of Michigan for four years in group support, using art to get kids to talk about their grief.

He began teaching in the Melvindale-Northern Allen Park School District 11 years ago.

He hopes when he retires from teaching in five to six years he can create a web site and build a business that will show other teachers how to build immersion learning environments like the ones he has created.