UCLA Lab School: Art Project Reveals Links Between Curriculum and Community

Innovative teaching connects the dots between multicultural learning, art history, and socialization.

Students at UCLA Lab School depicted their understanding of community through an art project in November that connected art techniques, history, and socialization. Primary level teachers Monica Acosta and Anna Terrazas led their students through an exploration of the art of Keith Haring and the Harlem Renaissance, as well as children’s literature by Carmen Lomas Garza. The students’ resulting work reinforced the concept of connections between family members and friends, while teaching art techniques that included composition, sketching, and painting.

A Primary student composes a painting based on a photo of his best friends, to be executed in the style of 20th Century artist Keith Haring. Courtesy of Monica Acosta

Acosta and Terrazas began by having the students create self-portraits to gain a sense of themselves as individuals. They also read Lomas Garza’s books “Family Pictures/Cuadros de Familia” and “In My Family/En mi Familia,” and studied the works of 20th Century artist Haring and Archibald Motley, a 20th Century African American painter whose work was inspired by his multiracial heritage. This research helped the students to recognize techniques to be used for the project as well as to realize a deeper meaning within the assignment.

“There was always a connection back to their own families and their own cultures,” notes Acosta. “We have a lot of different family structures in our classroom, so being able to see examples of these and ask questions helped us build a safe community in our classroom. Opening that dialogue to talk about families and relationships was really meaningful.”

“Keith Haring has a simplistic style for our primary students that was accessible to them,” says Terrazas. “It’s very clear what is happening in [his] images. We talked about what the symbol of the heart meant in his work; it could be love, it could be friendship.”

Haring’s simple and graphic style was easily accessed by Primary students. Courtesy of Monica Acosta

The students then took digital photos of their personal relationships among their classmates and family members and based sketches on the photos. Some depicted themselves with a beloved sibling, others with their best friends at UCLA Lab School. The paintings that they created from the sketches were displayed in the campus’s lobby area and will also be featured at an open house on June 7.

“[Haring’s art] was showing that a community had relationships in it that were really meaningful,” says Acosta. “They were able to extrapolate a lot of the elements that we wanted them to see in his work.”

The second part to the art project on relationships and community focused on the building of a model of an actual “community” of art materials and found objects, as well as collage portraits of fictional characters that would ideally dwell in such a community.

“The students were introduced to community through conversations and field trips,” says Terrazas. “They were then asked to state what they thought were the most important parts of a community, and as a class, came up with a list that included Health, Safety, Entertainment, Food, Buildings, Shelter, and Nature.”

The students were organized into groups for each of the items on the list and learned how to design a blueprint and come up with a list of materials they would need to use in order to depict their aspect of the “community,” which was made of found objects and cardboard.

Ding Kong, the iSTEAM teacher at UCLA Lab School, taught the students several papercraft techniques in the school’s new iSTEAM Lab, such as cutting, fringing, and creating spirals. The students used these techniques to create collage portraits of “community helpers,” or the ideal group of individuals in a community whose occupations reflected some of the students’ values – sometimes amusingly.

Monica Acosta (at left) and Anna Terrazas incorporated literature, art history, and even iSTEAM principles into their lesson on relationships and community.

“I think the funniest thing about the community is that they didn’t build a school,” laughs Acosta. “We tried to guide them toward it but they didn’t pick up on it. Everyone [in the fictional community] must be homeschooled.”

Terrazas and Acosta look forward to integrating art education with other parts of their Primary curriculum. Terrazas says that the interdisciplinary use of art enhances learning and minimizes how “sometimes in traditional [learning] settings, things tend to be very isolated.”

“A project like this kind of shows you how you can have social studies, the arts, literature and everything combined,” she says. “A six-hour school day goes by so fast and teachers are wondering how and where they can fit it all in. So, learning how to do things collaboratively and in an interdisciplinary way makes it a lot easier.”

“I wish that every child could experience learning in this way,” says Acosta, who is an alumna of UCLA’s Teacher Education Program (’04) and worked as a teacher’s assistant at UCLA Lab School while a student. “It’s definitely our mission as a school, and my wish is that all the teachers that come here to visit be inspired to use art in many ways in the classroom.

Portraits of “community helpers” were created by Primary students using a variety of papercraft techniques that also had scientific implications.

“It’s always important to link any curricular area to art and kids,” she says. “It’s a different way for them to express themselves. Especially at UCLA Lab School, since we do it so often, [students] have fewer inhibitions and are willing to take risks. Seeing how they want to represent their understanding is something we’re always thinking about.”


Above: Primary students at UCLA Lab School explored their relationships and community while learning art techniques inspired by multicultural literature and art.

Courtesy of Monica Acosta