Betsie Valley students learn about Lake Michigan

A Veteran Teacher’s Thoughts on the Art Park

Education is a process. It is a process that establishes relationships, transcends curriculum, and provides a framework to attach experience. Engaging in the educational process is meant to be done as a participant and not as a spectator. As educational leadership mandates more and more focus on data and results, places like Michigan Legacy Art Park become integral in the education of a child.

As an elementary teacher in Thompsonville, I first looked into the Art Park as a field trip destination to simply get out and hike in an interesting location nearby. Upon first arrival with a group of 5th graders, I realized that this was going to end up being much more valuable than originally intended.

The obvious benefits of moving to an alternative venue for instruction and the incorporation of exercise were easily attained. However, the additional and unforeseen bonus was the conversation. Students were able to open themselves up to great conversations about personal experiences, historical references, and opinions of the art.

Students were able to open themselves up to great conversations about personal experiences, historical references, and opinions of the art.

Group conversations at each sculpture easily moved to a higher analytical level than in the classroom as students shared their unique perspectives. My interaction with individual or small groups of students also flourished as we were able to converse without the time restraints normally found on a school schedule. These conversations not only strengthened the bond between our class as a whole, but also acted as a reference point throughout the remainder of the year. These types of experiences are the foundation for evolving from simply a group of students into a community of learners. It is for this reason that I return to the park every year.

For info on field trips or other educational opportunities, please contact Education Director, Patricia Innis.

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Providing art experiences for students has also become a driving force behind our trips to the Art Park. Many northern Michigan students obtain exposure to art primarily at school. With art education being one of the first subjects to be cut due to district financial concerns, the importance of finding alternatives becomes essential.

Betsie Valley 5th grade students are engaged with complicated social histories through art.

Art spurs conversation on complicated social histories for Betsie Valley students.

Hiking throughout the park provides an opportunity to establish a pace for the kids to take in what they are experiencing without rushing. Whether we embark on a guided tour or simply wander as a group, the students always want to express their opinions of the sculptures and make connections to their own prior knowledge. This process is especially evident when we make return trips to the park and view the sculptures in a different season. Students find it very entertaining to compare and contrast the park first when flush with fallen leaves then blanketed in snow. Providing an interactive experience in which to view, discuss, and ultimately create art upon returning to school is integral for the development of a complete learner.

Providing an interactive experience in which to view, discuss, and ultimately create art… is integral for the development of a complete learner.

Beyond the benefits that I take from a field trip to the Michigan Legacy Art Park as an educator, probably the most important element associated with the park is fun. Students come to my class asking when we will “head to the Park” as a result of a sibling’s story. Likewise, former students that I see will ask me if I still take kids to the Art Park. The common characteristic in all of these discussions is the smile. Kids love Michigan Legacy Art Park for what it provides on the whole. Eating lunch at the amphitheater, snowball fights around “The Maze”, art projects using natural materials, stories, jokes, and nonsense all elicit a smile from a positive experience. It is telling that the kids first mention the fun of the park when asked about their experience. However, with continued questioning, you begin to hear about their thoughts, reflections, and analysis of their adventure. Sneaking a higher level learning experience based on art and history to a group of 11 year olds is not an easy task—the driving force of a fun experience makes this possible.

Earlier this fall, I was reminded just how lucky we are to have this amazing place right in our backyard available to visit at any time. Even though my 5 and 7-year-old sons have hiked numerous times at the park, they continually ask if we can return. Each time they find a new sculpture to call favorite, a new nugget to explore, and a new memory upon which they can reflect.

This Betsie Valley field trip was generously underwritten by the Benzie Sunrise Rotary Foundation.

About the Author

Mark Wassa (pictured above learning about Lake Michigan with his students) is a 5th grade teacher at Betsie Valley Elementary school. He has been teaching for 19 years and over the course of his career has brought many classes on field trips to Michigan Legacy Art Park.

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