Like many people today, I juggle several jobs to make ends meet. One of these jobs is as a part-time English instructor for the Upward Bound Program at Los Angeles City College. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with Upward Bound, it's a program that can be traced back to the Civil Rights era. Born out of President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," UB offers academic support and guidance to low-income, underrepresented high school students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college. The goal of the program is ultimately to empower students by preparing them for higher education.
During the summer, the UB program at LACC holds an intense six-week session where students either take college prep classes or make up courses they have failed. Due to increased funding cuts in education over the past decade, however, we have limited time with our students during the actual academic year. As instructors, we meet with students twice a month on select Saturdays. That's only two class sessions a month and each of our class sessions is only an hour long, so that's two hours of instruction per month. For many reasons, students' attendance also fluctuates greatly during the school year. It is not uncommon for me, for instance, to have a different group of students each Saturday. The limited class time and erratic attendance is not necessarily ideal for learning or teaching, especially when wanting to create lessons that build on each other over an extended period of time. As teachers our constant challenge is to come up with creative lessons that both engage students and offer them valuable/relevant learning in a short amount of time.
This past semester, Ozomatli, our current UB Arts & Culture teacher, led a successful art project around alebrijes. The goal--to collectively create one giant papier mache alebrije. Alebrijes were first created in Oaxaca in the 1930's by Pedro Linares, a papier mache artist. After having a series of dreams where he repeatedly saw surreal creatures made up of different animal parts, Linares put aside his traditional piñatas and masks and began creating representations of the odd creatures he saw in his dreams. He called them alebrijes, a word that came to him in his dreams as well. In short, alebrijes are brightly colored flights of imagination. An alebrije may be a creature with the body of a horse, the face of dragon, the wings of an owl and the claws of a tiger. Linares' art form was so original and captivating that it quickly spread among Mexican artisans and it eventually became internationally known. Today alebrijes are commonly seen in Mexico and they are made from a variety of materials, such as wood, clay, and papier mache.
Why bring alebrijes to Upward Bound? Ozomatli notes several reasons. To begin with, developing relationships with students and nurturing their strenghts takes time. Art can be very instrumental in this process. "I especifically chose alebrijes because I believe they are extremely complex on an artistic and psychological level. Students have the potential to deal with complex and sofiscated issues but often times they are not given the opportunity or space."
In addition, Ozomatli wanted to create a project that engaged students from beginning to end, even if it meant that different students worked on the project at different stages. "When people have a sense of success and completion," he says, "it’s easier for them to aspire to bigger and better things. Every student who worked on this project is going to feel that sense of success and completion because it was a group effort."
Ozomatli also mentions the benefits of having students be creators versus mere receptors of learning. "I gave them a general framework, but they worked on all the details. They were responsible for what type of hands, what type of feet, what type of head, what type of tail, the colors, the painting. Students purposed a lot of ideas. Some students were so excited they actually brought pictures or examples into the classroom." Another great benefit was having the students work collectively in a hands-on way. The whole project was done over a period of 4 months and "took approximately 30 hours, with students and some staff members putting in personal time outside of regular UB sessions."
Through the course of this time, students were able to witness the giant alebrije transform from an idea to a cool, colorful creature. They opted for pockadot chicken feet.
And colorful scaled butterfly wings.
A blue-green fish tail forms the back end.
In addition to constructing and painting the collective alebrije this past semester, many of the students also wrote short creative pieces on encountering their own alebrije. They used sensory description to describe and bring to life the creature of their imagination, noting where they encountered their alebrije and any super powers the creature posses.
The students will have their giant alebrije, some of their writings, and masks from previous semesters on display this Thursday, Feb 4th 2010, at the DaVinci Gallery at Los Angeles City College at 7:00 PM. This will be UB's first-ever art exhibit. The event is open to the public. 855 North Vermont, LA 900029-3588.
Here are a few of the UB students sharing some of their thoughts about the project:
My name is Laura Gracia. I'm a junior at Hollywood High. I basically did the feet with the swirls. I also helped with the spine and the wings. I liked being able to put my ideas into the project. I liked learning about the artist in Oaxaca who had those crazy dreams. I think teenagers can relate to these strange creatures because teenagers have gotten weirder over the years.
My name is Yuriko Ortega and I'm a senior at Manual Arts High School. I have been painting the alebrije, creating patterns on the body and detailing. If I had to pick an adjective to describe our alebrije I would chose the word amazing. I've worked on the project pretty consistantly since it began and I really enjoyed this project a lot because it allows you to be creative and it brought the students together. I thought about this project even when I wasn't at the program. I wanted to be here to finish it and I also thought about making my own at home. I also wrote a short story about encountering my own strange creature. I like what I wrote.
I'm Alex Vega and I'm a senior at Walt Whitman High. In regards to my participation in the project, I helped put together the head, the ears. I helped put the wings on the body, helped build some of the claw, and I've done a lot of painting. I think this project brought us all together and I enjoyed it a lot because I'm more of a hands-on person and I learn better that way. Instead of just sitting in a room, you get to have fun with it. I had never heard about alebrijes before this project. Now I know what they are and I even wrote a creative piece on my own alebrije. For that creative piece I just let my imagination go wild and included lots of details on how my alebrije looks, how it sounds, and where it lives.
My name is Gisseli Martinez and I'm a 11th grader at West Adams. For the record I hate talking, but I will give a few of my thoughts. I particpated in the project by painting and deciding on certain colors to use on the monster. It wasn't mandatory to come to the art class so different students particpated at different times. It was good to be able to work with different students at different times. I like this type of learning because you get to actually decide what to do instead of the teacher deciding everything. I really liked being involved in the process. If you're wondering why I'm holding an apple in this picture it's because my writing teacher made me do an exercise on using my senses. I had to bring the apple to life on paper.
My name is Stepanie Salguero and I am a 12th grader at Hollywood High. I think creating the alebrije was a project in which people cooperated to accomplish a common goal. I got to glue newspaper and paper bags onto the body and later I painted. It was very different from being in a regular classroom because you had to use your imagination and your hands.