‘We’re With You’: Fourth Graders Learn Empathy Through Art

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by Briana Burtsell, Rocketship United Academy Art Enrichment Coordinator and Visual Art Instructor

Walking into the lobby of the Nashville Ronald McDonald House you know immediately that this is a welcoming place for kids. Brightly colored walls, comfortable seating, beautiful art, and a big kids play area fill the space. The problem is that families staying at the Ronald McDonald House spend most of their days in the hospital with their child and their nights in the individual family rooms, not in the lobby. The family rooms have not been brightened and decorated like the rest of the house, but instead remain grey and bare.

The walls of these rooms were just crying out for beautiful, meaningful art so I enlisted my 4th graders to answer the call.

Ronald McDonald House Charities of Nashville is a place where 32 families at a time can stay while their child undergoes medical treatment for often life-threatening illnesses at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. The Ronald McDonald House Charities of Nashville says that the facility, “serves families from across the country and around the world.  Since our doors opened in 1991, we have served 13,960 families from all 95 counties in Tennessee, 66 counties in Kentucky, 41 other states and 14 foreign countries. In 2015, we served 608 families in our House with an average length of stay of 18 nights and a daily waiting list of 10 families.”

Drawing from this experience in the family rooms, I developed the idea to have my 4th graders draw colorful, exuberant interpretations of Nashville landmarks. We wanted to show the Nashville Ronald McDonald House families that though they may be strangers to Nashville, there is a whole community here supporting them. Through our art, we wanted to welcome these families to Nashville and bring them joy, during an especially difficult time for these visitors.

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To start, we centered all of our art around the theme ‘we’re with you.’ This came from seeing a lot of iconography around the Ronald McDonald House about hope, and putting myself in the shoes of these families from out of town who may feel lonely. We printed out a bunch of iconic Nashville scenes, from the Grand Ole Opry, to music downtown, to the pedestrian bridge. The students then chose which photo to use as reference point and got to work. They used crayons and watercolors to create bright, joyful pieces of art.

The kids loved this project because they said, “we get to use art to make other people happy.” Painting Nashville landscapes and famous places, the students were able to express themselves while sparking joy in these families who really need it. The overwhelming majority of our students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with many at Rocketship United Academy coming from refugee and immigrant experiences. Our school has students from 16 different countries. Through this project, I want to teach them how even at a young age (though it may not seem like it) they have the power to help others, and how art can do just that.

In total, our 4th graders made 96 different, beautiful art pieces which we put onto foam boards to display in every room in the Ronald McDonald House. They got to support their Nashville community, learn about drawing and painting techniques, and see empathy in action. I strongly believe that it is important when teaching to demonstrate that art has a purpose in this world, that it makes a difference, and is a form of communication.

Through projects like this we are teaching our kids how to be persistent, kind, empathetic, and responsible citizens. My entire class learned a lot from this experience and keep asking when we can do something like this again! We’re all looking forward to our upcoming art show (on May 18th) where every student will show a piece of art. Each piece is for sale and all proceeds will go to the Second Harvest Food Bank. It’s another small way our Rocketeers get outside of themselves to help their community.

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Briana Burtsell is the Arts Enrichment Coordinator and Visual Art Instructor at Rocketship United Academy in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to joining Rocketship, Briana spent more than 10 years teaching design and visual communication in Massachusetts, including teaching high school students graphic design and photography. Briana also served as an adjunct faculty member at Monserrat College of Art, teaching art education history and theory. Briana spends her time outside of school volunteering at organizations such as Cheekwood Botanical Garden and at Your Heart on Art Therapeutic Arts.

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