SPOTLIGHT ON TEACHERS: Teacher Gabriella Cardenas Brings the Ocean to Life Through Visual Art

Meet Gabriela Cardenas, a demonstration teacher in the Learning in Two Languages Program at UCLA Lab School. Before going to UCLA Lab School, she was a founding teacher at Para Los Niños Charter Elementary School (PLN).  She has provided us with a detailed visual arts unit of instruction that she did with a group of fourth graders which includes many photographs of the remarkable artwork and the students in the process of creating it.  The students come from various ethnic and socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  Gabriella says “PLN is a safe haven for some of Los Angeles’s most at-risk children and a place for them to discover a world of learning and a sense of hope.”

Gabriela explains that throughout her teaching career, she haves sought to offer learners instruction that is meaningful, integrated, and accessible to each individual. She says, “In doing so, art has been key. I incorporate art as an inroad into studying big ideas and supporting concepts. I have found the arts to be especially helpful for English Language Learners who might not have reading and writing skills to show what they know but can use representations to demonstrate their understanding.”

The unit she developed provides students with an extensive drawing and printmaking experience that helps students represent their understanding of fish in an ocean habitat with a culminating group mural project while learning many important visual art elements and principles.

Prior to this lesson, students had been studying about natural disasters and their effect on ocean habitats. Gabriela points out how one path of inquiry leads to another.  “In their study students were drawn to the recent Tsunami that had occurred in Japan. In researching about the Tsunami that struck Japan, students were drawn to the wood block print of “The Great Wave” by artist Katsushika Hokusai. In deepening their interest, students began to ask questions about the artwork and the artist such as, “How is the print making process similar and/or different from printing from a computer?”

Just as the inquiry deepened, so did the engagement with learning in  visual art. The students created a printing plate of a fish focusing mainly on shape.  Gabriela followed this experience with bringing in actual fish so students could observe and draw more details.  From there they delved into a group mural making project.

Thinking of their fish drawings and their knowledge of ocean habitats, students developed a story to go with their mural showing how living organisms depend on one another and on their environment for survival. Each group of students presented their mural and story to the class showing evidence of how plants depend on animals and animals depend on plants for food and shelter.  In presenting their murals, they also demonstrated the power of integrated learning.

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