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September 15, 2014

Digging Deep to Find Your Spirit Totem through Inquiry: Year Two at Infusion Champion School Mamquam Elementary

Guest blogger Andrea Klann is a visual artist whose work in oils often explores the themes of self, cultural identity and immigration. As an Infusion Teaching Artist, she is passionate about working with both educators and primary through middle school students and engaging learners in exploring these themes. As ITA at Mamquam Elementary in Squamish, BC, she recently collaborated with educator Heather Lewis in the following unit.


Our theme at Mamquam Elementary in Year Two of the Infusion Cohort program was Storytelling: Explorations in Personal and Cultural Identity. Working with educator Heather Lewis, we developed arts integrated creative processes that personalized and deepened learning through this unit.

To kick off this Grade 4/5 inquiry-based journey, Heather developed a series of driving questions, such as "When is storytelling evidence of a culture's history, or when is a story just a story?" and "How do stories shape and drive our thinking?" This problem-based learning (PBL) unit integrated Language Arts, Social Studies, Science and Fine Arts and encompassed mapping skills and artistic processes explored in previous Infusion interactions. It required students to reflect and look within to identify their own personal and familial stories. An elder from the Squamish First Nations was consulted regarding our creative process.

Students worked through a series of tasks to support their learning, including:

  • Timeline
  • Asking questions, making inferences
  • Exploration of political and non-political art
  • Exploration of relevant written works
  • Students kept research notebooks and journals for personal and persuasive writing and reflections/artistic explorations

Students were introduced to artists such as Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun and the stories, artistic language and represented elements therein. Further works from Australian Dreamtime artists featuring unique landscapes and identifying symbology were introduced and discussed and linked, and again the stories found in these works were deeply considered. Complementary texts, such as I Am Raven and The Rabbits were also explored. Students were encouraged to reflect in journals and ask questions throughout the inquiry.

A frequently identified element in visual and written material was the spirit totem found in both First Nations and Australian Indigenous works. This element was deeply explored and inspired each student to identify their own spirit totem and create their personal story in pen, ink and watercolour on paper.

Following completion of the above exploration, students began their final project using acrylic, charcoal, graphite and collage. Each student was encouraged to create their spirit totem, identifying their animal spirit and conveying a living landscape and their personal symbology/stories in a 30" x 40" final piece. Design elements were planned in advance in student journals (students developed a strong understanding of design elements through previous Infusion interactions) and these elements (ie. the language of colour) were a key element of the creative process. Written elements such as reflections from student journals were often included in the body of the spirit totem.

It was a challenging task for any intermediate student; at times it was messy and as with any inquiry, veered into new territory that was often unpredictable. However, the learning and creative process was deep and meaningful. It was very rewarding to observe students making inferences, exploring their personal stories, strongly engaged, inquisitive and motivated to create original and authentic, deeply felt artworks representative of their own stories.

The Spirit Murals and planning documentation was exhibited at Mamquam's annual MOMA: Museum of Mamquam Art event held in June.


Learn more about the Infusion Cohort program.

Read more guest blogs about Arts Integration in Action!

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