TAMPA, Fla. — A sprinkling of stars spells out the word “believe.” A light bulb frames the word “innovative.” A butterfly signals freedom and rebirth.
And, in their midst, two young people face each other, wearing masks while having a conversation.
These vividly colored images fill the cinderblock wall between buildings 4 and 5 at Town ‘N Country Elementary School, courtesy of two groups of students in an unusual partnership.
Town ‘N Country and nearby Berkeley Preparatory have been working since October to commemorate their schools’ responses to COVID-19.
“This work is 100% done by the students,” Town ‘N Country principal Otis Kitchen said as the young artists undertook the finishing touches last week. “The educators really wanted to get involved and engaged in the painting process. But they actually held off, so to speak. It is all student-led and student-driven.”
The idea came from Town ‘N Country art teacher Julia Prieto, who heard the two schools were collaborating for peer tutoring.
Prieto’s students were already working on a pandemic-themed display. Each student and adult had chosen a singular word, and the word cards were interspersed with abstract designs.
Prieto wondered, why not an outdoor mural?
Berkeley’s National Art Honor Society took on the project, under the direction of secondary art teacher Carrie O’Donoghue. The students raised $1,100 to pay for paints and other supplies.
They shortened the long list of words, settling on those most pertinent to the pandemic experience. Examples included “perseverance,” “determined,” and “patience.”
They discussed numerous design concepts before the first splashes of paint hit the wall.
“Now, in the future, when new people come, or the new generation who does not know about the pandemic, they can know about it from this,” said Journey Melton, a fifth-grader who was among those painting last week.
Journey and her classmates were in third grade when the pandemic hit. As they look back on those months, they remember disrupted routines, boredom and isolation at home.
Returning to school in a mask, Journey said, “I forgot what people’s faces looked like.”
It was not much different for the Berkeley students, who struggled to keep up with their virtual classes and felt many of the same emotions that the younger children described.
“Definitely, patience,” said Keira Hamilton, 17. “Working the system, you know, being creative in how I can spend time with my friends online. I was definitely looking at these words, like they definitely do ring true to me and my experience with COVID.”
Kitchen, for his part, was trying to unify a school that was new to him while half his students were learning remotely.
“Teaching and learning will not happen if people do not feel valued, and feel as if they are a part of something,” he said. There were days, he said, when he was at his students’ homes, making video calls to their teachers to make sure no one lost contact.
The experience reinforced Kitchen’s belief in the one-word strategy as a way to get students to focus on central concepts.
“The main goal, honestly, is for the students to feel empowered and have a legacy, and also for our school community to be able to come back and really look at how we were able to get through this pandemic together,” he said.
“Because if you look at those words, all those words have to deal with being driven, being determined and ultimately working together to overcome barriers.”