What do you get when you combine Riverview High School students, Asian puppetry, the Florida Studio Theatre,  Chinese language students from New College of Florida and the Ringling Museum?

My international baccalaureate visual arts students and Mandarin language students at Riverview, where I taught last year, got unexpected takeaways from our project, “The Aesthetics of Asian Puppetry.”

The project was created using an open inquiry model that teaches subject matter and executive functions such as self-management, critical thinking and perseverance.

For this project, I wanted to move students from using study sheets to learn the Mandarin language and Chinese art to experiencing the culture through active learning, dialogue and hands-on activities.

The project’s experiential and collaborative approach captured the students’ interest. Through partnerships, we were able to take our students out into the community and bring the community into our classroom.

We visited Ringling’s Center for Asian Art for a special art and architecture tour led by a Chinese-speaking guide, and we brought in visiting instructors from the Florida Studio Theatre and New College.

While FST instructors worked with student groups to create puppets and dialogue, the young NCF Chinese student interns created games and introduced my students to Chinese teens’ favorite foods, movies and music, then challenged my students to talk about the topics in Mandarin.

My students took chances with the language, brought excitement to discussions, learned the value of co-creating and conducted research on their own. I was impressed by the students’ efforts and the ownership they took of group projects.

Each week, my students were given a sheet with three questions: How do you incorporate what you learn from investigating the world around you? How do you understand alternative perspectives and how does that influence your work? How do you communicate ideas in terms of visual format, presentations and different forms?

Analysis at the project’s conclusion revealed student growth in the areas of expressing personal perspectives, explaining cultural influences and understanding contexts.

Perhaps results are better described in the words of a student: “The project allowed me to walk in a different pathway of art in another place, and hard work can be fun with the right group of people.”

My biggest takeaway, as a teacher, was the importance of bringing in community experts and modeling collaboration. There is something so dynamic about showing students that learning isn’t isolated to the classroom and they can build skills to apply anywhere.

Jackie Henson-Dacey is a visual arts teacher at Venice High School.