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A Journey Under the Sea

Feb 15, 2024

Teacher Melissa Shaw standing with her student in front of neon paintings and a scuba diver sculpture.

Ms. Shaw with a student at the undersea art show.

While physically in school, in a classroom, young learners can find themselves in unfamiliar places. They can journey back in time, sometimes back to when the dinosaurs roamed. They can cross oceans, scale peaks, and visit natural wonders. Sometimes they catapult into space or dive deep under the sea to swim with turtles, jellyfish, and sharks. That’s what amazing education can do: it can transport.

For eight years, at Emma E. Booker Elementary School, art teacher Melissa Shaw has been nourishing her K – 5 students’ creativity while taking them to faraway places. In the last two years, with the help of teacher grant funding from the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, Shaw has used her students’ creative powers to transport them to outer space and, most recently, to the depths of the sea.

Emma E. Booker Elementary, a Title I school, hosts Parent and Family Engagement Events that bring together the community around an academic focus. The most recent event, held on February 8, celebrated marine science. To engage her students around the event and the subject, Shaw formulated a schoolwide project to create an undersea world.

Through a teacher grant posted on DonorsChoose, which was matched by the Education Foundation, she purchased fluorescent paints, markers, tape, neon clay, and so many other supplies that her students would need to create a world that would come alive under black lights.

With the necessary supplies, Shaw guided her classes to create sea creatures and corals. She teaches all grade levels, so different grades created different creatures using different mediums based on their level. As they created, they learned art techniques and concepts and worked collaboratively. They also studied the ecosystem of Sarasota Bay, learning across curriculum.

All students contributed to the show, as did the art club, and together they created a world alive with jellyfish, a sea turtle, corals, sharks, fish, and other sea creatures and structures. Students from Booker Middle School even created life-size scuba divers.

Leading up to the marine science event, Shaw put in long hours ensuring all her students completed their projects. Then she had to set up her show in two rooms attached to the cafeteria.

Her students’ and her hard work paid off, and on the night of the bustling Parent and Family Engagement event that included live sea creatures, Disney princesses, an obstacle course, and much more, students and parents were transported under the sea through art. In the darkened rooms, under the black light, the sea life glowed vibrantly as it does under water.

In the days after the show, Shaw brought all her students to walk through the gallery to view the works, ensuring everyone could see the world they’d created. Before leaving for the gallery, her students reviewed art elements that they would have to identify on their visit. They were given a worksheet that would prompt them to think about these elements as they viewed the art.

Under the black light, under the sea, students identified their favorite work and when the lights came back on wrote about it. Shaw’s students did something else. They developed a fan letter to the artist. On a sheet, they wrote the artist’s name, explained what they liked most about the work and why they chose it, and then signed their notes. These letters would later be distributed to the artists, creating that important dialogue between the viewer and the artist while building community.

As the class period came to an end, the students emerged and returned to their classroom. And while Shaw will take down the show, and the vibrant undersea world will again just be a room, the process of creating this world and experiencing the joy that comes with being transported elsewhere through a collective, creative endeavor will linger with so many of these students for years to come.

Neon sea turtle sculpture with other fish and coral structures

Student work at the undersea art gallery.

Two students sitting near fluorescent artwork

Two of Ms. Shaw’s students responding to student artwork.

Fluorescent jellyfish sculpture hanging from the ceiling

Student work at the undersea art gallery.