Global Art

Webster University graduate student uses art to help students experience the human spirit

ST. LOUIS, May 20, 2014 – Abby Birhanu began pursuing her master’s degree in Applied Educational Psychology in the School of Education at Webster University to help her become a better teacher.

“I wanted to learn more about how the human brain learns best,” said Birhanu. “I wanted to better understand diverse learning and teaching styles to better accommodate a diverse group of students.”

Reaching a diverse group of students is a challenge she faces head-on at St. Charles High School in Missouri where she works as an art teacher. Birhanu wanted to find a way to teach her own students about art while also raising their awareness of how people live all over the world.

“I've traveled quite a bit so I understand that people are likely to relate to one another when given the opportunity,” she said. “We can always vicariously learn and grow from each others experiences. I wanted to give students an avenue by which to travel indirectly and experience the human spirit.”

Birhanu created The Global Art Project using an alumni grant from the Fulbright Teachers Exchange Program. Under her leadership and coordination, 66 students between the ages of 12 and 18 from four different countries created a cross-cultural art project.

Students from St. Charles High School worked with students from The Christian Activity Center in East St. Louis, Illinois; Schiller-Gymnasium in Ludwigsburg, Germany; Charters in Sunningdale, United Kingdom and Kombolcha Primary School in Kombolcha, Ethiopia. They each contributed to artwork focusing on ten topics: love, relationships, religion, community, education, nationality, holidays, storytelling, music and traditions.

Students in St. Charles selected the topics and began the artwork.

Student in St. Charles works on the global art project“They began drawing what each of these topics mean to them - one theme for each student so there were 10 students in total,” said Birhanu. “They used only a small section of the 18 x 24 paper given to them to allow their international peers to fill in the rest.” Birhanu took the art with her to Germany when she accompanied a student exchange her school participates in. She brought the work with her to Ethiopia while visiting her brother who is serving in the Peace Corps. The grant allowed her to travel to England and bring the art to Sunningdale.

“Teachers from each of those schools were pivotal in helping me organize this project and I am grateful to have a willing group of people in a network that spans so large to help,” she said “I took the works everywhere I went and showed them pictures of the students working on the projects so they were able to read and see what the students did previously. The 10 drawing papers were filled when I returned to Missouri and the students at St. Charles then unified the works by making visual connections and filling in the gaps.”

She said students learned a lot by participating in the project.

“My students were surprised by how diverse their peer’s cultural backgrounds were even though we only included four countries,” Birhanu said. “This project showed us how globalized our world has become as a lot of the students were of different nationalities, not only American, German, and Ethiopian but also Turkish, Croatian, Jamaican, Finnish and more.”

Abby Birhanu teaching in EthiopiaThe Global Art Project was displayed in St. Louis last year and also was shared in all of the participating communities through a traveling art show. Each participating student received a booklet of the art to keep.

Birhanu hopes to expand the project to countries in Asia and South America and then develop a public art project for the students.

“I hope all who come across this project will engage in the dialogue presented by the artists and seek opportunities to continue the conversation,” said Birhanu.

To view more work from the Global Art Project – visit Birhanu's website.

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