Art program has students learning about town's history

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WINDHAM — Sixth-grader Mary McDonald was blown away when she heard that at one point, Windham was more populated than the city of Chicago.

"That was something I'm going to remember for a while," she said.

As part of a week-long artist residency at Windham Elementary School, its 14 students visited historical sites in Windham and Stratton. They're writing poems and stories to go along with the drawings and a timeline of events.

Students are illustrating local cemeteries, churches and schoolhouses for a book that will be published and sold at the West Townshend Store. An associated contra dance and potluck dinner will be scheduled.

"I think everyone has a lot of art so it could be a big book," said arts educator Christine Mix, estimating that about 40 to 50 pages could be bounded together by the end of the project she has led.

Mix said students brought sketchbooks on the field trips and they also met with a panel of residents who attended the school in the 1940s and 1950s.

Windham was officially made a town in 1795. There was a time the town hosted eight schools.

"Because the kids had to walk," explained teacher Sally Newton.

Windham now has one school with grades three, four and six. Newton said it was neat for students to think about what's changed over the years, although a lot has stayed the same.

Windham's first settlers, the Aikens, were drawn in sketchbooks sewn together by the students. Cabins in town were the subject of one student's illustrations. An organ in the South Windham Church found its way into another sketchbook.

"I think it's been great because the kids are learning about where they live. They can relate to the places," Newton said. "They've been interested in looking at all the old pictures and hearing the stories about what it was like to live here."

Newton admitted she has some history with Windham Elementary, as she has taught there for almost 30 years and attended the school as a kid. A month or a whole year might be needed to really study the region or town, she said.

Mix called her residency "a good starting point."

"It opens the doors to a lot of opportunities," she said.

It was Mix's first time participating in the Vermont Arts Council artist-residency program. Artists will work with students on projects during school hours.

Mix runs programs at the Southern Vermont Arts Center and has been an arts educator for 20 years. She lives in Weston.

Third-grader Gracie Packard said she enjoyed seeing the old schoolhouses and learning about Windham's history.

McDonald's contribution to the book will focus on activities. Boys used to play with bows and arrows, she said, but now they have video games.

"It's cool to do a comparison," she said.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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