The art of being a military child

by Leigh Drake

What does it mean to be military child?  This is a question that I pose to my students. Students’ responses vary, including having a parent in the military, moving around a lot, having parents out on deployment, and having strong sense of what it is to be an American.  We live in an area that has numerous naval bases, with constant jet noise, and people from all over the world residing.  One-third of our student population has a military background.  A lot of these students have been to and have lived in so many different areas that most children their age would never experience. The military child is source of inspiration in our classroom, with their vast background and stories.  This inspired a city wide exhibition and contest throughout Virginia Beach.

Local support and appreciation
Through the support of our military liaison, the art of the military child show came about. Students from all over the city were given the opportunity to create artwork inspired by the military.  Most of my students, if not all of them, had either a parent, relative, neighbor or friends they knew that served or currently served in one of the military branches.  Most of these students have been waking up to jet noise since they were little kids, either living in this area or being having military relatives.  We live in an area with an extreme amount of patriotism and having military-themed artworks created by our students on display only showed a glimpse of our gratitude towards those who serve.

Students steps in the process
This assignment was definitely formed around personal experiences. Students were introduced to the idea of what it meant to be a military child or having military affiliation.  As a class we discussed different ideas and symbols that are associated with the military. The message could be gratitude and appreciation or a message to a family member, or something else that they felt best represented their message.  Students came up with several thumbnail sketches for their ideas, then we reviewed their possible choices and messages.  We discussed how a message doesn’t always have to have words it can be just as powerful through imagery.  Then after deciding on their final design idea, they created their piece, full of vibrant color that was then accompanied by an artist statement.  Students had the opportunity to really feel something in this assignment, a personal experience of gratitude towards the hard working individuals.

Understanding self-expression
It is said that military children say goodbye to more significant people by the age of 19 than the average person will in their lifetime. Their experiences are mostly beyond that of students their own age.  Having such powerful messages behind their eyes and seeing it put down on paper is surely powerful.  Students are able to tell their story and describe what they are going through.  This experience also helped other students that had been through similar situations such as a parent away on deployment.  They were able to get their story told and understood by their peers and create beautiful realistic pieces that were just a small symbol of who they were.  The students drawings reflected scenes such as welcoming a parent home from deployment, seeing a parent off, missing someone that has serves or is currently serving, symbols of gratitude for what military members have endured, and love and respect for the country in which we all live.

This assignment allowed my students and me to gain personal connections with each other.  To gain common ground and experiences.  It really helped our classroom grow as a family hearing the experiences by each child.  Students were able to reflect on their past and bring that ideas visually to life.  Students gained different insights on their classmates, and new friendships blossomed.  It was truly a heartwarming assignment for everyone involved.

Leigh Drake is a visual arts teacher at Old Donation School. This article originally appeared in School Arts magazine. The seventh annual Art of Being a Military Child celebration will be April 3 at Lynnhaven Mall.

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