Ben Franklin Elementary School art teacher Jennifer Skorupa in her classroom last month. (Staff photo by Laura Pollack.)

Students at Ben Franklin Elementary School spent the first few months of the year coming together through their artwork. Rather than working on individual projects, students created large scale pieces that incorporate art from every student.

Art teacher Jennifer Skorupa designed projects that allowed each student to create a small piece of the overall design. Students each designed a feather that was later put together as a lifesize set of wings, children painted their own dot on Dot Day murals, and they all helped put together a giant American flag that was presented to veterans who visited the school on Veterans Day.

“The students really love seeing that they were a part of a larger artwork,” Skorupa said.

Skorupa is a big believer in the power of teamwork and collaboration, but she noticed people across the world seem to be coming together less and less. This year, she set out to make a difference in her classroom to bring people back together.

Eli, a first grader at Ben Franklin Elementary, poses with a set of wings.

“It’s kind of sad to see that we’ve just started moving in our own directions, and I wanted to bring the kids back together as a community,” she said. “They don’t really understand what’s going on in the world, and it’s so easy to get them together and really see each other as a team and not just individuals.”

The first art project was a collaboration between all of the elementary schools in the district. Every school designed their own individual set of wings from feathers made by students. Skorupa said this is one of the projects her students are most proud of because they know their small feather has become part of something huge.

“We talked about how everyone in the district was going to do this project a little bit different but similar in some ways. They made these feathers that just looked like a normal piece of artwork, and they came back to school and saw it all together,” she said, adding that the children screamed with excitement when they saw their features in the final design.

Skorupa said the projects were a little overwhelming for the children at first because they had a hard time visualizing what their smaller piece of artwork would look like on the final project. However, once they saw their pieces put together with other students’ artwork, they wanted to create more.

Students created three collaborative art projects in total — the wings, Dot Day murals, and a Grand Old Flag. All of the projects were interdisciplinary, celebrating national events or other subjects through art. A few classes used the wings as writing prompts. Children took photos in front of the design, and then wrote about where they would go if they had wings.

Olivia, a Kindergarten student, poses with a Dot Day Mural.

Students worked together to create three murals for Dot Day, a day to celebrate Peter H. Reynolds’ children’s book, The Dot. After reading her students the book, Skorupa had children paint their own dot on a mural. They were allowed to paint the dots any shape or color they pleased; the only rule they had was to not draw over another student’s dot.

The final project revolved around Veterans Day. Students used different materials to create their own American flag. Skorupa broke this project down by grade, with third graders finding colors in old magazines and maps, pre-K students helping paint red and blue paper, and kindergarten, first and second graders helping to glue and seal all the pieces together. The projects were all displayed around the school, and one of the Dot Day murals was displayed the Lawrence library.

No matter what project the children were working on, Skorupa’s favorite part was seeing their excitement and enthusiasm about their work.

“From preschool all the way up to eighth grade, that wow factor for kids when they see something they created is always there,” she said.

Skorupa is a Lawrence native who attended Ben Franklin Elementary when she was a child.

“The kids really like when I tell them that I used to go to this school, and they think it’s crazy,” she said. “But there’s a good connection with me and the kids and a sense of community that’s really nice.”

Skorupa worked at various elementary and intermediate schools throughout the district before coming to Ben Franklin Elementary in 2016. She took over from Anthony “Toj” Colavita, her former art teacher who retired after spending 40 years in the district. She had the opportunity to work with him for her first week at Ben Franklin, having her career come full circle.

“It was a little overwhelming because, to me, I put him on a pedestal, he was my first art teacher, everything he does is amazing,” she said. “I’ve followed his career my whole life… He was my mentor in a way. Even though I’ve been teaching for so long, it was cool to work with someone who was my first art teacher.”

Skorupa’s Lawrence connections run deep. Her parents, Ilene and Chester Kulak, own a family dentistry in town. She met her husband, Mike Skorupa, while they were attending Lawrence High. Together they have two children who are currently in the Lawrence school district.

In her classroom, Skorupa’s goal is to ensure every child is able to tap into their creative side.

“There’s always that hesitation for kids, even at a young age, who say I can’t draw I’m not going to like art,” she said. “I don’t want any kid to feel that way because art isn’t just drawing, there’s art in everything.”