© 2019 by Sarah Cornette

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3rd Middle School/High School of Thessaloniki

 

“The most important thing was the friendship, the cooperation, and the love we gave to this.”  K, a student at the 3rd Middle School/High School of Thessaloniki

 

Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece, with a population of over 1 million.  Thessaloniki is a major transportation hub for Greece and Europe, most notably and historically through its famous port.  Thessaloniki is known for its food, festivals, and vibrant cultural life.  It is a major religious center with many of the most famous Byzantine churches in Greece. The city’s main university is also Greece’s 

largest, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.  The Greek education system was strongly affected by the economic crisis, which led to wage reductions, short term contracts for teachers, and a 36% cut in funding over the past decade.  More on the economic and refugee crisis here.

The 3rd Middle School/High School of Thessaloniki is a public school serving a working class/middle-class neighborhood in the city, with about 200 students in grades 7-12.  As a side note, in Greece the dominant majority of Greek Orthodox citizens consider being Greek an ethnic category, not a mark of citizenship by birth.  Non-Greeks are sometimes referred to by their family’s ancestral roots (for example, Bulgarian, even if the person was born in Greece), or their ethnic group (“The Roma”, who have been in Greece at least 600 years), or just “not Greek.”  Of the 18 students I worked with, one girl was Bulgarian, five were second- or third-generation Albanian, and the rest were Greek. None were refugees.

For this project I needed official permissions from the Ministry of Education to enter the school and work with the children.  My faculty advisor from the university and Vasso Michailidou (the English teacher who graciously offered to host the project) both went to great pains to complete the lengthy process to secure the required permissions.  It was a challenge to try and organize a space, the materials, and the time for the project from afar.  I also had no idea what kind of art exposure or skills the kids had--there is no permanent art teacher position in the school (art teachers are hired on short term contracts, often with substantial delays in receiving their appointments).  It quickly became clear that without the enthusiastic and persistent support of a collaborating local teacher, the project never would have been possible for me to pursue in a Greek public school. A former Fulbright recipient, Ms. Michailidou showed incredible trust and flexibility, reworking the schedule with her colleagues when we needed more time.  Through her I also had a means of deeper engagement with the kids as we navigated the language barrier and complex social and compositional concepts.

I knew going into the project that the biggest limiting factor for this collaboration would be time.  Overall we had five sessions to work, 6-7 hours of total work time with the kids to compose and paint a large section of canvas (9ft x 4.5 ft).  In addition, because the room was in use before and after the sessions, most of the time everything had to be set up and cleaned up completely within each session.  I had never facilitated a collaboration on such a scale with so little time to establish relationships, in addition to the language 

and cultural barriers.  In addition to the canvas mural, I provided all of the materials for the project courtesy of a grant from my home community.  This was vital as the school had few art supplies.  My collaborating teacher and I were able to borrow or purchase cheaply the minimum tools we needed for the project, a paring down I would find useful when I took the project to Samos.

Ms. Michailidou had introduced the project to the class, and we had already stretched the full (at the time) mural canvas across the wall of the classroom. In the introductions/opening circle, I learned the students were excited to make art, have a break from regular classes, meet an American, and they were also curious about the first panel of the mural completed by my Chapel Hill group.  Ms. Michailidou had helped create a list of local terms, and they were familiar with the game Pictionary. The first few steps in the process proceeded similarly to the first group, with the kids becoming more relaxed and comfortable with me and working together as a team. When it came time to sketch the main composition, I was happy to see that several students were willing to take a marker and show their ideas.  We had to make our choices rapidly by the end of the second session, and between sessions I put the image together from their drawings using Photoshop. In the process I had to make aesthetic decisions which we had not had time to discuss.

I knew the image I came up with would have many new components for the students, but I didn’t anticipate the level of controversy it would cause when I showed it to them during the next session.  With the time pressures always hovering in the back of my mind, I was ready to move on to tracing and painting, but the students were not. Some of them liked what I had made, some of them didn’t, but more importantly, they needed time to understand the choices I had made.  In that moment I had to remember my purpose--to empower the children. I realized that the step I had made in the interest of saving time was too far away from what they could envision when we had last met. I had had time with the visual problems that emerged when I was creating the image--but the children had not, and so they felt disenfranchised.  The only remedy that would restore their sense of empowerment was to allow them to discuss it fully and give them choices before we moved on. I’d love to be able to say at this point that we had the time to do this fully. We didn’t--the end of the session arrived all too quickly, and we had to make a decision or risk not finishing the mural at all. They voted to continue with the current image in its basic form as a background, and change the details as we wished once the background was complete. It wasn’t an ideal solution, but the best we could do with the time frame we had. Plus the kids were tired of talking and ready to paint!

Painting such a large area with bright colors is always engaging and energizing, and these kids responded with great enthusiasm.  Despite the controversies of the last session, they had no difficulty making color decisions and crowding together to work on the canvas.  There was much laughter and chatter as they negotiated space and painting details, and I was so impressed with how they helped each other. Natural leaders emerged and moved ideas along with sensitivity.  The painting sessions ended all too quickly, and the kids were disappointed to not have time to add more details to the work. I resisted the urge to draw those details in for them later: the mural perfectly reflects the challenges and gifts of the situation, lessons I would take with me for this project and process in the future.  

We squeezed in a closing circle and Ms. Michailidou was willing to persist with more in-depth discussions with the group after I left Thessaloniki.  Here is what the kids had to say:

 

What was most important about this project?  What will you always remember?

 

“{The most important thing was} cooperation among us and that we made the place where we live and where most of us in our class have grown up.  I will always remember that we didn’t have any English classes for a week and that we tangled and bumped into each other but we’ve made it!”

 

“The most important thing in the procedure was to make the drawing and the outlines.

I will always remember the times when we gathered around in a circle and talked, the times when we cooperated and helped each other if, for example, someone had trouble doing something. I will also remember the times when we all agreed on what we would do.”

 

“I think the most important thing is that we all worked together for one drawing that many people are going to see.  I will remember forever the fun we all had while we were drawing and that I met a person from a country away from Greece. I really enjoyed co-working with such talented people.”


As the spring semester progressed, Ms. Michailidou wrote to tell me about the impact of the project in the longer term.  The kids still felt connected to the mural, curious about where it had traveled, and what the next group had chosen to add.  She added: “This group seemed changed by the process, more responsible and more supportive to one another compared to other classes in the same time frame.”

In Thessaloniki, I learned how vital time is to collaboration. I renewed my commitment to my greater purpose in empowering children. And, I was reminded that making art in itself will inspire joy and create positive relationships despite the challenges of circumstance.  These lessons were vital to the project when I took it next to refugee children on Samos.

Click on the images below to enlarge.

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