"Hall Passages" is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what's new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. On Monday, Kelly spent some time at Rattlesnake Elementary.
Most first-time authors draw heavily on their own experiences, so when his elderly neighbor sprayed him with a garden hose, Connor Flanagan found himself dripping with a plot-thickening anecdote.
And around that anecdote, Connor, a fourth-grader at Rattlesnake Elementary School, wove an entire story.
"It's based on my life," said the student in Suzy Archibald-Wilson's class, as he paged through his book, "Melman's Summer" - a bound and illustrated first novel by the fledgling author.
Connor's entire class of 25, in fact, is toting around a fresh-off-the-printer collection of books, fully designed and illustrated by art students at Sentinel High School.
Over the winter, the collaborative effort between Rattlesnake and Sentinel has been an exercise in the interplay of literature and art, resulting in a small library of tiny tomes illustrated in full color - tales about aliens, monsters, dragons, more aliens, a few more dragons and a summer filled with all sorts of experiences, including the ill-timed squirt of a garden hose.
The idea was proposed by Sentinel art teacher Sally Friou, who - inspired by a student-teacher and Adobe PhotoShop expert - sent out a districtwide alert and answered the call of the Rattlesnake class, as well as two third-grade classes at Chief Charlo School.
It would give Friou's students a hands-on, real-world project testing their artistic talents as sketchers, painters and PhotoShop illustrators, while expanding the literary imagination of Archibald-Wilson's fourth-graders.
"I knew this would be fun," said Archibald-Wilson, a 17-year educator in the Missoula County Public Schools district. "What an opportunity for high school kids to be a mentor and role model. And it really touched the hearts of my students when they did this."
The Sentinel students, all in the Introduction to Art class, were given a list of specific requirements by Friou - that the main character be originally drawn, that artwork contain the elements of contrast and a sense of space, and that a variety of filters in PhotoShop - the ubiquitous graphics and photo-editing program - be put to use.
Not only would it introduce beginning art students to key artistic concepts, but it would apply a standard that real-world artists work with every day: deadlines.
"The students had real deadlines," said Friou. "We had to have those books done for those little kids."
One of the big lessons the fourth-graders learned is that as authors and writers, they have to relinquish total creative control of the project as a whole. Novelists dealing with publishers know this; script-writers dealing with movie studios know this; newspaper reporters definitely know this.
And so last November, each one of these kids handed in their stories, and let the Sentinel art students bring their own vision to the project.
The books came back recently, breathed to life by art, their cardboard pages and covers bound with heavy string.
The second lesson is that amazing things happen when creative minds collaborate, even if the finished product is different from the original vision of each artist.
"I thought he did a great job," said Jayden McDonald, whose book "The Dragon" was set to the illustrations and art mash-ups of Sentinel student Austin Finley. "I thought he really listened to my story, and really understood the personality of my dragon."
For Rattlesnake student Addy Mohorcich, the art work of Sentinel student Elle Nelson perfectly illustrated her tale, "My Pet Alien."
"I could tell she had a pretty big imagination," she said.
Last December before the holiday break, the art students and elementary kids sat down together and read the books out loud, students who had never met each other and yet worked their own magic to create art.
That's how it's done in the real world, too.
"This is a great example of 21st century learning," said Archibald-Wilson, who has displayed the creations on a community bulletin board at Rattlesnake. "That's what we do in real life. We work together and we collaborate."
Reach reporter Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.