Turn left when you enter Butler Elementary School in Avon, and you walk along what used to be a long blank wall that students invariably dragged their hands across as they went to and from lunch – leaving behind grubby handprints and smears of food.
The reaction from school officials was a steady mantra of “Don’t touch the wall.”
The concrete-block wall is now covered by a 48-foot-long by 8-foot-high mural — a kaleidoscope of colors and images on the theme “Five Principles of Learning.”
The school’s 400 students in prekindergarten through sixth grade worked with Cambridge muralist David Fichter to create the artwork.
Now, nobody has to remind students to keep their hands off the wall.
“It’s too special,” explained sixth-grader Brigitte Alcantara.
“Kids will walk by and say ‘that’s me’ [in the mural] or ‘I sketched that’ or ‘I painted that,” said principal Darrin Reynolds. “The kids all have ownership in it. They are very proud, and they should be: It’s really something fantastic.”
The genesis of the project occurred over the summer when Reynolds, who came to Avon four years ago from Kingston, starting thinking about ways to turn the nuisance wall into something more constructive. “We were always trying to get their hands off the wall; [I thought] we should do something to get their hands on the wall,” he said.
Some online research led him to Fichter, who for the past 30 years has created numerous murals inside and outside schools — many funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which this school year gave $730,900 in STARS grants to schools for artist, scientist, and scholar residencies.
Reynolds applied, and the Butler Elementary received a $5,000 grant in October; the school’s parent association agreed to provide $2,100 for supplies and other expenses, he said.
The real work began in early November, when Fichter met with students, parents, and teachers to brainstorm ideas for the mural.
“They had this huge, fairly unattractive concrete wall right in the main path of their building,” Fichter said. “It seemed to be crying out for something more interesting.”
The consensus was to represent what Reynolds calls the Five Principles of Learning: learning is about making connections; effort produces achievement; we learn with and through others; learning takes time; and motivation matters.
Reynolds learned about the principles from a National Institute for School Leadership program and introduced it to the school.
“These five principles sum up what our students are doing every day,” Reynolds said. “We’re here for learning and, if they want to learn, they
have to do these things.”
The next step was to generate images to put on the bare wall, one side of a long hallway the other side of which is punctuated with doors to the boiler room, bathrooms, and supply closet in the one-story 1963 building.
Members of the school student council — consisting of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders — assigned each grade a theme and went to all the classrooms to explain the project. Then every student in the school created at least one pencil drawing related to the theme.
The pictures showed lots of smiling children — reading books, sitting at desks, helping one another, listening to teachers — as well as flowers, a few cats, a turtle, and lots of pictures of Spike, the school’s bulldog mascot.
(The mascot was selected by students in a contest, and gym teacher Peter Violet dresses in a Spike costume during school assemblies, Reynolds said.)
After talking with the students to get ideas on how to incorporate all the images, Fichter made a collage of the drawings, connecting them with overlapping and curving staircases that divide into the learning themes and meet in the center at a glass mosaic of Spike.
There’s also a mosaic of a floating girl reading a book — from a drawing by a second-grader — and mosaics of flowers growing out of a clock with hands made of a pencil and ruler.
On Jan. 8, Fichter projected the design on the wall for the older students to trace with permanent marker. Two days later, the kids began painting during their art periods, starting with the kindergartners and continuing at 45-minute intervals until the mural was finished, two and a half weeks later.
The older students made the mosaics, donning safety goggles and learning the art of clipping glass tiles and adhering them to sticky mesh. All the students painted — with taller ones called on to get on ladders to reach the top of the wall.
“Every kid in the school got to paint, most of the teachers painted, we had parents in here painting, the custodians painted. I painted. We even had the superintendent painting,” Reynolds said. “It was messy, but there was not a single behavioral issue, not one argument.”
Sixth-grader Alcantara said she was amazed at how focused the younger students were. And she said she liked how Fichter didn’t change their drawings.
“That made the little kids happy,” she said. “And even if a sketch didn’t get on, everyone got to paint, so nobody felt left out.”
“It was exciting and fun because we all got to do something,” agreed fifth-grader Karoline Ferreira. “I was the eye person, and hands. Painting on a humongous wall, it felt really cool.”
Sixth-grader Cassidy Nadeau said the students learned a lot about painting techniques and how to work together. “It was a really good experience. If I have kids, I can bring them back here and say, ‘Look what Mommy did,’ ” she said proudly.
Superintendent Paul Zinni said he was pleased that the theme was chosen by students and that he got to paint a picture of a book — “which certainly is close to my heart.” He also was proud that such a big project came from such a small school district — where, because of school choice, roughly a third of the approximately 745 students come from such places as Brockton, Randolph, Stoughton, and Holbrook.
“We know to really be prepared for the 21st century, our children not only need the traditional three R’s of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, but they need to have the creativity to use those skills in new and innovative ways,” Zinni said.
Butler Elementary plans to unveil its mural to the public this Thursday at a 9 a.m. ceremony that will be run by the students, Reynolds said.
“I can’t express enough how proud I am of the kids and what they have accomplished,” he said. “They saw that working together you can create something pretty great.”Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.