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Creative Reuse Gives Way to New Ideas for the Classroom

Teachers show off the “Recyclo-Ponies” they created from repurposed materials at the Teacher2Teacher Workshop hosted by Envision Unlimited and the Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange. Left to right: William Claiborne and Ruth Marin, both Envision teaching artists; Monika Neuland Thomas, artistic director of Envision; and Barbara Koenen,founder of the Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange.

By Ashleigh Nelson

Step inside of the Envision Unlimited Frick Center and you’ll find an eclectic marriage of industrial structure and creative expression. The expansive space is a hodge-podge of art and greenery. There’s a turtle in a tank in the corner and a white gazebo sitting in the center of a dining area.

For a space with no rules, it’s the perfect site for the pilot Teacher2Teacher Workshop hosted by Envision Unlimited and the Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange, also called CCRx.

A second-time award recipient, the Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange received a $5,000 Acting Up award from The Chicago Community Trust to host the workshop series, which shows teachers how to repurpose surplus materials that businesses discard and use them for creative projects in the classroom. The pilot workshop, held on November 3, is a prelude to a series of classes that will start next January and involve a cohort of teachers teaching their creative techniques. The overall goal of the workshop series is to help teachers empower their students to be creative problem solvers using materials at hand.  

Upcoming Teacher2Teacher Workshops

What: Learn how to repurpose surplus materials for creative projects

When: Monthly, starting in January of 2019

Where: To be determined

Who: Teachers who live or work in Chicago

For more information: creativechirx.org

Photo Above: Chicago Public Schools teacher Marinda O’Neal fishes thru a plethora of colored remnants of recycled cloth while creating her Recyclo-Pony.

For the November 3 workshop, teachers paid a $25 fee, which helped pay for a meal, materials and instruction. Eight teachers joined the workshop to sew “Recyclo-Ponies” — stuffed, cloth horses made entirely from repurposed materials. It’s one of many social enterprise projects that Envision Unlimited is known for, rooted in the concept of creative reuse. Creative reuse takes surplus materials and gives them new purpose.

“My concept meditatively is that nothing is throwaway,” said Monika Neuland-Thomas, who runs nine art programs at Envision Unlimited. “There isn’t anything or anyone that doesn’t have the capacity to be put to some form of service and expression,” said Monika.  

The workshop drew in teachers and staff looking for different ways to connect with students. Marinda O’Neal, English teacher at Al Roby High School, attended ready for some new ideas.

Photo Above: Envisions’ client/artist teacher Marcus Womack, helps Brenda Hunt of Envisions Nashville office with the sewing of a Recyclo Pony doll during a recent workshop.

Photo Above: A set of hands holds out the makings of a pony face being sewn onto a Recyclo-Pony doll.

“I work for a program within CPS called SOAR,” said Marinda. “It’s about re-engaging students who have attendance issues, or other issues that prevent them from coming to school, and I’m always looking for creative ways to engage students.”

The goal was to arm teachers with accessible, creative projects for their classrooms, but also employ the help of the teaching artists who have disabilities.  From noon to 3 p.m. these teaching artists gave hands on assistance. Lunch made with herbs and vegetables grown onsite via the urban agriculture program was also provided.

Starting in January, the Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange will offer monthly Teacher2Teacher creative reuse workshops to teachers who live or work in Chicago. Workshop costs will be on a sliding-scale fee basis. The fee for teachers will be discounted, thanks to the Acting Up award, and will range between $5 and $15. Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange also used their Acting Up award to host several dyeing workshops at Montrose and South Shore beaches in July and August.

In all, The Chicago Community Trust awarded $150,500 to 37 projects, including the Teacher2Teacher Workshops, that benefit neighborhoods and the public good. These ideas were sparked through the Trust’s fifth annual On the Table – where Chicago-area residents came together on May 8th in mealtime conversations to engage in meaningful dialogue, develop new relationships and inspire action to make a difference in our communities.

The Teacher2Teacher event built upon the Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange’s work from last year when they used their Acting Up award to host a “swap circle” for teachers to stock up on classroom supplies.

For Barbara Koenen, an artist and the founder of the Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange, the tangible act of creating something new out of reused materials gives way to a new mindset.  Barbara previously served as the Director of Artists Resources for the City of Chicago.

“That’s the thing about this that I get so excited about is that part of what goes into your toolkit then is the idea that nothing is worthless,” said Barbara. “Even something like dirty tube socks can actually be turned into something really beautiful. I think that’s really empowering.”

Photo Above: Barbara Koenan, founder of the Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange, chats with teacher and artist Staci Sternberg at the Envisions Recyclo Ponies workshop.

Photos by John Booz

View the Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange’s Acting Up award video application here: