Eighth-graders at Butterfield Trail Middle School are learning about history through art.

The class is halfway through a two-week program entitled “What’s Our Story?” as part of the Center for Art and Education’s work through the Ozarks Arts Council.

The project is being spearheaded by Little Rock artist Virmarie DePoyster.

“As an art teacher, my goal is always to energize, inspire and connect with students, to show students how to look beyond their circumstances and become inspired through a creative outlet,” she said.

The project is actually divided into three aspects: a mural, self portraits and a collage. The three phases combine to not only teach different aspects of art, but also various chapters of history.

“We have a saying as you come into school to ‘Ignite a Passion for Learning,’” said Butterfield Trail Principal Dr. Karen Endel. “So being able to partner with our community organizations in the arts we’re able to take an interdisiplinary unit and actually use it to go to a higher level of igniting a passion for learning for our kids in a very meaningful way. And we always end with a celebration of learning that’s open to the public and to the parents and community, and so the student’s work becomes much more public. It’s not just about turning something in to a teacher for a grade, it’s much bigger than that. It causes the accountability and real-life connection to this to be a lot more powerful.”

That public celebration, scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 27, from 4-6 p.m., will also highlight a unit on natural disasters being completed by the seventh-graders entitled “What a Disaster” and the sixth-graders’ unit called “That’s How Butterfield Does It,” which teaches those students the geography of the middle school and its different cultures.

The mural being completed in the “What’s Our Story?” unit will feature eight Hispanic individuals who achieved landmark success in their lives.

They include Selena Quintanilla (queen of Tejano music, first woman Tejano singer); Cesar Chavez (labor leader, activist, advocate for voting ballots and driving tests in Spanish); Juan Herrera (first Latino poet laureate of the United States); Roberto Clemente (first Latino American baseball player to win the world series); Sonia Sotomajor (first Hispanic Justice in Supreme Court); Diego Rivera (Mexican mural painter, voice of the Mexican people on social issues); Frida Kahlo (highly regarded Mexican painter, first Hispanic woman on a stamp); and Ellen Ochoa (first Hispanic woman to go into space).

“I love this mural because it reminds me of a puzzle,” said DePoyster. “When it comes to immigration and ethnicity, we are all different shapes, sizes and colors and as we come together with compassion and acceptance we become whole.”

The students’ pop art self portraits help them focus on creating a visual portrait to share their story while the collages are made out of repurposed 19th century political cartoons about immigration. DePoyster said the finished collages will be in the shape of a butterfly because butterflies evolve, change and migrate like people.

“I am excited to be part of this project and honored to be given the opportunity to share with these students how our country’s history has been enriched by the positive contributions of its immigrants,” said DePoyster, who came to the United States from Puerto Rico at the age of 15.

“I didn’t know how to speak any English, so I can relate with a lot of the immigrants and how they feel,” she said. “So even though I was an American by birth, because I spoke a different language I have had a lot of the same struggles they have when they come here. I think they really connect with me because of that.”

She said her hope is that the students, through this project, will be able “to see the great accomplishments made by immigrants to our country,” adding, “The mural highlights a few immigrants that have come to the United States and the wonderful things they’ve done. So I talk with the kids about that and share that with them.”

Endel said watching the way the students have responded to this project has been “very powerful.” She added, “I can already see that this is surpassing our expectations the way it’s all coming together. I hope it’s one of those experiences that truly ignites a passion for learning but also, when these kids are 40 or 50 years old and they remember back to school, that it’s something they’ll never forget.”

Brent Gunnels, who is the community relations manager for the Center for Art and Education, said DePoyster has been able to bring out that reaction in the students.

“It’s amazing to watch how the students relate to the stories,” he said. “Virmarie shares a lot of herself in these moments and the students light up because they see themselves, their own story, in how vulnerable she is in sharing her story.”

DePoyster said, “Someone told me once that if you want to connect with people you don’t need to tell them how wonderful you are and all the great things you have done in your life, that you need to share your weaknesses and how you’re just like them. And that gives you a connection. I share with them how my family was on food stamps for a year, but we decided we wanted to come out of that, and how I had to learn English on my own because there was no one to teach me, how I had to clean toilets to make money because my mom didn’t get a job right away. They relate to all of those things.”

And she said it is the art that’s helping the students write their own history.

“There’s a lot of a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem that is built through art,” she said, “and when they are able to see what they can do and what they can create it expands their knowledge and shows what they can do if they just apply themselves.”