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Steps in the right direction

Elementary at one Dorchester school is art that starts with a plain white shoe

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By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / January 18, 2011

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Nine-year old Natalia Reyes, a third-grader at the John Marshall Elementary School in Dorchester, adds a few more flourishes to an unusual art project her class has been assigned. She’s coloring her latest shoe design, an outline of a Nike sneaker ablaze with oranges, reds, and yellows.

“If you walked a mile in my shoes,’’ Reyes has written on a sheet in front of her, “you would know in summer, when I walk my feet burn like they’re on fire.’’

The second part of the writing assignment asks students to complete a sentence beginning, “To continue taking steps in the right direction, I promise to . . .’’

Her entry: “Graduate college with my shoes on.’’

If comedy writing is not in her future (Natalia hopes to become a chef), she may look back at this class one day and marvel at how many elements were packed into this three-month project called “Walkin’ the Tightrope.’’ There’s autobiography, vocabulary, fashion and graphic design, music and dance. Plus getting a one-of-a-kind pair of Converse sneakers to walk around in, free of charge.

Pretty awesome.

The brainchild of Olivia Chaffee, 23, a part-time art teacher, “Walkin’ the Tightrope’’ is meant to teach students a lot of things, not least of which is that art and design influence so much of the world around us, and that such creativity can lead to a career.

“We’re introducing sneaker design as a marketable career path they might never have realized,’’ Chaffee says. “I tell the kids that before that shoe was born, an artist had to make all those decisions about what it looked like.’’

The project is about more than cultivating future designers, though. Chaffee, an Art Institute of Boston graduate, recalls that after arriving at Marshall last fall (the same school where her mother taught art years ago), she soon grew frustrated. Her art classes seemed divorced from other subjects the kids were studying, she says. Students shared little with one another about things such as their family lives and career dreams. Art class was, well, just art class.

Meanwhile, Chaffee took notice of the sneaker culture at the school, where students must follow a dress code (blue and yellow only) but have leeway to accessorize.

Family. Future. Footwear. Put them together, Chaffee reasoned, and she could encourage students to color outside the lines, literally and metaphorically.

“Some of these kids have been through a lot,’’ says Chaffee, during a break between classes. “Many have lost a sibling or parent or been affected by gang violence in their neighborhoods. When I first met them, some had serious behavioral issues. I realized we had to do something bigger than just art. Something more cohesive, more structured.’’

“Walkin’ the Tightrope’’ borrows its title and theme from a Janelle Monae song, “Tippin’ the Tightrope.’’ Its positive message about choosing the right path struck Chaffee as perfect for her project. Owning a closetful of sneakers inspired her even further, she admits. Through her connections to the Tannery store in Boston, where she has worked, Chaffee persuaded Nike, Converse’s parent company, to donate 130 pairs of sneakers to the school: one pair for each of her third- and fourth-graders.

The sneakers will arrive later this winter, white canvases on which students will put their artistic stamp. An exhibit of the finished products, accompanied by a student music and dance performance, will be mounted in early March at the Good Life bar in Boston, where Chaffee moonlights as a waitress.

Every bit as important as the public exhibit, though, is the process. Each student must complete one original drawing, using a template of an actual sneaker; three separate sneaker designs, using Sharpies and colored markers; one original drawing on a piece of shoe leather; and an autobiographical worksheet like the one Natalia has filled out.

A classroom sign reminds them of the difference between coloring a shoe and designing one. Use symbolism and imagery, it instructs, to tell something important about themselves. That message is preached often in class by Chaffee and her volunteer assistant, retired teacher Nancy Hudlin. Quick to praise a storytelling burst of creativity, the teachers are just as quick to have students push their ideas further, and not be satisfied with a pretty color scheme.

Students are busy from the moment they enter the classroom. When attention strays, they hear about it. Loudly.

Angel Colon, 9, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, is working on a sneaker with a rock-star motif, complete with mohawk hairdo sprouting from the shoetop. He writes about loving art class and how staying on the right life path means he must “keep drawing and come to class ready to learn.’’ Indonesia Cummings, 9, is decorating her shoe with hearts and flowers, to symbolize her love for Valentine’s Day.

A handful of students with family roots in Haiti or the Dominican Republic incorporate flags from their homelands in their designs. Johnniel Peralta, 9, plants a red, white, and blue flag on the back of his shoe as an expression of his love for America — and to underscore his written promise “not to step in bad things’’ while walking the path that lies ahead.

Other students in Chaffee’s two classes speak, write, and draw about their futures and what they hope to be. One wants to become a firefighter, another a doctor, another a veterinarian. Brianna Casineau, 10, says she would like to become a fashion designer someday and was thrilled when the “Tightrope’’ project was announced. On her sneaker, Casineau has written “follow your dreams’’ and “believe in yourself!’’ alongside her school’s name.

Chaffee and Hudlin agree that the biggest challenge was getting 9- and 10-year-olds to use their imaginations freely and not worry about drawing a “real’’ looking shoe.

“That’s harder than you might think,’’ says Chaffee. “They have high expectations about what they want these drawings to look like. I want them to run wild, though. That’s why we’ve been talking about terms like symbolism, imagery, representation — all words we’ve introduced in class.’’

At one point, Chaffee told students about her own father passing away two years ago. On her sneaker, she noted, was a hammer, a tool representing his carpentry.

“This project is very thought-provoking, and they’re very young,’’ concedes Chaffee, who has also created a project blog at www.tightropeboston.blogspot.com. “I love pushing them, though. There are a trillion things that make you you, I tell them. I’m only asking for one thing. For some kids that’s hard, but that’s my job.

“Everybody chooses their path in life,’’ she continues. “We’re asking, what’s yours?’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.