9780804189767 (1)By Ricki Weisfelner, an art teacher at Woodward Parkway Elementary School who utilized President George W. Bush’s Portraits of Courage as a teaching tool for her students.

Inspired by former President George W. Bush’s book, Portraits of Courage, a collection of paintings of and essays about U.S. veterans, I thought it would be a great idea to have veterans model for our young artists here at Woodward Parkway and use George W. Bush as the artist of inspiration. My idea: while students were painting the portraits, they would interview the veterans and create a short biographical essay. Several classroom teachers helped students prepare questions to ask the veterans, read stories of vets, and encouraged the children to wear red, white, and blue to their next art class. The administration sent a letter to parents, soliciting volunteers to model. We had the help of many school families, the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post, and my own personal family and friends. Twenty-two veterans came to pose for the twenty-three classes I teach.

To prepare, the students in one period learned how to draw portraits, and we used a photo of George Clooney as our model. The following week, we practiced painting. We focused on shape, proportion, details, darks and lights, color, use of the paint, and manipulation of the brush. I could feel the excitement stirring. Students were asking a lot of questions, and many said they were practicing a lot at home so they could do a good job. This was very important to them.

What I didn’t foresee was the emotional impact it would have on me.

portraits3Each period, a different veteran came to class, ready to share their story. Students filed in the room, went to their spots, and began to draw, then paint. You could hear a pin drop. As they began their task of capturing the likeness of the model, our interview began. One by one, each student asked a question, and the vet would patiently and clearly respond. It amazed me how sometimes the answer to the same question would always be the same, no matter in which war they served, the age or gender of the vet, or the branch of military represented. All spoke about learning discipline, learning to get along with others, missing mom and dad, and feeling a sense of duty to protect and preserve our freedoms. Their favorite memory was always coming home. Some liked the food they were served, others not so much. We had a mix of experiences. Air force pilots, radio handlers, nutritional medics, electricians, heavy machinery operators, military police, those who were drafted and those who enlisted, men, women, and even a retired military dog! Witnessing these brave, selfless, and courageous folk share their story with children was beautiful to say the least. I saw them thinking about experiences and people they hadn’t thought about in years, and they themselves would get emotional and choked up. I heard them tell stories that the young listeners could understand. And I watched them show such respect for the other vets who were here for the classes before or after their own scheduled session. They look at each other differently than the way they look at any other humans. Another amazing observation was how, unprompted, the children showed such respect and appreciation for the veterans. It was if they were meeting their favorite superhero in real life.

More than a few of our guests reminded me of my beloved “Poppies.”  Both my grandfathers were in WWII.  My mother’s father was a “Sea Bee,” officially known as the Construction Battalion. When Mr. Fullum came to model, a Seabee himself, I could imagine my grandfather telling the same stories with the same sense of humor. Only I hadn’t asked my grandfather.  What a regret. My hope is that I have taught these children to ask questions and gather the stories. Not just of the vets in their life, but of all people older than them. In addition, the children learned that they can be a part of the service in many more ways than fighting. In fact, very few of these vets were combat veterans. But they are all proud. They all represent the best in America. They all have something to teach us about loyalty, discipline, love of family, and love of country.

portraits2I now have a new respect for George W. Bush. His book is remarkably beautiful. You can feel his sense of gratitude for the vets, especially as you read about each one that he got to know personally. The paintings, thick with paint and rich in color, demonstrate his deep understanding of the depth of memories and experiences behind the faces. The writing is genuine and his sincerity is palpable.

For my students, I hope they learn many things. First, it became so clear that vets deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our interest. I think that is something that most Americans who may not have family members in the service take for granted. Our only exposure is during parades or in sound bites on the news. Getting to know them changes that. It makes them real. Human. Individuals all working towards a greater good in multiple capacities. One fourth grade student, Bobby, said, “Now I have to go home and talk to my grandpa. I have so many questions. Now I know what to ask.” Second, most children only imagine soldiers in combat. These vets explained how their love of country and their sense of duty led them to participate in the military in many supportive, and often non-combative, ways. Our students heard about living conditions during service, camaraderie, patriotism, loyalty, and love for home and family. The veterans were treated like superheroes by our young artists, as they should be. The only difference was now the students know and understand why. I hope this experience will help foster patriotism and respect in our students.

Finally, I want to thank the veterans who visited and shared their stories with my students. We thank you for your time, and of course, we thank you for your service:

Petty Officer Third Class William Yostpille, U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class Bob Fullum, U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class Charles VanHorn, U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class Daniel Nikola, U.S. Navy Specialist Fourth Class Denis McDevitt, U.S. Army Frank Danetra, U.S. Marine Corps Petty Officer Third Class George Bruno, U.S. Navy First Lieutenant Hank Lennox, Army Air Force Lieutenant Israel Weisfelner, Air Force Nutritional Medicine Kim Berger, Air Force Specialist Marcelo Luc, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Mr. Johnson, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Mr. Klein, U.S. Army Specialist Thomas Wagner, Military Police Personnel Specialist Randall Carroll, U.S. Army Corporal Robert Destefan, Marine Corps Admiral General Robert Tolley, U.S. Army Radioman First Class Salvatore Citrano, U.S. Navy Amphibious Forces Sergeant Salvatore Guadagnino, Air Force Sergeant Tim Broderick, U.S. Army Sergeant Thomas Dursi, and our local retired Explosives Detection Dog, Sergeant Asta Hickey.

Click here to see more photographs of the students’ work.

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It is difficult to capture the profound impact that The Portraits of Courage project has had on our students, on our faculty, and on our school community. To see the children wide-eyed and in awe of our veterans as they spoke about their experiences in the military was incredibly moving. While painting their portraits, they listened intently as these ladies and gentlemen talked about what inspired their service and what made them heroes. The incredibly personal details discussed like their living quarters on the ships they served on, the fears and homesickness they overcame, and the people they saved, made the veterans both incredibly human and larger than life at the same time. As principal, the students shared their takeaways from this experience with me in person and in writing in the form of biographies. Here, our students expressed their newfound gratitude and respect using words like bravery, pride, sacrifice, honor and tradition. One fifth grader so innocently captured this stating, ‘Remember, next time you see a veteran—give them a big thank you hug!’ On behalf of our entire school community, thank you to President Bush for inspiring this project and thank you Mrs. Weisfelner for nurturing this idea and making it come alive in our building. We could not be prouder of you, of our students, of our veterans, and our country.” —Patrick Klocek, Principal of Woodward Park Elementary School

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