From Picasso to ‘plushies’

Collaborative IB Art project between Notre Dame's lower and middle schools turns 2D art into 3D toys — without computers!

An innovative art project involving an art class in Notre Dame's middle school and first and second graders from the lower school that was inspired by Picasso has resulted in "plushie" stuffed animals and characters that might even feel at home at the local toy store.  

According to Lauren Zajdel, the middle school's visual art and Makerspace instructor, it was a perfect model of the kind of collaborative learning called for in the International Baccalaureate program.

"I worked with the lower-school first and second grade teachers, Donna Stuk, Margaret Olson and Kim Kriesel on this project," Zajdel said. "Every teacher has their ambitious 'fantasy projects,' because sometimes in the pursuit of such projects you end up asking for the aid of fellow staff members. Mrs. Kriesel had visited my classroom on several occasions for mini-teaching observations and I shared this idea with her and she eagerly signed on!"

Zajdel's "fantasy project" involved having each of the first and second graders draw one or two make-believe characters as they finished learning about drawing the body and its correct proportions. 

"I then took those drawings and had my seventh- and eighth-grade art students transform them into very identical plush stuffed animals," she said. "This concept was inspired by a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso where he said 'It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.' My students are eventually giving their finished plush masterpieces to the original lower-school 'Picassos' as a gift."

Zajdel's latest project fits well into the IB-MYP curriculum as she followed the IB Unit template requirements: Statement of Inquiry, Role, address the Global Context and Exploration/Key Concepts/Related Concepts, and lastly, grade the Unit using MYP 3 IB rubrics. 

"All of which I do provide to the students during each assignment," she added. "Plus, we always conclude every Unit with a constructive criticism session where students receive a packet and are prompted to fill out a self-reflection document, circle the IB grade they feel is deserving for their work on the rubric, and critique a peer's artwork by filling out a four-sectioned evaluation. I then have students give an oral presentation of their critique to the class. All very IB!" 

IB program aside, however, Zajdel says her overall goal when it comes to subject matter and lesson-planning is to create confident and self-sufficient critical thinkers. 

"The lesson always should build upon previous teachings and instills opportunity for growth," said Zajdel, who holds a BFA degree from the Columbus College of Art and Design and a visual arts teaching degree from Notre Dame College. "These skills can and should be utilized in future lessons, but it's when the students grow to trust in their abilities while being self-motivated throughout the lesson that is the more desired result. And the results of the student work during this particular project undeniably showed cases where this was indeed a reality.

"It's so gratifying to see as a teacher!" 

Zajdel's art students used a wide variety of materials to create their plushies: pipe cleaners, felt, puffy paint, beads, buttons, lace, wood, string and much more. One of the things she challenged her students with was that they had to figure out how to creatively use three or four other materials – but not felt — that would create visually dynamic textures and colors while still maintaining the tone and style of the children's renderings. 

"But even before we got into materials, students needed to practice and prepare by learning two basic sewing techniques, running stitch and whip stitch, and how to attach non-traditional items to the felt fabric," she said. "Their plush designs also had to be sturdy and structurally sound, especially considering the fact that we are giving the final products to first and second graders, and younger children tend to be a little rougher with their toys." 

Zajdel said she was especially pleased that the project involved collaboration with her colleagues in the lower school.

"Due to the size of my class, we decided to include not just one class but two lower-school grade levels — first and second grade — to help with this collaboration," she said. "This included Mrs. Stuk and Mrs. Olsen. It's always appreciated when you work with like-minded people who simply support each other for the benefit of their students. We do intend to continue this kind of collaboration each year, potentially exploring different lessons each time!"

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About Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy
Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. The upper school enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame's middle and lower schools enroll students in jr. kindergarten through grade eight. All three Notre Dame schools are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy, visit the school's home page at