Dreaming Ourselves into the Future: The Collaborative Creation of a Socially-Distanced Wheat Paste Mural – Digital Promise

Dreaming Ourselves into the Future: The Collaborative Creation of a Socially-Distanced Wheat Paste Mural

In 2021, educators from throughout the United States of America were invited to participate in the Maker Learning @ Home cohort, a six-month professional learning experience for educators committed to continuing opportunities for making while learners are at home.

Throughout their work, cohort members documented the planning, design, and implementation of their projects, as well as offering reflections and lessons learned.

Pittsburgh Learning Commons

Lisa Simon is an educator, writer, artist, and activist living in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. Lisa has more than 20 years of experience working and learning as a teacher with children, youth, families, and adults.

She has been a teacher in Kelly Primary’s afterschool, the garden coordinator for the Wilkinsburg Youth Project, and the Creative Education specialist for the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse. She is also the coordinator of Small Victories Garden and on the board of the East End Food Co-op Federal Credit Union.

Headshot of Lisa Simon
Lisa Simon - Pittsburgh Learning Commons Creative Specialist

About Pittsburgh Learning Commons

About Pittsburgh Learning Commons

Community Needs and Collaboration

Many young people in our town are deeply committed to creating art. At home, many children and teens were working on their own on self-designed art projects and on expanding their skills via tutorials on YouTube and TikTok.

The inspiration for this project was a desire to increase the opportunities for artists of all ages to connect and work with one other. Wilkinsburg public schools had been digital-only from March 2020 through April 2021. Unfortunately, this shift also resulted in students having limited art opportunities.

Collaboration was a strong feature of this project. The teaching artists facilitating the project were aware that, after a year of digital learning and social distancing, all of the artists felt isolated and lonely. In designing the curriculum for this project, we sought to provide many opportunities for the young artists to collaborate and share with one other and with the facilitators across age and neighborhood boundaries. Throughout the entire project, it was evident that the cross-age collaborations were very meaningful to the artists. One of the joys of the project was getting to watch the teens design the backgrounds for the younger students, many of whom they had known since childhood but not seen for more than a year.

Strangely, it wasn’t until the end of the project that the adult facilitators realized how meaningful the collaboration had been for them as well. Like the younger artists, we too had spent a year in isolation, working on individual projects in digital spaces and with too few opportunities to work with others in ways that were creative, exciting, and meaningful.

An additional dimension of collaboration was the way this project encouraged unexpected connections and collaborations. Pittsburgh Learning Commons developed a stronger relationship with Turner Elementary, and we were able to sketch out ways we can continue our collaboration. Our relationships with the families and youth involved in the mural also strengthened along with our connections to key local organizations and educators who contributed resources.

It is hard to imagine this project having the same power or joy without the web of collaboration that sustained it.

Learner Voice and Choice

  • Wheat paste mural sitting on a piece of fabric. Pictures of participating youth fill the frame.

    Wheat Paste Mural

    Each artist chose to participate in the project.

  • Artists were able to explore and highlight the dimensions of themselves through a range of creative modalities including poetry, conversation, and portrait drafts.
  • Artists were able to choose between making a self-portrait or a portrait of someone else. All but two chose self-portrait. Some artists also made additional pieces, including a landscape.
  • Artists chose their portrait pose and were given multiple opportunities to revise the pose and retake the portrait to ensure it was what they wanted.
  • Artists designed their own backgrounds and/or described what they wanted to one of the teen artists (which the younger artist then approved). Artists were able to make changes to their portraits and background up until the portraits were printed (and a few did this even after the original printing).
  • Artists had full control over how they added color, detail, and other embellishments to their portrait. They were able to create multiple drafts to ensure the portrait was as close to their vision as possible.
  • The artists who were able to attend the final wheat pasting event took the lead in creating the layout of the portraits.



  • Computer/internet accessibility was enhanced by the facilitators’ flexibility in how the teen and younger artists could join the digital meetings: via computer, tablet, or phone. Everyone was allowed to choose when and how their video was on.
  • Digital meetings incorporated different modalities to encourage expression. Modalities included communication via visuals, manipulating digital objects on a whiteboard, peer conversations around their portrait, background, and embellishment, poetry, dictated writing, and teacher demonstrations.
  • Examples of murals and images included a range of artists, subjects, and topics to increase opportunities for learners to connect to the content.
  • Materials and tools were provided to all artists to ensure accessibility of resources for this project.
  • Tabletop easels were provided to the young artists to ease the challenge of space for doing their art.

Project Culmination

Pittsburgh Learning Commons hosted two Dreaming Ourselves into the Future celebrations to wrap up the project. The first occurred online after everyone’s embellished portraits had been picked up. When we picked up the portraits, we had given them snacks for this party. We met, talked about how the project had worked, what people liked, and ideas for improvement. Then we played a few games as a group.

Our second celebration was in person when we wheat-pasted the mural. That event was at the Pittsburgh Learning Commons facility. Additionally, many of our community contributors were there, as were some family members and children from the neighborhood. We provided pizza, drinks, and snacks after we finished the wheat pasting. Then we took many group photos of the completed mural and took everyone home.

Lessons Learned

Seek out partners, connect to established cohorts, and honor/respect those relationships

More than any other factor, networks, collaborations, and partnerships, made this project as successful as it was. Partnerships were embedded in the design from the beginning with the vision of the project emphasizing connecting the elementary artist cohort with the teen artist cohort and the adult artists with all the participants. Collaboration happened on every level – from teachers weekly planning meetings to the teens helping the younger artists design their backgrounds. And through this project networks were expanded and strengthened.

Funding partnership that is responsive and dialogical strengthens the project.

The Digital Promise funding was grounded in a thoughtful and supportive partnership. The regular check-ins with DP staff were a delightful enhancement of the work on the project. Most importantly, DP staff encouraged responsive funding allowing funds to be used not only for materials but to compensate the time the teaching artists gave to this project. This served to sustain and honor the extra hours the teachers contributed and led to very high quality results. It also strengthened the overall relationships and the networks.

Helping to develop “a community of practice” is meaningful and valuable to all involved.

Before, during, and after the mural project, participants were involved in personal art making, working on this in their free time. What the mural project provided that was new were regular, ongoing opportunities to work alongside others engaged in art making and to share ideas with these peers. Participants got to work together across age and cohort groups, composing backgrounds, sharing their process, getting feedback and inspiration. The benefit of this seems to be reflected in the youth’s reflections at the end of the project of what they had enjoyed:“that we all came together and made it” “I loved that we still got a chance to connect with new people during a time where we are fairly isolated.” “This helped me get better at painting”

It is easier to produce a mural using only Zoom during a pandemic than it will be to coordinate a field trip to a museum to see that mural in an exhibit.

Producing and wheatpasting 2 murals had challenging moments but they were always overcome by the goodwill, generosity, and flexibility of all involved. When one of our murals was included in the Faces exhibit in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh (Grable Gallery), we fully believed we would also be able to coordinate a trip for most of the artists to see their work in the museum. We were not able to do this. Some of the hurdles we could not overcome: 1) the artists were in several different schools and several were in new schools so the close relationships had changed; 2) the museum was not easily accessible by public transport; 3) the museum’s hours required we go during the day or on a weekend which required either the schools organizing the trip or that we coordinate with 20 families. Although the mural was there for 3.5 months, we were never able to arrange the visit.

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