The Dandelion School is located on the outskirts of Beijing in a heavily polluted, under-developed and high crime area. It serves the educational needs of five hundred and twenty students from migrant families who subsist on very low incomes. Occupying a former factory, the campus looked inhospitable, barren, and harsh. The Dandelion Transformation Project strived to engage the entire school community of students, teachers and staff in a co-creative process to transform the school environment into a place of beauty and joy, a space that inspires learning, creativity, and exploration.
Providing design and implementation guidance, Lily Yeh worked with hundreds of students, teachers, volunteers and workers to complete the transformation of the school’s main campus with mural painting, mosaics, and environmental sculpture. Students participated in every phase and aspect of the project, from retrieving tiles from rubble, making mosaics, mixing cement, transporting bricks to roof tops, painting walls, windows, doors, and creating designs for future murals.
Dandelion School is composed of migrant children. They all come from somewhere else. There is a sense of being uprooted and a yearning for their home provinces among the students. The Dandelion School Transformation Project aimed to help students express their emotions about loved ones at home, their childhood, and homeland. Expressing feelings and thoughts often helps to dispel the sense of alienation in a new environment. Healing takes place when their voices are heard and cherished. Students were asked to trace their footprints from their homeland to Dandelion School on a small map of China. Some students came directly to be with their parents while others took detours; they traveled by train, truck, and bus. They depicted what their homeland looks like. That unleashed some deep feelings with vivid and touching details.
On a corridor wall of Dandelion School, there is a map of China showing its many provinces. The description beneath the map states that Dandelion’s community of 678 students and teachers came from twenty-five provinces. The numbers, though static, express the diversity of the school population. Lily Yeh felt that the power of diversity and potential resources of this migrant school community could manifest themselves through creating a new kind of map.
Based on students’ drawings, Fu Tao, the art teacher, created a very big map of China that contains the physical movement of every student in the class, some from neighboring provinces, some from far away places. One student came all the way from Xinjiang, the Uighur Muslim minority region in the Northwest. On the map, Dandelion School, a disenfranchised community, became a magnetic energy center that attracts people from all over China. Thus, a fringe place moves into the center.
To honor the sincere effort put out by the students to transform their school, we presented their artwork in a public exhibition. Works presented included large scale canvases, mural designs, story-telling in images and words, mapping of community resources and dreaming of their future. Responses to the exhibition were very encouraging. There was a symposium at the opening of the exhibition. Artists and educators from Beijing and several other provinces attended. People exchanged views on the importance of art in education, innovation and the “making of a harmonious society,” the goal of the central government in China today. Remarking on the freshness, energy and sincere feelings revealed in the exhibition, Lo Zhen, a leading art educator in Beijing, shared a poignant comment:
“Our society today feels restless and without purpose. Prosperity alone cannot answer to our deepest longings. We have lost our hearts somewhere. We need to find and bring back our wondering hearts.”
At the end of the project, Zheng Hong, the school principal, summed up her experience:
“This project has opened the minds and hearts of teachers, students and myself at the Dandelion School. It raises the basic question about education, its purpose, content, and method. I feel that through creativity and action, this project aims not only to transform the school environment, but also the minds and hearts of all participants. Real education should be about the cultivation of the whole person, mind, body and heart.”