Featured Artist: Derek Fenner, Post Three: The Accordion Book, Ai Weiwei & Alcatraz


Group Shot


This past school year I had the incredible opportunity to take fifteen young people to Alcatraz to visit the site-specific installation by contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei. This field trip was part of an arts-based research course I was teaching at a local high school bridge program. The course enacted youth participatory action research as a way of giving students the opportunity to investigate issues vital to them, while at the same time, flex their academic muscles through their own arts-based research. The course gave them the opportunity to explore that they were already artists, researchers, and teachers. The yearlong course culminated in an entirely youth-led conference for educators. It was a transformative learning experience for all of us.


Throughout the course I utilized accordion books for specific pieces of the curriculum, and a field trip provided the perfect opportunity to flex our foldable research muscles. Prior to our visit we spent some time learning about Ai Weiwei, whose landmark exhibit would be on view at Alcatraz. We looked at videos, read articles, and researched why Alcatraz was a suitable site for his work. We purposely did not do much research on Alcatraz itself. We wanted to learn about it while actually there. The day before the trip we made our accordion books and designed a cover page. Everyone was also asked to write down three thoughts or ideas they had about Alcatraz/Ai Weiwei, two questions they had, and one metaphor. This thinking routine is called a 3-2-1 Bridge routine and comes out of the Visible Thinking framework at Harvard’s, Project Zero. It gave the students a way to mark and activate their prior knowledge and would provide a wonderful reflection tool at the end of the experience.


The field trip was truly inspiring. Only one of the youth had already been to Alcatraz, and many had never been on a field trip. We had 100% attendance! We got a formal tour on the history of Alcatraz with Ranger Wendy, who was very patient with all of our questions. We spent time looking at each of the Ai Weiwei installations. We surprised others and ourselves about how much we already knew about his work. We took a lot of pictures! Our instagram and snapchat feeds were on fire. Especially when we got to the side of the island with views of the city. We also spent time working in our accordion books. Before returning home, I took all 15 students to In-N-Out Burger. Ordering for the whole group was something I will never forget.


The following week we returned to our Visible Thinking routine and made a new list, as well as notating what changed for us in our inquiry of the experience. We hung up all of our accordion books and considered what the group learned as a whole. I hope in these few images you will see a depth of understanding and a commitment to research and creative inquiry that each student took on in their own ways.


For my next post I will spend some time talking about the accordion book as a reliquary.


‘til soon,




2 thoughts on “Featured Artist: Derek Fenner, Post Three: The Accordion Book, Ai Weiwei & Alcatraz

  1. Sounds like a great field trip. I’m sure you were able to make a lasting impression with this trip. So proud of you.

    1. I want to hear more about what changed for the students after the trip. And what were their metaphors for this former prison, in the 3-2-1 Bridge?

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