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GDS Arts

Complex Skills at Work

To my mind, one of the great tragedies of U.S. education has been the gradual erasure of the arts from compulsory education. From what I’ve learned and observed in my new role overseeing curriculum and instruction at GDS and observing arts education at GDS, not only do students miss an opportunity for exploring creative expression, they also miss the chance to apply and develop skills critical to their future success in an increasingly global and diverse world.

During our first weeks back at school this year, I was drawn to exploring our studio arts programs on both campuses.

At the High School, AP Art students shared their summer work portfolios with their teacher, Michelle. I stood watching and listening to the class share and critique their work, astounded; students possessed a well-developed vocabulary related to art technique, composition, personal voice, and creative process—skills I would expect to see in a college-level course.

Next door in Nick’s Advanced Sculpture and Ceramics class, I observed students grappling with the concepts of tension, compression, elasticity, and expansion using multiple materials to design a sculpture.

As I approached one student, she remarked, “I’m not sure how I’m going to attach all this. I’m not the best with woodworking, but we’ll figure it out.” She chuckled as she continued to move pieces of a deconstructed violin into different arrangements on the table: “This looks too crowded, so I think it’s better like this.” I could almost see her brain synapses growing as she puzzled through this visual challenge, unafraid to embark upon the unknown.

In a Middle School Arts Enrichment class, Susan engaged students in a composition challenge: choose a piece of fruit, cut it, and create a still-life composition. Students considered texture, space, arrangement, light and shadow, reflection, perspective, and foreground and background. After creating their arrangements, they then sketched their own still-life and transferred it to a larger canvas to paint. All the while, Susan continued to provide them with challenging questions about their thinking and commented on what she noticed about their processes. Throughout the year, she will continue to ask them and others, “What makes an interesting composition?” Their answers will become increasingly deep and complex as they continue through our program.

Typical class visitors would no doubt recognize that students are comfortable, engaged, serious about their work, and enthusiastic about the arts in these classes. However, I saw much more.

In each of these classes, not only were students fully present and engaged in their own work, they also were able to analyze each other’s work using discipline-specific terms, contextualizing them within larger historical movements and cultural influences.

They truly worked collaboratively, speaking fluidly, working off each other’s observations, extending ideas, or counter-pointing observations. They were not afraid to ask questions or look to peers for help. They taught each other and weren’t afraid to offer ideas or feedback. They were not afraid to fail. In fact, “failing” provided discovery and unique challenge—challenge that they embraced. Most importantly, however, typical barriers that may present themselves in other classes didn’t appear in these. With each authentic challenge also came authentic support for individual processes within the parameters of the task at hand.

While in the advanced classes, this give-and-take of perspective-taking, critical reflection, exploration, and feedback occurred directly through the peer critique process. In an introduction to ceramics class, I observed as students took their initial try at using the pottery wheel, some with great success and others with a bit of challenge. In Susan’s class, students balanced focused work time with joyful chatter comparing and contrasting their compositions and building off ideas. Individual barriers dissipated as each student engaged in ongoing trial and error, each committed to the other’s success.

Art classes are more than just “teaching art.” When done well, the process and manner in which teachers engage, the culture they create, and the processes they facilitate with students foster in each an appreciation for art, yes, but also requires each student to apply a number of complex skills in their individual ways to accomplish an authentic task. Our faculty serve as facilitators, closely attuned to each student, their comments, movements, and how they engage in their own learning and creative processes.

How can we really prepare our students for the futures they’ll have? Step into one of our art classes, and you’ll see. After doing so, I find myself overwhelmed by a number of emotions—a mix of gratitude, (honestly, a little jealousy), inspiration, deep appreciation and hope for a better, more harmonious future led by our own students.

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