College Preparatory School for Girls Grades 3-12

LW3 CLASSROOM SPOTLIGHT: Learning, Creating, Confronting Ambiguity Alongside Our Visual Art Students

As Visual Arts closes out this LW3 Curriculum Spotlight series, it is striking how the arc of this school year—and the response of teachers and students to its many hurdles—illustrates and validates the relevance of Holton’s Learn Well, Live Well, Lead Well institutional priorities as foundational to success in an ever-changing world. This essay reflects the Visual Arts perspective and experience and yet so many of the examples below have parallel stories in other departments. 

We started this school year with a lot of questions and very few answers. After a spring of lesson improvisation and art made from materials found in students’ homes, we knew we wanted to give our students a more “normal” year of artmaking, but what did that mean? Would students return to school? If they could return, where would they be? When our studio spaces—filled with discipline-specific easels, work tables, darkrooms, slab rollers—could not be the gathering places for our creative endeavors, how could we cultivate a sense of community and artistry in virtual and temporary spaces? Simultaneously, as the minutiae of logistics piled up, the world churned with event after event that demanded our attention and our action. Diversity, equity, and inclusion and anti-racism work we had started the previous year needed to be revisited with greater intention and urgency. We set goals around developing anti-racist frameworks to ensure our 3-12 visual arts curriculum served as mirrors to students’ own experiences, windows into others’ experiences, and sliding doors to student-envisioned futures where social justice prevails. We developed new, hybrid-friendly lessons that balanced emphasis on the technical mastery and cultivation of perspective-taking and perseverance found in our Visual Arts Goals & Competencies. We tried to prepare ourselves for the unknown.

As problem-solvers and creators, we were walking the path that we ask our students to walk with our assignments: ask questions to understand the challenge before you; research what has been done by others; imagine and plan possible solutions that fit your needs; develop your skills to create what you envision, gather feedback about what is working and not working, and improve and iterate until you get it right. Implied in this process are two elements that teachers intentionally scaffold for students but try to avoid at all costs for themselves: ambiguity and risk of failure (see LW3 Goal 5, “Creativity and Critical Thinking”). We strive to construct lessons where students can push themselves past their current understanding and possibly fail, but also have the opportunity to start again and develop new skills and confidence in their recovery from that failure. We carefully word guiding questions with enough ambiguity to invite a wide range of student interpretation, but also enough structure to give them solid ground on which to build their ideas. Failure as a teacher, however, was another matter, and what if we didn’t get it right? What if the ambiguity left us unable to support our student-artists as we hoped? Like our students when facing challenges beyond their comfort zone, our minds spun with fears of falling short and frustration at our inability to control more of what lay ahead. 

And like our students, we embarked on that path one step at a time. We sent home art kits, and students set up their home studios and workspaces. We rolled out our carefully planned virtual lessons, then completely revised our carefully planned virtual lessons. We got better at peering through a screen and giving feedback on student work. We got better at creating virtual creative spaces. Then the School readied classrooms for the students’ return. We adjusted our virtual lessons for a hybrid model. Alongside the students, we learned how to navigate hybrid learning. Sometimes the students remembered their art kits, sometimes they forgot their art kits. We tried pre-recorded demonstrations projected into classrooms and live demonstrations projected into one classroom via another classroom. We tried demonstrations from six feet away behind a plexiglass screen. Each trimester was a new iteration with new possibilities and slightly different constraints. Each new project allowed us to apply what we had observed worked and didn’t work. We made missteps. We recovered from those missteps, and we gained deeper empathy for our students who were learning right alongside us. 

Holton’s mission is to provide our students with “education not only of the mind, but of the soul and spirit.” Neglecting or losing the connection to the soul in this year of tumult and unknown was our deepest fear as art teachers. Our final Visual Arts goal reads, “We understand that art is a source of inspiration and understanding of ourselves and others. We refresh our spirits and connect with our community through making and engaging with art.” If ever our spirits needed refreshment and connection, this year was it. Would screens, masks, social distancing, cleaning protocols, cohorts, alternating in-person/at-home weeks, and all of the other ways this year differed from others prove too much? Would the artistic souls of our students be a casualty of COVID? 

Of course not. We could not be prouder to present in the coming weeks’ highlights of the soul-bursting creativity and artistry that Holton’s students brought into the world this year. (Watch the Sunday Skims, School website, and social media for details on and sample works from all our year-end shows!) They persevered through ambiguity, through frustration, through loss. They channeled their love of self, their love of others, their frustrations with the world around them, and their dreams for a brighter future into paintings, drawings, photographs, sculptures...into art. They shared their own stories and they celebrated others’ stories. They lifted each other up and challenged each other to push their work further and make their creative voices clearer. They worked side by side with their teachers to cultivate the creative spaces we all missed, whether via virtual classrooms or a physical classroom that had never before housed an art class. 

Just as we ask students to pause and reflect on their learning, we can now look back and identify countless lessons and areas of growth. We can celebrate where we shined and where we can do better. As an Art Department, we resolve to continue to examine how we can strengthen anti-racist pedagogy in our curriculum. We resolve to renew materials and resources so that all students have windows and mirrors to inspire them as they develop their creative voice. We resolve to protect the spaces where students take risks, make mistakes, and grow as artists. Most importantly, we resolve to learn alongside our students as we continue to cultivate the artistic soul at Holton.