Students learn the fine art of teaching

MIDDLEBURY — Last Friday seven tiny kindergarten students from Nikki Juvan’s class at St. Mary’s School filed into the Middlebury College Museum of Art. As part of the college’s MiddArts program, this visit was a carefully planned exercise in Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a curriculum for teaching art to primary and secondary school students.
MiddArts — a 10-year-old collaborative effort between Middlebury’s Teacher Education program, the Museum of Art, the Center for the Arts, and Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) — aims to improve critical thinking skills by incorporating the arts into every discipline.
Each year MiddArts throws Middlebury College students into the mix in a January-term class where they learn lessons in both VTS and creative dramatics, which they then implement in local K-6th grade classrooms.
Last week, freshman Feliz Baca, a J-term MiddArts student, observed Stephanie Gallis, an arts specialist at Cornwall’s Bingham Elementary and a MiddArts facilitator, lead a VTS lesson in the museum space. The youngsters sat in two rows before great works of art, including the ancient Assyrian relief “Winged Genie Pollinating the Date Palm,” created around 883 B.C.E. 
Gallis started by leading the class through an observation and discussion of the work using a VTS exercise. After the youngsters sat quietly observing the giant Assyrian figure as a group, Gallis bent down to look into the 5-year-olds’ wide eyes.
“Alright, now what can we find here?” she asked.
A dozen hands shot up into the air to offer authentic insights. One student said the figure must be an angel, because he had large wings. Another focused on the object hanging from the subject’s hands, describing it as a purse. Yet another described it as a bucket, not a purse, “because angels don’t hold purses.”
As students were prompted to explain their observations (VTS procedure), the kindergarteners wove together a narrative for this magnificent work of art, built out of their own experiences. At the end, they were given the opportunity to go back and spend more time with one particular artwork that they enjoyed, and sketch it on their own, a way to encourage them to recognize elements of the artwork they didn’t see upon first observation.
While Baca’s role in Juvan’s classroom is typically more hands-on, this excursion was an opportunity for her to observe a VTS museum visit led by seasoned VTS facilitators and Middlebury College museum assistants.
Begun more than 15 years ago, VTS is a curriculum based on the findings of cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen that aims to hone critical thinking skills and engender a lifelong appreciation of art through careful observation. Gallis explained that the VTS curriculum “is not information-based; it’s a matter of being able to make meaning in what you see out of your experience.” 
Middlebury Museum of Art Curator of Education Sandi Olivo said teachers and teachers-to-be learning about VTS find that it can look very different to students at different age levels. 
“The younger the students are, the more it’s about being in the space (on museum visits),” she said. “The older they are, the deeper they get into the viewing.”
Having been a part of the VTS tradition in the MiddArts program for more than a decade, Olivo has seen the growth of students’ aesthetic and critical skills from kindergarten to sixth grade. Schools that implement the suggested nine VTS lessons per year also participate in a study to mark students’ progress. Judging by pre-VTS, mid-year, and post- VTS writing samples, the students’ critical thinking skills are greatly enhanced by VTS, Olivo noted — “particularly with their ability to cite evidence in their writing.”
For Addison Central Supervisory Union Associate Superintendent Jan Willey, the process is as valuable and empowering as the resulting technical skills.
“The beauty for me is that in my observation in classrooms, every kid in that classroom has equal status — it doesn’t matter what their cultural backgrounds may be,” Willey said. “Some kids shine there where they may not shine anywhere else.”
Songwriting exercise
Visual arts is just one component of MiddArts that J-term students sample. One day last week, the local musical group the Swing Peepers came to Middlebury College to give the J-term students a quick songwriting workshop. The Swing Peepers specialize in wacky, improvised and often-educational songs born out of audience participation. 
Working with the MiddArts class, the group crafted a song about moving water — the theme for this January’s class — complete with choreography. As the students eagerly shouted out their contributions, it was clear that they had taken MiddArts’s process-oriented, creative approach to heart. When debating a particular line, senior Phil Ziff stepped to the front.
“Let’s do it and learn through the process and then discuss what worked, instead of trying to figure it all out before even trying,” he said.
These Middlebury College students were scheduled to perform the song with the Swing Peepers on Thursday morning in the Middlebury College CFA Concert Hall for all their participating local MiddArts schools. 
While many of the college students enjoyed the hands-on nature of the MiddArts class, a few found some aspects of the class frustrating. Their bounding enthusiasm seemed to clash with the strict script imposed by VTS. Olivo noted that the questions in the VTS curriculum were so specific because “they are based on Hausen’s theory of how people make sense of looking at art; these are the questions that will nurture them, and open them up to the process.”
Minor frustrations aside, everyone seems to have come out positively from the MiddArts program. Teachers like Dawn Mayer at Bingham Elementary expressed their joy at having college students participate in the classroom. Some Middlebury students, including Baca, even felt encouraged to pursue a career in education from the process. 
“I love working with kids, especially with the arts,” Baca said. “Now I’m definitely going to be an Education Studies minor.”
It seems Olivo’s summation of the MiddArts process has rung true for teachers, college and elementary students alike:
“Practice and reflect. Practice and reflect.” 
Ellie Moore is a Middlebury College senior and intern at the Independent this month. 

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