From A Conversation with Emily Shepard, Derby Art Teacher

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It’s a busy time of year. Calendars are full and special events abound! The arts become especially visible around the holidays, because they are an expression of our joy and draw people together in celebration. Culture, tradition and belief are shared as students perform with music, poetry, dance and drama for our Derby community. Exhibits of artwork around campus and in the Brown Art Gallery create a setting for these festivities.

However, the arts are much more than a vehicle for celebration. The arts contribute in significant ways to the education of our students. Emily Shepard and I frequently explore the role studio art plays in our curriculum and how learning goals are supported through her work with the children.

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Emily’s teaching approach is shaped through her work at Harvard University and her graduate studies of Project Zero’s
Studio Thinking. This body of research names eight Studio Habits of Mind. “Expression is the thing we think of immediately when we think of creativity. And while emotional engagement is essential to learning, there is much more to arts practice than just free expression.” Emily goes on to explain that the arts allow children to experiment, take chances and be flexible in their thinking. Children must visualize and imagine possibilities and approaches to problem solving. Art trains students to look closely and notice, as well as reflect upon and critique their work. “In our Derby studio, students learn to revise as they create first, second and even third drafts. Engage and persist are Studio Habits I am careful to prioritize.”

It is easy to see how these habits are essential across all subjects. Any instructional practice is more successful when students 1. develop a craft, 2. stretch and explore, 3. express, 4. understand community, 5. envision, 6. observe, 7. engage and persist, and 8. reflect on their learning. Children who develop these dispositions will be well prepared as scientists, writers, researchers, mathematicians and even social change-makers. This is really exciting stuff! No wonder Emily’s passion for art spills over to students and teachers!

If you find yourself in the Mary MacPherson Primary/Lower School building, be sure to pause outside Emily Shepard’s art studio and take in the exhibits she has prepared. The children’s work provides all the evidence you need to appreciate and value Studio Thinking. Currently, the display case houses works-in-progress from second grade. Students are working in pairs to sculpt wire buildings, which will form a model community as part of a larger IPC unit. In creating this piece, students take on the roles of architect and community planner. They must think spatially and mathematically to  construct geometric forms with clear edges and corners; they must work together to make decisions about scale, placement and infrastructure.

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While some projects are grounded in interdisciplinary IPC units, students may also be inspired by the work of a famous artist. In a Kindergarten study of Alberto Giacometti, students explored gesture, or body movement, by using their own bodies to inspire wire and plaster sculptures. (Their work is now on exhibit in the Hingham Public Library.) Kindergarten is now studying Louise Nevelson, who built large assemblages from scrap wood. Students took scraps from the Derby woodshop and collected other bits of “beautiful junk” to form a collaborative assemblage of their own.

Emily’s explanations and student comments and reflections are generally posted alongside her displays. The care and respect given to each exhibit convey the message that children’s work is important, it is valued and it is to be taken very seriously. Just like the sculpture, collage, photography and painting exhibited in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, this is the real deal.

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