“You are ready for what you are about to do.”
With this profound statement, Dr. Debra Spiro-Allen (Arts Department Chair, Director of Vocal Music) encapsulates the philosophy of experiential education in the arts department.
The Emma Willard School arts faculty embraces experiential learning throughout its extensive course offerings. Teachers design courses that apply the tenets of experiential learning through the lens of visual and performing arts with a spiraling curriculum: introduce, practice, refine, apply, and then elevate to the next level. Whether painting canvases, dancing in the studio, throwing clay, or singing on stage, students at Emma Willard School are exposed to the full spectrum of experiential learning every day of the year.
The key to this impressive program is a faculty who is active in their professional fields and they connect with students on a deeply individual level. Last year’s installation of faculty work in the Dietel Gallery was an excellent example of how the arts teachers stay current with their work, which keeps them in tune with the wider world of art, and allows them to provide contemporary advice to our young artists.
As is always the situation in art, learning happens best when teachers meet students where they are, understand their skills and motivations, and tailor lessons to give each student just what they need to grow and flourish. One only needs to visit the Slocum Student Gallery outside Kiggins Auditorium to observe the unique vision of each piece hanging on the walls. These are not the creations of students following a template — these are paintings, sculptures, videos, and installations that obviously come from the minds and hearts of our students. The arts department is composed of artists who are all on the same educational wavelength, speaking the common language of creation and experiential learning. While making films may seem quite different than dancing, they share a teaching philosophy that unites them under the same umbrella of practice.
Like all successful forms of experiential learning, students in arts courses are allowed to express their individual potential. Teachers seek out their individual voices, and work to develop their vision and skills. Classes are a rich blending of holistic learning and realizing individual abilities. Students are all in the same space, on their own creative trajectories, and all guided toward the final destination by their teachers. This is a dynamic and engaging environment in which everyone trusts that they will achieve their goals, are actually unsure of exactly how they will attain them, and students complete their journey in parallel.
As an example of how attuned teachers are to their students, Dr. Debra Spiro-Allen only chooses choral music after spending some time with her singing groups. After exploring their abilities and aspirations, she then selects compositions that will work for her current students, rather than choosing pieces before the school year begins. In this way, Dr. Spiro Allen serves her students best by providing them with the most appropriate repertoire.
To all of this experiential learning, arts add a performance or exhibition component that is also aligned with student need. After identifying the best place to begin, the arts faculty support each student as they complete their developmentally appropriate work, and eventually they reach the final moment in which it is time to share their outcomes and experiences when the deadline arrives. Some students feel more prepared for others, but all are actually ready to demonstrate what they have learned at that moment. With the backing of their teachers, and all of the targeted work along the way, they are indeed, “... ready for what you are about to do.”
This piece was written by Experiential Learning Department Chair and Science Instructor Jon Calos.
Find more interesting stories about Emma Willard School on our Newsroom page.