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Contemporary Art At New City School

Sixth-grade reading, writing and social studies teacher Linda Churchwell-Varga (left) and art specialist Shannah Burton in New City School’s Multiple Intelligences library. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
August 15, 2012
As the hustle and bustle of a new school year is about to start at New City School, two teachers are preparing to bring a lot of art and creativity into their classrooms.

Shannah Burton, the school's art specialist, and Linda Churchwell-Varga, who teaches sixth grade reading, writing and social studies, were among 16 teachers from around the country and Canada selected to be part of an "Art21 Educators" conference in New York this summer.

Art21 seeks to help educators introduce students to contemporary artists and their work, and that's exactly what Burton and Churchwell-Varga plan to do at their Central West End school.

Founded in 1969 by a group of neighbors, New City School serves 355 students ages three through six grade. Although most hail from the Central West End area, students from more than 52 Zip codes attend the independent school, Head of School Tom Hoerr said.

Hoerr said integrating contemporary art into the classroom will complement New City School's Multiple Intelligences approach to learning. The theory of Multiple Intelligences supports the belief that there are different types of intelligence and each student has individual strengths.

"Integrating contemporary art into classrooms gives teachers another way to tap into each child's strengths," he said.

It's natural for Burton to include contemporary art in her art classes, but Churchwell-Varga is just as excited to weave contemporary art into her students' assignments.

"I feel so much more empowered to talk about contemporary art," she said. "I'm looking forward to bringing more art into my classroom – and an expanded definition of what art is. Our ideas of traditional art are often only rooted in the past. Contemporary art offers diversity in artists, medium and subject matter."

Contemporary art could prove powerful when Churchwell-Varga tackles the issue of identity with her sixth graders, she said.

"So many contemporary artists talk about identity, but that's a place I've never looked before to have that conversation," she said.

Churchwell-Varga believes integrating contemporary art into the classroom will give students a better understanding of themselves, which will lead to a boost in their self-confidence.

"It leaves a kid with confidence in their creative self, and that is something they'll be able to build on forever," she said.

Students in both classes will be introduced to current contemporary artists and their work throughout the school year.

"We'll be viewing Art21 artists and videos (via the website), and comparing and contrasting their work – and getting new ideas," Burton said.

Burton and Churchwell-Varga like the fact contemporary art stresses the process more than the final product.

"There's a much wider range of what art can be and it validates the process," Burton said. "For students, it's not about if their picture is technically well executed, but has their idea been transmitted. It's de-emphasizing the product and it's more about empowerment and communication. It's less about the picture in the frame and more about art as a lens to an idea."

The process-oriented approach fits well with what New City School is already doing.

"Multiple Intelligences means that people solve problems in many different ways, and we want to teach children in a way where we can use what's best for them," Hoerr said. "This is new and will help us do a better job of reaching our kids – and that's what we need to be doing every year."

Hoerr believes there are four aspects that set New City School apart: Excellence in academics, EQ or Emotional Intelligence ("Who you are is more important than what you know," Hoerr said), appreciation for human diversity and joyful learning. The school is also home to the world's first Multiple Intelligences library.

In addition to what they're teaching their students, Burton and Churchwell-Varga will have their own assignments for Art21 to keep up with throughout the year and will continue to collaborate with other educators who attended the 10-day conference in New York. They also hope to get other New City School teachers on board with the program.

"It's a wonderful school, but we always need to be better, and these two are going to help us do that," Hoerr said, referring to Burton and Churchwell-Varga.

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