Project-Based Learning (PBL) and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) are experiencing a level of interest from schools that is unprecedented. I had the good fortune to direct the Comparative Arts (now Interdisciplinary Arts) department at the Interlochen Arts Academy from 2014-2018. We were a small department of 15 students, give or take. I felt like a student as well; 90% of the time I had little or no prior knowledge of the topics we would investigate. Unfamiliar with PBL and SEL, I was inspired by two similar European education models: the Finnish “Teaching by Phenomenon” and the Italian “Reggio Emilia” approach to learning.
In Heart & Art, the purpose was clear and simple. We wanted to learn about ways of healing the heart.
How does one do that?
Collaborating with the biology and physics department, we were able to easily align the academic curriculum with this project. More time-consuming on my part was forging a relationship with the Cardiology unit at our local hospital which allowed us to learn about advanced medical procedures that can repair this phenomenal organ. Partnerships with outside organizations are an underutilized resource that independent schools seldom consider to enrich their curriculum and this one made for a great field trip.
Then things got more complex. How do we explain the miracle that we have the capacity to love at all? What about the aches of first love or the grieving of love lost? There is no surgery to remove this pain, it is impossible to stop falling in love. Each student had a story to share. They were familiar with the pain the heart endures when we lose a loved one to age, illness, or accident. Budding artists themselves could readily describe how their art helped them in difficult situations.
Art is very moved by love. When it resonates with us deeply, we can find ourselves in the sentiment, gaining solace and eventually healing.
Working with high-school students in the arts has allowed me to be a quiet witness of their first falling in love, often followed by pain and devastation. I got to be there and hold their heart, sometimes from afar and often in confidence.
Nothing would get me more incensed than hearing a colleague mocking the teenage raging hormones or belittling their suffering.
As far as I was concerned, this moment of first love was it: where you learn to open yourself as you have never done before, immediately followed by the need to close up and protect yourself. Life after this moment is a repetition of the same. We become experts in holding back on falling in love (for a person, a job, a house?) and build in a series of emotional levies to minimize the anticipated blow. Adults turn “holding back” into an art, as one student remarked. Touché!
I treasure those moments of intimacy in teaching, remembering Heart & Art fondly and with gratitude.