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A Light in the Night: Arts and English Departments Collaborate

May 15, 2017
by Amy Heishman, English Teacher

My 11th grade English teacher had one motto and one motto only for nearly every inquiry or sought after advice: life is not a solo act.  A high school me understood that as the importance of friends but, while a true sentiment, not quite how I understand that motto now.  In fact, my previous understanding rings a bit false; we all need friends but that doesn’t always guarantee you are not a solo act.  Friends are often our most forgiving audience.  No- I think Mrs. Isenhour’s motto was about something slightly different than friendship, something the adult me recognizes immediately as a cornerstone of many successful relationships: collaboration.

Teachers are the stuff of collaboration.  The vocation almost demands it, whether collaborating with a student to master an objective, working with another teacher to develop interesting curriculum, or simply attending professional development with a team.  Collaboration might be my favorite thing about teaching, especially any collaboration that allows for interdisciplinary design. And if by chance lunch happens at a table with a diverse crowd, collaboration can be organic as it was the day Ms. Mattox introduced Dr. Ward and I to Kara Walker, a silhouette artist that focuses on the American South. We spent lunch discussing visual arts and the profound effect visuals have in moving others into action or reflection. And later, when meeting in the Madeira art studio to view Walker’s work, I could easily see the Southern Gothic influence in her art and I couldn’t help but recall the Gothic module in the American Literature curriculum. 

What happened next is, quite frankly, my favorite collaboration of this year.  Using Walker’s medium, Ms. Mattox, Dr. Ward and I crafted a project for the Gothic module which I am affectionately calling “A Light in the Night.” We prompted students to remember their Slavery to Civil Rights module and connect the grotesque displays of racism during that era to Walker’s intent in some of her pieces; we then ask them to recall their current study of the Gothic grotesque.  In many ways, these two courses are the shifting notion of a very literal darkness for the Puritans trying to settle a nation in the wild woods and the very metaphorical darkness found in even the most democratic hearts and minds.  Students then channeled Walker, Gothic motifs, and their own “darkness” to create silhouette vases.  The results were sublimely fantastic, scary even: Mallie Moore’s (’18) created a candle that reflected the electric chair and the horrors associated with the death penalty.  Katie Adler's (’18) candle reflected the damsel in distress motif and the fantastical dangers surrounding it.  Ally Johnson's (’18) candle watched you, quite literally, behind two demonic eyes. For all students, it was clear how art could channel the feeling of a time period, past and current, to move some into action and some to reflection.  

As for our own reflection, it’s a project that speaks to the testament of collaboration.  Perhaps Ms. Mattox coined it best, “[Collaboration] provides teachers a new opportunity to view their subject matter in a different light and lens, and share ideas for engaging students on multiple levels of learning.”  Essentially we become students too, waiting for that moment when the interdisciplinary design becomes alive in the mind of others.  While my favorite part was designing the project, I shared sentiment with Dr. Ward’s favorite moment: “seeing each little success: the right cut, the design that came out “just so,” the happy accident—each one a lively little moment of insight.”  I think that’s an elegant way of saying that collaboration is very much a reminder of how shared experiences are often the most insightful; that while individuality is indeed a solo act, life is not.