Equipping Girls with the Confidence to Challenge the Question
The profile of many Ellis girls is that of a decidedly successful girl used to achieving at a high level. This makes these students wonderful to teach: they are motivated, want to move forward, and love to understand. Finding ways to challenge them in the classroom on a regular basis is a fascinating problem, but an important one.
Feeling the thrust of a challenge can be stimulating, even exhilarating, or can feel overwhelming and impossible to a girl balancing an array of academic and personal concerns. Each teacher strikes a balance every day between secure comfort and new ideas. The push and pull between the known and the unknown provides great energy for learning, but is not all that soothing to every girl every day. Over the course of my years at Ellis, understanding the calculus of challenge has been my own, well, challenge.
I know that I am incredibly lucky to be teaching art history at the high school level and to also get to spend time among a wonderful group of performing artists. These two circumstances give me a wide frame of reference into the ways in which girls might be challenged. How participation in the performing arts allows girls to find their voices in thousands of ways is vital but not that mysterious. Teaching in the art history classroom offers a different set of opportunities to me. My sophomore students are required to take a class that explores some of the history of the arts and has a significant practical CoLab Day element. Requiring that students develop observational and descriptive skills is primary, as is exploring the skills of group work and collaboration.
Teaching the skills of art historical inquiry is not all that different from teaching other skills. They have to be rehearsed and refined. Asking students to use them again and again in the classroom is where the challenge comes in. Calling on her in class, asking her to make a spur of the movement attribution, or assigning a timed, group project might test a student in the moment, and failure is an option one may have to take at some point. I am more interested in far beyond that initial moment of challenge. Will she be able to call those skills up again? Can she learn not to think in catastrophic ways? Will she remember that there are many people here to help her solidify those skills? Can she use something known to step into something unknown? In the end, failure is not an option and the skills will be mastered.
Challenge is not a one-time event, but a process. Making it through a project or presentation may feel like the ultimate struggle at the moment, but reflection on the process allows students to feel some mastery of the skills acquired and the problem mastered. Each challenge is a step along the path of transferring the source of the challenge from the teacher to the student. My primary ambition is to encourage and direct students in challenging themselves, and the most common challenge I make is the challenge to question. Question the material. Question me. Question each other. Question yourself.
When Ellis seniors are surveyed—in a non-scientific and very casual way in the AP art history classroom right before lunch—about how they have been challenged, most talk about the expectation the faculty has about how familiar they will be with the material. “Things move quickly and you are expected to be able to really respond to the teacher with some level of sophistication.” As seniors, they understand how the “cold call” that terrified them as underclasswomen has become an invitation to share an idea or engage in a conversation. The faith and belief the faculty has in their students is powerful and can be daunting.
I think my classroom feels like a secure space: students are encouraged, they sit comfortably, table lights provide a cozy glow, and there are pretzels. The safety of the classroom is balanced with an admiration for bravery and direct but authentic expectations from me, as their teacher and guide.