From the Blog

Enhancing Student Experiences With External Learning Opportunities

by Katie Thompson 

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We all know the “typical” school experience, right? Brick buildings, classrooms, desks in rows, teachers at a board; this is the image that first pops into our heads when we think of school. Excitingly, many schools in New England and around the country are challenging that typical school experience by incorporating external learning opportunities, or ELOs, into the curriculum for their students. With the aid of grant funding and some elbow grease from some motivated educators, schools are partnering with community organizations and businesses to expand student learning beyond the classroom. Here is one student’s experience in her ELO.

Meet McKenna. McKenna is a 12th-grade student at Nokomis Regional High. She says she has known since she was little that art was “kind of her thing.”

McKenna Warren works on a collaborative drawing during Alan Bray’s workshop at Monson Arts.

“When I got my first hot glue gun as a kid, I was hot gluing everything to everything. I made anything you could think of out of absolute trash. I was 4. I should not have had a hot glue gun, but it was the best time of my life. I still do it. I make my own halloween costumes every year. That is when it really started, when I got ahold of a glue gun and thought, ‘Wow, this is the most power I’ve ever felt!’ I also used to draw on the walls as a kid. I remember drawing on the wall and thinking ‘Wow, this is beautiful,’ and then blaming it on my brother.”

This year, for the first time in her school career, McKenna has had the opportunity to expand her love of art outside the classroom to learn from and interact with professional artists. Two days a month, she attends the Monson Arts Program in Monson, Maine, along with three other classmates from Nokomis and twenty other high school students from around central Maine. A similar writing program runs concurrently at Monson and provides the same opportunity for aspiring high school writers.

I recently sat down with McKenna to learn more about her experience. One of the biggest differences, she says, is the amount of time focused solely on creating art.

“It’s a block of time for four hours a day where I get to just focus on art and technique. I love high school art class, but there is only so much I can learn there and it is for a more limited time. It is similar to high school art classes, because we do get some instructions around technique at the beginning of each session, but the rest of the time is just free time to work on our art with support and feedback from the teacher and our peers. That is what I like. Just give me the basics and let me run loose.”

Working With Professional Artists

Painter Alan Bray (left) teaching students about natural forms during a drawing exercise.

Another exciting component of this particular ELO is the integration of professional artists into the student experience. The art workshop is led by painter Alan Bray from Sangerville and the writing workshop is taught by poet Dawn Potter of Portland. Program Manager Dan Bouthot says that Monson Arts has been offering artist residencies to artists and writers since June 2018, and have been working to integrate art into the surrounding communities, including schools, since then. 

What McKenna has to say about working with a professional artist: “Our teacher is a professional artist and he is teaching us each day, but we also go on mini-field trips to visit resident artists and learn from them. Art is such a vast subject; it is always good to learn from different teachers. One artist we visited arranges different plants based on the folklore behind them and creates art pieces⁠—mainly fairies and witches⁠—around them. They are giant pictures, the size of vending machines, but look really close-up and life-sized.”

Stepping Outside the Comfort Zone

Alan Bray’s art workshop takes place at the newly renovated Moore building in downtown Monson.

McKenna’s current project is a realism piece, a genre of art she was, admittedly, hesitant to engage in because it wasn’t something in her wheelhouse. McKenna fancies herself a cartoonist, and has goals for her future of being an illustrator. This experience has pushed her out of her comfort zone and given her a greater appreciation for a variety of perspectives, genres of art, and a better understanding of her classmates.

“I’ve mostly learned that I have a lot to learn. I knew I wasn’t good with realism. I’m more of a cartoonist or illustrator. I’ve realized there is so much more to learn and that it takes a long time to work on it to get where you want to be. It has helped me with thinking about detail and the placement of things a lot more, thinking about how everything on the page interacts and what the finished product will look like in the end. It’s helping me balance planning and going with the flow. You also get to know a lot about people through their art. Like, my friend added a forest nymph into her sketch and no one else had thought of that, and it made me think that she probably really likes fantasy stuff and I didn’t know that. We are all taking the same class, but we take things in such different directions.”

Collaboration and Critique

Students in the high school creative writing program work with poet Dawn Potter (right) at Monson Arts’ Tenney House.

Another benefit of the Monson Arts Program, McKenna says, is the emphasis on collaboration and critique. She has always felt uncomfortable getting critiqued on her own work, and this experience has normalized feedback, both from the teacher and her peers. 

“I’ve never wanted to display my art to be critiqued, especially with realism because I know I’m not great at it. In this class, the teacher is walking around giving me feedback, people around me are giving me critiques, and I need to get used to that because as an artist, people do that. Even if you think you’ve made the perfect masterpiece, there is always a way to make it better. Our teacher told one of the students, ‘You’re drawing rocks from your head when you are supposed to be drawing rocks from life.’ Which I thought was great feedback and made me think about my own sketch.”

What We Can Learn From McKenna

Students from six area high schools spend a full day at Monson Arts twice a month participating in art and writing programs.

It is clear from McKenna’s story that providing learning opportunities that align with student interests and passions results in a more engaging high school experience. Connecting with experts in the field can make learning more relevant and authentic. Whether it is called an ELO, a pathway, a seminar, or an internship, the first step is tapping into student interests and engaging the community in growing opportunities for students to step outside the classroom. For schools or teachers exploring this idea, the Great Schools Partnership’s Flexible Pathways Action Steps can provide some guidance as you plan for implementation.

McKenna and her peers participating in the Monson Arts Program have a Gallery Exhibition where they will be showcasing their art on May 17th, 2020, at the Monson Arts Gallery. The event is open to the public. For more information on Monson Arts, visit their website: