In my recent newsletter "The Failure of Field Trips," I explained what is wrong with traditional school outings. The typical field trip is irrelevant to the students' education, either because they have been unprepared to appreciate it by their schooling (e.g., City Hall or the opera) or because it is intended as a reprieve from their schooling (e.g., the water park or bowling alley).
At VanDamme Academy, we use field trips as opportunities for students to have experiences that enhance their education-experiences that directly relate to their schooling but are not available to them within the walls of the classroom. Past field trips include: an astronomy night, to observe a lunar eclipse and to find the constellations they had mapped on a star chart in science class; a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, to watch on stage a play they had read and thoroughly analyzed in literature class; the King Tut exhibit at LACMA, to see relics of a time they had studied in depth in history class. In each case, because they were so well prepared, they relished the experience.
Probably the most thrilling of the VanDamme Academy outings, and the one that best exemplifies the very meaning and purpose of field trips, was our visit to the San Diego Museum of Art. This field trip was attended-and enjoyed- by every student in the school, from kindergarten to eighth grade.
The students had been thoroughly prepared for the experience by many aspects of their education. They were well read in literature: five- year-olds delighted to find a painting of the myth of Apollo and Daphne; elementary students discovered portraits that reminded them of Arthur and Lancelot; junior high students argued over which artist best depicted a figure with the strength and independence of An Enemy of the People's Dr. Stockmann. They were knowledgeable about history: all the students had some familiarity with the cultural context in which a Medieval, Renaissance, or American painting was produced; many students identified portraits that reminded them of historical figures, like Charlemagne or St. Augustine; the junior high students could relate the philosophy of asceticism to three different renderings of Mary Magdalene.
In addition to being broadly well educated, the students were also expertly trained in the process of analyzing and thereby appreciating a work of art. This is thanks to Luc Travers who—with his knowledge of philosophy, literary analysis, and art history, and his unique ability to see to the theme of a painting, relate it to real- life values, and make it accessible and meaningful to students— has developed a remarkable course in art appreciation.
Mr. Travers has taught all the VanDamme Academy students how to "read" a work of art. They learn how to make detailed observations, about the setting, the objects, the facial features, the expressions, the posture, the attire, etc. They learn to make explicit their immediate impressions (that the central figure looks brave, or apprehensive, or proud, or determined), to connect those impressions to their observations (the muscular figure, the furrowed brow, the upright posture, the clenched jaw), and to then make further observations and refine their original impression. They learn to compare and contrast their observations with closely related works of art, and identify subtle differences (the furrowed brow of concentration vs. the furrowed brow of anger vs. the furrowed brow of resolution). After repeatedly cycling through this process, they formulate a statement of the work's theme. Then, to round out their understanding of that theme and harness its power, they relate it to history and literature and their own life experience.
Armed with the knowledge of how to analyze a work of art and having experienced the rewards of doing so, the students stormed the museum grounds, clipboards in hand, eyes and spirits wide open, ready to discover and enjoy a new work of art. As one parent arrived on the museum grounds, her six-year-old daughter Sydney cried excitedly, "Le Cid! Look! It's Le Cid!" There, proudly leading his troops to battle, was the sculpture of the Spanish hero she had analyzed, contrasted with the meek and weary Don Quixote, and come to love. Walter, a junior high student, found a wealth of visual images of the moments and traits he had encountered in literature: one reminded him of Marguerite from The Scarlet Pimpernel when she was in fear for the life of her husband, because she is "on her knees," has "her hands folded," and has "an upward, teary gaze"; another reminded him of the novel's villain Chauvelin, because of his "tightly closed, almost snarling mouth" and his "sinister gaze"; another called to mind Montfleury from Cyrano de Bergerac because of the "dull, inane look in his eyes." Chelsea, a junior high student, did a reading of an unfamiliar portrait, noting her glossy eyes, her coal-black pupils, her smooth, peachy skin, her erect posture, her slight smile, and her seeming unhappiness. She brought these and other features together into her determination of the theme: "She smiles, yet her eyes droop; she seems happy, yet sad—the woman is LONGING for something."
Far from enjoying a diversion from school or being forced through a cultural experience they were unequipped to enjoy, these students were cashing in on the groundwork laid in their education. That is why they met with universal enthusiasm the news of next week's school-wide trip to the Getty Museum. The experience is sure to justify a newsletter of its own.
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