For two decades, Stephen Thomas was the head of school at Oxbow, a boarding school in Napa, California. Teenagers from all over the world come to Oxbow to spend a semester taking their typical high school classes with a fully immersive, arts-based curriculum. Oxbow’s unique approach to education empowers and supports students to create work with complex themes and challenges them to engage with real-world issues. Simona Zappas, the Walker’s Youth Programs Coordinator, spoke with Stephen Thomas about how they’re able to make this happen:
Simona Zappas (SZ)
For some people, I think it is really difficult to imagine a high school that weaves art into every subject, and I was wondering if you could describe what that looks like and how it benefits the other subjects.
Stephen Thomas (ST)
Well, we don’t have to worry about how it benefits other subjects. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that all of the classes take place in the studio. So it’s not like students have to go someplace else to take their math classes. And they all are saying they came [to Oxbow] for art, and they don’t want to do these other things, but we’re teaching them how you can use other disciplines as ammunition for your creativity. Or you can solve problems in other disciplines through an inquiry-based approach that you can practice in the studio.
Whether it’s drawing a map of the French Revolution to show that you know the timeline of events or taking our visual math course, where you’re actually employing geometry or trigonometry to make something happen, students see that they can, and they’re taught that they need to, dive into different disciplines to find out what’s important there and apply those models and dynamics in other situations.
So, we get students to approach art making as a process and not a product. The kind of feedback and support that we give is designed to make them aware of their process, where they are in their process, and then how they can manage their process so that they can make happy discoveries, instead of just setting off on a perfectionist track to recreate an image that they’ve already kind of preconceived.
Just the switch from product to process is really a huge mind shift for students.
ST[To help make that switch] we tell students, “Okay, well, what’s [your work] about?” “It’s a pretty picture.” “Yes, but why did you choose that subject?” And very often, students in this age range have never asked that question. They’ve never been led to ask the question; they’ve always been applauded for their aesthetically beautiful work. But no questions about content. And what I love about Oxbow is that one of the things students write about in their exit surveys is that they leave Oxbow with a definite idea of what their work is about and what it means to them.
So, we just start asking the question, “Why did you choose that subject?” and then have the person think about it and write about it. [The students] journal a lot, in order to establish an inner dialogue about the work. So that they are determining important questions, and striking off in new directions in addition to add to those initial questions.
And then they have ownership of discovery. They have the ownership of the inquiry. They know what road they have been down, and they know what pathways were fruitful. So, then, by journaling, you retain that information, so that on encountering a new aesthetic problem, you have a wealth of material to bring to it.
You’re making me want to start journaling again!
You shouldn’t have just stopped. You should never stop.
I was wondering if you could describe the teaching methods used at Oxbow.
Well, less methodology than just an approach to the interaction. So, I call the teaching/learning dynamic a “heat exchange.” If we’re smart, we’re going to learn something from the student at the same time that we share what we want them to know. So, for example, instead of assuming that the student is a blank slate until you, the teacher, begin to give them information in some kind of sequential and orderly way, why not first ask the student what they know about the subject or topic? As the teacher, you will have done all of the background research before you begin the class. You’ll know what all the primary resources are, you’ll know what kind of inquiry you’re going to lead to… But, you shouldn’t assume that all your students are clueless, so by asking them in front what they know—and there are various ways to do that: in discussion, in questionnaire, by finding out what they individually and as a group already know, or believe that they know about a subject—then you can pick through your resources and put the right thing in front of them.
So, instead of two thirds of them being bored with a beginning text, you’re more likely to come up with a stimulating article or resource that challenges their assumptions or opens doorways that the already-curious can go down. And once you start getting kids hacking on their curiosity, then that’s when the co-learning begins. You’re watching how this particular intellect is responding to stimuli, and that can be helpful to you as the teacher going forward. And the student is appreciating being credited for what they already know and being invited to learn more. Once their confidence grows, being able to address a question without the fear of having a wrong answer, because they know that whatever answer they arrive at, will have given them a lot of information. So, you see, it’s kind of a closed circle, once you get it started.
That’s one piece; that’s one wedge. You can’t do that until you’ve established a really deep emotionally and psychologically safe classroom, one where students aren’t afraid they’re going to be called on or ridiculed. Students are going to know that it’s safe to say “I don’t know,” because then the next question that the teacher will give is, “Well, how can we find out?” So you can actually design the learning path together. So, we want to create an environment where students know that it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay to fail. And that’s a really big one right now, because almost all of your students right now are coming with, “I can’t afford to fail. I have to make this good; there’s so much pressure from family, and colleges. I just can’t afford to make a mistake.” For many of them, making a mistake, picking themselves up and dusting themselves off, and trying again, that’s a new idea. That’s a new dynamic.
I’m just wondering, after a 20-year stint as the school’s founding director, what was your biggest takeaway from your time there?
It’s a hard question. I think the biggest takeaway, is that high school–aged students are incredibly capable, and they, and the teachers, are being under-served by schools that infantilize the students—when they could be out tackling real world problems. I come to that after years, but a recent example is the way the Parkland kids, the survivors, are getting active, and what they’re doing in terms of taking the experience that they’ve had, learning from it, and using that experience to change the world. That’s what we tell our kids they need to do. So, by giving them the confidence and the power to do that, they will take it and run, because all societies rely on adolescents for their youth and energy, their idealism, and their hope. But, you only make them stronger by giving them real-world problems to work on, not worksheets, not theoretical pictures. Real world problems to work through. With the expectation that they can succeed. And then, being open to the solutions that they propose.
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