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GUS White Shirt Projects: Reflecting the Exploratory and Essential GUS Questions

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The People, Who Am I?, Where Am I Going? And Where Am I From? These exploratory and essential questions are often forgotten as the thematic base for the upper school curriculum, yet Glen Urquhart School students explore them everyday. Whether discussing relationships, community, and people through their study of The Misfits in sixth grade, contemplating identity in self-reflective "Where I’m From?" poems in seventh grade, or investigating immigration in eighth grade humanities, these questions, and the themes they represent, are the foundation of the GUS academic program. In both big and little ways, these questions influence the way students grow and develop. As middle schoolers are pushed to explore, discover, and speak, these themes come together and echo throughout the student experience. There is no doubt of the impact these themes have on young learners and this impact is seen, felt, heard, and experienced by viewing the powerful White Shirt Projects presented each January. Here, the themes of The People, Who Am I?, Where Am I From?, and Where Am I Going? pour out of students into an amazing visual and narrative display that not only captures the uniqueness of each individual, but also the richness of the upper school themes and their impact on our student experience.

“This night is really the student's’ graduation from their arts program at GUS,” explains art teacher Dawn Southworth. Southworth conceived of the idea for the White Shirt Project a number of years ago at an auction of commissioned artwork organized to benefit a women’s shelter in Cambridge, MA. In the GUS version, the students are asked to take a plain white oxford shirt and transform it into their own original work of art. This culminating project begins in the fall of their eighth grade year as students travel to New York City; they visit the Museum of Modern Art to study contemporary artists and past masters as part of their humanities curriculum. When they return, students each choose a modern artist on which to base their White Shirt Project. Incorporating the simple garment, they create an autobiographical, mixed-media statement, with original ideas and symbolism, that uses aspects of each chosen artist’s style and techniques. Students also write a research paper that profiles their artist and provides a critical assessment of the artist’s contribution to his or her times.The eighth graders work closely with humanities teacher Jeffrey Bartsch to write and deliver powerful gallery talks about their artists, their own experiments with creating art, and what they learned along the journey.

The People. The White Shirt Projects often tell a narrative. Whether the story is fictional or biographical, many pieces touch on the important themes students learned in sixth grade. In social studies and in science, while studying watersheds or the themes of geography, students recognize the value of nature and the effects of culture and humans on our world. This understanding of how people affect the environment, and how the environment affects people, is an important aspect of their sixth grade studies. These themes often draw a students to an artist. This year an eighth grade artist quoted her chosen artist saying, “We often forget that WE ARE NATURE. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.” Whether the work is a ripe social statement about the effects of pollution or a piece that highlights the theme of place, our eighth graders continually reflect important elements of our sixth grade curriculum.

Who Am I? This theme is seen over and over in White Shirt projects. Sometimes in bold, "in your face" ways, but also in subtle and quiet ways that are only revealed through the gallery talks. Some works represent how the answer to this question has changed over time, and for some, this project is the opportunity to stick a flag in the ground and take a stand. Projects shout "This is Who I Am!"—with pride, and often hope—charging us to know, to value, and keep safe the young artists. Whether identity is defined by race, sexuality, gender, or by favorite activities or hobbies, all of these are areas students have explored as part of their GUS education, and as part of  Who Am I? Seventh Grade curriculum

Where Am I From? Often there are themes in the White Shirt work regarding family ties, students' experiences at GUS, or other nods to place and time. Where Am I From? is definitely a foundation for many of the pieces. Whether it’s a photo of a loved one, a possession passed down, or a metaphorical representation, as students speak at Arts Night, you see, hear, and understand how they define their growth as a journey from past to present. Where they are from can be a place, a person, an idea or value, or something even harder to describe, but yet, their connection to this theme is so much larger than just their study of immigration. It truly encompasses all teachers hope for students as they strive to send them out in the world with a strong sense of what it means to be a GUS student, of what it means to be from this “green and shady place.”

Where Am I Going? It is said that you can’t know where you are going, if you don’t know where you are from. This question becomes the final turn of the spiraling GUS academic experience. For some students, this theme comes through White Shirt Projects in a literal sense, as artworks touch on next steps and high school. Others take on larger topics—the world around them— or ask for social justice or political action. Proudly, viewers see that students are aware of their powerful voice and are ready to make a statement about bringing about change. To these students, "Where Am I Going?" is a sense of the future, of maturity, of citizenship in a global community. Their works and their words fill families and educators with hope, knowing they are indeed young people who mean well, speak well, and will do well.

The GUS themes allow teachers to connect academic content with self-discovery and reflection, creating a richer and more meaningful learning experience for students. In the tradition begun by Lynne Warren and others at the school’s founding, it begins with where the child is and builds from there, always spiraling back to where it started, just as the themes spiral over the course of the full GUS education. As a result, the experience manages to not only fill young minds with knowledge, but also grow unique individuals with powerful ideas, insightful perspectives, and limitless potential. Their perceptions, their voices and their identities are examined, cared for and, nourished by a focused and personal educational experience that is highlighted by this wonderful project. As the White Shirt Projects bear witness, these young people are grounded in a strong sense of who they are, where they are from, and where they are going. It is not surprising that this is one of the most celebrated GUS traditions—it truly captures all that is special and wonderful, not only about these remarkable students, but also this remarkable school.