by Robyn Muscardini, Director, Visual Thinking Strategies
I keep one word in view from my desk. That word has been there for quite some time now. It is NURTURE. I wrote the definition next to it, “Care for and encourage the growth or development of.” I believe this is my calling. My work both in and for Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) has provided an abundance of nurturing.
I first heard a facilitated discussion using the VTS method when I had returned to college to complete a masters degree in education. I had a BFA from California College of Arts and Crafts and wanted to be a better art teacher. That first VTS discussion engaged my thinking and feeling deeply. Over the next two years I was trained to be a VTS Facilitator and later a VTS Coach and Trainer. That was over 15 years ago. The growth and development I experience as a VTS trainer, and now in the role of director, continues.
VTS joined Commonweal more than seven years ago. While preparing an application for a grant recently, I noticed the harmony between our visions and missions. On the website, “Commonweal is a center for learning and research, transformation, and discovery.” The various programs we offer through VTS shift education practice and transforms learning environments. Our work is centered on the learner and encourages inclusiveness. VTS method increases critical thinking, visual literacy, communication and collaboration skills for all learners.
In the last few years during the many changing conditions of the pandemic, we have experienced expansion both in our offerings and partnerships, widening our audience around the globe, challenging our creativity and imagination.
We have been able to continue our partnership with The New York Times Learning Network, for over 12 years, moderating What’s Going On In This Picture? (WGOITP?). Every Monday of the school year it is a wonder to read hundreds of comments written by individual students and whole classes from across the country and beyond.
We have also continued our work as a partner of Turnaround Arts California (TA:CA). In partnership with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, TA:CA builds the capacity of teachers and principals to lead for change through the arts within schools that have been under resourced in California. VTS is one of the creative resources used to train teachers to integrate arts into the curriculum, with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. I recently received an email from Barbara Palley, director of Program and Strategy for TA:CA, who mentioned, “Twice, annually, we ask our schools to share a story about a student, teacher, or family impacted by the arts, and there are a number of teachers feeling moved by VTS and what students can do through it.” I realize that VTS provides nurturing for so many young people whose teachers have developed their skills in facilitating complex discussions using the rich resources of art.
This school year we established a VTS Trainer Fellowship program responding to the increased demand for our programs. Expanding our roster of VTS trainers was the creative solution designed by Em Miller, VTS Trainer and Operations Director. Each of our seven fellows are engaged in scaffolded, structured mentorships. They have teaching opportunities in VTS coaching, co-leading, and as lead trainer along with practice in leadership in our weekly free program, Look Club Online.
Locally, I have been working in Sonoma County with the Old Adobe Union school district as they have prioritized the practice of VTS in their district. The co-superintendent, Michele Gochberg, was one of the teachers in this Petaluma school district to be trained as a VTS facilitator while a teacher more than 15 years ago. Michele later became the principal of Sonoma Mountain Elementary school and during her tenure there found VTS to impact the development of the students over time.
I was just at the school with a pre-kindergarten class, looking at a piece of artwork. The students noticed all of the objects, but they also noticed the shadows, and were commenting on the source of the light. The teachers were really surprised to learn from their children, and that re-inspired me. With just one VTS-facilitated discussion once a month, a learning community is forming, and the whole school district has been nurtured by the process.