In my years as an educator I have always looked for opportunities to encourage students to teach each other. In these moments, the student sharing her wisdom deepens her own understanding of the material or technique and gains confidence in herself as a wise and trusted expert, while the student being taught gets the chance to hear someone her own age explain a new skill or concept, demystifying it and making it instantly more accessible. As a teacher, these instances of peer teaching are exciting not only because I have a new apprentice, but also because for that moment the technique “belongs” to my students. Most teachers agree that it is always exciting when the grown-up is removed from the equation, because when students teach their peers they take ownership of their knowledge and sharing new skills ceases to be a top-down exercise that must be led by the adult in the room. Peer teaching is a celebration of learning and a potent tool in education that draws on and builds comprehension, clarity, compassion, independence, self-awareness, trust, and confidence.
When we are all learning together in person, peer teaching is a crucial part of all of my classes. Starting from the first day of kindergarten, I help Hewitt students understand that art is all about discoveries and strategies. Brushstrokes can go up and down, side to side, or wiggle a bit to create different effects. A crayon can be pressed firmly for a bright color or softly for a gentle one. An infinite number of greens can be made from blue and yellow or by adding anything to the factory green students have in their paint set. An artist can make lines that invite an audience’s eyes on an adventure around the page, or they can create quiet spaces by drawing simple shapes. Art can make us feel like we are zooming in on something or seeing it from very far away.
In my classes, we celebrate and share discoveries while we work, and if a student is quick to invent a new shade of brown, or to realize that a dry paint brush creates a fuzzy texture, I invite her to explain her strategy to others. Oftentimes a student shares a strategy with her neighbor, who is then emboldened to share it again with someone else, and older students who have learned techniques such as needle-felting or papier-mâché from me in previous years are delighted to make guest appearances to share their own experiences with current learners. Just last year I was teaching papier-mâché in the typical “one strip at a time” method and a student developed her own highly effective and efficient “multiple strip” method. She was so proud to stay for the first few minutes of the following class to share her discovery with her peers and everyone benefited from both her technique and her enthusiasm for the medium.
This fall, to ensure that our community could teach and learn safely during the Covid-19 pandemic, Hewitt developed a hybrid learning model that combines online and in-person classes. In lower school, a crucial component of staying meaningfully connected to one another when we are not all together in person has been Seesaw, an online platform we have been using for several years to share work and feedback with students and their families. This year, after I teach an art class via Zoom, I invite students to show me what they have made by posting an image on Seesaw. I realized early on that rather than simply posting pictures of what they had made, many students were choosing to record and post videos detailing their discoveries. I also noticed a lot of YouTube-like tutorial language in these contributions. When explaining her painting, for example, one student channeled PBS’s Bob Ross as she spoke to an imagined audience, starting her post with, “Hi there, everyone! Today, I am going to teach you how to mix purple...” and ending with, “Okay. Thanks for coming. Tune in next time!” Even those who did not adopt this kind of language opted to film lengthy and informative video responses to an art challenge or prompt rather than post a single static image. Though health and safety guidelines had changed the spaces and locations in which our learning was happening, there was still an inherent desire on the part of my students to connect, explain, and enlighten, and I realized I had an opportunity to help facilitate this. Because screens were now an inevitable part of our learning experience, because lower school students were so excited to connect this way, and because virtual spaces did not need to be defined by grades and ages in the way that physical spaces usually are, I decided to create a dedicated place for students to teach each other and Hew-2: Hewitt Girls Teaching Hewitt Girls How-2 was born!
Full of art techniques, recipes, basic gymnastics moves, and one really great bit of advice about how to deal with accidents in art, the Hew-2 website is developing into an online peer teaching community for our lower school students. Though participation is completely optional, since the middle of October students in first through fourth grades have submitted more than 160 videos to Hew-2. The site has been a great way for Hewitt students to connect with each other across grades, to build connections with one another whether they are learning at home or in school, and to direct their own learning by choosing what knowledge and expertise they want to share and which videos they want to watch and learn from.
The videos themselves (privacy-protected so that only Hewitt students and teachers can see them) are filled with young people energized by a heightened sense of purpose. Each contributor has chosen to share a part of herself with others, and the excitement and single-minded clarity of that choice is evident in Hew-2’s composed and confident tutorials. These student-made videos have become so useful, in fact, that I recently used an especially thoughtful one about drawing giraffes in my kindergarten classes. While teaching kindergarteners to draw giraffes is not something I would normally do, the opportunity to introduce the kindergarteners to a second grade guest teacher was just too wonderful to pass up. The students loved learning from an older peer, and the second grade artist, who had just joined our community this year, was delighted to hear that she had taught a kindergarten class how to draw giraffes!
While there are, of course, many ways in which the pandemic has made school more difficult for all of us, Hew-2 is one example of the innovative teaching and learning that comes from reimagining how and where learning takes place. Asking a second grader to step out of her own learning to give her the opportunity to teach a kindergarten class would not be easy to orchestrate during a traditional school day, but the creation of a virtual space for her to make and share her tutorial, combined with art class taught online, made it possible.
Input from students has always been a crucial part of building my art curriculum anew from one year to the next. As we entered the school year this fall, with all of its different elements and inherent challenges, I admit I was not sure how easy it would be to maintain the kind of ear-to-the-ground awareness, the sense of what feels relevant and exciting to the students, that usually fuels our projects. It turns out welcoming their contributions to Hew-2 has offered me a new window into what motivates our students, even as it serves as a self-directed teaching tool for them to tune into. The overwhelming response to Hew-2 affirms several foundational principles of teaching and learning at Hewitt — that students respond enthusiastically to opportunities to lead their own learning, to share ideas and wisdom as they connect with others, and to engage in ways that are meaningful to themselves and their community.