SWANTON — An art class isn’t where one would expect to find students being taught to think critically about the world, but that is precisely what happens in classes taught by Lindsay DiDio at Missisquoi Valley Union (MVU).
“There’s all kinds of things these kids have access to,” said DiDio. “It’s a different generation of kids.”
DiDio asks students in her classes, which include basic art, digital imaging and film, to think more deeply about the images they’re viewing and the ones they’re creating.
Her goal, explained DiDio, is to teach students to be responsible consumers and creators of digital media.
“We talk about sexism,” said DiDio. “We talk about gender roles. We talk about racism. We talk about stereotypes.”
Students taking a critical look at Disney films have rewritten, redrawn and re-edited portions of the films and characters from them.
Ninth grader Trey Hancock drew an African character for “Tarzan,” a film set in Africa that has no African characters other than animals.
Ethan Deatherage, who graduated in 2014, rewrote part of the script for “Beauty and the Beast” to make Beast more gentle. “He was reflecting on the abusive relationship the Beast and Belle seem to have,” said DiDio.
DiDio doesn’t tell students what to think, but instead asks them to consider who created the images they’re seeing, who the intended audience is and what’s the message being conveyed. That applies whether they’re looking at the Mona Lisa or an advertisement for “The Big Bang Theory.”
“The idea that a teacher fills the empty-vessel student doesn’t apply anymore,” said DiDio, who has been at MVU for three years. “They can teach us as much as we can teach them.”
When a student asks a question to which DiDio doesn’t have the answer, she is upfront. “I don’t know, let’s find out – it’s the greatest phrase,” she said.
“The ‘let’s find out’ part is empowering to the student. It puts you on their side,” said DiDio. “You work together rather than from a top down, ‘I’m the teacher, you’re the student.'”
Sam Caswell, Jr., an MVU junior, can be counted among the students who appreciates DiDio’s approach. “She’s pretty awesome,” he said.
“She finds out what kids are passionate about and allows us to focus on that,” said Caswell.
He was one of four students DiDio took to Storyhack in Burlington this fall. Working in a group, the students had 24 hours to create a short film based on one of three prompts. They worked through the night, and the students won the event prize as selected by online viewers of their film.
“Storyhack really let us run away with our imaginations,” he said.
Storyhack was held at the Burlington Center for the Arts, and DiDio said it was the first time she’d ever slept in an art gallery. The sleeping was in between taking students shopping for props and supervising filming in the streets of Burlington.
Caswell also was among the students DiDio took to a conference for professionals in digital media in Woodstock where other attendees were from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Games for Change, among others.
He’s currently taking Film II with DiDio, and making a short film for The Vermont Movie Youth Film Competition, a class assignment. Caswell has written a story about the hermit thrush, Vermont’s state bird, which he is filming using Claymation. Other students are producing films about the history of the railroad locally and Prohibition-era alcohol smuggling.
Filmmaker Louise Michaels did two workshops with the students taking part in the contest. “I try very much not be the sole resource for my students,” said DiDio.
Contemporary students live in a digital world, with many carrying miniature computers in the form of a smartphone in their pockets. The challenge for teachers lays not only in getting them to think critically about the popular culture they’re consuming, but simply getting their attention.
“They’re connected,” said DiDio. “They know how to use that connectivity to their advantage.”
DiDio admitted she often has to remind students to set aside their phones and focus on their work. Some students need continual reminders, but others do best with just one.
There is one student with whom DiDio often doesn’t interact verbally at all in class. The student will make eye contact when entering class and then get down to work. As DiDio makes her way around the room, providing students with feedback and assistance, she’ll spend some time watching what the student is doing, and give him a thumbs up or other non-verbal feedback.
It’s all part of figuring out the best approach for each student. “We are moving in a way that is really student-oriented,” said DiDio of MVU. “We’re focusing on their learning and how they learn best.”
Students at MVU no longer fail courses. They receive incompletes and must create a plan for completing their work. Student work is either at, above or below the standard for the class. Work that’s below must be redone.
“You’re getting to do it again, until you get it right,” said DiDio. Students know what the standards are and what they need to do to meet them.
When students haven’t met the standard for passing a class, they receive an incomplete and must create a learning plan with the teacher who will track their progress.
“I use the incomplete as motivation,” said DiDio. “The motivation has to be there and the learning has to be in the hands of the kid.”
On Tuesday, DiDio’s digital imaging class spent the day at Burton Snowboards, talking with its designers. As they entered the class on Wednesday, one student told the others he’d decided to look into design schools.
DiDio said she wants students to understand art and design are all around them.
“That piece of software you’re writing your paper on, someone had to make that,” said DiDio. “Design is everywhere.”
Senior Michaela Plank is one of the students planning to pursue a career in design. “She’s a big part of helping me figure out what I want to do,” said Plank of DiDio. “She introduced me to graphic design.”
Some of Plank’s work is currently hanging in the Vermont Statehouse as part of an exhibit of student work from around the state. “She’s killing it,” DiDio said of Plank’s art. “She’s absolutely killing it.”
In addition to teaching art, DiDio is a co-advisor for the junior class and the cheerleading coach, which she’s brought from being a club sport to a varsity sport.
“My girls have had their fair share of negativity,” said DiDio. “In my eyes, they’ve won so many battles.”
She’d also like to bring back art club, too.
“I do have a tendency to bite off way more than I can chew,” said DiDio. “If you can get me excited about something, I’ll say yes.”
DiDio, who grew up in Loundonville, N.Y., originally trained as a graphic designer and worked in New Jersey, before deciding to become a teacher.
“Kids consistently ask me, ‘Why did you move here?'” said DiDio, who answers, “Because I get to teach you.”
It’s an answer they don’t always understand. “I love everything about being a teacher, but the kids think I’m crazy,” said DiDio.
MVU Principal Dennis Hill said DiDio is part of an exceptional art department at the school. “Lindsay makes art come alive for students who may not have thought they were artistic. Her classes are always buzzing with activity and kids are happy and engaged,” said Hill.