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Is there an expert in the room?

Last week we were discussing Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences in my art education classes and I am always reminded of a story told at a conference session I was presenting. The session was about designing curricular units under the title of “A Place for Art and the Art of Place.” My co-presenter and former student, Katy O’Neal Killingsworth, had designed a unit incorporating linear perspective and her students expressing their personal connection to a specific location at their high school. And I introduced Clyde Connell, a Louisiana artist who has had a huge influence on me as an artist. Connell created works in response to and displayed on her property on Lake Bastineau. When we opened up our session for comments and questions, this teacher told the story of bringing in to her classroom a large, round pod-of-sorts that she had picked up on her property. She was attracted to its aesthetic features such as its shape, texture, and color. She had no further knowledge. A hand was raised in the back of the room from a student who she could not recall having ever voluntarily contributed to a class discussion. He knew the name of the plant, its characteristics, growing habits—everything that could be considered in relation to this specimen of nature. This routinely unnoticed student suddenly became the class expert.

I believe experiences like this have the power to change the academic lives of students. This is a starting point for a pathway of learning—for engagement. As teachers we cannot actually plan for these “magical moments,” but we CAN plan in ways that make them possible. First, we can be learners ourselves. By bringing in new things that have triggered our curiosity and interests, we can model a creative disposition. Second, we can design lessons that have multiple structures where students with varying interests, knowledge, and abilities can learn and share from their expertise.

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