Teaching & Learning in the museum district

Fine Arts classes offer new outlets for students to express themselves

7th and 8th grade students take a fine arts class every day. Yes, you read that correctly... every single day of the year.  With over a dozen classes to choose from, students have the opportunity to experience a variety of visual, performing, choral and creative arts. Each year, new classes are offered as new topics of art exploration are uncovered.  This year's offerings have included Photography, Drama, Sewing, Dancing, Choir, Mixed Media, Mock Trial and more. These classes provide a unique opportunity for students to have a hands-on experience with creating something meaningful. Here's a glimpse of a some of the work of our unique fine arts classes.    

In Music, Poetry and Street Art students learn how to sharpen their observation and listening skills as well as critical thinking skills. Students are learning the vocabulary and tools for how best to approach listening to music, reading and interpreting poems, and looking at street art. The dominant theme of the first quarter was community. Students studied photos of street art to find clues to the community it represented. In music and poetry, students combined music, photos of our PS community and the spoken word to create an interpretation of Maya Angelou's "Human Family" iPhone commercial.

In the second quarter of the class, students began "The Wall Art" project, an original piece of street art reflecting a personal message, after studying the elements of community and activism with Mrs. Stoessel. Inspired to create their own street art, students brainstormed ideas about how to represent the PS community visually in a mural, and what elements of activism they might also include. Students chose to represent community with the PS window with each window pane representing a facet of the community that matters to them: sports, fine arts, academics, friendship, technology, core values, play and religion. The window is flanked on each side by the letters P and S, which is their "tag" or street art signature, because it will include each participant's name within the large letters. Their idea of activism is represented in a quote and in the desire to represent individualism and boundary pushing in the form of splattered paint outside the lines of the window. The student in charge of choosing the quote selected this sentiment by Teddy Roosevelt, "It's not the critic who counts; the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena." 

First Presbyterian Church granted the students permission to paint their mural on the outside brick basement wall of the north playground. While the work is still in progress, take a minute to look at a time lapse video below of how students are bringing street art to Presbyterian School. This project is anticipated to be complete by December 16.

Build and Destroy was inspired by The Collectivity Project, a 2015 installation at the MFAH by Olafur Eliasson, in which museum visitors were invited to build and take apart thousands of Lego bricks so that, over time, a communal construction grew out of individual actions in the same way that our city grows and is transformed.  Building and rebuilding structures out of Lego is one ongoing component of the class. 

Students wanted to explore the "destroy" aspect, so their first project was to disassemble and tinker with a variety of electronic and mechanical devices such as computer keyboards and alarm clocks that they photographed before and after disassembly.  The class also participated on walking tours to look for evidence of changes in the built environment and discovered examples of structures from every decade of the 20th century, including examples by renowned Houston architects, Joseph Finger and William Ward Watkin. 

In the second quarter, the class began a study of optics and photography as a method to document change.  Students transformed a classroom into a camera obscura where each student built a portable camera obscura and experimented with pinhole apertures and moveable lenses.  Students then moved on to image capture using iPads to take pictures of Lego creations, converted those imaged into negatives, and made cyanotype prints with the help of sunshine on the playground.  Their final project will be short stop-motion videos as Lego projects are built and destroyed.

Students in the Course through the Museum District walk to nearby art museums every class period (in rain or shine) to explore a variety of art and art related experiences in the Museum District.

Regular gallery visits have included The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Lawndale Art Center, The Jung Center, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and the MFAH Sculpture garden. Students explored the permanent collections of the museums and had the opportunity to attend many temporary exhibitions including Degas: A New Vision at the MFAH; Flow, a paper installation at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; The BIG SHOW a juried exhibition of local artists at Lawndale Art Center; and a unique light installation Kusama: At the End of the Universe.

Students not only examine, sketch and analyze art, but they also interact with real artists and museum professionals at the various institutions. Over two class periods, students met with Kaylin Weber, assistant curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the MFAH. Ms. Weber discussed the paintings as well as shared behind the scenes details and curatorial challenges of her new exhibition Julian Onderdonk and the Texan Landscape.  Students also interacted with working artists Rebecca Braziel, Shiyuan Xu, and sculptor Susan Budge in their studios at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.

The Chapel Band is composed of 8th grade students who play on acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass, piano and xylophone.  The Chapel Band, co-directed by Andrew Hebert, Class Trip Coordinator, and Chris Sanchez, 8th grade IPC teacher, leads the middle school student body in chapel worship and rotates through a selection of song material.  They hope to expand to other performance opportunities in the future. This ensemble will continue through the third quarter, but will change membership in the fourth quarter to allow for 7th graders to begin preparations to be Chapel Band leaders during their 8th grade year.  

In Drama, students are learning how to communicate, research, design, collaborate, and create in theatre. Student projects include working on theatrical set and costume designs, creating characters and original short plays, learning audition techniques, monologue work, and scene study, which includes research and rehearsing short scenes from plays. 

Click here to see a complete list of fine arts classes for the year. 


Asian Art: Reimagined

7th and 8th grade students participate in a fine arts class every day. Students have a variety of classes to choose from including courses through the Museum District, photography, literary arts magazine, video news, yearbook, choir, drama, mixed media, sculpture, creative writing, drumming, guitar and much, much more. The hardest part of the class is choosing which one to take! The daily exposure to the arts has impacted our students' creative and critical thinking skills and helped them to see how art can influence all areas of their life. Here's an inside glimpse of one of our classes...

The 8th grade fine arts class, Museum Ambassadors, spent several days in the Asian Art Galleries at the MFAH learning about the way the museum's collection was curated and exhibited.  After studying the collection, students chose one or two pieces of art to research individually.  They came together as a group to discuss how each of their objects might fit together in a student curated exhibition.  

What emerged from their studies was Asian Art: Reimagined, a Presbyterian School exhibition of works of art from the permanent Asian Art collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) which went on display in the Middle School hallway the week of December 14.  The goal of this exhibition was not to copy the MFAH exhibition style and curatorial choices, rather students were charged with thinking about these objects differently.  Every part of the exhibition, from the researched written statements to the color of the walls, was intentional and carefully considered. Some of the objects were the same medium and culture – Japanese Works on Paper, for example – and logically worked in a group. Other objects seemed to have a more loose connection, and the students diligently researched ways to link their images together to create a unified exhibition group.

Click here to read student reflections and research on the MFAH Asian Art collection.

Posted by Mrs. Andrea Lawless in Student Involvement, Opportunity in Museum District on Thursday January 21, 2016 at 09:01AM
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Highlights from My History Class

by: Andrea Estrada (Class of 2017)

On September 26, the seventh graders enjoyed a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston for the Mark Rothko: A Retrospective Exhibition. Rothko's paintings spoke to the students in different ways. Students were guided though the exhibition by a few museum instructors that helped them find the deeper meaning of some of Rothko's art that featured very dark or radiant colored stripes on large canvases. They were also able to see how Rothko had changed his style of art throughout his career. One of the most interesting things students learned about was the journey he took in his career and in his life.


On October 2, the seventh graders also enjoyed visiting the Menil, The Rothko Chapel, the University of St. Thomas, the Greek Festival, and the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral. They were able to go to the Menil and see different artifacts from different civilizations. This gave them a more deepened understanding of the different cultures that they were learning about and their traditions. In the Rothko Chapel, they were able to take a moment of tranquility in this breath-taking and special place. Some of the true artists in the grade were able to see through Rothko's sorrowful yet beautiful paintings and the stunning architecture that enlightened Rothko's art. For some, they found a place to go to where they can take a step back, breathe, and reset. It was a place where they could also find peace and patience within themselves. The seventh graders were very grateful and blessed to find such a place that they can take them away from their daily life problems.


The students walked through the campus of the University of St. Thomas to go to the Greek Festival. The beautiful campus caught the students' eyes, making them want to explore the campus and linger for a bit longer. For most, the Greek Festival was the favorite out of all the visits, which was not a surprise. Between the marketplace and the delicious food, there was something for everyone to enjoy. Some of the food the seventh graders relished were the tasty desserts and gyros. Although, there were many other foods that the seventh graders enjoyed trying out. In the market, there were variety of objects to choose from such as the Greek candy and accessories including flower headbands and sparkly fedoras. Some of the students had already attended the Greek Festival before and had looked forward to going again, but most had never been and were very eager and excited to go for the first time.


Last but certainly not least, the students attended a service at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral. There couldn't have been a better ending to the day filled with smiles and laughs. The students watched a video inside the cathedral that helped them better comprehend the religious concepts they were learning in history class. 

All of these field trips were filled with many learning experiences and very enjoyable for the students. Only our amazing teachers that the students love so much at Presbyterian could make that work! These learning and very delightful experiences will be remembered as one of the greatest highlights of seventh grade for many of the students. Thank you, Mrs. Webb, for all your hard work and generosity to organize this whole field trip.

The Sublime to the Ridiculous: 45 Minutes in the Museum District

Portrait of Isabella D'Este, Titian

I visited a 7th grade elective this week and the topics of conversation included the dangers of in-breeding to royal bloodlines as well as jousting, the fine line between entertainment and exploitation, the differences observed between the utilitarian and the ornamental and the Caravaggesque style, or chiaroscuro. This was their third class meeting.    

"When you take an art history class in high school or college," the teacher instructed the semi-circle of twelve year olds standing beside her, "you'll see this painting by Titian in your textbook.  Do not forget that in seventh grade, you stood here in front of it and it was hanging on walls that were painted this particular green." As Jeryn Mayer, MS Museum District guest teacher and PS parent, explained to the students at the major exhibition Habsburg Splendor: Masterpieces from Vienna’s Imperial Collections, this is a rare occasion for these pieces to travel outside of Austria to be accessible to us.  

 After standing in front of paintings by masters such as Caravaggio, Titian, and Velázquez and studying arms and armor, court costumes and carriages, the students went, in this case, from the sublime to the ridiculous.  On the way out of the MFAH, they playfully created their own art in the interactive installation Shadow Monsters by New York-based British artist Philip Worthington. They went from observing and contemplating art objects to fully immersing themselves in creating temporal art of their own, all within the forty-five minute 7th grade Museum District elective.

Shadow Monsters Andrea Estrada and Carson Clingman


Art at the Heart of Learning

This past Fall Lower School Art teacher, Jacqui. Chaltain, took each 3rd and 4th grade class to the MFAH to view the exhibit, Selections from the Museum’s Collection: Modern and Contemporary Art.  Students selected and photographed their favorite piece from this collection in order to reference and respond to it later in the art classroom. Upon returning to school, students created a painted response as well as a written response articulating what they felt the artist was trying to say, and how they said it through composition, scale, brushwork, or other materials.

Thirty of the student’s painting and written responses were selected by a jury for submission into the Art at the Heart of Learning exhibit at the Kinder Foundation Education Center Gallery at the MFAH. The remaining response pieces not featured at the MFAH have been chosen to be a part of the Art at the Heart of Learning Refusés Salon at Presbyterian School in Palm Court.  Both exhibits will open Sunday, February 8, 2015 with openings at 2:00 p.m. at the MFAH and 3:00 p.m. at Presbyterian School Palm Court.  The exhibits' opening receptions will celebrate our student artists and their art teacher, Ms. Chaltain.

Throughout history artistic choices have, on occasion, necessitated the emergence of new movements.  The infamous Salon des Refusés of 1863 is one such moment in art history where the establishment, the jury of the official Paris Salon, did not accept two-thirds of the paintings presented for submission.  Among these works were pieces by Whistler, Pissaro and Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l'herbe.  The works did not include subject matter, color schemes or classical techniques, which the traditional salons deemed acceptable.  Because the artists and their friends staged such a protest, the Emperor Napoleon III, sensitive to public opinion, allowed the rejected works to be displayed in another part of the Palace of Industry.  The Salon des Refusés received thousands of visitors and the critical attention legitimized the emerging avant-garde movement in painting.  What began as a rejection turned out to be the dawn of Impressionism and more widespread acceptance of new ideas and techniques. 

It is in this same spirit, that we are establishing our very own Salon des RefusésWe cherish the creativity of our students and the canvas of their future has yet to be painted.  Who are we to limit their potential? 


Click here to view an invitation to the February, 8 opening reception at the MFAH.

Posted by Mrs. Andrea Lawless in Student Involvement, Opportunity in Museum District on Wednesday January 28, 2015 at 11:42AM
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Geoff Winningham Illuminates Día de los Muertos

Sendero de maravillasPuebla (1989)

"Heaven, just heaven" this is how Professor Geoff Winningham describes the incense or "copal." Really, in my perspective, it is how he describes all of Día de Los Muertos. A few years after he first came to Mexico, he met his forever friend, Felix. Prof. Winningham sat down in a chair in Felix's home and he waited for the evening, which is when your loved ones' spirits come back to life. When it happened, Prof. Winningham said that he could feel the presence of his lost parents. "If you believe it will happen, it will." His Día de Los Muertos presentation wasn't just a speech, it was a memory to hold on to, a trip to Mexico, but most of all, to me, truly it was one of those times that makes your childhood worth remembering.

-Eve Kroencke, 5th grade 

Professor Geoff Winningham is an award-winning journalist, filmmaker and photographer based in Houston. He has taught photography at Rice University for over 45 years and has been studying Mexico and Mexican festivals for over 30 years. His photographs have been widely exhibited and collected by major museums throughout the United States and Mexico and he is the recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships and five grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Invited by Spanish teacher Eby Harvey, he came to Presbyterian School on October 22 to speak to the entire 5th Grade class as well as one section of 7th Grade Spanish.


Posted by Ms. Courtney Daniell-Knapp in Guest Artist, Student Involvement, Teacher Development on Wednesday October 29, 2014 at 01:53PM
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Glancing Back Propels us Forward

As a way to kick off the new year in Fine Arts, I put together a video for the Middle School faculty meeting of some of the highlights from last year that I had chronicled in my ipad photos and videos.  It does not include all of last year's wonderful experiences, but it represents the breadth that our arts program saw last year with the new electives program.  

Posted by Ms. Courtney Daniell-Knapp on Wednesday October 8, 2014 at 11:08AM
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Rome Meets Briton

Dr. Sadie Watson, Director of Bloomberg Roman Excavations for the City of London Museum, is in Houston as a guest speaker for the Museum of Fine Arts this week.  She generously gave her time today to speak to our sixth and seventh grade students and shared about her recent Roman excavation in London.  This was a timely talk as sixth grade students are studying about archaeology in Social Studies and seventh grade students are studying about the Fall of Rome in History.

Imagine beginning construction on a new office tower in Houston and an entire village that is several thousand years old is discovered?  That is exactly what happened in London in the spring of 2013 as a new office building was being erected.  As construction began, suddenly the streets of Roman London emerged, along with a lot of other things.  Tens of thousands of things!  The finds were amazing and the discoveries made at this huge three-acre site are changing our way of thinking about the Roman Empire and its conquest of Britain.  

Termed the Pompeii of the North because of the incredible preservation of artifacts, including the largest number of Roman shoes, the site has yielded the greatest number of Roman wax tablets ever discovered.  Found in a sort of file cabinet, these tablets reveal letters, legal documents and lists of people living in London, allowing us to know some of the names of individuals.  

Now classrooms can follow along with the discoveries made and learn about how Rome perceived the Britons and, more importantly, how the Britons felt about the Romans.  These issues of cultural identity are still important today and will be discussed in a talk that integrates with social studies requirements.  

Posted by Mrs. Andrea Lawless on Monday September 15, 2014 at 04:07PM
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Students Meet Artist Joseph Havel

By: Sara Koh, seventh grader  

On October 23, 2013, Presbyterian School seventh grade students in the Course Through the Museum District fine arts elective, had the pleasure of meeting Joseph Havel, 2013 Texas State Visual Artist 3D. Havel is the Director of the Glassell School of Art located next to the MFAH sculpture garden. Havel shared a little bit about his life and his work. 

Havel did not really think about becoming an artist when he was little.   His parents were never interested in art. However, Havel enjoyed music and dance. He played in bands and was usually the bass player. He confessed that he was not one of the best in the group. Havel started taking art classes around the same time. Later, when he decided to become an artist, his parents were disappointed. Havel shared that Dr. Seuss was one of his early influences.

Havel has studied at the University of Minnesota and Penn State University. Havel has also traveled to different places to view art exhibitions. He works in his studio almost every day starting at around 6:00 to 6:30 in the morning before he comes to work at the Glassell School of Art.

The seventh grade elective had the privilege to view three sculptures created by Havel located at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Contemporary Arts Museum. The three sculptures are called Exhaling Pearls, Curtain, and Endless. They were all primarily made of bronze.

Exhaling Pearls was a sculpture bought by the Museum of Fine Arts before Havel came to work there. It is a bronze sculpture of a thick rope he found on the beach in Galveston and of Chinese lanterns he bought in San Francisco. The idea took about three to four years while the actual making took 6 months. He wanted to make something natural out of things that were not from nature and make it seem magical.

Curtain is located at the front of the Beck Building at the Museum of Fine Arts. The curtain cloth seems soft but it is actually bronze. The art is split into two parts by the doors to enter the museum. The two sides seem like they can fit together to make one piece, but Havel actually created them separately. The bronze piece is located on top of the light tunnel.

Endless is located in the middle of a fountain. It consists of bronze books on the bottom and clear books on the top. Some of the bronze on the bottom is grey because of the water. The bottom of the fountain is purple but Havel says that was not his choice. He was given the information that it was a dark color, but apparently it was not. The daytime view looks different than the nighttime view. During the night, the bronze books are not visible so it looks like the clear books are floating. If you look closely, you can see the titles of the books.

Havel works with a group when casting bronze. The ideas are his, but he states that it is like a band. He can do one job, while the others do a different job. They do this because they have different skills. He is capable of doing the tasks but the others may be better at it.

Some artists want people to interpret a specific message from their art. Havel is not one of these artists. He believes that people should focus on the work, not the message. People can interpret any message on their own. 

Posted by Mrs. Andrea Lawless on Friday October 25, 2013 at 05:28PM
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Drama, Intrigue and Forty Minutes of Fame:First Quarter Fine Art Electives Come to an Exciting End

On October 11, 2013, there was an almost constant hum in middle school hallways.  People were abuzz with news of the culminating experiences of the first quarter fine art electives. 

Sitting on stools under the stage lights, seventh grade drama students stood, one by one, and presented monologues about school life, friendship and the importance of kindness.  Their audience, the entire fifth and sixth grades, was attentive and engaged.  After all, they already knew August, Jack Will, Summer, Via, Justin, Miranda and Mr. Tushman, who were speaking to them.  All the monologues were taken from the middle school's summer reading book, Wonder by R.D. Palacio.  The exercise of preparing the monologue was an important one.  It resulted in eighteen seventh graders knowing that they had the composure to perform in front of others and the courage to undertake the task even though it was nerve-wracking.  Even when things didn't go entirely as planned, the gift of the experience was that they saw that they were resilient.  Without damaging their implicit agreement with the audience, they learned that they could problem solve in the moment and stay "in character."

Pouring into the hallways at fifth period were twenty-nine excited eighth graders who had just witnessed or taken part in the trial of one of their classmates.  The jury was unable to reach a verdict, so a new trial date was set.  Fortunately, the trial was fictional and the very creation of the eighth grade Mock Trial participants.  This elective was a partnership with the Houston Bar Association and included the assistance of two school parents who are trial attorneys.  With the guidance of PS alumna Amelia Burt from the HBA, the students created the murder case and enacted the roles of attorneys, witnesses, bailiff, clerk and judge.  Twelve other eighth graders, randomly selected using an Ipad app, were issued a jury summons and spent the morning hearing the case.  

Once they entered the wood-paneled Harris County Court room, teenagers approached this adult scenario with unusual dignity. On the stand were an arresting officer, friend and family of the victim, employees, family of the accused, business attorney, financial advisor and the accused himself.  While the initial questioning of the witnesses by the attorneys was scripted, the cross-examination required each witness to think critically in response to the attorney's questioning.  The eighth grade attorneys were hard-nosed, but the witnesses were quick on their feet and ably handled the relentless questions.  The court room personnel were stately.  The closing statements were well-delivered.  The jury of their peers understood the gravity of their task and hotly deliberated the testimony in the jury room.  In the end, because it was a hung jury, each juror stood and explained why he or she voted the way that they did, which was important feedback for the participants.  The parents and teachers who attended praised the students collectively for their strong showing and mature comportment. 

Less dramatic but equally compelling was the Forty-Five Minute Art Exhibit that celebrated its opening and its closing all within the same hour.  The "Old School Drawing" elective spent every other day sketching in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston galleries.  Their teacher, Mrs. Cox, installed the exhibit with the help of a roll of masking tape, each drawing with small pieces of tape not entirely affixed to the walls so that the work would come down as quickly as it went up.  As the students enjoyed the refreshments at the exhibit's reception, many remarked that they couldn't believe that they actually produced that many works.  Mrs. Cox insisted that the eighth graders put down their Capri Suns and show each visitor around the exhibit, explaining their continuous line drawing and their bird study, or whatever project was their favorite.  This power-packed forty-five minutes was a wonderful way to end not only the day, filled with fine arts activities, but also the quarter, which took students to into other disciplines such as dance, film, music and even pin hole photography. 

Posted by Ms. Courtney Daniell-Knapp on Wednesday October 16, 2013
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