First published in the Sept. 30 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
In today’s society, which is often driven at breakneck speed by social media, San Marino High School’s Honors Humanities Seminar seems a welcome anomaly.
After all, it involves teenagers who have flocked to enroll in a class that requires students to trek to a staid museum where they are asked to keep their voices low and minds wide open.
The genesis of the class occurred during a meeting between Alex Cherniss, then superintendent of the San Marino Unified School District, and officials at the Huntington Library, Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens, just a few weeks after Cherniss took over in July 2015.
“We were talking about a partnership between the school district and I thought, ‘Why not a class?’” Cherniss recalled. “I relayed the idea to then-Principal Mary Johnson and she and her staff did the rest of the work. I think it’s a great addition to our curriculum.”
Add students to that list of admirers. Now in its sixth year, the Honors Humanities Seminar is still a sought-after course offering.
“The class is very popular, and we often have to ask juniors who are interested to delay taking the class to make room for seniors that want to take it,” said Michelle Pauline, an art teacher at SMHS who has contributed to teaching the class since its inception. “The numbers for the course can’t go too high, because we can only have so many students in the galleries at one time, and with 26 we are already pretty much at capacity.”
The seminar is a reading- and writing-intensive course with a distinct focus on the study of art and literature. Students read, analyze and discuss various works of literature and art from the collected works of the Huntington and develop a portfolio to showcase the art they create throughout the course. Students meet daily and discuss this intersection of literature and the visual arts as they relate to the Huntington and its collections.
Once every two weeks, however, the class boards a bus at lunchtime and heads to the famed San Marino institution itself, where their tour is geared to that week’s assignment. Pauline and English teacher Kellie Hicks collaborate on the syllabus and determine what exhibits will be visited, in accordance with Huntington staff members’ guidance. The course concludes with a student-produced gallery show.
In addition to regular visits, the class is given one tour by a member of the Huntington’s education department and one longer tour with a curator every quarter. At the Huntington, students will usually start with a warmup activity that often includes sketching in the gardens, reading a poem or a mindfulness activity. They spend most of their time in a single location analyzing art or performing an activity in the garden.
“We spend a lot of time outdoors during our landscape unit,” said Hicks. “Literally every visit is different, and our lessons are sometimes dependent on the weather and what’s on display.”
Back in the classroom, students spend one day a week in the art room dedicated to the creation of art. The other three to four days are extension activities, which include analyzing art, literature, music, theater or dance connected to the theme of the quarter. Currently, students are working on “Zeitgeist: Addressing the Moment.”
“My role is to create activities for the classroom days that complement the work students are doing in the art room and at the Huntington,” said Hicks. “Basically, rounding out the curriculum and making sure everything feels cohesive, yet individually connected to the quarter theme.”
Hicks said the primary benefit of the class is that “students have the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary discussions, activities and thinking in a way that most high school students don’t have access to until they are in a university setting.”
“For example, in one class period they may sketch a piece of art, discuss the social and historical context in which it was created, examine the science behind its conservation or construction, and write a detailed analysis or creative writing inspired by the piece. This, in addition to our access to curator-led tours, makes the course truly one of a kind.”
“Our students get to learn outside of the classroom, and the Huntington’s collection is a perfect place to experience a variety of human expressions,” Pauline added. “We always envisioned the class as a collaboration between English and art as well as with the Huntington’s collections. From there, it’s different from year to year. Our curriculum shifts every year according to the changes in the collections at the Huntington. This makes the course a living, breathing thing in itself.”
The seminar is having a distinct impact on those who matter most: the students.
“This is one of the few classes I really enjoy because it combines art and literature, both of which are full of creative expression,” said senior Janette Fu. “I probably won’t be studying the arts in college, but I will try and take some art classes in college because I really like what we do in this class.”
Fu most enjoys the occasional trips to the Huntington’s revered Japanese Garden.
“The environment is so serene, and there’s just something there that you can’t find anywhere else,” she said.
Junior David Jiang agrees.
“We get to learn about art at a deeper level and learn about the meaning and history of a piece of art,” said Jiang, who enjoys the “zeitgeist” motif. “We look at art pieces that reflect their period of time, and we get to create our own zeitgeist pieces.” Ziang was also impressed by Gainsborough’s iconic portrait “The Blue Boy,” which the class recently scrutinized.
Senior Gabriela Salim said the class encourages a focus on her fellow students as well as the world around her.
“I think students often believe that what they are learning in school has no application to their real lives,” she said. “This class teaches students about self-care, how to wind down, and that it is OK to take a break. High school students are a group of teenagers who are balancing learning how to become adults at the same time they are working their hardest every day in order to keep up their grades for college. This age is most important to teach students how to correctly take care of themselves during times of stress and pressure.”
Senior Anya Tang finds a similar benefit in the class.
“My absolute favorite part of the Huntington is being able to lose myself in the art and the gardens,” she said. “School is incredibly stressful, but when we visit the Huntington, I can get away from my worries for a while and simply appreciate the beauty that surrounds me.”
In order to take the class, Tang had to submit an art portfolio.
“I had never taken an art class or seriously made art before,” she said. “I ended up making five collages for my portfolio, and while I definitely had to step out of my comfort zone to create them, I was proud of myself for taking that risk. It felt very freeing to express my emotions and explore my creativity through art. I love those collages because I know I put so much of myself into them.”
Tang also appreciates the immersive nature of the class.
“It has taught me to see art in a completely different light,” she said. “Ms. Pauline and Ms. Hicks encourage us to get as close to a piece as possible and thoroughly examine all the details for as long as we can. This practice has helped me appreciate the tremendous amount of thought and effort that artists put into their work, and I’ve realized that even seemingly simple pieces have big stories to tell.
“My favorite part of the class is when we have art curators and critics visit and present specially chosen works of art to us. I love hearing about the life of the artist and the history behind each piece, because understanding the context of art helps me feel much more connected to it.”
It’s not just the students who are impressed. Educators are also taking notice. In 2017, the Honors Humanities Seminar won the prestigious Golden Bell Award, which recognizes outstanding programs and governance practices of school boards in school districts and county offices of education throughout California. It is sponsored by the California School Boards Association and has been in existence for more than 40 years.
The seminar won in the category of Community Schools Through Partnerships and Collaboration for high schools.
Pauline said that winning the Golden Bell was the biggest success story in the history of the class, but she would be wise to add more space on the trophy shelf.