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Principal Looks to Spur Creativity Through Artists-In-Residence Program

By Lisha Arino | October 25, 2015 9:32pm
 Nord Anglia International School, New York Principal Alan Wilkson.
Nord Anglia International School, New York Principal Alan Wilkson.
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DNAinfo/Lisha Arino

EAST VILLAGE — Earlier this year, the Nord Anglia International School, New York, introduced a new artists-in-residence program, giving a dozen area artists of various disciplines studio space on the fifth floor of the school.

The program would be a way for the school to use the top floor of the East Second Street building, said Principal Alan Wilkinson, who also thought it would be "good for the community at large."

“I just thought, ‘It must have an impact on what happens in the school,’” he said, explaining that the school’s arrangement with the artists is a loose one that does not require them to teach classes.

The program isn’t the only thing that makes the private school a little different from others in the neighborhood.

Students are taught using the International Primary Curriculum, described as “a topic-focused learning approach” based on the English National Curriculum used by schools in England, according to the school’s website.

The system is slightly different from the American educational system most parents at the school are used to, Wilkinson said, and Nord Anglia's curriculum focuses on more individualized study.

Wilkinson, who was born and raised in England, began his education career about 14 years ago, after spending 10 years as an investigator for British Telecommunications, one of the largest telecommunications providers in the United Kingdom. He also hosted TV shows in Europe and dabbled in improv and standup comedy before becoming a teacher, he said.

“I kind of felt like education really mattered and it was something that you dedicate yourself to,” Wilkinson said.

He began his teaching career in Liverpool, England, before moving to Abu Dhabi to work at an international school. He then joined the Nord Anglia Education network — which has more than 40 schools around the world — teaching in Budapest and then back in Abu Dhabi, before becoming a principal in the East Village school, which teaches 150 students who are 2 to 8 years old.

Wilkinson sat with DNAinfo to talk about the artists-in-residence program as well as his approach to education. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How does the school's education model work?

The impression that I’ve got is that we seem to have an early academic offer. They seem to be surprised the level of maths and English that our children are doing early. Now our curriculum — and obviously you adapt the curricula, etc. — but the English National Curriculum we start from birth. We have a set of criteria to judge children by from that age.

So apparently what [Americans] do with young children is get them ready for school and it’s a social exercise, but it appears we do quite early literacy and numeracy beside your American counterparts.

The teachers up there are the resource and it’s driven more by the children. All those kids are unique and so not every child necessarily is going to go down that line and be a comprehensive reader at an early age but you kind of find out what they like as individuals and…we do something very individualized.

My favorite teachers are the ones where when I come into the classroom, I struggle to find them. They’re not in front of their class, that’s not really us. We’re there with children perpetually, it’s more of a workshop feel.

I think every education system has its merits and there comes a point where your clever children are doing really well.

Why did you decide to start an artists-in-residence program?

The No. 1 skill that people are perpetually touting is creativity. I think a lot of people are challenged, really, about how to incorporate that. No one’s written a continuum, so how do you start to be creative?

I’m sure a lot of it is exposure plus your DNA, so it just struck me, in the schools I’ve been in, that you see art, et cetera, but the boundaries are too great for teachers. We’re jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none. And so I just felt that to actually bring artists in is just going to take you to a new level, in terms of the kind of the work the children are able to do — we’re seeing examples that — but also that artists aren’t some rarefied [people]. You can be an artist. If you’re good at art, maybe that’s your future.

I think most people feel art is, it’s something a bit alien, it’s what other people do and you starve in the garrets or something like that. That’s not necessarily the case. So I just thought to expose children to artists.

I just felt it was more than an art lesson, it was more about creativity.

How do artists give back?

Some give back directly. They’ll do things with children if they feel comfortable. Some with work with teachers. Some will assist us with our community initiatives. Some paint things on the walls and make the place unique and beautiful.

It sounds like your school's approach focuses on more than just about learning facts or being able to do math.

Absolutely not. If I could go for the No. 1 skill, it would emotional intelligence. Because, I mean, you want to be happy and good to people, the rest will be as OK.

You worked a few different jobs before you began teaching. What’s your advice for people who may also want to switch careers and enter education?

I think it’s entirely about relationships. Make that your key ingredient because every child you encounter is unique and you should do your utmost to get to know those individuals, and you might be successful.