Beginning with the Brennan Family Innovation Center, Holy Ghost Prep has begun converting the northeast wing of Cornwells Hall into a STEM Tower to ensure that the school remains at the forefront of innovation in science and technology well into the 21st century.
But what Karen Smallen, Holy Ghost’s art teacher for the past 26 years, has been doing with her students in the art studio right next door is a good reminder that the STEM Tower will not be the only space on campus where innovation is happening.
Smallen has been emphasizing 21st century learning skills such as collaboration and creative problem solving in her art studio classes for some time now. “I bring to them the idea that you must think,” Smallen says, “but you have to think in another way. In math, one and one is two. It has to be two. But here, it can be three. When I went to high school, we were taught to memorize. Here, we teach you how to think.”
Making art helps adolescent boys in ways beyond creating something meaningful, Smallen believes. It also allows them to be more vulnerable emotionally, something that she thinks is especially important at an all-male environment like Holy Ghost. “They’re willing to be brave,” she says, “they’re willing to express themselves, because it’s an all-male school.”
It’s a contradiction of an idea that some might have of the all-boys school as a place full of sports-obsessed alpha males. “There’s a connection that boys are willing to make to art at an all-male school that they wouldn’t if there were girls around,” Smallen says. “These boys discover a part of themselves that they might not be able to do otherwise.”
Smallen loves teaching at Holy Ghost. “It’s a very active job,” she says, “a physically and emotionally active job. And no two classes are the same. No two days are the same. There is no boredom factor here.” She cites with pride the number of students who have gone on to become art majors in college, not to mention landscape architects, graphic designers, and commercial artists in their careers after college. And she loves the moments when parents walk into her art gallery, see their sons’ work on the walls, and tell her, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea he was capable of doing this.”
None of that success would have been possible, Smallen acknowledges, without Holy Ghost’s commitment to the arts, a commitment that was sealed for her when the school converted what was once its library into the current art gallery and studio in 1999.
“This,” she says, gesturing to the studio behind her, where absorbed students work independently to complete projects that are meaningful to them, “is more than I ever could have predicted 26 years ago. This space is exciting to the students. It is conducive to the arts. This space says that this school cares that its students pursue the arts at Holy Ghost Prep.”
Under Smallen’s guidance, the gallery and studio will undoubtedly be a space that produces not just innovation, but meaningful work created by actively engaged students, for years to come.