Maine/Malawi/Helsinki

Art in education triangle

By Dagney C. Ernest | Jan 16, 2019
Courtesy of: Argy Nestor The Meilahti Comprehensive School has a focus on visual arts, digital arts and the Chinese language (one of seven studied there). Argy Nestor took this photo during her visit to the age 13-15 school.

A week before Midcoast Maine was pounded by the season’s first snowstorm, Hope’s Lindsay Pinchbeck and Union’s Argy Nestor headed into serious winter, flying to Finland for the invitational HundrED Innovation Summit in Helsinki. They attended as HundrED Ambassadors, based in part on their work in a place that never sees snow — the African nation of Malawi.

Pinchbeck is director of Sweet Tree Arts and founder of Sweetland School in Hope. Nestor is the director of arts education at the Maine Arts Commission. The last time they traveled such a distance, they were headed to a small village in Malawi to work with teachers at its primary school.

“We were welcomed into a community and provided professional development in arts integration, including drama, music, movement, poetry, storytelling and visual arts. The work continues; workshops are offered annually by visiting U.S. and Malawian teachers experienced in the arts,” Pinchbeck said.

The community the women encountered in Finland came from all around the globe, united by a belief in child-centered K-12 education and the necessity of improving education worldwide for this challenging century. According to the nonprofit organization’s website, HundrED was born of the notion that in a world becoming increasingly connected and globalized, education can still be very local and isolated in its practices. But it didn’t feel isolated in the Scape Tennispalatsi, where the summit’s opening was held.

“So we're all in this giant performing arts space and there's all this excitement! And they had a few of the innovators present in two- or three-minute slots and the energy was just amazing,” said Nestor, who had traveled with her son to Finland a day or so before the summit began.

Pinchbeck also said she found the experience inspiring, a celebration of the wonderful things people are doing all around the world to transform children’s education.

“It was just such a positive community building around really exciting work that was happening globally,” she said.

Perhaps to reflect HundrED’s goal of sharing education strategies that are not only innovative but also scalable, the summit’s buzzword was “humblitious,” which Pinchbeck recognized as quintessentially Finnish and yet broader in its embrace.

“They have this amazing balance of focusing on what's important, but looking ahead and seeing the big picture,” she said. “Mind, body and soul were incorporated so beautifully into their work and how they wanted to support children to succeed in their community.”

Putting people first has got to be the priority, Pinchbeck added. “Humans are our biggest resource!”

While not every educator has the opportunity to travel abroad, all have access to the annual HundrED report of 100 inspiring innovations in K-12 education. All the presentations at the November summit in Helsinki, as well as the report, are on the nonprofit’s website, hundred.org/en, and Nestor has been making it a mission to get people to check them out — especially people she is working with in the Maine Arts Leadership Commission.

“It directly connects to everything we do and talk about. We want people to be excited about education and be innovative and think differently — and about how do we engage and move kids to the center of their learning and empower them, as well as teachers,” she said.

Nestor saw that empowerment firsthand during a pre-summit visit to a Helsinki middle school. Not only did the school’s students represent a wide variety of nationalities, a large number of them identified as special needs children.

“And those kids were totally fine in that environment. They were respected, their voices were heard, they were getting the support they needed so they can be successful,” Nestor said.

That success — “to help every child flourish, no matter what happens in life” — is the HundrED manifesto, which goes on to say, “… In a fast changing world focusing on traditional academic skills will remain important, but that is not enough. To thrive as global citizens, children must be equipped with a breadth of skills.”

The work that Nestor and Pinchbeck are doing in Malawi has focused of late on sewing skills — using treadle machines, as the village has no electricity. Their hope is, in 2020, to facilitate a professional development conference by and for Malawaian teachers in the region.

“We're committed to the program for five years, to help the teachers there by sending them professional development opportunities,” said Pinchbeck.

One such opportunity will be a residency this summer by Ian Bannon, director of education for Maine’s Figures of Speech Theatre. Bannon has worked in the past with the Island Institute, on Maine’s islands.

“He does this whole filmmaking thing, really dynamic! And he takes the whole environment in and outside of school and transforms it! So he's scheduled to go in July,” Nestor said.

At the summit in Finland, the women met people who are working at a Malawian high school some four hours away from their remote village, a place with many more resources.

“This is where it's getting exciting, where we met folks who have a project in a different town,” said Pinchbeck. “So we are thinking that could be a site for the conference, which is very much just in the works. But the collaboration one way or another and sharing ideas back and forth between these two schools is exciting, even at this point.”

Both women have written posts about their experiences in Finland, which may be read on the Maine Arts Ed blog at meartsed.wordpress.com. They plan a community/educators talk at Sweet Tree Thursday, Jan. 31, at 6:30 p.m. For more information about their Education Connection work in the primary school of Mpamila and surrounding villages, visit go-malawi.org.

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