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Alive and Breathing: Reflections on Picture Study at SCCS

By Emily Hough

© Emily Hough, 2019

Imagine, just for a moment, that you are halfway into a stressful work week. You have a deadline fast-approaching, multiple people emailing you with a variety of needs, a presentation to prepare before a room full of people, a meeting with your boss in an hour, and…you are exhausted. You find yourself thanking God that it is finally Friday, only to realize that it is actually Wednesday morning.

Now, take a deep breath and imagine that someone tells you to relax and leads you into a comfortable room where there is plenty of natural light, soft chairs and pillows, beautiful art on the walls, and calming colors. There is classical music playing quietly on a speaker, a candle giving a subtle, refreshing scent, and a cool breeze blowing the curtains just enough to make you feel…alive. This room, you find, makes you stop, think, breathe. You feel your muscles relax, your teeth unclench, and your shoulders go back to their normal position. Maybe you find yourself standing a bit straighter. Perhaps a smile even tugs at the corners of your mouth. The simple act of stepping into this room has just transported you out of a stressful work week and into a space where you can immediately appreciate the beauty that is now surrounding you.

Now imagine that someone brings you a richly-colored, large reproduction of Luncheon of the Boating Party, a painting done by Pierre Auguste Renoir in 1881, and asks you to sit quietly and stare at this painting for five minutes. You think to yourself: “I get to stop working and stare at a beautiful work of art in this lovely room for five whole minutes?!” And it gets better: nothing will interrupt you for the next twenty minutes. No phone calls, check-ins, people needing things from you, or deadlines looming. Time has just…stopped. And it has stopped not for any complicated, alarming reason. It has stopped simply so that you can focus on something beautiful for a short amount of time. It has stopped so that you can appreciate your surroundings and breathe in the beauty in front of you. Now, imagine that you were given the opportunity to do this every week. If you are a student at SCCS, this is your reality. This is Picture Study.

© Emily Hough, 2019

Every week, students at South City Community School participate in an inspirational study as part of our school’s Charlotte Mason curriculum. These studies can be either Picture Study (closely observing a masterpiece by a great artist), Composer Study (listening to a classical music composition by a great composer), or Nature Study (making a watercolor replica of an object found in nature). Taking time for each of these on a regular basis is an integral part of the preschool through eighth grade curriculum. As a Charlotte Mason educator, I am often asked why we do Picture Study or Composer Study during regular class instruction time (wouldn’t that be a part of art or music classes?) and I absolutely love the answer I am able to give: We study these things because they are beautiful. At SCCS we have the gift of being able to study something simply because it is beautiful. Charlotte Mason said, “We cannot measure the influence that one or another artist has upon the child’s sense of beauty, upon his power of seeing, as in a picture, the common sights of life; he is enriched more than we know in having really looked at even a single picture.” And with this knowledge we form part of our curriculum around things that are not merely educational, but inherently beautiful.

We choose to make time to study a painting and narrate because it is beautiful, but there are also many benefits that come with this. By taking time to look closely at a work of art, or listen carefully to a musical composition, children are also exercising the power of attention, a character quality that will serve them well in other academic areas. We also make time to learn about the artist’s life and follow up with rich, lively conversations. Taking time out of a busy week (think back to the image of mid-week exhaustion that we all are familiar with!) to focus on something beautiful allows us to reset our minds and bodies in a way nothing else can. In my classroom at SCCS, our mid-week Picture Study often feels like the lifeboat that takes us all the way to Friday.

When I was a child the Lord put a desire to teach young children in my heart. As a young adult just out of college, I began working at a well-respected public elementary school in Indiana. I thought I would be fulfilling my lifelong dream. In this public school classroom setting, sitting down to do something like Picture Study with children would have been the stuff of dreams– like really, really far away dreams. Taking time to do something like this with my students in a public school classroom would have been completely unattainable, even laughable. Tests and scores, data, twelve-minute recesses, and classrooms with over twenty-five students all combined to create an environment that did not give me a chance to catch my breath. What soon occurred to me was that if I could not catch my breath, there was no possible way that my students would have a chance to catch theirs. And this broke my heart.

© Emily Hough, 2019

I began praying about how I could make some changes. I assumed the changes I was praying for would be local, but God is funny, and I had no idea then where those changes would actually lead me. Through a friend who was a teacher at SCCS, I received an invitation to come visit the school. She said, “It’s a Charlotte Mason school. It’s exactly what you need.” Two years passed, but I finally came to visit SCCS on a cold, wet January day. When I walked through the front doors, I immediately stopped. No one was with me at that moment—I had only just been buzzed in. But there in the entryway of the SCCS building, facing a neutral-colored banner on display that said, “I am, I can, I ought, I will,” something deep inside me stirred. I walked up a set of stairs and as soon as I reached the second floor, something changed—something clicked, or sunk in. Call it whatever you want, but I sensed that something was different about this school. I spent the day shadowing in my friend’s first grade classroom. As the day passed, I eventually said to her, “I know what it is! These kids are breathing!” Only a fellow lover-of-all-things-teaching would not have laughed at that comment. To my heart’s delight, her response was, “I know. Isn’t it amazing?”

Out of all the many things we did in that first-grade classroom those years ago, the thing that still stands out in my memory without any sign of fading is none other than Picture Study. This classroom had plenty of natural light, comfortable chairs and pillows, beautiful art on the walls, and calming colors all around. There was quiet, classical music playing on a speaker, a candle giving off a subtle, refreshing scent, and a cool breeze blowing the curtains just enough to make me feel alive. This room made me stop, think, breathe. The simple act of stepping into this room transported me out of the stress of my “teaching job” and into a space where I was able to immediately appreciate the beauty that was now surrounding me. As I listened to my friend begin a discussion with her students on Van Gogh and tack a large, richly-colored reproduction of Starry Night onto the whiteboard, I looked at the kids and I was hooked. These students were in the moment. They were paying attention. They were feeling the magic in what they were learning. And there it was: I had found my community and the missing piece I had been looking for. I had discovered a little corner of the world where I instinctively felt my dream of teaching could finally be realized. I had found Picture Study.

I had found SCCS.

© Emily Hough, 2019

Emily Hough teaches third grade at South City Community School.