GSB Unit – Lessons from the first 45 years

This is the second part of a series about the Gill St. Bernard’s School unit, a travel and experiential learning program that the school founded in the early 1970s.
Last year, when Patrick Reilly ‘16 learned that an upcoming Gill Unit featured “art and adventure” in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he didn’t hesitate to sign up for the trip. At that time, his chief interest was the adventure; hiking, horseback riding and white-water rafting drew him in.
 
As he explored galleries and museums during the two-week excursion out West, however, something inside sparked. “We were given sketch books and asked to draw what we saw during the day, whatever caught your eye,” he says. “One night I couldn’t sleep and I stayed up drawing. It was very peaceful.” That evening, he sketched a chapel that he had seen downtown, a painting from a museum and the desert scenery surrounding him.
 
Because of his experience on the Santa Fe unit, Reilly plans to enroll in drawing and painting classes this year. What’s more, he has found himself sketching at home. While his experience is heartening, it is not unusual: after exploring new places and cultures through the unit program, many students discover interests and even shift their academic focus or consider new career paths.
 
Santa Fe was a natural choice for a unit about art, according to Margery Schiesswohl, ninth grade dean and performing arts teacher who served as one of four chaperones on the trip. “It has a rich, multicultural heritage and has served as a haven for many artists, including painter Georgia O’Keefe and photographer Eliot Porter,” she said. In addition, Santa Fe houses more than 200 galleries and a dozen museums, as well as its Artists Market, which features work by local artists.
 
On the trip, the students immersed themselves in the Santa Fe art scene. They visited Meow Wolf Art Complex, self-described as “a unique combination of children’s museum, art gallery, jungle gym, and fantasy novel,” which features the work of more than 100 local artisans. The group also spent a few nights at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where Georgia O’Keefe lived in her later life. There, students were able to reference her paintings and view the scenery that inspired them. One day was spent hiking to a geological site with a local artist, who pointed out petroglyphs that Native Americans carved into rocks. Later, inside her studio, the artist taught students how to create their own engravings using watercolors and sand.
 
“There were a lot of adventures; part of the experience was to challenge yourself,” said Schiesswohl. One hike, she recalls, had a particularly difficult terrain, requiring hikers to climb over large rocks. “It was tough to navigate, and one girl, a writer, later said, ‘It’s not my thing,’ and I told her, ‘You did it. Someday you’ll write about a character who overcomes an obstacle, and you’ll have this experience to draw upon.’”
 
For Helena Digney ’18, the inspiration she felt in the Santa Fe Artists Market has stayed with her. “I got to talk one-on-one with the artists about the techniques they used and what art means to them,” she says. “I bought a watercolor, and the artist told me how she did it, step by step. It was a unique experience that you can’t get going to a museum or reading a book.” As a result of the trip, Digney has become interested in art and plans to make it a part of her life. “I took a lot of pictures,” she said. “When I came back, I painted some scenes from the photos. One was from a hike our first day at Ghost Ranch. Being there felt like nothing else existed in that moment. It felt like you could touch the clear blue skies above. How could that not inspire the artist in you?”
 
Schiesswohl called the trip a true learning experience, where the students created beautiful art and adapted to new situations. “It’s wonderful to see the students in a new environment and get to know them on another other level.”
Reflecting the school’s motto, the world is our classroom, the Unit offers experiential learning opportunities locally, throughout the US and internationally. Held each May, the two-week program encourages students to explore projects outside of the school’s regular academic curriculum. Although the programs vary from year to year in response to student interests and world events, every Unit program has key factors in common.
 
For more than 40 years, the Unit has enabled students to expand their knowledge and skills by applying them in new ways and through new experiences. Whether regionally or internationally, students discover connections to new environments and between their own lives and the lives of others. An essential part of GSB’s curriculum, the Unit challenges students to think critically, to offer the best of themselves, and to cooperate with others in learning and doing. The Unit celebrates the educated imagination and the capacity in each person to see endless possibilities in the shared world.
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a vigorous, meaningful and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.