Q&A with Ryan Lilienthal, Middle School Art Teacher, Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart

Interview by Taylor Smith | Photographs courtesy of Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart

What subject matter do you teach at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart and what initially attracted you to the school?

I teach Middle School art at Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, which includes grades 5 through 8. I first learned about Princeton Academy as the parent of a prospective student over nine years ago. My wife and I were looking for a school that prioritized individualized attention while embracing each student as part of a community. We were particularly concerned about our middle son, who didn’t receive teacher attention as a quiet and well-behaved student. As parents of boys, we wondered whether an all-boys environment would resonate with our son’s personality. So, we took the plunge.

Within a short period, our son transformed from the boy in the background at his earlier school, to a Princeton Academy student, who, like the other students, confidently participated in the full range of school activities including assemblies, which at times involved speaking as a second grader in front of the entire Lower School. This set the pace for his entire Princeton Academy experience where he found his footing, particularly in musical drama. He graduated one year ago, and, as a student at Princeton High School, has independently sought out singing and acting opportunities through off-Broadway youth programs in New York City and in summer programs, where he’s been fortunate enough to have leading roles. The presence and poise he projects on stage reflect the person Princeton Academy helped him to become.

It is this personal experience as a parent that attracted me to the Princeton Academy community as an educator.

Describe your career prior to entering the world of teaching.

For the past 25 years, I have worked professionally in the public policy and legal worlds. I believe the crux of my responsibilities in these worlds, and certainly the function I have enjoyed most, is teaching. To be sure, I had intended to become a teacher out of college but followed a unique opportunity that took me to Washington, D.C. and into the work of social justice. Remarkably enough, it is my passion for visual art that has brought me full circle.

A friend, knowing my passion for painting, which stems from the many fine art courses I have taken over the years (including the numerous ones at The Boston Museum School I took while a religious studies major at Tufts University), introduced me to local Princeton artist, Heather Barros, who taught night classes for adults at, of all places, Princeton Academy. Heather, a gifted painter and teacher, first welcomed me as a student, and then as a squatter by carving out some of her studio space for me to use. As I began to spend more time painting (and less lawyering) with a growing number of commissions, I eventually rented my own studio from Princeton Academy — a convenient location for a Princeton Academy parent. When Gail Morford, who built the Art Program at Princeton Academy, retired last winter, I threw my hat in the ring and applied for the new opening.

Why are the visual arts such a key element to the development of Princeton Academy boys’ learning experience?

In my view, the visual arts program nurtures, among other traits, a student’s attention to see, to imagine, and to express. These qualities mirror Princeton Academy’s objective to cultivate creative, compassionate, and courageous young men. It may seem obvious, but an essential purpose of visual arts is to see. So often we make assumptions about what we are looking at. In art, we challenge students to carefully and honestly look at a subject. The process can be uniquely meditative and through drawing, painting or sculpting, we develop skills to see a subject for what it is and look beyond our assumptions. This quality equally applies to the development of compassion, seeing the fullness of others, and appreciating their unique experience. Imagination, of course, is a cornerstone of the creative arts and is what allows us to grow as innovators. Expression involves taking risks and courage to share with the world outside of ourselves something that comes from within. In this context, art can provide an environment that welcomes failure, which is a cornerstone of risk-taking and personal growth.

Can you give some examples of the ways in which the visual arts translate to other subject matters?

The same type of welcoming environment Princeton Academy builds for its boys, it also builds for its faculty. This is reflected in the faculty’s collaborative spirit. No sooner had I hit the ground running as a new teacher that I also found myself part of a collaborative team including the Middle School science teacher and curriculum coordinator, the director of technology, and the Lower School art and makerspace teacher. Just as we’ve been working together to synthesize and expand our art and technology curriculum, I have also been collaborating with other teachers to use Princeton Academy’s Art Program to amplify teaching content in other areas such as science and social studies. For example, students may build Rube Goldberg devices in art as part of understanding energy transfer being taught in science. In addition, students may use filmmaking as part of exploring historical narrative in social studies.

How does “design thinking” shape your curriculum?

One current teaching innovation is reflected in “design thinking” trends. A fairly recent and seminal book, LAUNCH: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out The Maker in Every Student, by John Spencer and A.J. Julian (2016), defines design thinking as “a way of solving problems that encourages positive risk-taking and creativity.” The L.A.U.N.C.H. cycle described in the book lays out a process in which students actively engage in developing the program of their own learning, as creators and not just consumers of educational content (and context). This approach presents a huge opportunity to transform the art experience into a maker experience. In practical terms, this means identifying the skills students want or need to learn to problem-solve in response to a prompt, rather than just being taught skills out of context.

In what ways is Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart pushing the definitions of visual arts and graphic design?

In the spirit of design thinking, and with the intent to develop an environment that cultivates seeing, imagination, and expression, Princeton Academy’s Art Program is more than just learning fine art or visual art skills, but about creating a space where students can explore tools of visual art and communication as vehicles for understanding the world around them. In turn, our hope is that they will use their creativity, compassion, and courage to make the world a better place.