Heidi Upton, D.M.A.

Assistant Professor, Discover New York

City’s “Little Miracles” Kindle Students’ Social Imagination, Says Professor

The streets, storefronts and people of America’s biggest city are an endless source of inspiration for Heidi Upton, D.M.A. In her Discover New York (DNY) classes at St. John’s University, she uses those places to teach her students “to see.”

“I designed my course to help students become more awake to the world, to be aesthetically aware,” said Upton, an assistant professor. “New York is an ideal place in which to do this—it’s full of little miracles, amazing things that are happening around us all of the time.”

A popular component of St. John’s core curriculum, Discover New York uses the metropolis surrounding the University as a living textbook. Professors fashion the required course from the perspective of their own disciplines, using the city and its diversity as a lens through which students learn about the arts, business, history, politics, the sciences and other fields.

“Doing” as Well as “Seeing”

Combining the arts, technology and encounters with the city itself, Upton—a Juilliard-trained musician—developed DNYArt, a version of the course that builds “aesthetic literacy.” “I want students to do something more than to see—I also want them to ask questions of the world, to see how things fit together,” she said. “Why is this wall that color? How many meetings did it take to decide that? Building inquiry skills through aesthetic awareness encourages a sense of agency in a learner. Students may begin to see how they are citizens of a world that belongs to them, and that they have the imagination to see otherwise."

For Upton, this means “doing” as well as “seeing.” Last semester, she guided students on a walking tour of Lincoln Center, focusing on public art works including Henry Moore’s massive sculpture “Reclining Figure,” Nancy Spero’s mosaic at the 66th Street subway station and Thomas Schutte’s “United Enemies” sculpture in Central Park. She invited a photographer to speak to the class and took students to the New York Public Library, where they privately viewed pictures chronicling 100 years of New York street scenes.

With these experiences in mind, students ventured into the city themselves. They chose a neighborhood they wanted to explore and photographed their own street scenes. Upton created a wiki—a “course container”—where students posted their work.

Yet there is much more to the city’s art scene—especially theater. Last semester, she had students attend an off-off-Broadway play. Performed at a loft in lower Manhattan, the theater piece, True Hazards of Childhood, she said, is an example of “devised theater,” in which the audience helps to build and participate in the piece.

For their final project, they each created a Digication e-portfolio comprising their varied projects and a personal statement tying everything together.

A Focus on Active Learning

Upton has taken a similar approach in her Introduction to Music course. “Everybody gets slide whistles,” she said, and the students use them to create their own music. In this way, students bring the principles of composition theory to life—“they see it come together: Pitch becomes melody, beat becomes rhythm.”

Upton came to St. John’s in 2003. At the time, she was a full-time teaching artist at the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, which uses an experiential approach to learning called “aesthetic education.” A pianist who has performed with orchestras such as the St. Louis Symphony and the Kansas City Symphony, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at The Juilliard School. In 1993, she received her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Manhattan School of Music.

Being an artist as well as a teaching artist has shown Upton the value of teaching through “active learning.” “You never just stand in front of students and talk,” she said. “You shift the energy, ask them to work in a variety of ways, to create, to imagine, to own their own learning. There is nothing passive about aesthetic education.