I’ve always been drawn to small schools. There is a certain power that resides in a small community where teachers and staff are wholly devoted to their children, and know them deeply. There is magic in a school where each child is known by every other individual; where an institution can remain nimble to adapt to meet any challenges, and where the passions and talents of groups can be mobilized for the greater good. I truly believe that the close-knit community and sense of connection that The Learning Project experiences is irreplicable in larger settings. At 118 students, The LP is, indeed, small – even among small schools. We are uniquely, intentionally small because we know that there is power in being so.
On July 1, 2023, an exhibit opened at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, called, “Tiny Treasures: The Magic of Miniatures.” The name itself caught my interest, as I often talk about The LP as a ‘hidden treasure’ and the ‘magic’ that exists within its walls. I simply had to see it and, at long last, I finally had an opportunity to visit last weekend. I was not only struck by the beauty and magnificence of the pieces, but also of the parallels that I continued to draw between the artwork (both the creation processes as well as the final products), and the qualities and elements that schools like The LP possess.
Small Size Can Lead to Big Impact
I was overwhelmed by the intricate nature of the artworks. There is an inherent richness to the pieces, given how far distilled they are from their larger counterparts. As was described through the curators, some artists work in miniature because it’s practical – they require less raw materials, for example – but creating works on such a small scale is not any easier than doing so on a larger scale. In fact, in most cases, it can be more challenging. But the results are worth the pursuit, and are often prized due to the level of craftsmanship and the power of the work in their distilled form.
I have often found the same to be true at The Learning Project – working on a smaller scale doesn’t mean that The LP is any easier to operate. In fact, our school does an inordinate amount each year, from the delivery of a quality educational program that meets the needs of its diverse learners, to community service projects to parent education events to alumni engagement opportunities – the results of which simply defy the scale of a school that operates with just 118 students. Like these Tiny Treasures that transcend and defy categorization to bring deeper meaning – The Learning Project is more than just a school.
The Learning Project’s Mission Statement says, “We are small in order to ensure a close and
personal relationship between each child and teacher, to be a school that is of a ‘manageable’
scale for elementary aged children, and to be a place where children of different ages feel safe in their environment and have opportunities to teach, learn and socialize across age lines.” This idea of being of a ‘manageable scale’ was echoed in a number of pieces throughout Tiny Treasures - in a minute calendar that took something as vast as a year and its seasons, and compressed it down so far that it could fit on a series of one-inch square pages, and able to be worn on a belt in medieval times; in a small, Japanese ink drawing that depicted the time-honored tradition of bonsai – the practice of cultivating small trees in pots through care, attention and skill. As MFA curators state, “A forest or even a full size tree may be impossible to cultivate with perfect control, but a small, perfectly designed garden or a bonsai tree only one to two feet tall allows (people) to tame a sliver of the natural world.” That is, small size can make things more manageable for those involved, allowing a tailored, meticulous approach, and can yield results that are simply impossible to replicate when dealing with “A forest or even a full size tree…”
Embracing the Dichotomy
As I state in my Head’s Letter posted on the school’s website, “While The Learning Project emphasizes academic excellence, it is balanced equally by our focus on character, on our celebration of differences and our commitment to nurturing the social-emotional lives of our children. None of this is mutually exclusive, and we honor this integrated approach to education, allowing children to strive for their academic potential while also teaching the value of mistakes; by working hard each day while also engaging in laughter and cultivating joy; by being logical and analytical, while also taking time to wonder and create; and by recognizing the self, while remaining deeply connected to those around us.” This idea of contrasting ideologies and approaches is what we’ve often referred to as The LP Dichotomy. We embrace both sides of the equation, and, while we maintain a certain level of simplicity as a school, we also know that there’s a richness within that simplistic cover.
Tiny Treasures beautifully demonstrates such a dichotomy. While each artwork exhibits a seriousness of skill, they innately possess, also, a beautiful element of whimsy. A balance of purpose and joy. There is also both a simplicity and an elegance to their existence, and standing before these remarkable works left me in wonder; the same wonder that I experience each day working at, and observing in action, the power of small schools like The Learning Project. By enrolling a small, diverse group of children, by hiring passionate educators who care deeply about the school’s Mission and bring joy to their work, and by building a sense of connection among its community members, both the creation process and the final products are truly works of art.
“Tiny Treasures: The Magic of Miniatures” runs at the MFA from July 1, 2023–February 11, 2024.