For Lesa Wang, returning to Dwight where she had taught early in her career, was like coming full circle. She brought back a wealth of experience gained over the intervening three decades to her roles as Head of Design and Director of Global Spark Programs. She also brought her unbridled passion for inspiring students as artists, designers, entrepreneurs, and engineers – and a commitment to instill creative confidence.
We sat down with Ms. Wang to learn about her own educational journey and how she designs innovative learning experiences for our students.
What was your path to education?
Growing up in a suburb of Minneapolis, I spent lots of time with younger children, babysitting, and creating programs for kids, so my path to becoming an educator began very early, though I didn’t know it then. My dream was to become a designer, and because my parents wanted me to also get a liberal arts education, I went to the University of Wisconsin for communication design. After attending a summer program at Parsons and falling in love with New York, I transferred to Pratt in Brooklyn.
At Pratt, I explored so many things – printmaking, photography, communication, fashion design – and learned by doing, which became a hallmark for me. I started teaching art on Saturdays and rediscovered how much I really loved being around kids, so I majored in art education. By the end of my senior year, I had had just one interview – at the Anglo-American International School [which joined with Dwight the following year, 1993] – and was hired on graduation day. It was great to walk down the aisle to accept my diploma knowing that a teaching job was waiting for me.
What was your first full-time teaching job like?
Anglo-American was a very small school with one class per grade. After just one year, the Head of Visual Arts announced that she was leaving and recommended that I take her place, which was quite something because I was just 23 years old! The following year, Anglo and Dwight joined and all of the visual and performing arts teachers came under my wing. It was certainly a different time and a different school back then.
I taught IB Visual Arts and what immediately connected me to it was that students had to model what professional artists do in the real world, such as develop a theme for a show, produce a gallery’s worth of work, and be critiqued. I also loved that we could inspire students with a collection of amazing artwork that Chancellor Spahn was installing on campus. At that time, we had fewer pieces than we do now, but it was really special. I wanted to integrate students’ art side by side with professional pieces, so for one project, fifth graders made tiles and installed them in the hallways. Some of those tiles have remained ever since and can be found beneath the School’s Goya etching collection.
While teaching, I went for my Master’s degree in International Educational Development with a focus on Peace Education at Columbia’s Teachers College. During summer breaks, I spent all of my time in France. As a Francophile, I decided to move there after five great years at Dwight. I worked at the American Center in Paris, which showcased the works of American artists, and part of my responsibilities was to create a space for artists in residence. This ended up being an important turning point, as I’ve been designing spaces for creative thinking ever since.
Upon returning to New York, did you go back to the classroom?
I didn’t start teaching again for some time. I worked for a non-profit, where I created an emerging artists initiative helping artists and designers find funding for and venues to exhibit their work. This was followed by a stint in advertising, where I found myself sitting between the strategic and creative folks, feeding both sides with inspiration. It was only after having my daughter that I found myself thinking a lot about something my father always said: It’s important to go to bed with peace of mind, knowing that you’re doing something to add value to the world. In my corporate job, I didn't feel like I was. The happiest times had always been working with kids, so I returned to teaching art and design at Marymount, an all-girls school in Manhattan.
I engaged students in real-world projects that brought professionals into the classroom so students could see people doing something that they love while also being able to make a living. Over 17 years there, I helped to design the School's four distinct maker spaces and developed and implemented a STEAM curriculum. Students loved it and graduates were going into engineering, design, and art, which was wonderful.
It was through a coincidence that I reconnected with Chancellor Spahn, who had always been an educational mentor of mine. He was someone I referred back to in my mind, imagining that he was in the room whenever I had a big show or presentation, and wondered what he would think. Chancellor Spahn has the vision and heart to make big things happen, and when he invited me to come back to Dwight, I said yes!
What are some of the new developments in design at Dwight?
What really excites me is creating spaces for learning and we’ve been doing that. We now have a new makerspace for Upper School students called the Spark Lab at 568 Columbus Avenue, adding to those that we have across all grades. Our Riverside Campus has The Studio for preschool and kindergarten students. In Lower School, we have the Wonder Lab; and in Middle School, we have the Invention Studio. Three out of the four spaces were developed during my first year and a half back at Dwight.
We’re also reframing things to bring more engineering into the design curriculum and to create learning experiences that cross disciplines and borders. Additionally, we’re bringing in professionals from the outside who can share their passion and expertise with our students. There are so many exciting opportunities to teach design and engineering, and I stay up at night trying to figure out how to fit all of them into a 45-minute class!
At the end of the day, we want to offer students unique and relevant learning experiences and showcase the amazing work and creative thinking they’re doing, while building their creative confidence and abilities to think globally and collaboratively. When students come into my classroom, I greet them with, “Good morning, designers!” because I want them to know that they’re empowered to invent something, to make something themselves – and they’re doing it. Students are resourceful and they find creative solutions, they’re naturally empathic, which is important in design thinking, and they envision things with intention in response to challenges both large and small.
What’s your educational philosophy?
I believe that kids should be around the most passionate and interesting educators, and part of our goal is to create the best learning experiences that we can offer them. That includes having someone who says that your ideas matter, and yes, go for it. This fits well with Dwight’s spark of genius ethos, which allows students to pursue their passions and gives them spaces to do that. Students are encouraged to create a pathway for learning at Dwight, and I encourage them to take advantage of the incredible resources our global community has to offer them. I dream of hearing students say, “My classmate in Seoul and I are working on this project, and I am working with another classmate in London on that challenge.”
We want students to be curious, to know how to frame and ask great questions, and to learn by doing, so they’re being scientists in science class, for example, rather than just learning about other people’s ideas and discoveries. We also want students to collaborate with people who have different perspectives, while at the same time maintaining their own identities and convictions. These are really important to me to instill in the classroom and through all of the learning experiences we offer.
I also believe, as do all of our design teachers, that it’s important for students to produce something – an artifact of their learning – that is not only a quiz or a test, but also something that demonstrates in a different way that they understand the material. My hope is that the design and engineering process will become interconnected across disciplines, so that making something is just another way that students can show their learning in a class.
What are you working on as Global Head of Spark Programs for The Dwight Schools?
I’m currently working on a partnership with Tufts University to create a design and engineering program for all of The Dwight Schools. I’m also working on the development of an aerospace program for all of our students. It’s so exciting to think of all the ways that our students can collaborate across campuses and across the globe. Dwight School London will be seeking our help in creating a makerspace; and one of our makers-in-residence, who is also the Director of Innovation at the new Franklin School, Jaymes Dec, will be helping Dwight School Dubai to obtain their Fab Lab certification.
I look forward to visiting each Dwight campus to see how their spaces are developing and how their programs are unfolding based on the unique talents of their faculty, and then seeing how we can amplify that. One of the many strengths of Dwight’s global network is that we can share expertise across continents to design innovative learning experiences for all of our students, and this is especially exciting for me.
What’s your personal spark of genius?
My spark of genius is connecting people – connecting people to people and connecting people to projects that fit their unique strengths.
What’s a little-known fact about you?
I'm a birder, and became one after spending some time on a yoga and birding retreat with an ornithologist in Oaxaca, Mexico. I find joy in having a reverence for nature through birding. It’s really important for me to take a break from technology, put my phone down, and just look up and change perspective. I’ve read countless birding books, watched videos, and listened to podcasts about birding, and I’m teaching myself how to identify birds by sound.
Ms Wang's enthusiasm – whether for birding during her free time or for inspiring students’ creative confidence at Dwight – is contagious, and we’re fortunate that she came back to the nest where she first earned her teaching wings!