Renaissance Teacher

“Buon Giorno,” greets Dr. Chandra Harris, as upper school students enter her Friends Hall classroom. “Come stai?” What kind of day are you having? “Così così,” one student responds. It’s early in the day, so “so so” may yet improve.

It’s a February early in the spring semester in Chandra’s Seminar in Italian Language and Culture and students are discussing the Italian Renaissance. Chandra currently teaches primarily Spanish in the upper school but has shared her passion for Italian with MB students for the past 14 years.

Chandra says she has been interested in all things Italian since she was 9 years old: the language, art and architecture, music, food, movies… literally everything! She’s had some wonderful experiences in Italy, studying antiques at the Istituto per l’Arte e il Restauro in Florence and researching Italian film at the Cineteca di Bologna, among others (as well as her Ph.D. in Italian Studies from Brown).

One of Chandra’s primary goals as a teacher is to transmit her love of Italian culture to students as she leads them through the landscape of the Italian language. “Working at Moses Brown, I have access to a wonderful group of enthusiastic students who are eager to learn, and it thrills me to help them explore Italian culture through lively activities, creative projects, and lots of music and other media,” she says. “Most importantly, the learning atmosphere at MB allows me to instill in students the sense of personal pride that I have gained from becoming truly proficient in another language. Viva l’Italia!”

This course discusses Italy as a country, its history and its language, and Italian people and culture, combining language study with cultural aspects of Italy, past and present. Students examine Italy’s geography, topography, geopolitical position in Europe, art and architecture, and important moments in Italian history, such as the unification of Italy and Mussolini’s fascist period. They enjoy Italian music and cinema, research design, and read works in translation. The course culminates in a project where each student delves more deeply into an aspect of Italian culture and presents it to their peers. The book Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italians Shaped the World is a key text for the class.

Today Chandra’s students are studying the Renaissance as a creative movement and moment of cultural rebirth, discussing how artists of the day invented a visual vocabulary that has lived through the centuries since then. They are focused today on Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio.

Chandra offers much rich context to understand all that was happening in this fertile time. Her upbeat and energetic teaching style helps students access the rich culture of history found in Italy. Much of the discussion overlaps with subjects in other classes, from botany to history.

Chandra has been teaching this particular course for six years now and says this has been a great year. The class has been able to cover a substantial amount of ground in depth at a steady, but lively, pace that makes it fun for everyone. “It’s so great to see the fantastic projects and presentations that the kids have produced and the great discussions we’ve had,” she comments.

Examining one fresco, the class launches on a discussion of how one piece of art reflects not only beauty, but also the culture, wealth, cuisine, economics, religion, art and clothing of the time. She breaks down each painting, one by one.

Looking at individual pieces from the 1400s – the Adoration of the Magi, Annunciation by Angelico, Donatello’s David, Piero della Francesca’s Battle of San Romano, St. George and the Dragon – Chandra asks, “What else do you see? What are your impressions? What do you observe?” These are questions posed often in Chandra’s classroom. She wants to hear what the students observe and witness, their direct impressions. Her energetic, engaging teaching style invigorates study of old subjects, bringing old artwork to life with a sense of wonder and drama as the students attempt to discern the ‘moral’ of each piece of artwork under examination today.

The sound of the lower school renovation carries in from her window, as students in the class observe each scene. You might imagine you are in a Florentine town with a chapel or statue taking shape outside, the ringing of hammers a symphony of creation.