Butterflys, Mirrors and Broken Legs

The famous "butterfly effect" of chaos theory posits that a butterfly flapping its wings in South America can impact the weather in Texas. But can a broken leg in Uruguay change teaching in Dublin NH? 

A hallmark of history teacher Rodrigo Villaamil's teaching style is to use imagery as a primary classroom vehicle. He finds that it is often hard for students to understand abstract concepts defining significant social and economic change.  He says, "These are often difficult to teach without concrete anchors..."  Historical art serves as a useful device in both exploring the ideas of the past and serving as a memory trigger for students.

Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck

Asked for an example, Rodrigo points to the Renaissance, which is he covers extensively in World History II. Among the many changes that occurred at that time were the rise of capitalism, profit-seeking, individualism and rapid advances in scientific knowledge. As part of his class, the students spend time examining the iconic J. Van Eyck painting, the "Arnolfini Portrait." 

The portrait has many hidden lessons that students can tease out.  For instance, this work is one of the early paintings of a merchant. Before it, most artworks were either of religious subjects or the aristocracy.  Instead, the subject of this painting is a member of what will later be termed the bourgeoisie. This is the beginning of wealth existing outside either the church or the feudal landowners. Moreover, the subject is from Italy, but the painting was commissioned and executed in Bruges, demonstrating the social impact of long-distance trade and the wealth that was able to accrue from trading what was scarce in one place but abundant in another.

Van Eyck in mirror

The painting also points to the emergence of individualism, both directly regarding it being a portrait, but also in another hidden way. On the back wall of the room behind the Arnolfini's, there is a small bullseye mirror. In it, there is the reflection of Van Eyck painting or surveying the scene.  Above it on the wall is graffiti that reads - "Jan van Eyck was here 1434". The work displays not just the individualism of the patron but the artist as well.

While the painting is not primarily religious, it does contain religious themes in terms of showing the stations of the cross set in the frame of the mirror in the background. So it alludes to the continuing importance of religion but in an understated and secondary manner.

Finally, the rediscovery of perspective and a vanishing point coincides with the emerging consensus of astronomers and mathematicians of the possibility of infinity and infinite universe.  

The use of this work in the classroom allows students to discover the change that was occurring during this culturally and economically revolutionary period. 

But what about the broken leg?

In July 2009, Rodrigo received a call from a colleague in Uruguay who had broken her leg.  She needed someone to substitute for her in teaching her history classes in Uruguay. At the time Rodrigo was primarily teaching Spanish language classes at Dublin. Since it was summer here, Rodrigo saw it as an opportunity to return home, teach his great passion and help a friend. 

Since Rodrigo was not teaching a full schedule in Uruguay, he had time to wander into other classrooms and watch others teach. He visited a class where the teacher was teaching art as a systematic vehicle for studying history. This approach instantly clicked with Rodrigo. As part of his teaching education, Rodrigo had spent two years learning art history from Professor Hector Balsas (Instituto de Profesores Antigas) who argued that while "most of you will never teach art history, I will give you the tools to integrate art into the classroom." He saw the potential of this new approach and decided instantly that he would integrate art into his teaching when he returned to Dublin. 

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Dublin School

Dublin School, Schoolhouse Rd, Dublin, NH, 03444, United States