All In The Campaign for Blair Academy 2018-2025
Kate Sykes in pottery studio
jen pagotto conducting
Ryan Manni
How ‘Looping’ in the Arts Makes All the Difference
Adele Starrs

Each has a story to tell. Kate Sykes, chair of Blair’s fine arts department, remembers a day in the ceramics studio when her pregnancy made it difficult to lean into the pottery kiln. Feeling a sensation that hinted at labor, a dawning realization crossed her face. Art student Batouly Camara ’15, who had been in class with Mrs. Sykes for years and stood helping at the kiln, noticed. “I got you, whatever you need,” the student said. Now, almost a decade later, Mrs. Sykes still remembers the moment fondly.

Director of Vocal Music Ryan Manni lost two close relatives last year in quick succession and quietly took a few days away from school to attend the funeral services. He didn’t tell his students where he was going, just that he would be gone. Singer Justin Baggett ’23, who had studied with Mr. Manni for four years, sensed that something was wrong. “He didn’t ask any questions,” Mr. Manni recalls, “he just took the lead and agreed to run rehearsals while I was out.” When Mr. Manni returned, Justin didn’t ask for details; he simply looked at Mr. Manni and asked, “Are you okay?” These small yet profound moments shared between teachers and students, where genuine connections form, are the foundation of everything Blair espouses as a community.  

While many at Blair have similar anecdotes of students reciprocating the care and connection that teachers extend, the faculty members of Blair’s fine and performing arts departments have an abundance of stories.

Part of the reason is the practice of “looping.” Looping involves matching students with the same instructor for several consecutive years, and it occurs in Blair’s fine and performing arts departments. Instead of switching to another teacher at the end of each year, students in an orchestra, ceramics, theatre or vocal class often remain with the same teacher and peers for years as the group progresses together. 

The Practice of Looping
As one U.S. News & World Report article noted earlier this year, the concept of a teacher spending multiple years with a cohort of students isn’t novel; in fact, “about 12% of public schools across the U.S. used some form of teacher looping in the 2017-2018 school year.” This centuries-old pedagogical practice has regained popularity in educational circles as its rigorous benefits, to both students and their teachers, have been studied and documented. In Montessori and Waldorf schools, students routinely stay with the same educator for several years, as do children in more than half the schools across the state of Vermont. 

While looping may not be a new concept, its benefits, which extend beyond academic progress and into the realm of socio-emotional development and classroom dynamics, are undeniable. According to a recent study from Brown University, the academic and behavioral gains acquired from studying under a teacher for more than one year increase with the proportion of repeat students in a class. The Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Sciences has documented that looping “increases student achievement, supports instructional time, and provides enhanced teacher-student relationship.” When students and teachers spend more time together, it naturally fosters a deeper understanding of individual learning styles, strengths and areas needing improvement. Teachers can then tailor their instruction more effectively to meet the needs of each student, leading to improved outcomes.

All of this comes as no surprise to the students and teachers in Blair’s fine and performing arts programs. 

Director of Instrumental Music Jennifer Pagotto, with 19 years of experience guiding Blair’s musicians, has witnessed the strong impact of looping, particularly in the Orchestra. Despite the additional workload that looping entails–crafting four-year lesson plans so that students encounter fresh challenges each year–she finds that the depth of learning that results justifies the effort. For example, ninth graders initially focus on following directions literally, Mrs. Pagotto explains, but they gradually transition to playing intuitively, thanks to the detailed knowledge and nuance that come with years of performing together. “By the time a student has been playing for four years, there is almost no need for words. In a performance, we all play together organically, following the cues of one another without speaking. It’s the time and years of repetition–together–that allows us to get to that organic stage.”  

Alto saxophone player Ethan Anthony ’24 can speak to the positive culture that developed as he and his fellow musicians reached that level of symbiosis. Ethan spent four years in Blair’s orchestra and jazz band, practicing with his friend and fellow saxophonist, Andrew Antunes ’24. In that time, Ethan and Andrew have been through thick and thin under the careful tutelage of Mrs. Pagotto. They toted their instruments to practice in the open air of the Bowl during the pandemic their first year and warmed up in the awe-inspiring acoustics of ancient European cathedrals during their third. “We’ve both certainly come a long way as musicians since then,” Ethan muses. Amid those changing landscapes and lessons, one constant remained–learning, three days a week, year after year, together. Ethan credits the sense of community fostered by Mrs. Pagotto and his bandmates with building incredible bonds. “It was very hard to say goodbye.”

That close-knit culture, which results when a cohort of students grow together, is one of the defining characteristics of looping. It makes sense. On sports teams, the same phenomenon happens. Athletes who work together toward a common goal, growing together for years, bond. The same thing happens in the arts. “When you have a group of student leaders who have been there for a while, they become partners in teaching the younger kids,” Mrs. Pagotto says. “you trust them to convey the right attitude in class. I’m so grateful for all the students who have become part of that.”

Looping not only benefits students by building bonds and proficiency, it also leads them to take risks within their craft, something that Mrs. Sykes has seen in her students’ art. “Bigger ideas, riskier ideas come from these trusted relationships that build over years,” Mrs. Sykes explains. “People knowing each other, allows them to feel comfortable and confident to take risks that push them as artists.” Mr. Manni concurs, having seen the same phenomenon occur with the Singers. “Over years, you see their confidence grow as they try to reach new levels, and their leadership skills build as their confidence grows. It’s one of the best parts of the job–to see kids take those risks and develop over time, through a formative period in their lives.”

Finding Meaning in One’s Work
The years spent connecting to each student personally enriches the lives of teachers, too. Not only do they gain a deep and nuanced understanding of each student’s strengths and challenges, but they develop the sustained relationships that make one's work rewarding. Over the course of two decades teaching at Blair, Mrs. Sykes has found that the process of working through challenges together builds a deep and collegial relationship. “A deep respect develops,” she says, “that often carries long past graduation.” Today, as Mrs. Sykes admires the pottery gifted by her ceramics students or the student artwork adorning her walls and thinks of the notes she’s collected that often begin with “I thought of you the other day when…,” she remains deeply grateful for those ongoing relationships.

 Mr. Manni also continues to be a supportive presence in his former students’ musical lives, embracing opportunities to collaborate anew. “It’s incredibly gratifying when students come back, after their first year in class,” he says, “because they’ve chosen to come back to work together. That feeling is magnified when students graduate.” Mr. Manni started the alumni choir over Alumni Weekend, he notes, so that the musicians who once performed together regularly can capture the magic of performing together once more. Recently collaborating with Kendra Payne ’20, he commissioned an impressive original piece that was premiered by Blair’s choir in last year’s Spring Concert. “Working on a new piece together can be mutually beneficial–for her as a young professional composer, and us as a choral program,” he says. 
With her most recent senior students heading off to college and a fresh wave of ninth graders awaiting their first venture into her classroom, Mrs. Sykes looks forward to the new school year. “We are lucky in a way that not every teacher experiences,” she muses. She knows that the incoming students aren’t like family yet, but they will be. She will spend hundreds of hours “looping” with them. As for her departing seniors, Mrs. Sykes pauses, a moment of reflection passing over her before she breaks into a wide, warm smile. “You’ve known them for four years. You still get to have that relationship with them. It was strengthened over time. Why would we give up on this friendship now?”

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