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Texas Teacher: Art History Challenges the Status Quo


After reading about male dominance in Western art history, a student in Jeffrey Nisbet’s class feels more connected to his sisters and how they see and experience the world.

“His comments made me pause,” says Nisbet, who teaches the student in an Art History Seminar at Grapevine High School in North Texas. “It was truly empathetic and a powerful statement coming from an 18-year-old young man.”

As NMSI’s November Teacher of the Month, Nisbet says empathy is the most important quality he hopes students learn from his class. “We talk about critical thinking, problem solving and appropriate use of technology as 21st century skills, and I agree, but empathy is the greatest 21st century skill, and art history and fine arts curriculum lend themselves to building empathy,” says the Advanced Placement® Art History and Seminar teacher.

He continues, “Studying the artwork, structures, beliefs and practices from diverse cultures throughout time and the world really creates a humanizing aspect. Students learn empathy by feeling what others feel in different situations and honoring and respecting them.”
For almost a decade, Nisbet has taught art history at Grapevine High, which is also his alma mater and where he took several art classes. After graduating with a painting degree from the University of Hawaii, he viewed coming home to teach – and joining generations of teachers in his family – as a natural fit.

Grapevine High’s Principal David Denning, who taught Nisbet eighth-grade U.S. history, says Nisbet’s passion for the arts is reflected in his students.

“You see kids graduating and going into art history as majors in college or even a minor after taking his [Nisbet’s] class,” Denning says. “You also have kids that are completely on the opposite side in science and math, but the skills they develop in art history, like analyzing texts and writing, make a huge difference in all classes.”

Valuing an enriching education, Nisbet says his art history colleagues told him they didn’t read certain texts he assigns to his high school class until graduate school. “I’m relaying the message of a college culture to students and peaking their imaginations,” Nisbet says. “I’m building their confidence in doing college work.”

For students wanting more in-depth studies after completing AP® Art History, Nisbet began offering the Seminar course four years ago. With a smaller class size – this year, 11 students are taking the Seminar – students can delve into developing skills in academic research, critical inquiry, contemporary theory, presentation and discussion. Students learn how to develop their own voices by providing personal responses to weekly readings, which create lively class discussions.

NMSI Partnership

Thanks to Nisbet’s dedication to high-quality coursework, Grapevine High’s AP Art History program was ranked second in Texas and fourth in the nation based on data from the College Board, which develops AP curriculum, in 2017 (the latest year available). The Grapevine teacher says NMSI has been instrumental in reaching this goal. With a grant from the O’Donnell Foundation for 10 school years, AP Strategies (now part of NMSI) provided Grapevine High School’s fine arts programs, including AP Art History, with teacher trainings and cultural enrichment experiences. 

NMSI not only helped me become a master teacher, but the resources and opportunities helped my AP Art History program grow leaps and bounds,” Nisbet says. “The support I received from NMSI was a game-changer in my career.”

For the four years (2014-18) Nisbet participated in Grapevine’s AP Strategies/NMSI partnership, he appreciated the time to meet and collaborate with fellow North Texas art history teachers, as they were all the only teacher of this subject at their schools.

“Something I continue to cherish is having professionals who are equally as interested in working hard, holding each other accountable and seeing growth in the program,” Nisbet says. “It’s an unbelievable community of art history teachers.”

The AP Strategies/NMSI partnership gave the North Texas art history teachers an opportunity to learn from professionals that are masters in unique domains. Nisbet remembers meeting Roslyn Walker, curator of African art at the Dallas Museum of Art and a national leader in this content area. She took Nisbet and fellow teachers through a training focused on African pieces in the course curriculum. 

Also part of the partnership, AP Art History students from Nisbet’s class submitted essays for the Young Masters exhibit held at the Dallas Museum of Art. Out of hundreds of submissions for the annual exhibit, only five art history pieces were selected each year. Nisbet has seven essays from students selected for the DMA exhibit. “It’s a nice legacy that hangs on my classroom wall that my students today ask about,” he says. “It’s such a cool thing for students to see their work hanging at a museum next to renowned artwork. It really validated students and their voices and work.”

He adds, “I see the exhibit essays like coaches see their sports trophies. It’s a true testament of student academic merit and a commitment to art history.”

From Texas to New York

Noticing his success at Grapevine High, NMSI's AP Fine Arts staff asked Nisbet to become a curriculum writer for its programs that are part of New York City’s AP for All. He’s also a coach for several New York art history teachers.

“I’ve found a new passion for teaching teachers that I never knew about,” Nisbet says. “It’s a lot of fun to get professionals together to work on skills that help students be successful.”

While dedicated to his full-time position in Texas, Nisbet enjoys having this part-time opportunity. “I feel strongly about the AP for All initiative, especially in bringing equitable and accessible access to AP Arts History,” Nisbet says. “Students in New York City are growing up in a place where some of the most prolific museums are located, but many have never been to a museum. Getting to work with teachers and students to open up the playground of New York City art culture has been so much fun.”

Whether teaching in Texas or writing New York curriculum, Nisbet says his main focus remains on building students’ empathy for others: “You may leave class with more questions than answers, but it’s those questions and lingering thoughts that lead to thesis papers and articles and influential books you may write down the road because you grappled with challenging societal ideas of art history.”

Know a NMSI-connected teacher who deserves recognition? Email marketing@nms.org to tell us how they are making a difference in math, science, English and arts education for their students.