To support Cannon’s robust arts offerings across divisions, arts leaders and educators worked to create a new artistic mission and vision that bolsters our school’s ideology: The arts are essential.
On many days–before the morning bell rings–artists around our campus have already begun honing their craft.
Starting at 7:30 a.m., students gather for Varsity Chorus, Band, and Orchestra, ensembles offered to musicians who want arts experiences beyond their class schedule.
As the official school day begins, arts experiences continue to energize the school. Visual artists of all ages may be exploring writing, painting, photography, or collage. Upper School students can take classes ranging from Creative Design and Engineering to Jazz Combo to Acting.
After the final bell rings, actors and stage technicians in Cannon Theater Company begin rehearsal in the Cindric Performing Arts Center. Students in third through sixth grade bring the Lower and Middle School musical to life. Visual artists put the final touches on their creations. 3D printers hum as they bring students’ ideas to life in The Mill.
For students of all ages, the arts provide an indispensable opportunity to learn, play, take risks, fail big, and create boldly.
To ensure every student has that opportunity, arts leaders Mrs. Krista Johns, Mr. Rob Burlington, Mr. Andy Macdonald, and leadership team arts liaison Dr. Regina Nixon dedicated last year to reimagining Cannon’s artistic mission and vision to support future generations of student artists.
“I feel like the arts are interwoven into the fabric of Cannon School,” said Mrs. Johns, who began at Cannon as the Lower School Art Teacher in 2007 and, in 2022, accepted the position of Visual Art Director.
Throughout her 16 years at Cannon, Mrs. Johns said she has witnessed the joy and empowerment creating brings learners at every level. For her, the opportunity to work with fellow arts leaders to help embolden a new vision for the arts was invigorating.
The official assignment came from the Head of School in the spring of 2022.
“We were tasked with looking at the arts, where we’ve been, where we want to go, and what the future holds,” Mrs. Johns said.
That task was one that would require insight from across Cannon’s community.
“We reached out to students, faculty, and parents,” said Mr. Macdonald, Director of Theater Arts. Those community members took part in an “I like, I wish, I wonder” exercise to share their experiences with––and hopes for––the arts. Common themes in the feedback included Cannon’s passionate arts educators, dedicated and talented students, and dynamic arts curricula.
Using that feedback, the arts directors worked in close collaboration with Dr. Nixon, Head of Lower School, to begin crafting the new arts mission and vision.
It would begin with a line from our school’s current arts mission statement: Cannon School believes the Arts are essential. Then, it would go further in depth, outlining the reasons the arts make a profound impact on learners of all ages and serving as a “North Star” for future curriculum decisions, extracurricular opportunities, and more.
“The arts touch every student in our school in one way or another,” said Mrs. Johns.
In the visual arts, one way Cannon supports students’ growth is by structuring lessons through the TAB––Teaching for Artistic Behavior––curriculum. The curriculum allows students to learn arts skills, processes, and techniques that they then use within their own work at their own pace. It also emphasizes skills beyond artistic projects, such as collaboration, risk-taking, and perseverance.
Mrs. Johns helped implement and pilot TAB in the Lower School in 2011 when she noticed that students at different artistic skill levels became frustrated with prescribed lessons.
“In a traditional art class, you hold up a piece of artwork and you ask students to copy what you've done,” said Mrs. Johns. “But not every student has the fine motor skills to do that.”
When students were able to learn and create at their own pace through TAB, she immediately saw a shift in her students’ engagement.
“When you're creating work that's based on your own experiences and interests, and you're not comparing yourself to anyone next to you, you're more willing to try new things,” she said. Once the success of the program in Lower School became clear, Middle and Upper School adopted the teaching method.
The importance of creating a space to take risks, think critically, and make mistakes resonates with Mr. Macdonald, too.
Mr. Macdonald, who started at Cannon in 2012, teaches three levels of Acting in the Upper School and also directs Cannon Theater Company’s performances, including fall one-act plays and the winter musical.
Each year, one of his favorite teaching experiences is taking the fall play to the North Carolina Theatre Conference (NCTC). A weekend-long festival of performances, the conference invites high schools from across North Carolina to perform short plays in front of peer schools. Though the weekend ends with awards and accolades, the experience and judges’ feedback is what makes the festival so special, said Mr. Macdonald.
“What I love about NCTC is that you get to see everybody else’s performances, so students are being inspired by other schools, learning from others, and have the excitement of performing not just on their own court.”
Creating community and acting with empathy were key components that arose during the “visioning” process, as were cultivating courage and developing innovative thinkers. Mr. Macdonald is witness to this from the first table read of a script to curtain call.
“It's about learning how to work in the real world,” he said of the theater program at Cannon. “Learning how to be in community, to empathize, to use not just your intellect––but your imagination and your instincts––to solve problems.”
Those traits are embodied by Cannon’s student artists across grades and disciplines. Another trait embodied by our students, said Mr. Burlington, Director of Music Arts, is to seek out opportunities to create beyond the school day.
Mr. Burlington, who started at Cannon in 2012, teaches Middle and Upper School Chorus and is the music director for the winter musical. He also founded the Upper School Varsity Chorus, an auditioned ensemble for students who want the opportunity to make music outside their normal class schedule.
“There are 40 students in the Varsity Chorus this year,” said Mr. Burlington, adding that the group meets early in the morning a few times a week to rehearse music across genres. Students in the group may have had class conflicts that prevented them from taking chorus during the day, he said, or they may simply want more opportunities to create.
The group’s popularity led to the creation of Varsity Orchestra and Band, both of which also rehearse outside class hours. The ensembles go hand-in-hand with another core belief reflected in the new mission and vision: The Arts are essential to evolving each student’s sense of purpose and voice.
“We knew that we wanted to give students an opportunity to really shine,” said Mr. Burlington of the ensembles.
Going forward, the new mission and vision will be a touchstone for the Cannon community on all arts decisions, one that the arts departments and leadership team alike are energized to have as a guiding philosophy.
“It’s been an honor to learn with the arts directors,” said Dr. Nixon, who helped guide and inform the process.
“As a leader it is my job to support and serve. And it’s an area that I am passionate about,” she added, noting that it is both a joy to experience the creative prowess of students as an audience member at Cannon and to create music in her personal life as a pianist and saxophonist.
Thinking about Cannon’s dedicated educators, Mrs. Johns agreed.
“As a team, we're all 100 percent committed not only to our own discipline, but to the arts as a whole,” she said, “and how we want to grow the arts at Cannon.”