Shapers of the World Class at Greenwich High School is in Its Own Renaissance Era

By Luke Merrill, Greenwich High School Class of 2025

For over 30 years, Greenwich High School has offered the Shapers of the World class, an interdisciplinary course that includes a rigorous English course taught by Mrs. Melissa Brown and an art history class taught by Mr. Ben Quesnel. Given Mr. Q’s experience in studio art, we combined art history lessons with many sessions creating art in GHS’ art studios (although I think he’d like to erase my Botero-style painting from his memory forever).

“Shapers of the World is in Its Own Renaissance Era: With just three words, Trip to Italy,’ I was hooked!”

While I was swept in by the idea of spending an April break in Italy, the class ultimately changed my historical perspective and enhanced my analytical aptitude.

Photo: Luke Merrill

Photo: Luke Merrill

Shapers of the World explores three critical questions as it relates to the founding of the world. Who are we? Why are we here? How should life be experienced? I was not sure I was up for the task of answering these lofty questions, but Mrs. Brown assured us that she would guide us on the journey.

In the early 1980s, Elinor Carr, a beloved GHS teacher for over 25 years, co-created the Shapers class, which thrived under her leadership. Many community members can easily recount her teaching style, too. Alison Farn Leigh, a local real estate agent who was in one of the first Shapers classes in 1982, shared, “Shapers gave me a unique method to understand and evaluate history through analyzing texts and art. It awakened in me a deep appreciation for art, too. In fact, due to the initial taste of art history I gained in Shapers, I ultimately decided to major in Art History at Vanderbilt.”

Throughout the school year, the class explores the texts of philosophers that created our being; from Homer to Plato, Shapers covers it all. Not only does the class assign lengthy stories such as Dante’s Inferno and The Aeneid by Virgil, but we also spend time with poems by Sappho and the story, The Prince by Machiavelli.

The class culminates with two highly anticipated experiences: a week-long trip to Italy and the class mural.

During spring break, the students and teachers board an evening flight to Rome, where they will go on to spend time in Rome, Siena, and Florence.

While part of the magic of the trip is the students’ excitement, it’s largely the enthusiasm of the teachers, who are so eager to share the real-life art we study (and to share a taste of la Dolce vita).

For example, we studied the myth of Romulus and Remus in class and later saw the myth depicted in many examples of Roman art. We also observed Aeneas’ journey to found Rome depicted in numerous museum pieces on the trip. In Italy, we also visited numerous museums and historical landmarks including the Uffizi, St. Peter’s Square, Piazza Navona, the Colosseum, the David, the Santa Maria Novella, and so much more.

There, tour guides and teachers help synthesize everything that was learned about in the art and English classes, and they bring them real-life applications of these phenomena.

In conjunction with the learning, gelato was a highlight of the Italy trip too.

Photo: Luke Merrill

In addition, the class also culminates in a mural that is hung in Greenwich High School each year. This year, the mural explored the nuances between private and public life in the texts that were studied. After dissecting each story, the ideas were presented in a diptych mural. While one block of Shapers students chose to have the two sides mimic each other, the other group painted the canvas such that the twin panels contrasted each other in style, mood, and color. In congruence with the mural, Shapers students craft an artist’s statement to highlight their choices in the mural, the references to the stories, and the overall themes represented. The mural is truly a hallmark of being a Shaper of the World.

Similar to the Shapers’ students that preceded me, my experiences in this class, including the passionate teaching, the hands-on experience, the historically significant readings, and the intricate art, will stick with me for decades.

But is this class the right fit for you? The course is focused on creativity on the basis that students will be asked to think analytically and outside the box. Although tests are not a part of the class, students are assessed through creative writing pieces, the aforementioned projects, art pieces, and graded discussions. This class is a great option for students who appreciate old literature and are willing to apply it to other facets of life, namely art.

Also by Luke Merrill:

Is Greenwich aware of the vivacious live theater that resides in the basement of one of its most prominent churches?