Alexander “Alex” Russell-Walker’s journey to teaching began halfway across the world in Vietnam. It was after teaching English there that he decided to commit to teaching full-time. Receiving his master’s degree at Columbia University’s Teachers College, he has taught history at Yeshiva University and at the Bronx High School of Science. At D-E, he teaches students in every Upper School grade level. He has taught 9th and 10th grade history courses and electives such as Hollywood History and the Holocaust. He loves giving students new perspectives to understand the world, especially with AP Art History. “I like to think of it as one of those culminating courses that seniors can take,” Russell-Walker said. “Art history is beautiful because it is this coherent whole. It’s all the same subject matter of religion, death, sex, humans, bodies, and love. It’s like one of the most beautiful and easy ways of saying humanity has a lot of the same issues.”
With such universal topics and complex concepts, Russell-Walker realizes that it takes time for students to think like an art historian. While he has the responsibility of preparing students for the AP exam, he also seeks to give a broader educational experience. Rather than giving definitive answers to what an artwork means and how it relates to its time period, Russell-Walker implores his students to think critically about what’s being presented. “One of my favorite themes throughout our history is thinking about why we look at ‘good’ art as being representational of reality,” he said. “Greek sculptures of men, for example, emphasize the figures having supposedly perfect and unattainable bodies.” Rather than judging good or bad, he said, we should be asking, “What is the purpose of this?”
Challenging cultural associations to different motifs and symbols is part of what makes art history exciting. Even better, in Russell-Walker’s view, is when students take ownership of their learning and bring in their own cultural background to conduct research. Russell-Walker always begins with the class examining a work of art together. Students immediately react with different opinions on what a piece might mean, and Russell-Walker dives in with them to further investigate an artwork’s context. He considers learning about history to be a collaborative process.
In 2016, Russell-Walker received a Sloan Grant, providing him the opportunity to travel to different elite art museums to further his own study and pedagogy. When the circumstances of the pandemic allow for it, Russell-Walker is eager to bring students to the art, reintroducing museum trips into the curriculum.