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A Museum and Adult School Join Strengths

We, who were longtime docents for the Palm Springs Desert Museum, helped ourselves to the farewell potluck lunch that the Palm Springs Adult School students had prepared tor us. It was the last day of our art appreciation class and we felt regret at its ending and exhilaration about its results. This, tor us, had been a teaching experience far beyond any we had known in our two decades as docents.

The series of eleven morning classes we presented had been developed for adults using as its basis an outreach program that the Museum presents to fourth and fifth-grade students in the Palm Springs Unified School District. That program focuses on the basic elements of art and introduces students to painting and sculpture, both historic and contemporary.

Adapted for an adult audience, the concept was introduced to the Adult School principal. Dr. Virginia Eberhard, and teacher, Gerry Johnson. They were receptive and interested in expanding the Adult School’s involvement with the Museum. For the last seven years they participated in a writing project called Mitos, Imageries, e Idioma (Myth, Images, and Language). In this program, students created a work of art and wrote a poem or short essay based on their experience. Their past experience with us had taught the Adult School that they could count on us to take curriculum requirements seriously and focus our efforts on verbal and writing skills learned through exposure to works of art. The content for the new program was then cleared by the Museum’s education department and a schedule set that included a series of slide presentations, a visiting artist demonstration, hands-on exercises, and a morning at the Museum with tours conducted by experienced docents.

The students at the Adult School ranged in age from their late teens to sixty-plus and all were working toward their high school or general equivalency diplomas. Some of them struggled with English as their second language while others had difficulty expressing themselves effectively on the written page. And, while a high school diploma requires units in art appreciation, ironically, stringent budget cuts have eliminated art from the curriculum of most California public schools. Few of the students had any past exposure to art appreciation. Here, then, was the ideal opportunity as well as challenge for the Museum and the Adult School to join their strengths for the students’ benefit.

For us, this was a unique opportunity. The students were there because they wanted to learn and were eager to give us a try. Throughout the class we had included personal facts and anecdotes about the artists and also about ourselves, and the students responded in kind.

For instance, at one point Fredy, a man from Guatemala, jumped up from his seat and rushed to the screen, pointed to the rim of a Mesoamerican pot, and said, “I know this! These are Mayan glyphs!” For him, we weren’t talking just about art, we were talking about home. Another such moment occurred when Angelina brought in an impressive stack of nine books to share with her class. They were a series on masterworks of art and the class examined them in intense little groups looking for images they might recognize, looking for color, looking for nudes, looking for oddities . . . looking! When we asked how she happened to have the books, Angelina said that her grandmother had willed them to her, “but, I’ve never looked at them before.”

In short, the chemistry for all involved changed over the eleven weeks. We and they were more relaxed, had more fun with the information, and felt as if we had really learned something — not only about art, but about each other as well.

It also must be said that the involvement of Gerry Johnson, the classroom teacher, was crucial to the success we all felt. She sat in on all of our presentations, followed through with assignments we left for the students, and added greatly to their enthusiasm. She even initiated a collage project that resulted in an exhibition throughout the halls of the school.

We attended their graduation ceremony, which was especially moving. Dr. Eberhard spoke about our program to the audience of proud students, their relatives, and members of the Board of Palm Springs Unified School District. We could not help but feel this formal recognition, not to mention the potluck earlier, was somehow reversed. The students had already given us so much. Our hope is to give them back something more this year with an expanded program, an evening class for GED students with day jobs, fresh content, and as much enthusiasm as we can muster. They deserve no less.

Nancy Calzaretta Watt and Mark Manocchio have both been docents at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, in Palm Springs, CA for about 20 years. Robert Brasier recently became the museum ‘s docent program manager.

Calzaretta Watt, Nancy, Mark Manocchio and Robert Brasier. “A Museum and Adult School Join Strengths,” The Docent Educator 13.2 (Winter 2003-04): 16.

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