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A Neighborhood Partnership: Art Around the Corner

In the early 1990’s, field trip funds for the District of Columbia Public Schools decreased dramatically. That meant that students in the District of Columbia Public Schools were missing out on the bountiful resources available to enhance their education.

In response, the department of teacher and school programs of the National Gallery of Art created a program to invest art into the lives of D.C. students and to support school curriculum objectives. Art Around the Corner^ a multiple-visit program, was developed and targeted for fifth and sixth graders. The two-year curriculum combines tours with related in-gallery writing assignments, studio projects, and classroom extension activities. The goals of the program support the visual arts, language arts, social studies, mathematics, and science curriculum standards. And, the initiative works to foster student appreciation for art and an interest in museums. Grants monies secured by the Gallery pay for bus transportation, honoraria for teachers whose students participate in the program, supplies, and program evaluation.

In 1993, the Gallery approached twelve neighborhood schools about participating m Art Around the Corner. The first three schools to respond became pilot schools and continue to be part of this program. At the outset of the relationship, the Gallery made a clear commitment to provide an ongoing, multi-year partnership with these schools. The schools, which expand to a fourth this fall, are facilities that educate primarily African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American children. Two of these partner schools have no art teachers.

Students in Art Around the Corner come to the Gallery seven times during the school year for small-group, docent-led, inquiry-based tours. Fifth graders are taught the building blocks of art through tours focused on art elements, tools and techniques in painting, and portraits and personalities in sculpture. The sixth-grade curriculum, called “The World Around Me,” builds on what was learned the previous year and challenges the sixth graders increased abstract reasoning skills. Tour themes include origin myths, architecture, heroes and heroines, and the environment. Art Around the Corner culminates in Family Day during which each student gives a presentation about a work of art to his or her family and friends. This event helps to coalesce the visual, verbal, and critical thinking skills students develop throughout the year.

The Art Around the Corner museum-school collaborative requires a continual dialogue between program staff, teachers, and docents to achieve the common goal of connecting tours to school content standards. Spring curriculum workshops provide an opportunity for teachers to discuss content and suggest themes for pilot tours. For instance, in response to teacher requests for a tour linked to science and geography curricula, program staff (with input from teachers and docents) developed an art and ecology tour. Educators also recommended connecting Gallery lessons to the school district Values Code of Virtues, which includes respect, responsibility, tolerance, and self-control. Suggestions from teachers led to the integration of a time at the end of each tour for student journal writing. The writing assignments ask questions related to tour objectives and require students to make connections between what they see on the tour and their own lives. This activity supports language arts standards while providing assessment tools for teachers, docents, and program staff. Involving docents in the evolution of Art Around the Corner has been essential, as the docents are the frontline workers who regularly facilitate students’ experiences in the museum. Before the start of the program each fall, staff and docents meet in workshops to discuss new tours and related handouts and visual aids. Docents are involved in the development of pilot tours, meeting in the planning stages to offer suggestions on works of art and objectives and afterwards to evaluate them. After all tours, docents provide written feedback on the selection of objects, in-gallery writing assignments and activities, and goals and objectives. Docent and teacher comments are taken very seriously and are used to improve tours and lesson plans for the following year.

Teachers and docents meet each fall before the start of the program for in-service training at the Gallery. Teachers receive lesson plans that include extension activities and web site information for use back at school. The meeting gives teachers and docents an opportunity to plan for the upcoming year and to tailor lessons to meet particular classroom objectives. Each teacher participating in Art Around the Corner is assigned two or three docents who always work with the same small group of eight or nine students. Regular contact with teachers and a core group of students help docents adjust to accommodate differences in student learning styles.

While Art Around the Corner specifically targets a fifth and sixth grade audience, a broader community connection is an important outgrowth of the program. Gallery staff strives to involve families of students in the program, encouraging family members and guardians to participate in student learning. Families are special guests at Family Day, the culminating event of Art Around the Corner each March. For families who may have difficulty attending the weekday Family Day event, the Gallery offers a special weekend program in the fall, for which bus transportation is provided. The fall weekend programs may include tours, art activities, or film screenings that are appropriate for children. These events provide caregivers and siblings who do not ordinarily come to the Gallery an opportunity to become familiar with its collections and program offerings. Several teachers have mentioned that family programs particularly help immigrant parents learn about the Gallery as a local cultural resource.

Did this targeted program achieve its aims? The impact of this program on fostering student interest has been evaluated by an independent, non-profit learning research organization. Results of their studies indicate that Art Around the Corner students demonstrated excitement, enthusiasm, and comfort that were not evident in a control group.

An evaluation of the long-term impact of Art Around the Corner on students’ abilities to interpret and discuss works of art one to three years after completing the program also elicited positive findings. A comparison of written and oral responses from Art Around the Corner graduates and a control group revealed a vast distinction between the two groups’ abilities to interpret works of art. Even three years after completing the program, Art Around the Corner graduates were more likely to support their observations of a work using detailed evidence. The control group, on the other hand, offered vague responses that were often personal in nature with little reference to visual cues. Results from these studies demonstrated that Art Around the Corner students have an enhanced ability to respond and discuss works of art and have more positive attitudes towards art museums.

Equally significant were anecdotal comments by school educators on the positive effects of Art Around the Corner on learning and self-esteem. One teacher said, “Every child relates or learns in a different way. Through art, some children really thrive. It’s another aspect where children can express themselves.” A principal noted that there was less absenteeism on Art Around the Corner visitation days. He saw the program as a motivator and felt that it offered children incentives to attend school.

Another principal articulated best the benefits of the curriculum-based program. Art Around the Corner reinforces class work; the follow-up is immediate. It’s not abstract; it’s meaningful. You can teach vocabulary in class and then [students] get to actually see and use the vocabulary in the art museum the following week. This allows them to relate to the vocabulary, to retain it.”

Begun as a pilot program targeting its elementary-school neighbors, Art Around the Corner is now an endowed initiative of the National Gallery of Art. Independent evaluation as well as teacher and administration feedback tell us that the program fills a need in a time of district-wide cutbacks in field trips and art instruction. Because tours are curriculum-based, student learning in the Gallery supports the district’s educational agenda. This initiative continues to be successful because of ongoing collaboration with teachers and docents.

Susan Witmer is coordinator Of the multiple-visit program Art Around the Corner at the National Gallery of Art. Her e-mail address is: Art Around the Corner is made possible by grants from Target Stores, the Park Foundation, Inc., and Janice H. Levin.

Witmer, Susan. “The Neighborhood Partnership: Art Around the Corner,” The Docent Educator 10.1 (Autumn 2000): 10-12.


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