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Learning Through Art

In 1991, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, began a four-year curriculum development project called “Learning Through Art.” The purpose of this project was to establish the museum’s permanent collection as a major resource for elementary teachers. The project was funded initially by an NEA challenge grant.

A group of 18 elementary teachers from the Clear Creek school district, 25 miles south of Houston, are working with museum staff, school administrators, and consultants from the University of Houston to develop an art curriculum for grades 1 through 6 that is based on the museum’s permanent collection and correlated to existing curriculum and state mandates for social studies, science, language arts, and math.

The project places art at the center of the interdisciplinary curriculum. The teachers bring to this project extensive classroom experience in the other four subject areas, but little formal knowledge of art. The Clear Creek school district has no elementary art specialists.

The project curriculum is a series of classroom units at each grade level in all five subjects that focus on works of art in the museum’s collection. For example, the second grade teachers have developed a unit focusing on three ceramic vessels: Dog, 4th – 5th centuries, Colima, Mexico; Macaw Bowl c. 1300, Casas Grandes; and Bowl, c. 1 100, Mimbres.

  • The art lesson comes first. Students discuss the vessels’ shapes, decoration, and function; produce a clay pot in the coil method; decorate the pot; and learn about firing the clay.
  • The language arts activity focuses on writing skills. The students produce a book that explains how to (after 250 A.D.) create a clay pot by writing sequential directions and creating illustrations.
  • In social studies, the students compare and contrast the cultures that produced the pots and explore the differences between making and consuming things.
  • The science lesson uses classifying, ordering, sequencing, and predicting skills to describe changes in the clay during the process of making pottery. Pupils also study the properties of clay could the effects of heat on different materials.
  • The math lesson develops skills in measurement, estimation, probability and statistics. The children estimate the size of clay, weigh the clay, and compare the weight to their estimate. They also wet one piece of clay, let a second piece air dry, and fire a third piece, then chart the differences in color, length, weight, and so forth.

The team of third-grade teachers developed a unit based on three French paintings in the collection: Edouard Vuillard’s The Promenade; Gustave Caillebotte’s The Artist’s Brother in His Garden; and The Turning Road by Andre Derain.

  • The art lesson focuses on comparing and contrasting these views of people outdoors with special attention paid to the styles of the paintings — use of color, brushstrokes, depiction of figures. The students then create paintings of people engaged in leisure activities out-of-doors.
  • In language arts, students work in cooperative groups to write plays about the people and setting in one of the museum’s paintings. The groups then present their plays to the rest of the class.
  • The social studies lesson examines the value of parks and recreational areas to people and to a city. Students research how parks are planned and by whom, and how parks are financed. Students then create their ideal park.
  • Contrasting man-made and natural objects is the theme of the science lesson. Students discuss ways in which people help preserve nature and the ways they harm it.
  • In math, students study the paintings to understand depth, space, and distance. They imagine themselves in the paintings and estimate the distances portrayed, related these space measurements to the park plan developed in the social studies unit, redraw their park plan in a designated scale, and estimate the cost of buying land for parks at current real estate prices.

In the classroom, teachers use slides and posters of works from the MFA Houston’s collection. These reproductions give teachers great flexibility in comparing and contrasting works of art, and teachers especially like the fact that the posters can remain up in the room all the time.

In order to help teachers use the reproductions most effectively, the project was designed so that teachers spent extensive time working with the collection in the museum. From June through early August, teachers served as museum docents, leading tours through all areas of our permanent collection. Their audiences included summer school classes from elementary, middle, and high school; day camps; preschool/day care groups; adult groups; and drop-in visitors.

There were several reasons for having the teachers become docents. Only by teaching with the original works of art could teachers bring the slides and posters to life and convey their power and unique qualities to students. Also, we wanted the teachers’ enthusiasm for the original works to inspire their students to visit the museum. In addition, the museum setting challenged teachers to experiment with new teaching methods that, we hoped, would carry over into the classroom.

In training the teachers as docents, we combined our usual docent education format of lectures, tours of the permanent collection, and tour technique workshops with art-making activities. The studio sessions were taught by museum staff, but the lectures and gallery sessions were taught by experienced docents. Because they work with diverse audiences every day, the docents were the best role models for teachers facing a new learning (and teaching) environment. The project gave our docents a new level of confidence and strengthened the relationship between the museum’s volunteer teachers and the professional teachers who rely on their services.

The classroom teachers were unanimous in their praise of the docents’ teaching skills. Comments include: [The docents] helped me realize that there are different approaches;” “they [the docents] personalized their tours for us, modeling how we could personalize our tours . . .;” “they taught me what kinds of questions to ask;” and “they helped me … be prepared with extra works of art in case my tour had to change.”

The teachers were greatly impressed by the wealth of the docents’ knowledge of the collection in particular and the history of art in general. One teacher wrote “I must emphasize that the docents’ degree of knowledge concerning specific pieces was extremely useful. The [discussion of] African art, stories of diviners and spirits, provided me with great material for grabbing the interest of ‘challenging’ groups.” The teachers were inspired by the docents’ enthusiasm for teaching in the galleries. Comments include “they transmitted their enthusiasm and love [for the art]” and “they told personal stories [about tours] that made me enthusiastic about being a docent.”

When asked to compare the museum to the classroom as teaching environments, the teachers commented on the museum’s diverse audience, and the anxiety and challenge that come with teaching different age groups. Teachers were concerned that they didn’t know their audience in the museum as they do in school.

“You do not know their names or the learning styles of the children you are touring. Touring requires that you constantly “size-up’ and adapt to different age groups and different interest groups.”

Several teachers noted that adjusting to a learning environment in which people were constantly moving from one place to another was difficult. But perhaps the most telling remark came from a second grade teacher.

“The classroom teacher can evaluate and delight in watching the kids put their art knowledge to use after they return from the museum. The docent can only guess about what the children took with them from the museum.”

But the teachers still found great rewards even from their limited time with audiences. “I was impressed by the responsiveness of the teenagers I toured ╤ they volunteered to answer almost as much as the little ones.” One noted that at the end of a tour a group of teenaged girls objected vehemently when their group leader said it was time to go shopping at the Galleria. They wanted to stay at the museum!

How has being a docent impacted classroom instruction? Almost all teachers emphasized that working in the galleries reinforced the idea that art could be used effectively to teach a variety of subject areas. One teacher noted that “I find myself not only enjoying art works because of their aesthetic value, but also I seem to automatically think of those art works in terms of how they relate to different curricula.”

Teachers commented that the teaching techniques they used in the galleries have improved their classroom instruction. “I have become a better questioner, always aware that active participation results in thinking, questioning, ‘wanting to know more’ students.” Teaching in the museum “upgraded the quality of literature and books I use in the classroom” and “[I am] more in tune with seeing nature and details of the earth just as an artist does.” Finally, these teachers now use the museum library on a regular basis.

Having teachers work as summer docents is an enormously successful and rewarding project, one we at the MFA Houston encourage other museums to try. These teachers have a new kind of relationship with the museum that goes beyond attending programs or bringing their classes for tours. These teacher-docents lU’e now an important part of the museum, they are making a significant contribution, and they thus feel a sense of ownership in the institution. This sense of belonging has been a feature of docent programs for years, and we are pleased that we were able to make a place for teachers as well. Finally, the teacher-docents are helping bring new audiences to the museum. The parents in one first grade class booked a museum tour led by their children’s teacher because they wanted to experience the museum with her.

Docent education is an on-going process where much of the learning takes place by doing. We in the education department of the MFA Houston have developed new respect for the dedication and skills our docents bring to their job when we see how long it takes for experienced classroom teachers to become effective gallery teachers. Through this project, we are all learning about teaching and learning about learning, and developing new respect for our volunteer and teaching colleagues.

For more information on “Learning Through Art” please call the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Education Department at (713) 639-7590. A curriculum kit will be available in January,1994.

Beth B. Schneider is education director at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She holds degrees in art history from Radcliffe College and the University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Schneider worked in the education department at the National Gallery of Art before moving to Houston in 1984. In 1991, she was honored as Outstanding Museum Educator by the Texas Art Education Association.

Schneider, Beth B. “Learning Through Art,” The Docent Educator 2.2 (Winter 1992): 8-10.

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