Students Put Classroom Theories into Artful Action

Posted: March 20, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Graduate student Jonathan Kettler has been honing his storytelling skills this semester. For his art education class, he practiced creative ways to tell the story of Buddha and then got to tell it to a number of families visiting the Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C., this month.

Jonathan Kettler tells a story
Graduate student Jonathan Kettler tells the story of Buddha to families visiting the Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C.

Kettler was one of 12 students in Renee Sandell’s class, Teaching Critical Response to Art, Pre-K to 12. The class involves a collaborative project between the museum and Mason titled, “Talking about Art: From Past to Present, Here to There,” and offers future art educators the opportunity to develop a museum tour they called “An Artful Adventure for the Whole Family.”

Sandell, professor of art and visual technology and director of the MAT in art education program, has been doing this kind of work with students since 1991–first at the Maryland Institute College of Art, now at Mason.

According to Sandell, museum educators face an interesting challenge when trying to get visitors to explore art objects. Unlike classroom art educators who have time to build a rapport with students, museum educators are often working with strangers and might have their attention for about an hour. Sandell compares the relationship to a blind date: one doesn’t know what to expect from the other and the quality of the encounter determines whether the relationship will continue.

The goal of the family-focused tour was to create a meaningful experience for multigenerational museum-goers-guided by art education students. The students profited as much from the relationship as the museum. “Working with original objects in the museum setting brings learning about art to life,” says Sandell.

Earlier in the semester the students familiarized themselves with the museum’s collection and architecture. Sandell asked them to choose one of their favorite pieces to present to their class. Drawings of the chosen objects were then sorted into groups of four based on diverse criteria set by Sandell, and each group was asked to develop a tour that explored western, nonwestern, painting, 3D and contemporary art.

“With 12 students working on the project, there was a lot of collaboration,” says Sandell. “And a lot of that collaboration took place online.” The class also was visited by a series of guest educators who helped students develop skills and strategies. The students also received some training at the National Gallery of Art.

“The Kreeger has a wonderful collection,” says Shannon McCarty, an undergraduate majoring in art and visual technology. “We had lots of ideas for activities to engage families in the collection, but you can’t bring certain things into the museum.” Although these rules precluded some of the more on-hands art projects, the limitations help students develop creative approaches.

In addition to the tours and using questioning strategies and storytelling to get the families to talk about the art, the students also developed a series of take-home activities for attendees, including a scavenger hunt the family could begin as soon as the tour was over.

Anka Zaremba and students
Anka Zaremba, far right, worked with students before the presentations.
Kreeger Photos

Mason students learned much by giving their tours twice to different family groups, developing important teaching skills of flexibility, improvisation and revision of plans. According to Sandell, the most exciting part was seeing how family museum viewers developed a connection with special objects forged from the exploration of the students’ selections.

The semester-long project continues as students extend their research further by writing an instructional resource for the objects they studied.

“It was inspiring for me to see the enthusiasm and seriousness of the Mason students,” says Judy A. Greenberg, director of the Kreeger. “It was evident that they were well prepared to present the art to the families. The experience was enriching for our guests, and I hope the students left feeling a sense of accomplishment.”

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