Be careful when asking a group of five and six year olds a question when you are searching for a specific answer.
“Can anyone tell me what’s different about these two paintings?” I asked, kneeling in front of two paintings by Monet titled Vétheuil with a group of students sitting in front of me.
“The colors are different, but the buildings are the same,” exclaimed an excited, brown-haired girl, speaking out of turn.
This was my partner Kendall’s cue to ask the students to choose the most used colors in each painting. The students shuffled through their color necklaces that we gave them at the beginning of the tour as we waited for their responses. The answers that followed turned out to be more varied than I’d anticipated.
“Blue!” “Green!” “Purple!” “Pink!” “Orange!”
While Kendall fielded the responses, I wasn’t sure how we would ultimately be able to explain our teaching objective about how color had been used to show a specific time of day. This was even more complicated when a couple of students chose the same color for both paintings.
“I see purple in both of them. When I look up at the sky, they have the same color of purple,” explained a boy.
I immediately looked back to the painting, although I’d spent a lot of time looking at it for the lesson plan. And, sure enough, the two skies did share the same purple, a small detail I hadn’t considered previously. In that moment, I saw the painting again as if for the first time. The point here is I have just as much to learn from the students. They teach me to be just a little less self-assured and to have a little critical awareness of my own assumptions. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of, it turns out, to be only fraction of what there is to be understood.
So I guess that brings me to what I have come to enjoy as museum educator. Teaching in the gallery allows for an intense exchange of ideas between educator and student. This first week has taught me firsthand how, by fostering an environment where students are challenged to share their beliefs, education can be a vehicle for cultural understanding in the truest sense of the word.
It was while teaching a group of seven and eight year olds this week when this second point became clearer to me. Kendall and I had chosen a Zulu woodcarving titled Storage-Rack Panel with Village Scene. The teaching objective was to have the students relate their experiences with chores and understand how this group of people delegated work to gather food for their community. We divided the group into boys and girls so that they could understand what jobs they might do in this culture.
“I’d be the warrior!” exclaimed Evan, a tall blond-haired boy, looking at his piece of paper.
“I build the frames of the houses,” shared a young boy named Caleb.
His twin brother, Boaz, replied, “I am a fence maker, so we can work together.”
Once everyone had shared, the students started looking at the wooded panel, curious to see where they would live in the village. Without any prompting, their enthusiasm led them to speculate how they would work together and support the village. In this sense, I saw the students engage with the work art once they became personally invested in its narrative. Teaching in the gallery is often less about the educator’s knowledge and more about facilitating a meaningful experience between student and object.
This brings me to my final point about children. They give genuine and constant feedback. Through my tour experiences this week, I’ve learned what kinds of questions not to ask, but more importantly how to make art more accessible to different audiences. Sometimes you even feel like you’ve opened someone’s mind to a new world:
“This is the best museum in the world,” said Caleb after the tour, smiling.