Anne Corso introduced herself to parents gathered in the Chrysler Museum auditorium and briefly explained how docents, who already left with students for gallery tours, would use artwork to engage their children’s critical and creative thinking skills.
“I imagine some of you are thinking, ‘Well, that’s all fine, but why am I here on a Saturday morning?’ Right?” Corso asked parents, gesturing with outstretched arms and eliciting laughter and head nods from the group.
“That’s a great point,” said Corso, the museum’s director of education and public programs. “What we know is that kids learn best when they are encouraged by their parents. Learning doesn’t just happen from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. in schools. It happens 24 hours a day – all day long.”
“And what we want to do,” Corso explained, “is empower all of you to help your kids learn outside of school time.”
Parent education is just one goal of SAPLINGS (Students and Parents Learning Intellectual Growth Strategies), a program offered by Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ (VBCPS) Title I and Gifted Education programs in collaboration with Chrysler Museum. A second goal is supporting early and equitable identification of student giftedness or potential by observing first-graders from Title I and former Title I elementary schools outside the classroom. Some students are more likely to engage in activities and express themselves at a museum, aquarium or other cultural institutions.
“A lot of times gifted characteristics are not manifested in the school house, in that regular brick and mortar setting, but they may be seen in this particular setting,” said VBCPS Executive Director of Differentiated Academic Programs Dr. Veleka Gatling of the museum partnership. “SAPLINGS extends what we do in the school with regard to gifted instruction, but it also helps parents see how they can use real-world opportunities to help further inquiry-based learning for their students.”
Docents provided real-world opportunities during parent tours of the museum and modeled inquiry-based learning strategies using the acronym COWLICKS — Counting, Observation, Words, Letters, Imagination, Compare and Contrast, Kinesthetics and Senses.
Parents received COWLICKS cards listing sample questions for each strategy with blanks to fill in depending on their location and what they were viewing.
For example, to encourage counting, parents can ask their children, “How many [X] do you see in this [Y]?” For imagination, “Pretend you are this [artwork, plant, animal, etc.]. What would you say to me?” For senses, “What would this [X] feel [or taste, smell, sound] like?”
A docent modeled the “L” in COWLICKS by asking parents gathered around a European painting, “What do you see in the artwork that begins with the letter R?” Robes. Rocks. Red.
“How about the letter F?” she asked. Feather. Fingers. Foot. Faces.
The group turned around to examine a piece by Francesco Maria Barzon entitled, “Conflagration on a Harbor.” The painting depicts a fire blazing at night, while men move quickly on horseback and people drag sacks along streets and into boats on a harbor.
The docent shared how “I,” or imagination, in COWLICKS could be prompted by asking, “If you stepped into this painting, what would you like to be part of?”
“I think it’s a prehistoric Wal-Mart on Black Friday,” replied a parent to laughter from all.
“Very imaginative,” said the docent with a smile. “It’s true, everyone is lined up before sun comes up. You can see the moon is in the sky.”
While parents continued to work with various learning strategies, their children discussed paintings and sculptures with docents on their own gallery tours. Sitting Indian style in front of “The Vegetable Vendor” by French artist François Boucher, first-graders talked about growing, selling, buying and cooking vegetables. When asked, they shared some of their favorite vegetables including mac and cheese, candy, pizza, grits, grapes and broccoli.
Docent Donna Bausch presented to students the painting “Music” by American artist Philip Evergood. They brainstormed instruments they would like to play in their own orchestra – trumpet, violin, flute, karaoke machine, guitar, whistle. Then, Bausch provided a kinesthetic learning opportunity by asking the first-graders to line up and creatively and silently play their selected instruments while marching to their next location.
“We know that people learn differently,” Stark began. “Some people learn by listening – auditory learning. Visual learners have to see something; just hearing about it isn’t enough. There are people who learn by moving around. That’s kinesthetic learning.”
Stark explained their first lesson, mirroring, with a Portrait of Jack Tanzer by Andy Warhol. “Kids mirror what you do,” she said. “You put on makeup; they copy you. They imitate you. I want everyone to stand and mirror him and then decide what his next move would be.”
After everyone mirrored the placement of their hands, Stark asked a parent volunteer to share his next move for Mr. Tanzer. The father moved his hand, acting as though he was brushing something off his shoulder.
Movements became more creative with the next activity to demonstrate “mapping” and “activating.”
Stark assigned small groups of parents to a painting or sculpture in the gallery. They had to work together to physically depict or “map” the artwork as shown and then “activate” to put the artwork in motion without moving their feet.
The same parents who, earlier in the morning, wondered with Corso why they were the ones at the museum, wasted no time sharing ideas, practicing routines and laughing.
There was lots of laughing.
“Everyone thinks that when you go to a museum you have to stand lock still and not move at all. Quite the opposite is true,” said Corso. “A lot of students learn best with physical movement.”
A lot of parents, too.
“Let’s see you map the sculpture,” said Stark after practice time ended. The parents stood frozen to depict “Dawn’s Presence” by Louise Nevelson.
“Now, activate!” directed Stark, and the parents swayed and twisted, some with arms in the air.
“I see waves,” said one parent.
“I see someone fishing,” said another parent.
“I see spirit fingers,” offered a third parent, “like a cheerleader.”
More laughing and smiling.
Oil paintings by pop artists James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein also were brought to life. The once quiet gallery with two-dimensional artwork on the walls was brimming with parent conversation, merriment and movement.
“I learned that it’s OK to move in a museum and not be quiet and still,” said one mother. “And even if you’re looking at a flat painting, you can think about what happened before or what will happen next.”
“Instead of just talking to our kids about what we see, try asking them what they see,” said a father. “And you can do it pretty much anywhere – driving down the road or in the grocery store. Anywhere. That’s the cool part about it.”
A Spanish-speaking parent of an English-language learner (ELL) was pleased to see her son so engaged during the museum visit. “Bryan participated a lot and seemed motivated,” said the mother through an interpreter. “He was raising his hand and answering questions and really happy about it.”
How will she apply the learning strategies at home?
“If there is something that he likes the most, I will ask him to draw it, practice it or act it out,” she replied.
Observing student and parent engagement is what Bausch likes about working with the SAPLINGS program as a museum docent.
“We’re really so impressed with the whole program because it’s such a commitment on the part of the parents and the teachers to come out on a Saturday morning. I wish all the school systems in the area would do something similar,” said Bausch, “because I like to think that this is a shot for a kid who may be in a classroom setting who doesn’t feel creative or motivated for whatever reason.”
“I love thinking that we make a real difference in a child’s life with this program,” she added, “probably more than any other program we participate in. It inspires me to be part of it and I love it.”