What do teachers gain from professional development at an art museum?

We talk a great deal about learning from our visitors, so whenever I read something about museums by a non-museum-professional I take note. This description of a day-long teacher workshop at the Cleveland Museum of Art comes from Charles Ellenbogen, who has been teaching for 25 years (thus the name of his blog). In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that while Charles is not a museum professional, he is married to one.

Here are some things I find interesting in Charles’s blog post:

  • He attended the workshop not to learn anything specific, but because he loves the Cleveland Museum of Art. He notes the lack of diversity in the group. We see schools as a way to reach new audiences, but the teachers themselves may not be new to museums. How do we use workshops to reach new adults/teachers, as well as their students?
  • Charles notes a few “basic standards” for professional development: “respectful use of time, both practical and philosophical, not lecture-based, no one read to me…”
  • I’m sure you are all familiar with Dewey’s claim that learning takes place during the reflection; Charles echoes this noting that he realized the value of the activities “Since we had time to not only practice a variety of activities, but to reflect on them.”
  • Charles’s take away is that the museum educators “want the museum to become more like the kids of classrooms we’d like to have.” It would be wonderful if teachers could leave all museum workshops with a similar impression.

Charles Ellenbogen, from after25yearsblog.

I love, love, love the Cleveland Museum of Art. So when an opportunity entered my email inbox to do some professional development there and it was a program my administration supported, I put in an application and was fortunate enough to be accepted.

We gathered outside the front door of the museum, and I was not too surprised to find that of the 11 (?) of us, only two of us are male. I was also not surprised (though I am disappointed) to find that none of us, at least as far as I can tell, are teachers of color.

An opening challenge – to take a piece of paper and any available supplies and turn it into something that represented me in 3 minutes – quickly revealed that of the 11 of us, I was lodged firmly in 15th place in terms of artistic ability. Nevertheless, it was an effective and efficient way for us to introduce ourselves to each other – one of many activities I intend to bring into my classroom.

It quickly became clear to me that, at least on the surface, this professional development was going to meet my basic standards for PD – respectful use of time, both practical and philosophical, not lecture-based, no one read to me, etc..

We entered the galleries and practiced a few ways to engage students with art. The first was based on Visual Thinking Strategies, an approach I’m somewhat familiar with, but our facilitator lent it a new twist, by having us go around in a circle and just say one (new) word at a time about the picture. Luckily, when I repeated someone else’s word during Round 3, I was not out. Instead, I was just given more time to think. It was the first of several efforts during the day to get us, as viewers, to slow down – to avoid interpretation, to avoid judgment – until we had, at the risk of using a dreaded phrase, ‘collected’ our data – in this case, in the form of observations.

We did several other activities (all in front of works I’d never given a second thought to before). Now, I have a certain amount of skepticism about the 7 Intelligences and a limited amount of patience for hooks. Since we had time to not only practice a variety of activities, but to reflect on them, I realized that these activities – one of which had me adopting the pose of a dog, another – imitating the sound of a cooking fire – were no mere gimmicks. They were drawing me into works that I’d never considered before and giving me openings that I could transfer to the key question about literature namely, how does form make meaning?

As an English teacher, I am used to crafting ways for students to write about art, so when we were told we’d be getting a choice of writing invitations to respond to, I thought I was finally in my comfort zone. Before looking at the prompts, I thought I knew which work I wanted to use as the basis for my response. But then I read the prompt. I was invited to write about the work that said something about me as a teacher.

I turned around and saw this —

It’s called Mapa estelar en arbal and it’s by Gabriel Orozco. To me, it looked like a profile of my brain when I am planning lessons, units, etc.. It was a cool activity – the idea of overlaying my autobiography onto someone else’s artwork. As with everything else in the morning, I will adapt it and use it in the classroom.

The opening question in the afternoon was how comfortable we all were with drawing. In general, if I can look at something, I don’t mind taking a hack at drawing it. We went into one of the Asian galleries and sat in front of this — well, never mind, I must not have taken down the right information because I can’t locate it on their website right now. (If anyone who was with me today can provide a link, I’d be grateful.) We went through a similar process with it that we had with the works in the morning. The challenge with this one was that there was a kind of optical illusion in this painting. There were two characters in it. It took me a while to discern the second one. We were invited to sketch it and, at intervals, we were asked to consider certain elements of mark-making – speed, pressure, etc. When we were prompted to hold our pencil the way the artist held his brush, any success I’d been having went out the window. Then we were given the kind of brush the artist used (but sadly no ink or water) just to get a sense of how that felt. It reminded me a lot of the writing exercise that asks writers to learn the style of another writer by copying a passage. My brain kept code switching to English teacher mode, and thinking about how teaching an International Baccalaureate program requires developing an understanding of how different kinds of stories work. Then I got stuck (and probably stubborn) in a familiar place – the question of context – how much? when? and what weight should it carry?

We spent so much time with this painting that there was not much left for this one —

Try it.

What do you see in the picture? No judgments. No interpretations. Just list what you see. Think about both in terms of form and content (see – just like reading literature). To what effect? What argument can you present based on the evidence provided by the picture? (I loved all of the discussions about museum labels and the prospective assignment of having students write their own labels. Our facilitator made a point of obstructing our view of the label.)

It turned out that, somewhat in violation of the manifesto of the Abstract Expressionists (there is a Jackson Pollock two paintings away from this), this effort, called, “Alabama,” has some realism as its origin story – a photograph of (I think) car headlights and a Klan rally (not owned by the museum). Having now looked at more pictures of Klan rallies than I care to, I will admit to not being able to find the photograph that served as the artist’s (that is, Norman Lewis’) inspiration.

Ultimately, we are to develop an action research question that must focus on an object in the museum’s permanent collection.

So far, I’ve got three ideas:

  1. How do artists (or maybe just photographers), like writers, use techniques to make meaning?
  2. Something about the whole notion of appropriation. The power of the photograph of Emmett Till’s body and the white artist who recently made her own painting of Till. . . (not sure if this connects to anything in the museum’s collection)
  3. a photograph I bought and used as a ‘master work’ when I was teaching at an arts magnet school – two South African schoolboys talking with each other at the gate of a school – the white child is the one on the outside (again, might have to be for practice because I’m not sure what it connects to in the museum’s collection) – could connect well with “Master Harold”

A good, energizing day at a great place. They want to the museum to become more like the kinds of classrooms we’d like to have. And they seem open to any and every possibility. I look forward to tomorrow.

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