March 6, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 12

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    Docent for a Day, art lover for a lifetime

    Art museums were once places elementary school students only traipsed through on field trips. But the Smart Museum has helped change that, involving children in art in such an exciting way that its program has become an example for museums around the world.

    Six years ago, the Smart Museum started its "Docent for a Day" program. Since then, more than 3,000 fifth-graders from South Side and West Side neighborhoods have participated, including students from Hyde Park's Ray School, Murray Language Academy and Bret Harte School. The students don't just look at a few paintings and then go home -- they take part in a comprehensive program that teaches them to look at, understand and communicate about art.

    After five visits, the program culminates in a reception for the students and their families where the students become Docents for a Day -- that is, they get up in front of a crowd of up to 60 people (mostly parents and other students) and speak knowledgeably about an art object of their choice.

    "We have one of the best outreach programs in the city," said Kathleen Gibbons, Education Director of the Smart Museum and head of the Docent for a Day program. "We're less interested in the number of students that visit than we are in making sure that the visiting students become part of an art program that really teaches them how to look at art."

    The program took a giant step toward that goal when the museum received a grant in 1992 from the Sara Lee Foundation.

    "The grant allowed us to bus the kids, teachers and parents here," Gibbons said. "No other program in the city does that."

    The fifth-graders are taught about the elements of art, narrative as well as portraiture. Their classroom teachers are integral to this process.

    "They don't just sit in the lobby and grade papers while their students take part in the program," Gibbons said. "We demand a tremendous commitment from them. It's their job to lay the groundwork, and we teach them how to prepare the students before each visit. They seem to enjoy it -- many of the teachers we work with have been participating in this program since its inception."

    At the museum, the children are instructed by docents who are University students. The docents show them several paintings during each visit, asking the children such questions as: Does the woman look happy in this picture? Are the colors bright or dark? What does that tell you about what she's feeling? Usually, the children give lively, insightful responses. But if the children are stumped, the docents rephrase their questions again and again until they've asked it in a way the fifth-graders can understand. In this way, the docents are learning to educate students who may have never stepped inside a museum before, said Kimerly Rorschach, Director of Smart Museum.

    "Our program provides a 'giving opportunity' for University students," Rorschach said. "But also, they are learning more about art by teaching about it."

    Several of the University student docents of past years have enjoyed the program so much that they brought it with them when they became educators in other museums and schools around the country. And Gibbons has lectured on the Docent for a Day program at museums around the world, detailing it to educators at museums such as the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Johannesburg Art Gallery in South Africa and has hosted the Education Director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England.

    One thing Gibbons tells them is that the culmination of the program -- the final reception -- can be very emotional, as children who have never before spoken in public, or who stutter or are shy, speak about a painting with knowledge and poise. Often, their talk ends with parental tears of pride and thunderous applause.

    When the students give their talk, it's clear that they have done more than merely memorize a list of facts: They have learned to look at art.

    "We want students to feel confident when walking into a museum," Rorschach said. "We want them to become better individuals, we want to appeal to the humanist inherent in everyone. We don't want them to feel out of place when they walk into the Art Institute."

    Judged by these criteria, the Docent for a Day program is a success. As one fifth-grader said in a video about the program, "It used to be, someone said 'Let's go to a museum,' and I'd think, 'Dang! I want to play outside, I want to go roller skating.' But now, it's pretty fun. I like it."

    -- Jennifer Vanasco