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Teachers and Docents

A Laboratory for Learning

UMMA's interactive educational tours help docents, teachers and students connect and extend classroom learning.

Students clamor off the bus and into the museum for a school tour with world-class art and astute and friendly docents. In the 21st century, field trips at UMMA offer more than an enriching day away from school. Docents encourage students to look carefully, think critically, and extend their classroom learning in new and creative ways. UMMA offers tours that make connections with classroom curriculum, notably in writing, science, and social studies. Educators at UMMA work with both docents and teachers to make these exciting new ways of learning happen.

It all begins with docent training. In the first weeks with a new class, instructors Pamela Reister and Ruth Slavin introduce strategies for interactive, inquiry-based teaching and reinforce and expand on these strategies throughout the year. Members of the training class of 2014/15 appreciate the importance of this approach. One reported, “the focus of the docent training program is engaging the students. Group dynamics, interaction, and participation are key. A successful visit should raise interest and awareness, which hopefully will inspire the student to learn more.” Other trainees noted that docents are taught to “evoke personal responses,” that “interaction and participation are key,” and that docents should encourage students to “take away curiosity” about what they see.

UMMA also reaches out to the community. Robin Bailey, Fine Arts Coordinator for Ann Arbor Public Schools, has been invaluable as a conduit of information on district and state curricula as well as specific creative lessons offered by her teachers. These gems are set in the galleries, expanding the content and reinforcing the themes with carefully selected works of art and accompanying activities.

Last fall, docents and teachers met to test our methods at an UMMA teacher workshop designed for sharing ideas, experiences, and lessons. Both docents and teachers benefitted from seeing the work of the other. Teachers got to experience a docent tour without worrying about bus arrangements or permission slips. This tour sample included art from regions of the U.S. employed in social studies tours, abstract art as a prompt for writing, and painting and sculpture containing rocks and minerals that illuminate the study of geology. Ina Sandalow, a former Ann Arbor teacher and docent since 1998/99, noted that this was a good laboratory for both her and the teachers. She got feedback on what was effective about her tour and teachers got to see “that we ask students to look seriously and practice inductive reasoning.” Sherri Masson, former teacher in Huron Valley Schools District and docent since 2008/09, pointed out that teachers got to practice using a work of art as a concrete way to start the writing process, “to observe and think about the emotions and feelings depicted in paint and develop their writing from that.” Further, teachers “had to experience the risk-taking that is involved in writing, something their students feel in the classroom.”

This teacher workshop was also something of a crucible for teachers from Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit to work together developing new ideas. Teachers worked in teams to create lesson plans for their schools based on the docent tour and presented their plans to colleagues in a curriculum slam, a lively, fast-paced workshop finale. Teachers said “it was great to hear the divergent thinking and creative lessons from other schools,” that it was “really important to develop art/science connections,” and they appreciated the “opportunity to collaborate.”

The work of UMMA staff, teachers, and docents on K-12 learning will be represented on a new web platform. UMMA recently received a Challenge Grant of $500,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to support an initiative that will, among other things, make our humanities programming available online. The NEH grant will allow us to create a web platform for the lessons planned by teachers, the lessons that augment and extend our curricular tours, upon which other teachers can comment. This cyber adventure will expand the possibilities of learning at UMMA in more exciting, 21st-century ways.