Art opens a window to learning

Walters: Educators say a literacy and arts program that uses the museum's collection to teach critical thinking is having a positive effect on inner-city children.

January 13, 2002|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The teacher asked a group of Walters Art Museum spectators who were just old enough to shed baby teeth to explain what made the piazza in the Renaissance painting View of the Ideal City so perfect.

"Nobody is shooting anybody else," said 9-year-old Alexanderia Williams, of Dallas F. Nicholas Elementary School in Baltimore's Charles Village.

Such unusual - even disturbing - observations are what museum educators have come to expect from children taking part in a pilot literacy and arts program called Mummies, Manuscripts and Myths.

The program, which works with four inner-city Baltimore elementary schools, aims to help children improve their reading, analytical and communication skills, and often elicits more emotional reactions.

"It helps them with reading and words they've never seen," said Odessa Gaither, a second-grade teacher at Dallas F. Nicholas, whose pupils visited the museum for the first time last month. "But, basically, the program exposes the kids to culture. It gives them opportunities they've never had before."

Now in its second year, Mummies is a three-year program funded by an $800,000 grant from Deutsche Bank and its Baltimore subsidiary, Deutsche Banc Alex.Brown. The Baltimore banking group awarded the grant in 1999, in recognition of its 200th anniversary.

The program is intended to expose second-, third- and fourth-graders to the visual arts, to reinforce the concept that a fine-arts education improves academic skills and to improve youngsters' literacy.

In the program's first year, children in the four participating schools - Dallas F. Nicholas, John Eager Howard, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Mount Royal - received some classroom instruction. The program focused mainly on museum tours that highlighted the paintings, mummies and other collections at the Walters.

But Mummies took on an unexpected dimension because of the children's sometimes surprising reactions during their museum visits. Officials noticed that the program offered a portal for the children to see the world outside the confines of their neighborhoods - and to let them voice things that might not otherwise be said.

"We know that art is another means to express things like that," said Emily Onstott, the program's manager. "But we embrace it rather than turn away from it."

After the first year, the museum hired consultants Institute for Learning Innovation in Annapolis to evaluate the program, and this year revamped its curriculum.

Officials dropped the idea of merely introducing the children to the Walters' collection, giving them a few books and lecturing them. Working with specialists and teachers from the four schools, the museum created a curriculum that matched what the children were learning not only in reading class, but in science and social studies as well.

It also focused on three universal themes - nature, humanity and community - instead of on particular museum collections.

"We needed to do several things," said Jackie Copeland, the museum's director of education and public programs. "We needed to make this relevant to them. We needed to give them a voice ... and show them how to value art in their lives. And we needed to help improve their literacy."

The program now consists of three eight-week sessions culminating in a trip to the museum.

At the beginning of the year, each participating class is given a mini-library stocked with new, hardcover books on subjects to be studied in the museum - from cat mummies to still-lifes. The books are subsidized in part by the national advocacy group Reading Is Fundamental. Each child receives three new books each year. The teachers, too, are given a copy of the books for the classroom.

The classroom segment is made up of 90-minute visits each week for seven weeks by museum educators, many of whom are retired teachers. Each educator aims to teach critical thinking, language arts and creative arts.

For example, second-graders at Dallas Nicholas learned about collages during the fall session. They cut pictures from magazines to create cityscapes and landscapes, terms the pupils had never before explored.

The children then studied the small oil landscape View of Tivoli by Gaspar van Wittel. The museum educators asked them to imagine what life would be like in Tivoli if they were 1 inch tall, and to describe what they saw. The children read Two Bad Ants, a story from an ant's point of view. At the end of the lesson, the children created their own works of art - collages, in this case - and recorded their experience in journals.

The Annapolis consultant's report on the program's first year found that it "provides students with valuable and much-needed experiences in the arts." And, while the evidence is only anecdotal, the consultants found that the children's reading and communication skills improved through their participation in the program.

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