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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fine Art in the Classroom (and Out)

Still Life created by Sam C. using The Art Zone
"Chiaroscuro!" shouted one of my fourth graders in answer to the question: "What technique did the artist use in this painting to show the contrast of light and dark?"

"ELBOW: Every day life, Light, Brushstrokes, Outside, Weather!" answered another ten year old child to the question: "What are the characteristics of Impressionist's paintings?"

If you ask me, most fourth grade students (and many adults) would not know the answers to these types of questions, yet they are common place in our school when the children are involved in our "Docent" lessons.  This program which started over 15 years ago by one of the teachers and several parents continues today. Parent volunteers, also known as, Docents, visit our 3rd grade - 5th grade classrooms once a month and present a different artist or genre. At that time it is not unusual to see students dissecting the paintings of the Old Masters, Mary Cassat or Picasso.  They explore the American Period (John Singleton Copley & John Singer Sargent), Ancient Egyptian Art, Asian Art and more.  The Docent program takes Art in the Classroom to a new level.  It compliments and expands on what the students are learning during their art classes at school.

Rainbow by Sam C.
The Docent will often have a Powerpoint presentation with slides of the artists' paintings or large prints on cardboard for all to see.  Often there is an accompanying activity where the students get to try their hand at "Cubism" or make "Match the Titles to the Abstract Paintings" or they create their own Asian "woodblock" print. 

The culminating activity in fourth grade is a field trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  Students explore the different exhibits with a Docent. Describing and scrutinizing 'up close' those paintings they were introduced to in the classroom presentations.  Asking questions and viewing the sculptures makes art come to life. And always, the most coveted, most talked about portion of the trip is the visit to the Egyptian room which holds real mummies! Such a highlight!

Most people would think that the kids are too young to appreciate "fine art," but I tell you that my students are more knowledgeable than most when it comes to surveying a painting's genre, balance, expressive or formal properties and more.  One needs only visit my classroom during a Docent presentation to see their excitement as they spy new artists.

Does your school have a Docent program? If so, how is it presented?

The Art Zone: For kids: Try creating a Still Life, a Collage, a Mosiac and more with this interactive site from the National Gallery of Art.  
Created using Picassohead
Picassohead: Create your own Picasso-like head. Use for avatars or share in the gallery.

The National Gallery of Art  Visit this Washington DC gallery site to see many of the art pieces online.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (of New York) shares many of its collections online as well.

Web Gallery of Art - a virtual museum started in 1996. 

Museum of Fine Arts (Boston) - Kids and Family programs.  (Check your local museum for similar programs.)

Art Docent Program: This is a fee-based program for grades K-6 which includes lessons developed in 1984 by art educator and author Barbara Herberholz.

Check out this video about the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and see some of the exhibits my students were able to peruse. 


  1. Hi Nancy,
    What a great experience for your students! I'm sure they enjoyed the Boston Museum of Fine Art so much more after the docent lessons. And what a plus that they are literate in viewing visual arts.

    I do have experience with a similar program. When I was in Peoria U.S.D. in Arizona, we had something called the Art Masterpiece Program. It seems very similar. The school district received a grant to purchase large laminated prints of fine art. Parent and other volunteers taught the prepared lessons about the artist and elements of art and there was always an art project for the students to create. They loved the lessons! I actually taught in the program as a volunteer when my own daughters were young. Then when I was a teacher in the same district, I had volunteers teach my students too.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!


  2. Hi Denise,
    The program you describe sounds very similar. I love that we take learning to a new level. Most people would think that learning about Monet wouldn't be exciting but in the eyes of a child it sure can be - it's all about presentation.

    A lot of credit goes out to the parent volunteers for taking the time to learn about the artists and the artwork themselves. Some years it is harder than others to find enough Docents. It really is so worth it. I know our Art teacher often is able to refer to the lessons in her class as well. So many great connections.

    It makes me smile to know that you were once a Docent. Your have a keen eye for photography and I imagine you probably could paint as well (as witnessed by your daughter's great work!).

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  3. Nancy,
    Thanks for the compliment! You made me smile! I do love to look at art, take pictures, and do computer graphics a bit, but I have not done much painting in my life. My mom was an artist too, and I'm glad my daughter has been able to create such great paintings!


  4. "Most people would think that the kids are too young to appreciate fine art..."

    The statement is, I'm afraid, quite true but my feeling is we should never underestimate the capacity of the curious minds of children to learn when given the support, opportunity and guidance to explore new experiences.

    I take it "Docent" lessons borrow a little from the language of the Dutch masters in their naming. The involvement of community members as "docent" or "teacher" offers not only the students the opportunity to learn from the docent but the docent a chance to learn from the students. It is a wonderful scheme. :)

    It’s a pity I was not near to experience lessons in person. I was unfamiliar with the term "Chiaroscuro” except of its Italian language origin but this post peaked my interest. A little research and I realised it described the tonal contrasts in art, a feature I have appreciated in the form of art such as Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.

    Teacher, NSW, Australia

  5. @Ross - Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post. Thank you for taking my "Docent" lessons even further by explaining the origin.

    I think you are right when you say that we should never underestimate the capacity of the curious minds of children. My students really astound me daily - especially when I see their excitement over learning new things or when given the opportunity to 'create' something to share what they have learned.

    Again - thanks for taking the time to visit and comment.


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