Maggie Mehlman ’19, Sophia Pray ’19, and Jilly Gibbs ’20 sit in front of a large painting of a man and woman holding boxes of strawberries and fields in the distance, part of artist Don Coen’s visiting migrant series on display at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Pray tells a group of fourth- and fifth-graders from nearby Taylor Elementary School that she likes the painting because it reminds her of California, where she is from.
“That’s good,” Mehlman says of Pray’s explanation as to why she likes the painting. “She didn’t just say ‘I like it’ or ‘it makes me happy,’ but told us why. She provided evidence for her personal connection to the art.”
David Figel ’20, Ana Ortiz-Mejias ’19, and Emily Gardner ’19 tell the students to look at various paintings in the museum, asking them to find one they make a connection with. Prompts for connections include: Which piece of art reminds you of yourself? Someone you know? A place you have been? A time when you felt a strong emotion?
Students put their hand on their head when they find a piece of art they connect to, then share their connections with their classmates. As they sit in a circle on the museum floor, Figel asks them what they learned.
“We learn more about each other when we share connections,” one student replies.
“You can always learn something new about somebody,” says another.
The 13 Colorado College students working with the elementary-school children are in Associate Chair and Lecturer in Education Kris Stanec’s Power of the Arts course, one of CC’s community-based-learning classes. Intertwined with the class was a project called “Multiple Narratives,” which fosters engagement with art through a writing curriculum that begins with students making connections between themselves and a piece of art.
The project also seeks to validate and support individual’s various narratives and relationships to art. “My approach challenges the common dominant narrative of museum education, in which the museum has the knowledge and visitors come to listen.” Stanec says.
Stanec is the Spring 2017 Mellon Faculty Fellow for the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Museum. The fellowship supports Stanec’s work developing a curriculum to bring together CC students, Colorado Springs School District 11 teachers and students, and FAC docents with the museum’s collections. The Mellon grant supports the development of the Colorado College and Fine Arts Center alliance, and provides funding for supplies such as art cards, schools’ transportation and museum admissions, and pays for the near para-professional assistance of Paige Harari ’17, who has worked closely with Stanec on the project.
Every day during the first two weeks of Block 6, Stanec’s class visited Taylor Elementary (full name: Alice Bemis Taylor Elementary, a serendipitous tie-in with the Fine Arts Center), working with the students in a series of writer workshops. There they used art cards, or photographs, of pieces in the FAC’s permanent collection as writing prompts, engaging students with the art before they even entered the museum. The connections the students made with the artwork generated ideas, or “seeds” for their narrative pieces.
In his combined class fourth- and fifth-grade class at Taylor Elementary, Kyle Gilliam stresses the importance of taking a seed and growing it into a small moment, or snapshot. Working with the children, CC students taking Stanec’s class remind them to use emotion, the five senses, similes, and metaphors in their writing. The result: One girl selects a photo of a Western scene and writes, “Bang, bang! I hear the sounds of gunshots in my ears. Popcorn bursts with flavor inside my mouth.” She explains that the painting reminds her of watching Western movies with her grandmother.
After the two weeks with the CC class, Gilliam says improvement in his students’ writing was clearly evident. “Students went from a few sentences, mostly ‘telling’ about the art card, then transformed into ‘showing’ a wonderfully written narrative,” he says. Asked who benefits most from the CC-Taylor Elementary partnership, Gilliam says he sees it as a win-win for everyone. “I know that our young students benefit from the opportunity to interact with positive role models. Furthermore, this collaboration forms a connection between two learning communities that produces long-lasting benefits for all involved.”
The CC course culminated with a visit to the Fine Arts Center by the children, many of whom had never been there. Prior to the big day, FAC docents joined the CC education course, discussing research on how people learn in informal contexts. The CC students and museum docents used education theory to co-create museum experiences that would meet the goals of both elementary school teachers and museum educators. Understanding how people learn enacted transformation that motivated viewers to look longer at the art.
“I was left speechless as I watched the students interact with art in a way that I’ve never seen before,” says Gilliam. “They were fully engaged and thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and appreciated art in a new way.”
A highlight of the aptly named “Multiple Narratives” project was the elementary author-sharing portion of the venture, which took place at the FAC.
The Taylor Elementary students had been revising and rehearsing their art-inspired narratives based on the FAC art cards for two weeks. During their visit to the Fine Arts Center, Weston Taylor and Chris Bittner of CC’s ITS: Innovative Technology staff videoed each child as they read their narrative about their connection to a piece of art. The videos will preserve the students’ narratives and be available for other museum visitors to experience through a free augmented-reality app, Aurasma.
Aurasma will allow the students to view themselves reading their narratives in front of the actual piece of art that inspired it. And, even more importantly, they can share their experience with their family, as each student received a free family pass to the Fine Arts Center. Through the app, other visitors can use the students’ stories as models for finding their own connections to the artwork, Stanec says.
“My hope is that the elementary students’ videos as well as the CC students’ augmented reality 'auras' created as assignments in the class are accessible to museum visitors in the future, as well as expanded upon by community members, artists, and museum educators for additional exhibits,” she says. “If this technology and the writers’ workshop curriculum with art cards used in this Mellon-funded pilot program become a sustainable part of the FAC, we can continue to work toward the co-creation of multiple narratives beyond this project.”