- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 28, 2007

Teaching students to teach one another is a tried-and-true educational tenet. A few classes at Stafford Elementary School in Stafford, Va., these days go one further: teaching students how to teach their parents.

It’s a double whammy bound to allow for strong retention of material being studied — in this instance, the works of Paul Klee. However, art teacher Marce Miller is careful not to make such broad claims for just one part of an ongoing school agenda that applies the versatile artist’s work across the curriculum.

“I can’t sit here and give exact results,” she says modestly. “I can’t quantify this, but you can gauge the excitement level.”

Stimulated by a weeklong immersion course for educators last summer at the Phillips Collection that involved three other Stafford Elementary teachers, Miss Miller invented Art Talks, a junior docent program developed in connection with the gallery’s Mentor Teacher program.

The latter involves the museum directly in a teacher’s methods and projects and eventually showcases students’ work. Three schools are participants in this year’s Mentor Teacher program, says Suzanne Wright, Phillips education head. They include the District’s new City Collegiate Charter School and a school in Los Angeles. “They are all doing different things, but Stafford by far is the most extensive.”

Miss Miller, 53, who recently was judged Stafford’s Teacher of the Year, is preparing fourth- and fifth-grade students to lead family members March 10 on a tour of the Phillips. These young guides that day will act in the place of more experienced docents on the museum staff. The group of 21 fourth- and fifth-graders were selected from 37 applicants after a rigorous interview during which each one had to talk about a Klee painting and say why he thought he would make a good docent.

Early on, she told Art Talk students making puppets in a way that Paul Klee did for his only son that she didn’t want the exercise to be making art “so much as talking about it and creating teachers.” The Latin word for docent means “to teach,” she told them.

The tutoring lessons are thorough enough so that one student recently found herself correcting her father’s pronunciation of the artist’s last name. “He thought it was pronounced like the word key,” Miss Miller relates. His daughter then corrected him, saying the correct sound was closer to the word clay.

The program’s long-range goal is to help students gain a sure appreciation of the role of art in their world, as well as the role of museums, and then apply those skills to other subjects.

“It is the concept of using an artist to add flavor and context to the classroom. In the second grade, they study ancient cultures of Egypt, and that suited perfectly because Paul Klee was influenced by a trip to Tunisia,” she says.

Klee was the ideal topic, Miss Miller explains, because he was so prolific — “over nine thousand pieces of artwork” — and because “you can’t really cubbyhole him. He is hard to categorize. He never did anything the same.” Klee was a Swiss-born painter and graphic artist who grew up in a musical family and was highly versatile in forms of creative expression. A trip to Tunisia was said to be a turning point in his life. At one point, he wrote that “color has taken possession of me.”

“The other thing that is wonderful that I make sure to tell the kids is that he was inspired by kids,” Miss Miller adds. “They find that empowering, and kids teaching other kids is such a strong way for kids to learn. When kids are empowered to be the teacher, think of the esteem it takes to teach a peer.”

A former museum educator, Miss Miller says she is especially fond of the intimacy of small museum settings, such as the Phillips: “It makes children feel more at ease and less in awe. It puts them closer to the artwork and what they would experience in their own lives.” One of the benefits of the Greater Washington area, including Richmond and Baltimore, she notes, is the range and number of art institutions.

After an Internet search, she concluded that there are museums in other places that teach children to become docents, but she calls the Phillips program unique because it is what she terms school-based.

That means, Miss Miller says, that “it allows us to go to local museums that are part of the students’ county and neighborhood. I can talk about artwork in texts and in the community and address the whole concept of visual literacy and how to read a picture, taking it to the next step where kids can apply it to their whole world.”

The “school-based” concept also means that Phillips staff comes to the school during the academic year to learn how the concepts discussed in the summer teacher institute are being applied.

Outside scholars and artists are involved in the institute, Ms. Wright says. “One of my favorites was a music educator and musician who has an organization called Bash the Trash that uses recycled materials to make into musical instruments. Then he teaches teachers how to write and compose music on the created instrument using a series of symbols for notations. Klee was a violinist, and so teachers can learn about the relation between art and music on many levels.”

The teachers find different ways to apply in classrooms what they learned in institute. Miss Miller already had named tables in her art room after artists and art movements, one of them being Paul Klee, whose work, she says, she always had loved.

After her experience at the institute with its Paul Klee theme, she invented a motto — “Put Klee in Your Day” — and went about making him virtually the mascot of Stafford Elementary.

Among the different activities undertaken was an assignment she gave for teachers at a pre-school session that was based on the artist’s singsong expression that “A Line Is a Dot You Take for a Walk.”

“Grades second through fifth hear me say it all the time,” Miss Miller says.

Faculty and staff interpretations of the line, seen as illustrations on white paper, were then showcased for the students to see at the start of the school year. “Line is a key element of design, and the exercise is an easy way to introduce people to drawing skills,” she notes.

Klee’s birthday, on Dec. 18, 1879, was celebrated by the whole school, 600-student-strong. “Art Talk members ran puppet shows in the library, and some had scavenger hunts.

“Four kids were dressed up to do a mock interview” — Diane Sawyer and Paul Klee look-alikes — “and took notes on what they learned,” Miss Miller says. “Someone played Beethoven and Bach in the hallway, and the cafeteria baked a cake with the words ‘A Line Is a Dot You Take for a Walk’ in icing on the top.”

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