WAM: Back to School Edition

By Molly Braswell
Learning and Interpretation Assistant

It’s been a busy and exciting summer at the PMA and as September gets closer, the Learning and Interpretation Department can’t help but look forward to the return of school tours. During the school year, the energy of school tours transforms our museum; it is wonderful to see and hear kids in the galleries, excited to be looking at art (and probably to be away from school!). The PMA’s Free School Tours, made possible by the Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Trust, give Maine students the opportunity to experience one-of-a-kind artwork in person, and to see the way that our state influences artists and their work. Last year the PMA hosted over 9,000 school kids and we are looking forward to another amazing year.

The tours are guided by PMA docents, our very talented and energetic group of volunteers. The docents personalize each tour, tying in the students’ interests and classroom content; they also add a bit of their own personality and perspective to their tours as well. Docents have a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and it’s fun to see how their own ideas and passions are expressed through their tours. Along these lines, some docents have favorite age groups, and prefer to give tours to certain grades. Luckily for the PMA, we have docents for every grade, and of course there are many docents who love teaching all ages.

To get us geared up for the start of the school year, I thought I would share what some of our docents love about touring the museum with students at each stage and age: what students seem to enjoy most about their visits, how different grades contribute to the tours, and why museum visits are fun for all ages.

Kathy Sheehan loves working with the younger kids (grades 1-3) because “they are engaged, very talkative, and are excited to answer questions or participate in discussions.” Before becoming a docent, Kathy was a preschool and kindergarten teacher, so she has a lot of experience with this age. She really enjoys showing these students the artwork in the museum because “their observations are keen, unique, and sometimes very funny.” Kathy says that as soon as these younger students walk into the PMA’s spacious and commanding Selma Wolf Black Great Hall, “they know they’re in for a new adventure!”

PMA docent Rhonda Pearle enjoys taking 4th and 5th graders on tours of the PMA because “they are always excited, willing to share, and sincerely interested in the art they are experiencing.” Rhonda appreciates how the students’ thoughts about a work of art can enable her to look at the work in a completely new way. When Rhonda’s own children were in elementary school, she was involved in creating a volunteer art program for the school. They had a program for each grade, but Rhonda especially loved working with the 4th and 5th graders—she noticed how students at this age really enjoy expressing their own opinions and contributing thoughtfully to a project.

As a former middle school teacher, Sue Smith particularly enjoys taking middle school students on a tour of the museum. Sue points out that students of this age are “old enough to handle more complicated issues and ideas,” and as they have several years of school under their belts, they are able to relate the art to topics they have discussed in school. Sue has learned that middle schoolers “like variety, and it is so easy to provide that at the Portland Museum of Art.” She discovered that “they like anything that is relevant to their lives.” If a student can relate to a piece of art, they will want to share personal stories and observations about the work. Sue believes that “middle school students can be great visitors—they can be quite discerning, opinionated, and fun-loving all at the same time.”

Carolyn Outwin is the docent to call for high school groups. She has always worked with this age group—it is the grade she was certified to teach. She enjoys how high schoolers can really focus while on the tour, and how excited the students can be about what’s in the museum. She particularly appreciates how high school students bring their own personal experiences to the tour—for example, a student on one of her tours made excellent observations while looking at Winslow Homer’s painting, Fox Hunt. In this painting of crows and a fox, it is unclear if the crows are hunting the fox, or vice versa. During a conversation about the work, this student pointed out that “crows don’t hunt—they eat carrion.” The other students in the group then told Carolyn that this student hunts with his father and grandfather. Carolyn is always amazed when students use their own experiences to analyze a painting.

The PMA is excited to have students of all ages in the galleries this year. We hope the students enjoy the tours as much as we enjoying giving them!

WAM (Why Art Matters) is a blog series dedicated to taking a closer look at how and why art matters. From art education in schools to communicating with artists, tell us…why does art matter?

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