On the ground learning at the foot of the great masters

During Thanksgiving Break my husband and I went to Spain. Barcelona and Madrid, to be exact. It was a glorious trip of a lifetime filled with wine, jamón, more wine and exuberant, heart-wrenching, fanciful as well as curious art. For eight days we toured one museum a day and on some days we toured two. I felt so lucky to be paired up with a man that loves a good museum as much as I do. It’s in our blood, we were taught to love museums and the masters of great art.

Outside el Prado. Madrid.
Outside el Prado en Madrid. Preparing to for a day of learning, focusing on el Greco, one of Spain’s greatest masters.

And everywhere we went there were school children out for a day of learning, sitting at the foot of great masters with their teachers explaining the symbolism, the history, the techniques of the great masters. Asking students over and over, “What do you see? What do you notice? What does this make you consider and think about?” 

One of my favorite stories told by my husband Jerry is his 6th grade trip to the museums of Chicago. Jerry was raised in Jackson, Michigan (a city not known for great museums) and back in the 70’s his 6th grade teacher decided that his students needed to go to Chicago to understand and appreciate great art, culture and learning. They raised money all year and they got tickets to take the train down to Chicago, stay in a hotel and for one entire week of the school year, the teacher, some parent chaperones and a class of twenty-six 6th graders were on the ground learning at the foot of great masters.

at la Reina Sofia, Spain's national museum of 20th-century art.
Reina Sofia, Spain’s national museum of 20th-century art.

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. I’m completely spoiled when it comes to museums. Every year I would go with my class mates and on separate family occasions to the Art Institute, Field Museum of Natural History, Museum of Science and Industry, the Adler Planetarium, the Shedd Aquarium and sometimes the smaller lesser known museums like the Chicago History Museum or the DuSable Museum of African American History. I really thought everyone visited museums on a regular basis.

I was wrong.

Everyone doesn’t have access to museums. Great museums, truly great museums, are located near the fortunate few who live in large metropolitan areas. I learned this when I moved to New Mexico when I started teaching and I asked my students where they wanted to go on their 8th grade field trip. They said “the shopping mall” with unrestrained excitement and glee. I remember thinking, what kind of teacher would take her students to the shopping mall? But, when you live an hour and half away from Albuquerque and you don’t go to the mall every weekend and weeknight to hang out and know what it’s like to do that, the mall seems a special place.

So, you take the kids to the mall and you squeeze in a trip to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. And the following year, you take that group to Santa Fe for a trip to the mall and also New Mexico Museum of Art.  But, that was over twenty years ago when I started teaching.

Spending time in Spain during the holiday seeing hundreds of students visit the museums made me wonder about education in our country.

Studying surrealism at la Reina Sofia.
Studying surrealism at la Reina Sofia.

I know my last few years in the classroom my team mates and I were questioning our yearly trip to Denver to visit its museums. We didn’t know if we should take the time away from learning the curriculum that would be assessed on the state tests. I know many of my colleagues in education wrestle with these same questions today. “Maybe we can take one day,” we reason, “if we can find the money to pay for the buses and the entrance fees and the nurse who needs to come with, and the parents.”

It’s not easy planning field trips. It’s very, very, very complicated. Finding chaperones, organizing time schedules, orchestrating bus logistics, coordinating student medications and student accessibility needs. It can take weeks of planning for one day.

But what an important day. 

guernicaI studied Spanish for 6 years in school, from 7th to 12th grade I took it and in every textbook, in the section on Spanish culture, there would be a picture of Picasso’s Guernica.

It was hard to understand the significance of Guernica. There would be pictures of melting clocks and swirling dots of Salvidor Dali and Joan Miro and flowers and Frida with her big eyebrows in the textbook. But it was Guernica who would make Señora Arispe tear up. It was Guernica she said moved a country. None of us really understood the terror of Franco and how glorious the feeling was in Spain during the 80’s; finally free from dictatorship and inhumane government induced suffering.

But, for six years I learned that this work of art was important and so when I travelled to Spain and saw it huge and in person for the first time, with the maturity of an adult finally able to comprehend the suffering of the Spanish people through the world wars, their civil war, and their hundred year fight for democracy, I was struck with blinding gratefulness that I had been taught to appreciate and revere this work of art as an American teenager in the hope that one day, I would understand the lesson of humanity and the fragility of our collective presence on this earth.

I wonder now if anything I ever taught in the classroom made such an impression on my students. One that so when they grew up, they remembered learning that something was so important, that even if they didn’t fully understand the significance at the time, had an opportunity to do so as an adult.

Seeing the students in Spain sitting on the floor of great museums, learning from their teachers makes me wish we never stop to take the time to provide our students with the knowledge of critical works of cultural importance in museums, in textbooks, and in our classrooms. It’s important.

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2 thoughts on “On the ground learning at the foot of the great masters

  1. Hello Diane, and thank you for this meaningful post. I only wish the powers that be are listening. For so long, I preach the importance of museums, concerts, and experiences that are educational that add depth to life and show students about the world and history, real live history that is in art and music. We are so caught up in what students need to know and be able to do that we forget that they are people and our first goal should be to teach the whole child. IMHO, there is nothing that can substitute for the live experience of culture–a variety of culture. The problem is taking the risk for teachers and administrators to use the time and money for this since it appears not to be directly relevant to doing well on the tests. I cannot understand why an art museum, interactive science museum, or a wonderful concert or opera and studying the what, why and how of those experiences is not valuable to education. I am always told there is no time or no money. So I ask, what will happen if we don’t take the time? Where will our children make these discoveries? How will they learn about the depth of life experiences, such as tolerance and empathy?

    Thank you Diane for shedding light on this subject.

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