Reposted from the Skirball Cultural Center’s Building a Better World blog, a place on their website dedicated to sharing some of the ways Skirball educators partner with families, schoolchildren, teachers, and community organizations to take concrete action to promote a more just society.
Written by Anna Schwarz, Skirball Cultural Center
The Skirball’s in-school residency program is one of the rare opportunities we have to work closely with students, exploring issues that are important in their lives and how art can be a tool for civic and social action. Over the course of eight to ten weeks, one class of students and their teacher collaborate with skilled teaching artists and a Skirball educator (in this case, me!) to build identity and community through collaborative and creative practices. As we tailor every residency to the exhibition content presented at the Skirball in a given year, the teaching artists and the art medium also change yearly. Recent residency projects have ranged from dance pieces exploring gender disparity, to radio stories about incarceration, to noir-style films about contemporary high school issues. Through these various projects, educators and students creatively explore how art can become a platform for student voices and storytelling.
In our most recent residency earlier this year, we wanted to focus on the Skirball’s mission, particularly the imperative to “help build a more just society.” We collaborated with poet and arts educator Kahlil Almustafa, writer and performer Julia Grob, and one class of tenth grade LAUSD students from the Community Health Advocates School (CHAS) at Augustus Hawkins High School. Maria Gaspar, a social studies teacher at CHAS, invited us into her classroom where we met twice a week. During the one-hour workshops, students practiced using poetry as a vehicle for self-expression and activism.
The residency began with setting intentions. Together, we decided to create an anthology of poems to document students’ lives and their hopes and dreams for the future. We also planned for students to share a selection of these poems in a culminating performance at the Skirball in front of their peers from all over LA. In preparation, students listened to voices of contemporary poets—young and experienced—including Audre Lorde, Elizabeth Acevedo, and finalists of the Brave New Voices festival created by Youth Speaks. The teaching artists, Kahlil and Julia, also performed live in the classroom, which made the entire experience even more special and personal. With all this inspiration, students asked questions and began creating their own original poetry.
Similar to other creative projects, our original intentions evolved as the students explored how they could use spoken word as a tool for building self-confidence and imagination. A pivotal moment in this evolution was the students’ visit to the Skirball for a powerful performance of the play Riot/Rebellion, presented by the Watts Village Theater Company. Through a theatrical interpretation of first-person interviews with residents and community members, Riot/Rebellion introduced students to the history of the 1965 Watts uprising. The residency class felt a deep connection to the themes of the play—especially having recently protested the US presidential election and inauguration. Moved by Riot/Rebellion and the discussion with the actors and creators following the show, the students decided to change the plan for the residency. Instead of each person creating his or her own poems, the students decided to work together to develop a play that incorporated elements of poetry and focused on the value of protest. With six weeks to go, students began their work on a script for their very first original play, Walkout!, and they transformed into writers, editors, actors—and leaders.
On March 22, 2017, I sat in the audience filled with excitement and emotion as CHAS students proudly presented their work-in-progress on stage at the Skirball. Over 200 of their peers from other LA-area high schools filled the seats. Like Riot/Rebellion, Walkout! incorporated first-hand stories of the students’ experiences. But this play was truly unique—the personal poems throughout the performance were a reflection of the trust and support this group of young people had built with one another. Their dedication to the project and personal connection to the material translated on stage into a beautiful community of people celebrating the opportunity to speak their truth and build a more just society. It was a true joy to be a part of such a strong and meaningful process!
“By looking at the art we can talk about topics that people don’t usually like to talk about.” – Rumaisha Tasnim
“Each viewer sees the art. What you see in it is your truth, it doesn’t have to be my truth.” – Kelsey Trollinger
Recent high school graduates Rumaisha and Kelsey spent much of the past two years at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. As original members of the Nasher Teen Council (NTC), they led public programs, installed exhibitions, met artists, and created their own art. Their quotes are from artist talks they gave this month at an exhibition of work by the teens at a downtown gallery. Paintings and collages from the exhibition Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush inspired much of their work.
As they spoke about the power of art to encourage meaningful conversations and validate individual experiences, Rumaisha and Kelsey–along with the other council members–joined their voices with countless other leaders who recognize the critical role art plays in civic discourse and the growth of a community. During times of uncertainty, political upheaval, and protest, we have to seek out these voices, both past and present, which celebrate what we know to be true about the critical need for influential artists and art institutions.
John F. Kennedy, a powerful champion for the arts, stated, “I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.” His message, from over fifty years ago, still offers inspiration and leadership on the political role of art in a democratic society.
In a 1963 speech from Amherst College given in honor of Robert Frost, Kennedy begins with praise for the role of universities and an important reminder that “with privilege goes responsibility.” He asks the listener, “What good is a private college or university unless it’s serving a great national purpose?” He insists that the benefits and pleasures of an academic institution are not merely for the graduates to achieve individual economic advantage. Instead, he argues, the cultural agreement is that graduates must use their advantages for the public interest.
After reminding universities of their cultural obligations, Kennedy praises Frost and his poetry. More broadly, he celebrates art as a democratic institution and applauds artists as foundational to America’s greatness. He states, “For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment. The artist [. . .] becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.” Rather than considering artists “who question power” a threat, he welcomes their critiques as “indispensable.”
Nina Chanel Abney critically examines the world through her body of work and requires the same of her viewers. Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, her first solo museum exhibition, addresses politics, celebrity gossip, race, gender, power, and more. In it, Abney spotlights some of the most heated topics in American culture and boldly holds accountable those who misuse their power.
In The Boardroom, 2008, the nearly naked, sometimes bleeding bodies represent the financial leaders who valued profit over stability and led to economic collapse. Either depicted as clowns or wearing yellow gloves that allow them to keep their hands clean from their dirty work, Abney literally strips these men of the power and prestige often afforded to them by their business suits and corner offices.
Six years later, in a more abstracted and digital style, Abney turns her critical eye towards the issues of race, gun violence, and police brutality in the piece UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP), 2014. While her geometric “emojification” of this work differs greatly from the painterly style of The Boardroom and other earlier works, Abney still uses her platform to question societal power structures.
In his Amherst speech, JFK states, “the highest duty of [. . .] the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation.” Abney echoes his voice in more contemporary language saying, “I like to just drop the bomb and start the conversation and then leave out the room.”
The gallery conversations that Abney starts with UNTITLED (FUCK T*E *OP) often include visitor descriptions of the scene as chaotic and confusing. As viewers examine the painting, patterns emerge. Visitors identify elements that remind them of pinball machines, streetlights, and the visual noise of cable news channels, the internet, and New York’s Times Square. Visitors consider her use of language. Viewers may read the simplified language, such as “POW” and “YO”, as references to digital culture and the abbreviated communications of texts and tweets. The discussion frequently shifts to Abney’s use of the “X” symbol in this piece and questions of who is a target, who is silenced, and who has a voice. Reading “FUCK T*E *OP” in the top left corner of this painting, conversations may include what language is, and is not, censored, both in her work and, more broadly, in society.
As a leading voice, Abney opens up the conversation to everybody by sharing her visual vocabulary without fully translating the meaning. Remaining intentionally ambiguous about her work, she encourages others to bring their life experiences to their viewing of the truths she depicts and create their own interpretations.
Abney’s examination of societal power structures and contemporary digital culture continues with the most recent painting in the exhibition, Catfish, 2017. Abney says of this piece, “I feel like I am combining everything here.” A monumental portrait of selfie culture, Catfish depicts provocatively positioned female figures who meet the viewer’s gaze directly and self-assuredly. Surrounding the women are dollar signs, many of Abney’s “X” symbols, and language that again reflects the brevity of the digital world. Whatever assumptions a visitor first makes about these women are questioned by the Catfish title. The term “catfish” suggests the bottom-feeding fish, as well as the practice of misrepresenting oneself online, often for financial gain. With this painting, Abney simultaneously incorporates the aesthetic of digital culture and questions how representations of self are used, or misused, within that culture.
At a time when many political and economic leaders ignore the responsibilities of privilege and dismiss the need for critical voices, artists and institutions can turn to the words of JFK for encouragement and guidance and to the contemporary artists, like Abney, doing the important work of examining societal structures. Emerging artists, like Rumaisha and Kelsey, are also adding their voices to the dialogue. They will continue the work of JFK and Abney, as well as shape the conversation in ways we cannot yet imagine.
To end his speech, JFK shares his hope for the arts saying, “I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.” Fortunately, in many places, that America has arrived. It is imperative that we continue to seek new voices – historic and contemporary, spoken and visual – to lead the continued march forward and together.
What voices – established or emerging – are leading you today?
Nina Chanel Abney: Royal Flush, is at the Nasher Museum through July 16, 2017. After that, it will travel to multiple locations. Go check it out!
Chicago Cultural Center: February 10 – May 6, 2018
The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles: September 23, 2018 – January 20, 2019
Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY, Purchase: April 7 – August 4, 2019
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About the Author
JESSICA RUHLE is Director of Education & Public Programs at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Jessica has worked at the Nasher Museum since 2010. Previously, Jessica worked at the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, and Marbles Kids Museum. Before arriving in North Carolina, she worked at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Jessica has an MAT in Museum Education from The George Washington University, as well as a BA in Art History from Davidson College. Jessica’s postings on this site are her own and do not necessarily represent the Nasher Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
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Header Image: Ayubi Kokayi, NTC member, performs spoken word in front of The Boardroom, 2008, photo by J Caldwell.
Written by Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Park Avenue Armory
This article is a case study about the impact of “unplugging” as it relates to reflective practice for youth and educators. If you’re interested in exploring reflection more broadly, and you’ll be attending the 2016 National Art Education Association Conference in Chicago next week, please join Mike Murawski and myself for our session “Reflective Practice in Museum Education” on Thursday, March 17 at 12 noon (McCormick Place/Lakeside Center/E271a). We’ll unpack reflective practice for museum educators in an interactive, conversational session—we hope to see you there! If you can’t join us, please comment here, tweet us (@chelseaemelie and @murawski27), or follow #NAEAReflect.
When talking about unplugging, we always think of technology. However, I define unplugging as a way of regaining full control of yourself, physically and mentally, in any circumstances. —Isatu, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
In the summer of 2015, a group of New York City high schoolers and college freshmen, students in the Park Avenue Armory Youth Corps program, gather in the Board of Officers room at the Armory, reclined on lean-back floor seating in front of a grand piano. There is a buzz of anticipation in the air, which turns to quiet excitement when two world-class artists enter the room: performance artist Marina Abramović and pianist Igor Levit.
During the next hour, Abramović and Levit give the students a crash course in unplugging and being present, major themes of their upcoming winter production—a hybrid performance/immersive experience to introduce audiences to a new method of engaging with classical music. Over the next few months, inspired by Abramović and Levit, a number of these students will deeply explore the concept of unplugging: what it is, why do it, and the unexpected realizations it can evoke about our own selves.
Although some might stereotype today’s teenagers as one of the most “plugged-in,” smartphone-obsessed generations of all time, our students offered sophisticated, thoughtful reflections about how we can truly connect with each other and better understand ourselves. As one of the educators facilitating this project, I had the unique opportunity to experience this deep dive into unplugging alongside my students. This post explores both the impact of “unplugging” and reflective practice on teens as well as its impact on me as a teacher, and offers ideas about how we might apply the benefits of unplugging to our practice as art educators and museum leaders.
The Project: Goldberg and the Guide to Unplugging
We understand that not many people today know what it is like to be left in silence, stripped from their cellular devices, or even just stare into someone’s eyes… We stepped out of our comfort zone and… left wanting to try it again. —Terrelle, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Igor Levit and Marina Abramović’s Goldberg (which ran December 7–19, 2015 at Park Avenue Armory) required patrons to lock up their cell phones, watches, and personal belongings in lockers, then sit in silence in the Armory’s Drill Hall for 30 minutes to “unplug” and mentally prepare themselves to be present to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations, performed by Levit. Abramović’s method for listening to music was experienced by thousands, including New York City public high school students in a student matinee.
The Youth Corps students were charged with developing ways to help their peers prepare for this uncommon experience. First, Youth Corps researched the artists and concepts behind Goldberg, familiarizing themselves with Bach, Levit, Abramović, performance art, and “slow” movements, from slow art to slow TV. They met with former Armory artist-in-residence Helga Davis, a vocalist and performance artist, who led the students through an activity in which they stared into each other’s eyes, opening themselves to their peers in a new way. They visited current artist-in-residence Imani Uzuri, whose singing and installation inspired by Sister Gertrude Morgan helped Youth Corps center themselves in mind and body.
A printed Guide to Unplugging became one of two facets of the project. As their driving question for the guide, the Youth Corps responded in writing to the question: What is worth unplugging for? They used verbal storytelling and peer editing to brainstorm and solidify their ideas. Their written responses ranged from getting in tune with nature to bike-riding with no destination in mind, from challenging oneself to communicate with family members, to getting lost in artmaking. Others talked of experiencing theater or acting, and some about meditating or being present on their morning commutes. Across the board, students acknowledged the importance in getting out of your comfort zone in order to unplug—and how worth it the challenge of being present is.
For the student matinee, and the second part of their final project, the Youth Corps assisted none other than Marina Abramović herself in creating a short pre-show for 450 students. Although the students had already been introduced to the production through a pre-visit from Armory Teaching Artists, this pre-show experience would ensure that students were present and ready for Goldberg itself. Over two meetings, Youth Corps spoke with Abramović about her method and process, and how Levit and the Goldberg Variations dovetailed with her own art practice. When the Youth Corps asked for any tips she had for experiencing Goldberg, Abramović led the group in an immersive breathing exercise—and it was so powerful that it quickly became clear that the pre-show should include the same. As Lizmarie described:
[Abramović had us start] by lying on the floor with our faces to the ceiling and having our hands to our hearts and stomachs. I felt like I was floating in the middle of the ocean, and found the comparison between the motion of the waves and the beating of my heart. That is when I realized I was in a full state of relaxation. To me, the noises of kids in the hallway outside faded into a nice summer day with seagulls and waves crashing onto the shore. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
And so the Youth Corps stood beside Abramović in front of 450 of their peers and shared their own personal experiences of Goldberg, then modeled the breathing exercise through which Abramović led the entire student audience. When she finished, the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall was completely silent, and remained so during both the soundless preface and throughout Levit’s performance. Later, as students filed out, the Youth Corps gave each student a Guide to Unplugging, to explore how they could continue their experience outside of the Armory.
The Impact of Reflective Practice
We realized that unplugging is about being aware of your surroundings, reflecting on yourself, and being in control of who you are. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
Although my co-teacher and I felt as though we had barely scratched the surface of reflective practice, the students still showed growth and articulated takeaways from their reflective experiences this semester.
From a quantitative standpoint, data gleaned from retrospective surveys show clear improvement in students’ skills in reflection: 80% of the students said that they reflected on their creative process and that their reflection influenced future choices more often than before they took part in the program. All of the students improved in developing the ability to communicate their ideas and/or find solutions through the creative process. Additionally, 100% also developed interpersonal skills through collaboration and leadership opportunities—closely aligned to the Youth Corps’ realization that reflecting and unplugging is not always a solitary activity, but often relates to our engagement with those around us.
I also analyzed their written statements in the Guide to surface more specific themes about how the students felt the act of unplugging had affected them.
(Note: Percentages will not add up to 100%, since students’ statements often reflected more than one theme.)
In preparation for one of the sessions I am organizing at this year’s National Art Education Association Convention (see note above), I have been thinking a lot about what reflective practice is. The above impacts of “unplugging” identified by our students, are, I believe, all essential to reflective practice, no matter your age and whether or not you are consciously “unplugging” from daily stresses and technology.
Going outside of our comfort zones and opening our minds to new ideas and beliefs allow us to stay nimble, keep learning, and be empathetic. We must be conscious of how we communicate, and ensure we remain connected to the world—both physically aware of what’s around us and metaphorically, empathetic to others’ lives and backgrounds. Staying focused and aware of our surroundings and interactions allow us to be present in the moment. Overall, these practices help us understand ourselves better—both on a personal level and our relationship with others.
Applying Youth Takeaways to Museum Education Practice and Leadership
When you stop thinking about everything else and just focus on what you’re doing, you gain a new experience. You are open to things. —Joselin, high school junior, Phase II Youth Corps
With 40% of the Youth Corps identifying it as an impact of their time spent unplugging, it’s clear that being present is both an essential process in reflective practice and a benefit. In fact, as Terrelle put it, Abramović and Levit’s goal for Goldberg was “to place us outside our comfort zone and challenge us to be present to listen to the music. Marina and Igor wanted us to connect with our mind and body.”
In reflecting about how the semester went overall, my colleague/co-teacher, Pip Gengenbach, and I realized there was so much more we could have pushed the Youth Corps to try in exploring the idea not just of simply “unplugging,” but of truly being present. Of course, hindsight’s 20/20 and there is always room for improvement, but as I reread and analyzed the students’ writing, I found myself wishing we had facilitated even just one more session to encourage the students not to view being present as an end-game in and of itself, but to keep unpacking why the act is so important.
Even so, we scratched the surface: for example, when writing about paying attention rather than listening to music on her commute, Rachel said, “I realized how much more I was allowing myself to experience.” Leidy found presence in communicating more often with her family: “We express how we feel and look for a solution together.” Destiny models excellent self-care when describing her unplugging mechanism: “I put on a facial mask… close my eyes and center my mind on a blank space… I think of a state of peace and tranquility and allow my body to float.”
These experiences are all ways that we can practice being present in our professional lives. Setting aside a phone and committing not to email during a meeting with staff or colleagues, or during a program; taking time to look for solutions together, in person rather than via email; going for a walk during lunchtime—for that matter, actually taking a lunch; and taking time for self-care outside of work (I for one fully endorse Destiny’s masking regimen) are all small things we can do to be mindful with ourselves and when communicating with others.
Often we feel the need to put up a wall. We don’t want people to see certain parts of us, so we hide. But … when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we open ourselves and our minds. This is how we begin to surrender to unplugging instead of fighting it. —Sinaia, high school junior, Phase II Youth Corps
One of the most powerful ways that the Youth Corps—and we as educators—experienced vulnerability was through a two-hour workshop with vocalist and performance artist Helga Davis, mentioned above. Davis challenged us all to stare into each other’s eyes, in silence, for many minutes at a time. Cory describes what happened next:
We were then given the choice to come closer, go further away, or turn away from our partners. I personally chose to get closer to my partner because I wanted them to experience an awkward moment and adjust to it. I found myself visualizing my partner’s life line, and found it easy to see their comfort zone through their body language. My partner was fidgeting with their hands at first, but later on they adjusted. I also allowed them to look into my eyes without restrictions. I challenged myself to open up and dared myself not to worry about what they thought. —Cory, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
Some members of Youth Corps, like Cory, have performance experience, and are used to participating in exercises similar to this one. They understood the intimate kinds of nonverbal communications that can occur. For others, myself included, the experience felt foreign and intimidating. Isatu wrote:
The purpose was to [try] to interpret who we are… I [was] afraid to reveal my true self to someone that I barely know. I felt like my partner was not looking at me, but looking into me: she seemed… more aware of herself than I was. The jealousy that I felt helped me to unlock myself, I let all the painful moments that I have experienced out through my tears, because whatever she saw in me made me free. Unplugging in this way helped me to feel the support of the people around me. —Isatu, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Isatu beautifully describes how allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person can, in fact, help you both understand yourself better and connect on a deeper level with those around you. Understanding our strengths and weaknesses allows us to better understand our places in the world. Cory summarized her experience similarly: “We must be able to understand ourselves as a person first, in order to comprehend and change the things around us.”
This almost paradoxical statement directly relates to being an educator and leader. It goes back to the old airline oxygen mask adage (help yourself before helping others): know yourself in order to more deeply connect with others. After all, our jobs are not isolated: we have students, colleagues, and/or a field-wide network whom we not only support and encourage, but of whom we can ask support and encouragement. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable in this way, we are able to foster empathetic collaboration that can strengthen our ideas and work.
I wholeheartedly endorse participating in something like this professionally, but perhaps more easily implementable and significantly less intimidating would be to try something like the Youth Corps’ mentor triads. During every Youth Corps program session, each education staff member works with a small group of two Youth Corps, where all members (staff included!) set a goal and hold each other accountable to it. Knowing that we were all equally committed and that we had a small group of people, most of whom we didn’t know well before our triads, who would be checking in on us are powerful incentives to keep on track. We meet for coffee or treats off-site, which made the whole experience seem special and important, but not a huge drain on busy schedules. And having a mixed group—one first-time student, one student who had been in the program already, and one adult educator—was an amazing way to stay fresh but also grounded. This would be easily replicable and powerful with groups of staff from different levels, areas, and even departments.
Personally, I don’t like talking in front of crowds so I was really nervous. But Marina got us prepared by doing breathing exercises closely related to the Abramović Method, which helped me be less nervous… She made us feel like everything was fine and there wasn’t anything to worry about. —Lizmarie, high school junior, Phase I Youth Corps
How many of us have created activities or goals that we know will challenge our students or visitors, yet perhaps don’t always “walk the talk” ourselves by participating alongside them, or trying something new in our own practice? You’re not alone! As I delved into ongoing reflection with the Youth Corps this semester, I was reminded that it is so important as an educator (and leader) to model taking up challenges, just as we expect our students to do, and to always be learning, never complacent.
Personally, I have been taking this to heart since starting at the Armory this past summer. After many years at art museums, I have been thoroughly enjoying the completely unconventional art we present here, as well as trying my hand at theater education techniques, the field from which several of my coworkers in the Education department come. Since last July, we’ve done role-playing, directed questioning, movement-based activities, “tinkering” with different materials—you name it, we’ve tried it. (And not to worry, we’re all learning from each other: I’ve been vehemently representing the “slow art” guard along the way.)
Although these techniques are certainly not unfamiliar to art museum educators, the fearless, try-anything, “show must go on!” attitude of unabashed risk-taking feels new to me, and is enormously inspiring. My own challenge for 2016 is to continue to reach—testing and stretching my own abilities as a teacher, and pushing our students in the process to do the same with their own goals and experiences in our programs. (And just in case you’re wondering, yes, my co-teacher Pip is part of my “mentor duo” to hold me accountable for this goal.)
Conclusion: Reflection and Self-Identity
I am grateful to Marina. I think what’s cool about her is that she does things that others are afraid to do. She’s taught me to always stand out. —Terrelle, high school senior, Phase II Youth Corps
Awareness of self—of our strengths and our weaknesses, of our relation to others and to the world around us—is a key trait of leadership, no matter where in an organization’s hierarchy your job may place you. Understanding our own identity, through reflective practice, allows us to better understand our own work, how we teach, and the place of our institution and programs in our students’ or visitors’ lives.
Youth are in a key phase of their life where they themselves are testing out and defining who they are as people—their interests, beliefs, connections, and communities. But as we all know, it’s not only youth who use museums and cultural institutions as spaces for meaning-making and self-understanding or reflection; visitors of all ages and backgrounds do the same. And it’s important to remember that we ourselves as educators participate in this process as well, every time we reflect on our teaching practice, on our role as leaders in our institutions, or as participants in the world. Being conscious of the reflective process—being present in it, if you will—allows us to be intentional about our teaching practice, improve our connections with our audiences, and ultimately create experiences for all that bring our institutions more deeply into our visitors’ lives.
Header Photo: Lizmarie, high school junior and Phase I Youth Corps, speaks to NYC public school students alongside Marina Abramović and fellow Youth Corps. Photo by Da Ping Luo
Over the summer, I helped a group of teens make a mobile game at the Brooklyn Museum.
That’s a pretty innocuous-looking sentence, but it felt like a big, exciting Project of Note. There were plenty of interesting factors at play: it was my own first foray beyond digital game design into actual game creation; it was a chance to see my home institution’s collections from a new point of view; it was a different kind of programming from my usual roster. But it’s now almost two months later, and I’m still thinking about it.
Why? What made it so special?
First, let me give you the basics:
This was a program called NYC Haunts, in which teens work together to design and create a location-based game people can play on their mobile devices.
It’s run by Global Kids, a great organization that has all kinds of initiatives to help teens become informed citizens of the world. They’ve run this program in schools and libraries before, and this was the first version done in a museum.
NYC Haunts teaches teens the basics of game design and uses TaleBlazer (a free game-design app from MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program) to build the game. TaleBlazer is a visual programming platform, which means you don’t write the code textually. Instead, you put it together using click-and-drag building blocks that combine to form commands.
The game itself is designed to help a player solve a mystery about local ghosts of the past who may still be lingering around in the present.
In the Brooklyn Museum game, our team of thirteen intrepid teen Ghost Hunters collaborated on a game that invites visitors to explore our Luce Visible Storage Center. The game is called Helen’s Treasures, and the player must find all the precious items collected by Helen (the ghost protagonist of our game, based on a Chester Beach marble bust), in order to help her remember how she died so her spirit can be at peace.
This program was an exciting step towards a goal near and dear to my heart: using digital technology to explore museum collections without the technology overwhelming or distracting from the artwork. And it was a chance to explore the world of game design in museums, which has been on my museum education radar for a while. (I still love Murder at the Met: An American Art Mystery. More recently, I’ve been watching as Sophia George, the V&A’s first Games Designer in Residence, develops and releases her art museum-inspired game, Strawberry Thief, into the world.)
A big part of what made it feel so special, though, was the open-hearted, open-ended nature of the whole project and that fact that the teens were building something together from the ground up. Before we talked at all about the museum-specific side of things, we spent a good chunk of time talking (and iterating) about what makes a game successful and how the game design process works. We started with the basics, which fed into conversations that started to sound a whole lot like the kind of conversations museum educators have when coming up with programming ideas.
There was debate over how the game should feel to a player and how to create that feeling. What were the goals of the game going to be and how should they be met? What did we want our players to get out of their game experience?
Once the game creation itself got underway, I co-facilitated the meetings with Global Kids staff, but we tried to stay out of the way of the process as much as possible. The teens decided what area of the museum they wanted as the location of their game. They collaborated on the game’s story. They worked smoothly as a whole group and then as small groups that focused variously on coding, choosing specific collection objects, creating the in-game visuals, and writing the detailed story players discover as they go.
And what they came up with, after only eight afternoon sessions, was a playable game that made my museum educator heart thump proudly.
It was the teens, not me, who identified that it was important for a player to look closely at art objects to answer the game’s questions. It was the teens who chose the Visible Storage Center for both the artwork and the atmosphere (it’s cold and dim in there, as well as being full of shelves bursting with miscellaneous, sometimes-mysterious things). It was the teens who created a cohesive story that brought new meaning to objects in the Museum’s collection.
They told engaging and creative stories, they created an immersive experience, and they made a fun, new way for people to discover an often-unexplored space.
Those sound remarkably like some of my Big Goals as a museum educator.
I’m trying to keep these lessons fresh in my mind as I head into a new school year of programming for teachers. How can I hang onto that spirit of open exploration? How can I help teachers see the museum in new ways? What experiences can I create that are playful and fun and build skills in the museum, all at the same time?
One final note: If you’d like to playtest the prototype of the Brooklyn Museum NYC Haunts game, you can download TaleBlazer for free (Android or iOS). Open it on your device and enter gvxkfju in the “Game Code” tab at the top. Helen’s Treasures will download to your device, and then you’re free to play, even without wifi.
Over the past four years, I have worked with hundreds of Milwaukee-area teens who love art, and who, over their time in teen programs at the Milwaukee Art Museum, grow to love museums as well.
I have always had a sense that my students grow over their time at the Museum. This year, though, to really study that growth, we designed our longstanding Satellite High School Program as a year-long experience to explore exactly how weekly sessions at an art museum might change the thinking of our teen participants. To that end, our program outcome for students was that they would show an increased ability to reflect upon their own experiences and performance.
Evaluation is a grey area—much like teaching and interpretation—and we as educators need to use multiple methods in order to get a fuller picture of what’s going on with our students.
This means I’ve been thinking a lot about evaluation: How do we show change was made? Years ago, I thought evaluation was more or less a prickly, black-and-white, necessary evil that forced me to use altogether too much math. But over the past two years, I’ve come around to believe evaluation is completely the opposite (though math is still important!). Evaluation is a grey area—much like teaching and interpretation—and we as educators need to use multiple methods in order to get a fuller picture of what’s going on with our students. And further, these methods can be tools to help our teaching, improving programs and our impact on students.
In the end, I found I needed to use reflective practice myself to understand how my students were changing, and to explore and experiment with a number of different methods for articulating their growth. In this post, I’ll share a few of the methods we used in the Satellite High School Program this year to explore how our teen interns changed through reflective practice.
First… What is Satellite?
The Satellite High School Program is a year-long internship for sixteen teens ages 16 to 18 from diverse high schools all over the Milwaukee area. Once a week after school, they come together at the Museum and explore how art can be made relevant to our lives today. They participate in “object studies” (hour-long discussions on a single work of art), behind-the-scenes career talks with staff, and resume-writing workshops, and also mentor elementary school students in tours of the permanent collection.
Teens create a final project that has a real-world impact on the Museum. They choose a work of art in the Museum Collection, research it, and form their own interpretation of the piece. In past years, students have created responses in visual art, writing, or performance. This year, the students used iPads to create videos on their work of art, explaining what the work means to them and how it changed their thinking or art practice. You’ll see a few of those videos later in this post.
We settled on one-on-one interviews, doing a “pre” interview on the first days of the program in October and a “post” interview on the final days of the program in May. Each student was privately asked the same set of questions in the pre- and post-interviews, meant to get at their ability to reflect on their experiences in the program. I scored each interview on a rubric that measured level of detail in their responses, and then we compared their pre-program score to their post-program score to see if they had improved.
At the end, every student did improve in their ability to reflect—their answers got significantly more detailed. As someone whose default is to be a more qualitative thinker, it was rewarding to use the rubric to see their interviews as data, in a quantitative, more tangible way.
But as helpful as this was, it’s still just one method of evaluation. Being able to explain in detail is certainly one aspect of successfully being able to reflect. But as I listened to their responses, and thought about what I had seen in the students over the course of the whole year, I realized there is much more to reflecting than just detail. Their responses used stronger vocabulary, they expressed sophisticated ideas, and they asked more and deeper questions. How could I articulate that kind of change?
Happily, along the way, we also found that we had collected some unexpected data which helped me more concretely see the change in my students.
At the end of each session, teens used a web app on their iPads called Infuse Learning to fill out a quick exit slip survey. Exit slips are an easy way to take the pulse of your students at the end of a session. For Satellite, they answered the questions “What is something you learned today?” and “What are you still wondering about?” Though different from our interview questions, these certainly also support reflective practice by thinking back on the day’s session.
As the year went on, I noticed that the teens ‘ responses were growing more sophisticated: they were longer, they used more art vocabulary, and they realized that they might not be able to answer questions definitively, if at all. At the suggestion of Marianna Adams, who specializes in museum research and evaluation, I tried running these responses through two readability tests to see if that would quantify the sophistication of these responses. One test produces the sample’s Fog Scale Level, which measures syllable count and sentence length (a score of 5 being readable, 20 being very difficult). The other was for the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, which approximates the average grade level necessary to read and understand the text.
For the first question (“What is something you learned today?”), students’ scores jumped considerably in Fog Scale and Reading Level. Since these tests measure syllable count, sentence length, and grade level, this corroborates with what I found in the core evaluation.
But I was surprised to see that when I tested responses to the second question (“What are you still wondering about?”), students’ scores actually dropped! Yet if you read their responses, there is a drastic change—for the better.
Take Student D’s responses. In his early answer, he asks a relatively basic art historical question about distinguishing one type of art from another. In his later response, he is thinking deeply about the purpose of art and how we even decide what art is. And while Student F uses high-level art history vocabulary in her first response, it’s without context; later on, she’s thinking about how two seemingly opposite concepts may have something in common after all.
The scores of these comments may have decreased, but I’d argue that their reflective quality increased—the teens ask big questions that might not have an answer; they ditch high-level vocabulary to more informally muse on philosophical questions of art, destruction, and race. Running these responses through the tests helped me see, again, that while tools can be helpful, they’re ultimately just one tool—we need more than one to paint a bigger picture.
To round out that image, I’ll share one final unexpected evaluation tool: the teens’ final project videos as well as a talkback session they conducted at their video premiere.
For their final project, each student chose one work of art in the Museum Collection and looked at it, researched it, and talked about it with others for seven months. (Given that most visitors spend under 10 seconds looking at art in museum galleries, this is a feat in and of itself!) They distilled a school year’s worth of thinking into brief, 2-4 minute videos that answered what the work meant to them, what it had meant to others, and how their own thinking had changed as a result of looking at the piece—all questions with, of course, that familiar reflective bent.
The teens also participated in a talk-back/Q&A at the celebration where we premiered these final projects. Guests—museum staff, teachers, family, and friends—asked the group questions about their experience. If you like, you can watch the teens’ videos, along with the Q&A, in the YouTube playlist below.
Impact — Can Museums Change Teens?
So: does all the above—interviews, exit slips, readability tests, and final projects—add up to a full image of the impact that a year’s worth of reflective practice can have on students?
I’m not sure we can ever paint a full picture of student growth in intensive programs such as this one. I do think combining all of these tools can help, though—especially if the evaluative tools actively support the goal of the program. The interviews, exit slips, and activities were all intentionally structured to be reflective, related to the outcome itself. This relevancy was key, not only in genuinely evaluating the program’s success, but also in supporting the students’ abilities through the methods themselves. It’s also important that we educators make the program goal transparent to the students. The Satellite interns knew from the beginning that they were working on reflective ability—this helped prime them to think reflectively from the get-go.
As far as impact beyond reflective capacity, I also want to share a few quotes from the teens themselves about their time in this program:
“The videos help us think deeper about what we do—so even in school I think deeper about what I’m doing or why this was made or why this happened.”“I learned that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. When I first saw my piece I just thought it was a bunch of different colors and didn’t really think about it actually having a meaning. But now I’ve learned that it actually has a super cool meaning behind [it], and I never would have learned about that meaning if I hadn’t taken the chance to explore. So I shouldn’t be so quick to judge.”“We had to give tours and I found out that I really like to work with children and art at the same time. I would like to pursue a career in art education for elementary school students.”“I was able to change and evolve my way of thinking, now being able to look past the obvious… I learned that art holds all the answers to any questions anyone may have, you just have to search for it.”
From the other evaluation tools, we saw that the students developed their ability to reflect on themselves and their own performance. But as seen in the comments above, they were also able to develop skills reflecting on the world beyond them—the world of art history, their future careers, how they interact with other people. All of these are ways of thinking that are valuable for their futures, as they go to college, discover their passions, and pursue meaningful career opportunities.
Can Teens Change Museums?
I’ve shown how this program helped these students grow in many ways. What about the Museum itself? Have these students had an impact on our institutional practice?
Institutions move at a slower pace than most programs, and if change and impact are complex to measure in sixteen individual students, then it’s multiplied tenfold for an organization that serves hundreds of thousands visitors a year. Even so, over the past few years, the work of teens in our programs has slowly but surely worked its way into the daily fabric of the Museum. Teens have interviewed artists on behalf of the institution. They have advised docents on ideas for giving tours to high schoolers. Their video projects will be part of on-site and online Collection Resources at the Museum, as well as our Archives, for all visitors to access while learning about works of art.
Ultimately, evaluation and impact are ongoing, a grey area that has a lot in common with the act of teaching itself. When done well and intentionally, evaluation doesn’t just show if we’ve met a goal. The tools we use to evaluate ideally become part of our teaching practice, because they reinforce the very abilities we are trying to help our students develop.
As for what I’m still wondering about? This year, our evaluation methods for the most part required the teens to have specific existing skills, such as writing for the exit slips or proficiency in using an iPad (though we did have video-making workshops as part of the program). I’m thinking about other ways to holistically gather data. For example, given that much of our evaluation methods emerged from teaching tools, should I document or film our discussions with works of art and find ways to analyze them? I’d love to hear any ideas or tools you’ve used to evaluate your programs, just as I hope this post has inspired you to take a fresh look at your teaching practice and find unexpected ways to see the growth in your participants.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CHELSEA EMELIE KELLY:Manager of Digital Learning at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where she develops educational technology initiatives and oversees and teaches teen programs. She is passionate about using gallery teaching and technology to foster relevancy for art museums in the 21st century. She has previously worked at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Art & Historical Center, and the Carnegie Museum of Art. Chelsea is a graduate of Vassar College and holds an M.S.Ed. in Leadership in Museum Education from the Bank Street College Graduate School of Education, where she was a Kress Foundation Fellow. She is also the founder and co-editor of The Art History Blog. Chelsea’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Milwaukee Art Museum’s positions, strategies, or opinions.
Teen programs provide a very different kind of opportunity for museums to experiment with interpretation. Because many teens participate in multiple programs for extended lengths of time, they become advocates and resources for our museums and its collections. Teens at the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art have been part of two experimental interpretive strategies that go deeper than one-day-only programs, providing not only learning experiences for students involved, but powerful tools and content for their institutions.
From the museum educator’s perspective, we—Chelsea Emelie Kelly at the Milwaukee Art Museum and Patty Edmonson at the Cleveland Museum of Art—originally connected because both of our programs create video content featuring teens for our collections. However, we’ve come to see that there are more connections and applications to what we’re doing than simply producing object-focused, teen-made videos. We share our programs and projects below, and we’re now thinking about how we can make use of this content beyond teen audiences. Read on and share your thoughts with us!
The Teen CO∙OP started in 2013, and it’s the Cleveland Museum of Art’s newest teen program. We chose ten students from a pool of applicants to participate in a two-week summer session, where we trained them to work with the public and create their own programming. They use these skills during our monthly family days, called Second Sundays. CO∙OP members work in our interactive gallery, Gallery One, answering visitor questions and starting conversations about art and the museum. During these events, they also help with studio projects, pass out the teen guide they made, and create Vine videos. The CMA is working toward a more visible teen presence and authentic teen voices.
Video has been a tool for us to hear these teen voices and get students to think about storytelling in museums. During our summer session we created short films with a local production company, North Water Partners. Each student began by choosing an artwork and we interviewed them about their initial reactions before they knew very much about the piece. After these first interviews they read about their artworks and we talked about historical context. We asked them to complete a series of small tasks: choose three words that describe the artwork; describe this to someone who can’t see; write a tagline for the artwork; tell a story about this artwork; make a Vine about it. These tasks became pieces that they could include in their storyboards. Some also created their own typography or imagery to incorporate into their video.
One of the biggest challenges was balancing fun and appropriateness. I wanted the students to feel comfortable being silly, but there were several moments when we stopped to talk about respecting the art and museum. We also went out on a limb by letting the video content come from their ideas and observations, not solely art historical information. We are not creating mini art historians here. That said, we did have to navigate one interpretation of a portrait with a shadow that looked like a bruise. The student was interested in creating a story of a battered woman, but we stepped in to talk about why this story might not be the best one to imagine, and spent time looking at more portraits and their shadows.
Through these videos, the teens learned to look closer. They seemed excited that their observations were valid and their confidence grew. I also saw their public speaking abilities improve after being behind the camera, which can be tough. One of our big goals was to capture an authentic voice, and we chose not to correct language that museums wouldn’t normally approve, like “I’m finna to the grand ball” (as in fixing to go). I felt that by letting their real voices come through, we let them know that they can be themselves in a museum.
We hope to show these videos on our website, and you can see some of the good and bad Vines under the account, CMA Teen CO-OP. Our plan next summer is to make content that can better fit into our app, ArtLens.
Satellite High School Program at the Milwaukee Art Museum
Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Manager of Digital Learning
The Satellite High School Program is an art history focused weekly gallery program at the Milwaukee Art Museum for sixteen arts-interested teens from the Milwaukee area to connect with works of art and each other. As part of the program, teens choose a work of art in the Museum collection to study and interpret, and share their ideas in a final project. Over the past year, we’ve experimented with how they share using video in two very different ways.
In the spring 2013 program, teens had one semester to choose a work, study it, and make a creative response to it, in visual art, writing, music, or media of their choice. I wanted to be sure their work was shared with a wider audience, so I used my own personal DSLR camera to film them with their artwork and creative responses. I had them write their own voiceover explaining their piece, their connection to it, and their response project, making sure that the video was just about one minute long for quick, easy consumption. Here’s just one of their videos, featuring Joel:
That project was successful, but I wanted to turn much more of the creation over to the teens themselves. I knew I had a chance to do just that when we received funding to buy a set of iPads for the Education Department.
This fall, as part of a school year-long program, a new group of teens had a different task: they shared their personal connections to their work of art through a video they created on an iPad. Over the course of the semester, they created video blogs (vlogs) reflecting on their changing thoughts about their work of art. They also received “readers” with basic information on their work of art or artist, and led a group discussion with all the Satellite students about their piece to get others’ opinions and thoughts. At the end of the semester, they created midterm videos piecing together with their reflection vlogs to show their evolution of thought. Here is ZouaPang’s video:
Teens continually asked themselves what they were still wondering about, and much changed over the course of the semester. When asked what she learned after an early session, Alana responded: “I learned how to better analyze paintings.” Her answer to the same question at the last session of the semester was much richer: “I learned a lot more about how to analyze art and research which I think is really cool because now instead of just looking at a piece and saying ‘pretty picture’ I notice more things about the pieces I see.” Alana’s video—and all her research and analysis!—is below.
One-to-one iPads came with their own set of challenges. Instead of solo weekend troubleshooting with DSLRs and iMovie, I found myself with a wonderfully excited group who wanted to use the iPad for much longer than I’d anticipated! In fact, I learned that students about doubled the time I usually allotted to use the iPad comfortably and feel good about their work.
Next semester, the same group of students will continue to explore their artwork and create more formal videos for a wider visitor audience about their work of art. We’re going to kickoff the semester with some visitor studies: teens will go into the galleries and do a card-sort exercise with Museum visitors to discover what people actually want to know about works of art (thanks to Marianna Adams for this activity!). Then we’ll pool our data and discuss how we might format our videos for a larger audience, as well as how the teens think we should share the content.
We’re now in the phase of thinking about what we can do with the content our students have worked so hard to create. We know their voices are important and engaging, and are thinking about how best to share them. Since ArtMuseumTeaching.com is a forum for practice, we would love to open our questions up to all of you. What other purposes might these videos serve? Would they be interesting to other audiences? Where and how should these videos be shared? Please share your thoughts with us, as well as comments or questions, below!
How do we engage teenagers at art museums? Our museums offer powerful classes, internships, and multi-visit programs–but their reach is limited. For many teens, their first (and sometimes only) exposure to an art museum is through a school field trip. There are already a number of great conversations on this site posing suggestions and challenges for ideal school tours, which consider the needs and perspectives of the museum educator and the classroom teacher.
But what about asking the students themselves?In summer 2012, we did just that at the Milwaukee Art Museum. A group of fourteen teen interns teamed up with ten docents to delve deep into what can make a school tour successful and engaging. They worked to jointly share ideas and troubleshoot concerns. The session was such a hit for both groups that we decided to bring back five of those students this fall to share their thoughts with our full docent corps–all 100+ of them!
We taped the dialogue so that we could share the teens’ ideas as faithfully as possible. The video below shows the five summer teen interns in dialogue with our docents. The teens quickly do a check-in/icebreaker with the docents, describe the summer program, and facilitate a Q&A session.
What I found particularly powerful about the teens’ suggestions is that they are not only relevant to teen audiences–these tips can be used for younger and older visitors, too. In the spirit of continuing the conversation begun by these young people and our docents, I’d like to offer some of my own take-aways:
Take the time to get to know each other (even if the tour is only an hour). Over the summer, I began our sessions with a “check in” activity, inspired by the Milwaukee Writing Project, as a way for us to get to know each other. If you know your audience, you can tailor your tour to their interests from the get-go. As Rosehaydee said in the video, it can bring the group together and set a friendly tone.
Be aware of your group–and do what they want to do. Be in tune with your group and their reactions: if something’s not working, move on rather than pressing it.
Be yourself. Share your passion, and be friendly and relaxed. As Sensei said, if you are enthusiastic about what you’re discussing, chances are good that your group will respond to your enthusiasm.
Museum tours can be intimidating. Teens are aware that docents and educators are extremely knowledgeable; and it’s scary to offer your thoughts in front of not just a docent but also your peers. To support conversation, Steven suggested using clear, simple language (without being patronizing), and Rosehaydee encouraged us to acknowledge student voices, even if they’re not the “right” answer, so teens know they’re being heard.
Technology is a tool, not a goal. When asked if museums should use more technology to engage teens, responses were mixed. Yes, technology is cool and lots of teens use it–but not all teens have access, and technology is not always successful or necessary. If the activity can be done equally as well or better in analogue format, it’s probably not worth it to try to use a gadget. But if it’s something that can only be done with technology–like Skyping with an artist or out-of-town group–then take the time to give it a try.
Remember that we all learn differently. To combat teen boredom, Rosehaydee suggested calling on specific individuals to get them to pay attention, but Sensei noted that sometimes it can be just as effective to try a pair-share or solitary writing activity. This reminded me that museum educators and docents have a responsibility to provide many different kinds of learning opportunities for our students. We need to know when to support and when to gently challenge them.
Respect the group; think of them as family. One of my favorite suggestions from the teens over the summer was for docents to think of the teens as their children or grandchildren. To me, this gets to the heart of working with any visitor that comes into our space: respect them–their prior knowledge, their interests, their reasons for coming to museums in the first place. We can learn from visitors as much as (if not more than!) they can learn from us.
Sometimes, as we plan programs and tours, educational goals and strict standards can overshadow the much more abstract magic that can come from engaging with works of art. I’m glad these young people remind us of the steps we can take to achieve that “bigger picture”: a museum experience that is supportive, interesting, and fun. Such experiences help teens know that museums are places where they can be themselves, connect with peers who also love art, enrich their thinking, or simply take a break from a busy day of school.