By Judy Hug and Nicole Schon
In late July two SCWRiP fellows, Judy Hug and Nicole Schon, ventured into the steamy humidity of St. Louis, Missouri to attend an innovative summer institute set in a museum atop the rolling hills and sparkling ponds of Forest Park, a site created to evoke natural splendor during the 1904 World’s Fair.
From the moment the museum doors swung open into a welcome rush of crisp air, it was clear that a community of learners would rapidly develop. After a flurry of warm hugs and greetings between prior participants, the group sifted silently through each other’s “artifact boxes,” leaving questions or comments on sticky notes. The array of faded photographs, tattered journals, ticket stubs and other memorabilia spoke volumes, immediately creating a higher level of intimacy in the room.
Participants then learned that the goal of the three days was to “explore innovative cultural practices that promote complex 21st century literacies, envision these new approaches to support local sites, and enact prototypes of these models for implementation in local contexts”(Cordova). This sounded complex and daunting, yet the group forged boldly ahead with the challenge, trusting that this new task was the natural progression of a process that began in the summer of 2009.
At that time Dr. Mike Murawski, Director of School Services at the Saint Louis Museum of Art (SLAM), and Dr. Ralph Cordova, the 2009 Master Teacher Fellow for the museum, formed a collaborative partnership aimed at reformulating the ways in which schools and art museums interact. Thus began the annual three-day Advanced Summer Institute in the Arts (ASIA), designed to give teachers “a focused and intensive experimental workshop that integrates creative confidence, literacies learning, and visual and dramatic arts as key elements to support classroom and community based learning” (Cordova).
The true roots of the institute go back even farther, stemming from seeds planted over seven years ago when a group of teachers formed the Cultural Landscape Collaboratory (CoLab). Dr. Cordova, a SCWRiP fellow, serves as director of this far-flung organization, which continually works to bring teachers from diverse backgrounds, educational levels, and distances together to learn with and from one another. ASIA is just one branch of the many partnerships and collaborations that have taken place over the years.
When ASIA reconvened amid the vaulted ceilings and stately columns of SLAM this year, more participants than ever attended, bringing together teacher–leaders from the Piasa Bluffs Writing Project of Southern Illinois University, the Gateway Writing Project of University of Missouri, and SCWRiP. As soon became apparent, this dynamic group of educators, spanning elementary through college level, were in for a rapid and deep learning experience.
Over the course of three days, the group learned what it meant to explore the museum as a cultural landscape where new avenues to literacy could be formed. In particular, attendance at gallery presentations gave CoLabers a chance to be the learners and “climb into” various works of art using their senses. SLAM interns, Piasa Bluffs WP fellow Jackie Green, and the 2011 SLAM Master Teacher Fellow demonstrated new instructional approaches that allow students to interact with and learn from art.
Dr. Murawski also guided participants into the gallery for an Arts Integrated Exploration of a dark-hued painting that spanned an entire wall. Unconventional from the start, the work began with moving viewing benches to the far corners of the room. A spectrum of traditionally uncouth yet exhilarating activities ensued. The group, numbering over twenty people, shattered the standard hush of the gallery when they erupted in a chorus of sounds inspired by the painting. A flurry of movement ensued as individuals physically leapt, climbed, and swam their way through contours of the painting. Museum patrons lingered to gawk at the spectacle while the ever-watchful guard suspiciously eyed the activities. On whole, the experience served to expose endless possibilities available when one integrates kinesthetic, musical, linguistic and artistic modes of thinking to build a relationship with a piece of art.
Throughout the institute, participants engaged in sequences of quick-writes, collaborations, and debriefing discussions designed by Dr. Cordova and Dr. Murawski. This allowed CoLab members to interact with specific practices, analyze them, and develop prototypes that could be enacted at their own school or project site during the coming year. True to the innovative nature of CoLab, writing and speaking were not the only modes of communicating; participants built models with clay, pipe cleaners, and anything else on hand, acted out theories, staged live commercial presentations, and drew what certain ideas might look like.
At the end of three days, new ideas abounded. A palpable buzz of excitement emanated from the room as phone numbers exchanged and people lingered to discuss potential cross-site (and cross-state) partnerships for the coming school year. Although Judy was a veteran, having attended twice before, and Nicole a wide-eyed novice, they both walked away brimming with wonder at the ever-expanding possibilities that surfaced during the three days and continued to unfold on the plane ride home.
Much of the discussion on the way home revolved around plans for Winter 2012, when ASIA participants will gather again, this time at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA). As before, they will explore a museum as a cultural landscape for learning, push past convention to envision new possibilities, and enact new models of meaningful interaction between students and art museums. Judy and Nicole will be working closely with SCWRiP director Tim Dewar and the educational director at SBMA to plan the three-day institute. Please watch for updates about this unique SCWRiP sponsored event.