Fostering Experiences with Art for Students

By Michelle Brenner
Monday, October 12, 2020

Tour at the Norton Simon Museum

An educator-led tour at the Norton Simon Museum (2018)

The Norton Simon Museum, with its exceptional European, South Asian and 20th-century American art collections, has long been a popular destination for school groups. Normally, the Museum offers free, staff-guided tours to teachers and students coming from as far away as Palm Springs and Arizona. Some teachers visit with their classes every year.

Visual arts teacher Kathy Allison, who has brought her students to the Museum for more than a decade, writes: “There are many important collections in the world, including right here in Los Angeles, but the scale of the Norton Simon experience makes it very accessible while displaying iconic examples from diverse art periods. I have always felt it was a perfect place to expose students to the sweep and depth of art history.”

When the Museum closed in March 2020, it had just begun its busy spring season of school tours. Since then, our Education department has been in contact with teachers as they adjust to remote learning and the loss of in-person experiences with artworks.

Head of Education Michelle Brenner

Head of Education Michelle Brenner (2019)

School tours promote careful observation and critical thinking through inquiry-based strategies. Teachers are offered a choice of tour themes, and special requests are taken into consideration in designing tours that complement students’ interests and needs. The Museum’s educators are flexible and responsive to students’ interests, and they adapt how they frame the discussion or incorporate activities to engage different students in different ways.

Lindsay Allen-Blum, a K–6th-grade visual arts teacher at Campbell Hall, writes, “I always find that [students] have thoughtful reflections on the work that they see. They often ask questions that surprise me and demonstrate their deeper thinking about how art influences the world. The intimate experience at the Norton Simon is something special.”

Frequently museums can be intimidating to those who haven’t grown up visiting them. In surveys conducted during the 2018–19 school year, 75 percent of teachers said that it was their students’ first time visiting the Norton Simon, and 42 percent said that it was their students’ first time visiting any museum. It is our hope that these specialized tour experiences make students feel that the Museum is a place for them, a place where they can and should feel comfortable.

“For many students, this is the first time they are visiting an art museum, and it’s a great memory they will always have,” writes Luselia Marin, who teaches art at Bonita High School in La Verne. “In the classroom I feel that after students see and experience the work of so many master artists, it inspires them to work harder. Additionally, throughout the year within different lessons and units I can always draw a correlation between our lessons and a work of art we saw, so it’s this ongoing learning experience for students.”

Even when students are unable to visit the Museum in person, conversations about art in the classroom (virtual or otherwise) require and develop critical skills like thoughtful listening, mutual respect and open-mindedness. Ever since remote learning began in the spring of 2020, teachers have been accessing the Museum’s videos and online teacher resources, including curriculum packets and lesson plans to engage their students with art.

Distance Learning webpage screenshots

Curriculum Packets on the website

To foster this engagement, the Museum has created a Distance Learning webpage to help teachers access curriculum resources. With the feedback of local teachers, we have also been creating materials to help our teachers, students and parents stay connected to and learn more about our art collection. We’re particularly proud of our new digital packet, Cultivating Empathy through Art. This packet includes a curriculum featuring artworks with connections to California content standards, as well as lesson plans scaled up or down for younger and older students.

Spotlight on Art webpage

Spotlight on Art: Videos for Schools

To further support teachers and students, we have been working on short videos focusing on two to three artworks each. These videos are designed to offer time to look and consider while also including information about the artists and the historical context of the works. It is our hope that while the Museum is closed, and after its reopening, these videos will instigate meaningful experiences with art, including close looking and discussion, even from afar.

In the words of Allen-Blum, “I am struck by how many of [my students] are using art to help them process this strange time. We are all facing challenges, but art provides a light at the end of the tunnel for many.”

Michelle Brenner is Head of Education at the Norton Simon Museum.