Teacher’s Night Recap: American Art & Visual Literacy

Gallery 15, full of Prendergasts--imagine it full of teachers, too.

Gallery 15, full of Prendergasts--imagine it full of teachers, too.

In early March, twenty-two teachers joined us at the Museum for a free Teacher’s Night that focused on the recently unveiled Charles Prendergast installation in Gallery 15 on the Main Level. We got a generous grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art not only for the installation (the beautiful Prendergast objects featured are almost all from their collection), but also for a Teacher’s Night inspired by the works! Here’s an inside look at the planning for the event as well as the event itself…

As I sat down to plan the night, I knew I wanted it to look different from our usual professional development events for teachers. Since the teachers would be coming after a full day at school, I knew they would be tired, so I didn’t want to bombard them with activities or tasks that required too much of thinking. Instead, I wanted this to be a night where they could relax and just enjoy being in the Museum, surrounded by great art and soaking in the thoughts of their colleagues. That’s not to say they didn’t walk away with classroom-related goodies: I made a teacher’s resource (see below) that has lots of activity ideas and a mini-lesson plan, so that if they wanted to bring the Prendergast installation into their teaching further, they could easily do so.

Liz Flaig, the Curatorial Department Administrator who organized the show, and I sat down a couple of months ago to plan out the themes for the evening (over a delicious Frank Lloyd Wright inspired cookie at Coffee With a Conscience–shameless plug!). We talked about how some of the major themes of the installation could relate to the classroom. Charles Prendergast and his better-known brother Maurice worked closely together to create their art, and they also pushed the boundaries of what art was and could be during their lifetime. We honed in on using collaboration and modernity as our themes, as well as how Liz decided to install the actual objects in the gallery. I also decided to start off by modeling an inquiry-based discussion method called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a technique you do not need to have an art background to use with students. It centers on three questions (what’s going on in this picture, what do you see that makes you say that, and what more can we find) to encourage participants to look closely at a work of art.

I was thrilled at how the teachers immersed themselves in the night even after their busy days and stressful weeks. We explored the Prendergast works together using VTS, giving ourselves calm, quiet moments to consider the pieces as well as gaining momentum into animated discussion. Then, we had a very special treat: not only did Liz tell us all about the lives of these fascinating artists and their work, but our brand-new curator of American art and decorative art, William Rudolph, also joined us–sharing his expertise on The Eight (the artist group to which Maurice belonged) and on installation techniques. In addition to raving about Liz and William, a few teachers even told me that they planned to try VTS the very next day with their students. No better compliment than that!

We’ll be holding more of these special, free teacher’s nights in the future, continuing to feature behind-the-scenes-themed talks from Museum staff. Keep an eye out on our Teacher Programs page if you’re an educator who would like to join us next time!

PS: Are you an educator who missed out on the night? Download the Teacher Resource on Prendergast (PDF file) right here!

Chelsea Kelly, the School and Teacher Programs Manager, oversees school tours, special K-12 programming, and events for teachers at the Museum, and also creates resources for educators about the artworks in the Museum’s Collection.
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