They may not be world-famous artists, but students from Shawanoe Elementary School are seeing their work on the walls of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
The third- and fifth-graders wrote descriptive placards to accompany curatorial notes for the museum’s exhibition of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s works based on an educational technique called visual thinking strategies.
“You just have the students look at a piece of art and ask them, ‘What’s going on in this picture?’ You let them say what they believe, (then) you ask for evidence,” said Shawanoe teacher Paula Ferlo. “The students just build their own stories off of how they interact with the piece of artwork.”
Students worked in pairs and groups of three to write their descriptions.
“I was really excited using our imaginations to make different labels,” said 10-year-old Saya Ueki at a reception last week for the students.
Retired Shawnee Mission art teacher Rosie Riordon, now head of school and educator services at the museum, led the students in the project, working at the school.
“My job was to teach them to look and observe and help develop their powers of observation,” said Riordan. “The whole idea was to bring in different voices. One of the third-graders said (to me), ‘This is my museum. I belong here.’”
For example, if a student observed a balloon in a picture, Riordan helped along a discussion about why the balloon was there and encouraged the students to offer their ideas. Ferlo said that they didn’t want to lead the students to a particular response.
“I don’t think my students have really looked at a lot of artwork, and no one’s really asked them, ‘What do you think?’ I don’t think they have preconceived ideas; their imaginations could run free, and they went with it,” Ferlo said.
Two other retired teachers, Georgia Smith and Pat Sabath, also helped run the project.
Rose May, head of interpretation at the museum, said she got the idea from a museum in London that had students curate an entire exhibit. May said one of the museum’s priorities is to engage a variety of people through their exhibits.
“People feel like, ‘I can’t get art, (because) I don’t know the art history,’” May said. “We want to validate the idea of a personal response to art. Kids are more uncensored — it’s easier to get a personal response.”
High school students from advanced placement arts classes at University Academy in Kansas City also contributed descriptions for the exhibit.
One Shawanoe student described a Kahlo’sSelf-Portrait with Necklace
like this: “I see a beautiful woman with black hair, peach skin and wearing black pearls. She has fierce eyes. She needs this picture for her job. Maybe it’s for a work ID badge.”
Ferlo appreciated the way the project motivated her fifth-grade students in the classroom.
“It was amazing to listen to my students talk with each other about what they thought and how they could agree to disagree,” she said. “Sometimes kids just give you an answer they think you want to hear, (but) they would get so involved, they would forget they were learning.”
Elizabeth Ruiz said her 8-year-old son, Drake, was very excited to see art that reflected his Mexican heritage.
“He had so much fun. He loves art, especially when it comes to our culture. To him, it’s very special,” Ruiz said.
Shawnee Mission Superintendent Dr. Gene Johnson visited the exhibit with the students and expressed his support of the project.
“It’s really important to give these students experiences maybe they wouldn’t be able to do on their own,” he said.