A Gallery educator's perspective

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Tuesday 26 March 2013
Selina Anderson

As an educator here at the Gallery, I often find that concrete examples to explain my job are sometimes hard to come by. The schoolchildren arrive, we whisk them in for one-hour gallery and studio sessions, and then they are gone two hours later.

While I work with the artworks on the floor everyday and have a very visible presence, sometimes the conversation and thinking that goes on in the programme feels like an exclusive club that only me and the students share together. So through various blogs I am going to attempt to reveal the complexities of my team's role through case studies, and my own personal inquiries.  
I think that if visitors could hear what the children say sometimes, they would be desperate to be a part of this group! To illustrate this I want to share a teaching moment that stands out to me still after a year and a half.
We regularly teach with Walter Sadler’s Married and on this occasion, it was for ourStorytelling Foundation programme. I start by asking the group: what do they notice? You get the standard responses, of course: a garden, a man and woman on a bench, it looks old, they look like they have had a fight.

From these responses we move to: how do they know that? We look at gesture, facial expression, costume, and how these characters are telling us a story through these visual clues. We pose, pretending we are the man reading our books, or the woman who looks vexed and about to leave, scattering her roses on the floor. They come up with ‘speech bubbles’ on what the characters might be thinking ‘I wish he would notice me’, ‘I wish she would talk to me’, and ‘wow this book is interesting!’ We predict what happened before and what might happen next. 


Walter Sadler, Married
oil on canvas, Mackelvie Trust Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

I am trying to move their thinking from just what they see to an interpretation, through questioning, asking for evidence and justifications. All the dialogue and discussion start to bubble and brew into a conversation about this artwork which is guided by their prior knowledge and their own experiences.

I move on to the setting and ask: how does that add to the story of the characters we have discussed? They notice the seat that blocks everything, they notice the abandoned badminton racquet on the ground, and then one child comments that the garden in the background looks like a maze. One says ‘but they can’t get to it?’ 'Why not?’ I ask. Pause. A bit more silence. ‘It's like they cannot find their way to each other's hearts’.

That insight by a boy of about eight years old rounded up the most insightful conversation I have had with anyone (not just children) in front of that work, or perhaps any work. Then the moment is gone, we line up to go outside, and they are off back to school. Moreover, just like the end of most of my sessions, I walk away wondering who learnt more: me or them.