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Princeton Weekly Bulletin   September 25, 2006, Vol. 96, No. 3   prev   next   current

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  • Editor: Ruth Stevens

    Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller

    Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Eric Quiñones

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    Design: Maggie Westergaard

    Web edition: Mahlon Lovett

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Community ties

Trenton Program kindles passion for art

Princeton NJ — Art doesn’t transform; it just plain forms,” American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein once said.

It is something art teacher Mary Fletcher sees each year, thanks to a unique program set up by the docents of Princeton University Art Museum to educate 100 third-graders from the Trenton Public Schools about the joys of art.

docent and children

Docent Enea Tierno shows children from the Trenton Public Schools some objects in the Asian galleries at the Princeton University Art Museum. (photo: Catherine Stroud)

“This program ignites a passion for learning,” said Fletcher, who teaches at Washington Elementary School. “I see excitement in my students’ eyes and hear wonderful observations. They begin to see the world differently. They become more focused and learn how to analyze and look deeper at things. And their insightful questions challenge me to linger on the art like you would study a poem.”

Since 1996, the art museum docents have hosted the Trenton Program every spring and fall. Each new semester begins with slide presentations in the children’s classrooms.

“We use this opportunity to make the students feel welcome and to challenge their curiosity by showing representations of some of the treasures they will see first hand when they get to the museum,” said Kathy Oechler, the docent coordinator for the program.

Two security staffers accompany the docents to teach museum etiquette. “I tell the kids to stand at an arm’s length from the painting, and we tell them why they can’t touch the paintings — because of the oil in their hands,” said security guard William Boyle.

The program consists of eight 90-minute museum visits that are integrated with “hands-on” sessions in Trenton. When the children arrive at the museum, they are divided into four teams each headed by three dedicated docent leaders.

The docents prepare a museum “passport” for each student, complete with a photograph. Each time the students come to the museum, they begin by reviewing their passports, which are stamped to reflect each day’s activity. Then the teams depart to learn about line, shape and color by looking at contemporary pieces or explore ancient Greece or Rome through the works in the galleries.

Each session culminates in a project specially geared to that week’s subject. For example, students make clay pots after their Meso-American visit and scrolls at the end of their China visit.

In May, the docents sponsor a Young Audiences of New Jersey Greek myth performance for the children because, according to Oechler, “Storytelling is an integral part of how we help to connect the art to its world culture.”

But the program is not complete until the “mini-museum” happens. This event brings the docents to Trenton for an awards ceremony and a tour of artwork done by the students in the program and displayed in the school district’s Central Services Building. “We always tell the children it’s the day they get to act as docents,” said Oechler. At the end of this ceremony the children are presented with a graduation certificate and a watercolor set.

Caroline Harris, curator of education and academic programs at the museum, said that the program’s benefits range far beyond the artistic. “The Princeton University Art Museum docents developed the Trenton Public Schools program with teachers,” she said. “Together they created a curriculum that teaches geography, studio art, art history, and history, as well as an appreciation for diverse cultures and traditions. And it’s fun! You can’t do better than that.”


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