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Night at the museum? Try a week. These fourth graders did and it changed their world

In a workroom at the Hammer Museum on a recent afternoon, a group of two dozen fourth graders from Cienega Elementary sat focused on constructing tiny art galleries out of paper, coloring and glueing paintings on the walls. 

Nine-year-old Steven Mateo glued landscapes and flowers on one side of his gallery and put portraits on another. He and his classmates had just learned all about the process of exhibition design from Hammer staff, and he had some lessons to share.

"Art is not only about painting, it’s about curating your stuff, like what you want to [choose] and where you want to put it," he said. 

Across the room, Emily Rhem shared another lesson she'd garnered about the curation process: "It’s kind of hard, because there’s so many great paintings but sometimes you can’t fit them all," she said.

Instead of the typical half-day field trip, these fourth graders spent an entire week at the Hammer Museum. It’s part of the museum’s classroom-in-residence program. The goal is to immerse students in an environment outside of their classroom and jolt them into thinking about art in a new way.

"I think on the first day they approach the galleries with that kind of hallowed trepidation you might expect from going into a room filled with 500-year-old paintings," said Noelle Valentino, academic programs coordinator at the Hammer.

But she says even after a few hours, there's a noticeable shift. And after a couple days, the children feel at home.

"One of the things that museums battle against is being a stodgy thing like an opera house," said Valentino. "And [we're] just trying to make it really relevant to young people and show the museum not only as a picture gallery but [as] a place where any kind of activity is possible."

Cienega teacher Rosa de la Portilla says for many of her students, entering a fine art museum is a brand new experience.  

"The opportunity to feel like they belong in a museum, that it’s for everyone, not just for people who live further west, that was the draw," said de la Portilla.

Cienega Elementary is in Mid-City and 94 percent of students there receive free or reduced-price lunches. This program is specifically for Title 1 schools, which mainly serve students from low-income families. 

Over the course of the week, the students explored the museum's notable exhibits — sculpture garden and works from photographer Catherine Opie — and wrote and drew reflections in journals. For a recess of sorts, the kids got up and moving with daily movement lessons, bringing performance art into the mix. 

'Intimidated by art'

The immersive week was as much for the students as it was for their classroom teacher. It's a collaboration between the Hammer Museum and the Visual and Performing Arts Education (VAPAE) Program in the UCLA School of the Arts & Architecture, and the idea is to give classroom teachers the skills to bring art back to their schools after the week is over. 

"Not only are the pupils being transformed by this week, but I've really been excited to see the way a classroom teacher gains confidents in their own skills to teach the arts, to integrate the arts in their own creative process," said Kevin Kane, associate director of the UCLA VAPAE program. 

De la Portilla said that she's normally very "intimidated by visual art," but her comfort level is changing. She began professional development through this program over the summer and received training to develop lessons that weave in artwork. And for weeks before and after this residence, UCLA teaching artists and museum educators came to her school and gave lessons. 

'The real world still calls'

Taking a week-size bite out of a school year's worth of normal instruction is a big commitment and de la Portilla admitted that making that commitment was kind of scary.

"The real world still calls. We have parent conferences next week and we have our state testing coming up and so I’m having to juggle all of that," de la Portilla said. "How do I still sustain what’s expected of me at the school with this awesome experience?"

Schools must have the support of the principal to participate. De la Portilla's principal was excited for the chance for the class to step outside of their comfort zone and learn to embrace art.

And to balance the opportunity with the demands of the school's curriculum, de la Portilla gave out homework. Each day, after the class took the bus back to school, she squeezed in a math lesson.

And at the museum, she also taught some of her regularly-scheduled lessons – just with famous artwork at the center, instead of text.

One day, she led students in an analysis of a self portrait by French painter Paul Gauguin. The students were tasked with coming up with six adjectives to infer what Gauguin is feeling in this painting. The exercise checked off requirements for writing and discussion.

The students flexed some big vocab muscle with words like melancholy, mysterious and sinister. But de la Portilla also wanted them to make sure they had evidence to back up their inferences. The students discussed their ideas in groups and then share them with the class.

There were lots of different interpretations: some students thought the man at the center of the painting was plotting a crime; others argued he was pining for a girl.

"As long as you have evidence to support what you're saying, your perspective is still valid," de la Portilla told them. "And people will interpret and do interpret art very differently."

A unique approach

The program was recently recognized for its unique approach and awarded the California Association of Museum's Superintendent Award for excellence in museum education. It's modeled after a Canadian program in Calgary called Open Minds, where students embed in museums, nature centers, and even zoos for a week. That program has been around for 20 years and more than 100,000 students have participated.

At the Hammer, this program is so time and resource-intensive that they only accept two fourth, fifth or sixth-grade classes from Title 1 schools per year. (Students from Wilshire Crest Elementary School also did the residence.)

This year, 11 schools applied for the program, the first year it was so competitive. 

The students from Cienega Elementary realize that most kids don't get to do this. On Thursday, Steven Mateo was dreading the end. "I’m gonna miss this museum because it showed me that art is not just about just looking at pictures," he said. "It’s about expressing yourself."  

And that knowledge, Emily Rhem said, can help kids start thinking in different ways.

"This would help kids, especially young kids, analyze art differently than just seeing pictures and saying, 'Oh, I like it. Oh, I don’t like it,'" she said. "It will teach them different perspectives to take."