Art and a Montessori Education

Evergreen School students look at "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair" by Mary Cassatt

Evergreen School students examine at "Little Girl in a Blue Armchair" by Mary Cassatt

I visited my old pals at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC on Friday.  Lucky me. I hitched a ride downtown with our elementary class’s field trip.  We stopped in to see Manet, Degas, and Cassatt and their friends in the Impressionism galleries.

While the National Gallery is a familiar place to me, I was surprised by our students’ reaction to it.  They were hushed as they looked deeply into each painting. No swiveling of heads to snoop on noisy tour groups trouncing by.  No bumping, poking or fiddling. Thanks in part to our excellent docent’s spiraling questions, students unpacked the meaning in each work: the artists’ technique, the composition, the subject, the historical context.  They made connections to their classroom research projects and asked insightful questions: “Why didn’t Manet paint wealthy people?” “Why isn’t there a train in The Railway?”

So why were our students so interested in these paintings?  Perhaps because the art is beautiful, inspiring, and engaging.  How lucky are we to live near the National Gallery!

It is more than that. Most chaperones on field trips would re-write the adage, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” to “you can lead a student to an art gallery, but you can’t make her appreciate the art.”  You can command looking, but nothing more.  A gallery trip designed as forced cultural enrichment is bound to fail.

Our students looked deeply because they are motivated learners. Our teachers have, as Alfie Kohn wrote last year in The English Journal, “worked with [our] students to create a classroom culture, a climate, a curriculum that nourishes and sustains the fundamental inclinations that everyone starts out with:  to make sense of oneself and the world, to become increasingly competent at tasks that are regarded as consequential, to connect with (and express oneself to) other people.”

These are the same motivators that led to the creation of these masterpieces in the first place.  Art opens up the world so we can better understand what it means to be human.  So does a Montessori education.

And I am sure that each child will be more than happy to return to the gallery to visit his or her new friends, Degas, Manet, and Cassatt, too.

  1. February 14, 2012 at 12:31 am

    As a public school teacher in a school that integrates visual arts into all aspects of the curriculum, I applaud your trip and your inspiration! As a devoted fan of Alfie Koh, I applaud your reference!
    (I hand out copies of “The Homework Myth” to parents on a regular basis).

  2. February 14, 2012 at 12:32 am

    Oops. *Kohn~

  3. February 14, 2012 at 1:56 am

    He is one of my educator heroes! Cheers to “The Homework Myth”!

  4. shel29
    March 10, 2012 at 5:22 am

    It’s wonderful when students are prepared and motivated to understand and appreciate art. Great post.

    • March 10, 2012 at 3:34 pm

      It is go great to have a great docent, too. We can’t wait to go back to the museums in Washington. And there is so much art online, too.

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