Most people's memories of school trips to an art museum usually recall a docent's rehearsed lecture that did not elicit much in the way of en thusiasm, interest, or participation. In fact, most people probably remember being bored and easily distracted by anything other than the person talking "at" them. With this in mind, the education department at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) set out to create a program that would increase the level of receptivity and interest of visiting high school groups. Peers on Contemporary Art, or POCA, is the result of that mission.
Since 1994, ICA educators have trained local high school students who have an interest in art and art history to be docents for touring high school groups. The POCA guides' own excitement and involvement in discussions about the concepts and meanings conveyed in the art on view encourages students to be more responsive and take an active part in examining the various issues. Personal opinions and ideas are encouraged, and within this relaxed environment, lively discussions take place between the docents and visitors.
John Giordano, a college-level art history and studio art teacher, as well as artist, has been coordinating the POCA program which includes an extensive training schedule requiring the guides to meet twice a week after school. During that time the students hear art history lectures covering the Renaissance to the 20th Century given by Giordano and ICA education curator Suzy Witmer and which are vital in helping the guides recog nize art historical references common in contemporary art. They also work on collaborative and individual studio art projects that introduce them to the art-making process and the nature of materials. In addition to receiving reading assignments of short stories and essays, they visit local mu seums, both of which provide them with a broader perspective. And finally, they go into the ICA galleries for discussions of the current exhibi tions.
POCA guides remain in the program for at least two yearsthe first year to learn and the second to leadand receive school credit and a sti pend for their time and effort. The program's growing popularity has brought about an increase in applications, a process that includes teacher recommendations and an essay. Representative of the area's diverse population, the students come from public as well as private schools and all thrive amidst John's non-authoritarian teaching style. There is a communal, relaxed feeling amongst the group and a strong air of mutual respect.
During a typical tourperhaps with students from the Lower Merion High School Art Club or a field trip from a local grade schoolsome factual information is first provided with all guides freely volunteering. This is followed by questions to the students designed to provoke open -ended conversations. The guides encourage everyone in the group to think about the art, to give their reactions and opinions, and to question what is on view as well as each other's comments. Animated discussions mount, often leading to other subjects and issues, such as the differences be tween men and women, psychology, and biology.
While many of the students who visit ICA do not have an artistic, analytical vocabularyand that is far from necessarylistening in on a POCA-guided tour reveals a depth of discussion and understanding that only Peers on Contemporary Art leaders could incite. The POCA guides, who themselves have been empowered through the program to have the confidence and knowledge to speak out, in turn facilitate in the visiting students a new way of thinking and expressing themselves, and the result is an enthusiastic, energy-filled group of peers talking about art and life.
Ms. Padnick is a junior in The College and an intern at the ICA.
Volume 43 Number 1
July 16, 1996
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