A group of grades 6, 7 and 8 students from Holy Name Catholic School likely know more about Agnes Etherington than just about anyone else in the city these days.
The children have been studying the art centre’s namesake during a weeklong sojourn in the gallery as part of the new Beyond Classrooms program.
The initiative, which started with a Calgary teacher taking her kids to the city’s zoo for a week, allows educators to turn a museum or similar institution into a unique teaching environment for their students.
It saw its Kingston premier last spring when a local Grade 3/4 class took over the Miller Museum of Geology for a week.
Pat Sullivan, public programs manager at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, said the centre has had school programs for 30 years, but this is the first time a group of students is staying for an entire week.
She was interested in participating in the program right from its arrival in Kingston.
“I have been aware of this type of program for quite a while,” she said. “It just sounded like a really great opportunity for a class and a very good community connection. The teachers have to learn what the museum is about, and the museum has to accommodate what the teacher wants to teach. So it is a true partnership.”
Taking the class to the gallery took a lot of co-ordination to make it a good experience for the children, she said.
The students are learning how art contributes to the community and have been viewing the exhibitions in the gallery. One show allowed them to discuss different belief systems. Another exhibition will let them examine art and the environment.
“That’s the wonderful thing about art,” Sullivan said. “It does relate to many issues.”
A lot of their time earlier this week was spent in the Agnes Etherington house that is part of the centre.
“They learned about someone who has a passion for the arts and what they have given to the community.”
Being able to see her furniture, her clothing and how she lived brought the woman alive for them and helped them understand her importance.
A second class, this time Grade 3/4, will be participating in the program in a couple of weeks and a third will visit in the spring.
Sullivan said the children were instructed in the gallery rules and were given the reasons behind them, such as avoiding touching the paintings since the oil on our skin can harm them.
“That seems to help make students understand. They were very well behaved and interested from the start.”
She said it is important to bring children and youth into the gallery to show them what it offers and hopefully turn them into lifelong visitors. The centre is also starting up a Saturday art program for young people in a couple of weeks.
“We really feel that reaching out to the community is important.”
Ann Blake, managing director of the Kingston Museums Association, brought the concept to Kingston and said the spring pilot program at the Miller Museum “went phenomenally well.”
It has now been expanded to four sites, with City Hall and the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes also getting on board.
Eight classes are participating: five from the Limestone District School Board and three from the Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board.
Even more sites are planned for the next school year.
“We have already got interest expressed,” Blake said. “The sites realize that the potential to connect with the students is really unique.”
Dianne LaFortune, the teacher of the 21 students currently at the centre, said spending time in an art gallery works well with the students’ studies.
“It’s really in line with the curriculum in Ontario,” she said.
“I like that it is inquiry-based, I like that there are connections to the community. It gives students an opportunity to learn things about Kingston, to make connections with community members.”
Examining how artwork is stored or displayed exposed the children to such varied topics as math, history, writing, evaluations and judgments, she said.
“The kids don’t necessarily realize they are doing all these subjects at once. It’s an opportunity we don’t necessarily have in our classrooms. We can bring in pictures and we can bring in speakers, but to be in a real space in the community lends authenticity and a genuineness to the learning that you don’t get in a classroom.”
LaFortune said the students can Google Agnes Etherington to learn facts about her, but there is no comparison to actually walking through her house.
She had talked to her students about the correct behaviour for an art gallery and said there have been no problems.
“They get it,” LaFortune said. “When we give them the opportunity, we find that kids rise to the occasion and are quite happy to take on the challenge.”
She is hoping the students will maintain their involvement with the gallery in the future.
Judging by their reactions, the students agree.
Kara Calder, 11, said she was enjoying her time at the centre.
“It is just kind of different than being in the classroom,” she said.
Hanna Repetti, 11, agreed. She said she liked the sketching and journal writing they were doing.
Dominic Kilpatrick, 11, said he liked “getting away from school” and learning about the gallery and its paintings.
Logan Beattie, 11, thought it was “pretty cool” walking in Agnes Etherington’s house “and seeing what was in here, the stuff that she had.”
Emmajean Lalonde, 11, enjoyed writing in the journals the students keep of their visit.
“I liked going through the house because it was very interesting to see the carpets that she walked on, the couches that she sat on.”
-Michael Lea, Kingston Whig-Standard
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