Avonworth Pittsburgh Galleries Project Takes Arts Education Beyond the Classroom

Under a new connected learning program, Pittsburgh artists, gallery managers, curators, and museum staff serve as mentors in preparing students to design, create, curate, and manage exhibition spaces. Now the students are ready to unveil their work.

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]emember thinking in the middle of art history or algebra class, “When on earth am I ever gonna use this?” It was usually a sign you were lost in the weeds and were about to check out. Before long, grades dipped and interest waned even more.

Students at Avonworth High School may never experience that. The school has joined with Pittsburgh’s rich cultural and arts community to show students how they can actually use what they’re learning.

The school recently received a $10,000 grant from the Sprout Hive Fund to put “connected learning”—a new theory of learning that elevates interest-based learning—into play. The grant allowed the school to collaborate with the Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Museum of Art, Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh Glass Center, and Toonseum of Pittsburgh to bring students into the art world for a hands-on experience.

“I want the students to learn how to be the curator, not just the artist. I want them to see what else they can do inside the museum,” Avonworth studio art teacher Kerri Villani told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Avonworth Pittsburgh Galleries Project, as it is called, connects students to multiple facets of the art world.  Artists, gallery managers, curators, and museum staff serve as mentors in preparing students to design, create, curate, and manage exhibition spaces.

Students work in teams matched with one of five participating arts institutions. They  visit their assigned institution and work hands-on with the mentors and other professionals, giving context to what they’re learning in art class while also planting the seed about what their future might hold.

Billy Molinari, one of the participating students, visited the Andy Warhol Museum, not just for the art. In a blog post about the experience, he writes of Warhol’s Elvis painting:

In real life it was massive. It stretched an entire wall by itself. We then discussed how the art was presented such as lighting, shadows, wall choice, depth, texture, layers… etc. Following that, we headed down to a little woodshop where we talked about how they ship and transport art. That part was very interesting and I learned a lot.

This kind of hands-on learning has a long history in education, but what this project adds is a glimpse of what students might actually do with all that knowledge they’re accumulating.

That vision can make a difference. A program in Chicago, After School Matters, which offers paid, apprenticeship-like experiences for high school students in technology, arts, and sports fields, found that students were more engaged in school after participating, had fewer behavioral problems, and greater self-regulation. (The program did not improve their grades, however, which was a disappointment).

Shimira Williams, who teaches at a home-based afterschool program called Tek Start in Pittsburgh’s East End, also believes in this kind of learning. As she told us, often her students don’t know about the global innovations that are taking place right in their backyard.

Williams has taken students over to Google Pittsburgh to expose them to their possibilities. Students also interview local professionals so they can better imagine themselves as future scientists or engineers or developers.

The Galleries project reflects another emerging theory of engagement, connected learning. That theory promotes the powerful combination of personal interests and peer culture, meshed with support from strong mentors. Connected learning amplifies learning in all areas of teens’ lives– in their personal circles, their academic circles, and their civic circles, because, as George Santayana once said:  “A child educated only at school is an uneducated child.”

The students will unveil the culmination of their work April 22 at an opening reception at Avonworth High School. They will present five rooms in their school that they have transformed with art exhibits they created and curated while participating in project.

Published April 21, 2014