Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Looking Outside the Box at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Kimberly Chin, COT Teaching Artist at Clinton & Hampton Elementary Schools
Laura Koroski, Education Intern at Chicago Opera Theater

Last Friday, Ms. Ochoa's class from Hampton Elementary visited the Museum of Contemporary Art. Before the trip, we were hesitant about how it would turn out. What kind of inspiration could students get from modern art? How would they turn that into an opera?

But our fears turned out unfounded. We had two docents for the field trip, and they were fantastic guides, helping the students to see beyond the physically bizarre creations in front of them. By complete coincidence, they just happened to have the same ideas in mind as we did. Their ultimate aim seemed to be to get the kids thinking about space, but there were a number of steps to get there. The guide had our group stop to look at a piece that the museum had just received, a miniature village model which to us looked like a Vegas hotel strip. “What is this?” she asked the students. “A model of a town.” “Could you go inside it?” They agreed you could. “What would you be, inside it?” “I would be rich and famous,” one student stated, and everyone laughed. “What would you be famous for?” the guide asked. “I dunno, I’d just be famous. And everyone would want my autograph.” The guide tried to draw them back to the model. “Think about it, though. How would you go inside that village? Would you shrink yourself?” A hand was raised. “Maybe you’d make the village bigger,” one girl said. “Or maybe you could imagine yourself in the village?”

To further explore the concept of space, our group made a circle. “It’s not just artwork that can change a space,” said our guide. “People can change space as well, and we do it all the time. How are we, right now in this circle, changing the space? How would we change the space if we made a smaller circle? A line?” These were simple exercises, yet when paired with deep questions, produced some amazing discussion.

The docent led the students in our group from simple observations to more nuanced answers to complex, open-ended questions. At a piece composed of stacked mirrors in a corner, they talked about the placement of the light in the creation of the piece, and how it resembled a stairway, perhaps to the heavens. What looked like a doorway led to a discussion of how simple and everyday a door is, until the docent asked “What could make this door special? Where does it lead?” and the kids were off using their imaginations, thinking of the new and fantastical rooms and places and worlds it could lead to.

After a tour of just of few of the hundreds of pieces the museum has, the students were given the opportunity to deal with space themselves – by creating their own piece of contemporary art. They were given a starting template of a three-dimensional cardboard corner, lots of materials, and told just to go. At first, they were hesitant, asking questions about what they could do. But as time went on, they opened up, and it was wonderful to walk around the room and watch them figure out that they could do whatever they wanted.

Some people say that today’s students don’t know how to think creatively and use their imaginations. Perhaps that’s true. But I think that using your imagination is a skill like any other, and it has to be taught, or at the very least, introduced. And it was wonderful to be present at the MCA and watch the Hampton fourth graders start to learn how to think outside the box. I hope some wonderful things will come out of it for their opera.

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