Oct 23, 2013
08:55 AM

Housatonic Museum of Art's Student Peer Docent Program Helps Develop Young Teachers

Housatonic Museum of Art's Student Peer Docent Program Helps Develop Young Teachers

Images courtesy of Housatonic Museum of Art

A group of students led by a peer docent tours the architecture of Main Street in Bridgeport.

This fall, 45 Bridgeport school students are getting to share in a unique learning experience: Training for nine weeks to become "experts" in Bridgeport architecture, and then guiding tours around the city for their classmates, during which they get to share their knowledge.

It's all part of the Housatonic Museum of Art Peer Docent program, an ongoing school outreach program that partners 17 Bridgeport schools with the museum and helps introduce students to art and art history. Each year, the museum works with two to three schools for eight to ten weeks, providing instruction and education materials as well as transportation for tours and a special field trip for the students who participate as docents. As this year's subject area is architecture, the field trip in November will be to the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan.

"The students just love the program," says Robbin Zella, the program's administrator and director of the Housatonic Museum of Art (HMA), which is part of Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport. "We've learned that students are more likely to listen to their friends—not parents and teachers. Friends carry more clout, so we focused on that. They are more comfortable and receptive when they are being engaged by a peer."

Student participation in the docent program is voluntary; each year, art teachers at the schools involved (this year, John Winthrop and Geraldine W. Johnson elementary schools) ask students if they are interested, and those who are selected (not based solely on overall academic performance) sign a contract agreeing to be at every training session, which is embedded in-school during art classes. Docent training—carried out by the program's curator of education Janet Zamparo—includes instruction about the session's particular subject in addition to learning about public speaking and how to lead peer discussions. After all the training, tours are arranged; this year because the subject is architecture, the docents will be taking to the streets—literally—guiding groups of up to eight students and a parent chaperone on a tour of downtown Bridgeport.

"The program has been very, very successful," says Zella, adding that the students who are serving as docents are often learning more than those who enjoy the tours. "It boosts confidence. There are no grades for this, no stress. It's a warm and nurturing environment where they can openly share information. They get snacks, and they're not chained to a desk. It's learning in a way that's fun."

She also points out that the program gives students practical exposure to art. "It also gets them engaged with our collection, which is one of the only art museums in Bridgeport," she says. "In addition, they become familiar with HCC, and it introduces them to college in a soft way."

This year's program is focused on the architecture of Bridgeport. "I don't know about you, but back when I was a student and heard the word 'history,' my eyes started to glaze over," says Zella. She says that this subject "helps them have pride in the place they live. They are also exposed to potential careers, and it helps them with skill sets to find jobs."

Some of the Bridgeport structures that are being studied include The Barnum Museum, McLevy Hall, The Arcade (above), Bridgeport Savings Bank and People's United Bank. As mentioned, the docents' special field trip will be to the Glass House, where they will hear from Arianne Kolb, author of From Salt House to Glass House, about modern architecture, landscape and art, as well as about the legacy of architect Philip Johnson.

The program is partly funded by grants from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, Fairfield County Community Foundation and the Werth Family Foundation. This is the fourteenth year of the program, which was first modeled on a similar program at Ridgefield's Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum and originally seeded with a $30,000 grant from SNET. Zella estimates that between docents and their audiences, 200 to 300 students benefit each year.

"We see kids coming back later with a parent or a grandparent, and they give them the family tour," say Zella. "They're very proud of what they've learned, and they like being an expert. It's a nice feeling to be able to share information about a subject that a lot of people don't know about. It's great to open their eyes to new things."

Here is a video from HMA showcasing the program, with lots of comments from docents who have participated.


Housatonic Museum of Art's Student Peer Docent Program Helps Develop Young Teachers

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