Volunteers with the Los Altos Art Docents teach art with heart.
Founded in 1970 to offset funding cuts to art instruction in public schools, the Los Altos Art Docents comprises 80 volunteers who teach nearly 800 visual art lessons annually to elementary-school-age students in the Los Altos School District.
Although the nonprofit program has thrived for more than four decades, no two years are alike. There are no dramatic shifts in the curriculum from year to year but rather a series of continual tweaks. This year, docents will introduce new lessons for students as well as educational and social activities for themselves.
According to director Kimberly Dickerson, one recent change involves presenting lessons that include instructional strategies for areas in which teachers have been trained.
For example, sixth-graders work in groups, studying ancient works of art and figuring out where they originated. Such assignments not only encourage collaboration - a skill docents are instructed to weave into their lessons - but also complement the social studies curriculum.
"We’re really excited, because it’s a different way for us to bring appreciation lessons to the students," Dickerson said.
But it’s not just the oldest students whose curriculum is being updated - kindergartners will also see a change. This year’s plan includes the full rollout of a drawing and watercolor lesson partially introduced to students the previous year.
"(It) incorporates some techniques to help them draw and do a little bit of painting … and incorporate some of their social studies curriculum - the study of animals and their habitats," Dickerson said "We do this underwater sea scene with them, and that’ll be fun."
The benefits of volunteering
Los Altos Art Docents volunteers reap blessings that go beyond the joys of teaching art and art appreciation to young students - the volunteers enjoy the classroom engagement and the social and educational benefits of the program.
"It makes you smile when you think about the program, because it’s not just about going into the classroom and teaching the kids, it’s also about (docents) learning a bit more about art and having a good time together as well," said publicity coordinator Kristine Bardman.
Over the summer, docents attended a series of art-related camps where they practiced working with wire sculptures and clay. At one camp, docents threw darts to pop paint-filled water balloons attached to a canvas. Volunteers also sharpen their art history and creative skills via field trips throughout the year, most recently to the San Jose Museum of Art.
Bardman said one of the things she likes most about the program is that it’s a group of like-minded people who really enjoy the arts and one another’s company.
"So we see each other socially, we see each other in the classrooms," she said.
Making a mural
One of the larger projects docents have worked on is an 8-foot-by-10-foot mural outside the district office on Covington Road. What started as a team-building exercise in 2012 turned into a yearlong project that took four months to complete. Once they decided to create a mural, docents invited a local muralist to discuss the process with them.
Docents faced several obstacles before they could begin painting, including funding the project. The group applied for a grant from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation Donor Circle for the Arts and their outreach paid off. After securing funding, they had to agree on a design for the mural.
"Because we teach hands-on art lessons and also art appreciation lessons, we were struggling with how to combine both into one mural," Dickerson said.
Docents wanted to include their signature red apron in the design, which Dickerson described as a "strong symbol" of the program. They also wanted to make sure that it was a project to which many people could contribute.
In the end, the group painted squares with images from many famous works of art, arranged them in a grid pattern and overlaid a picture of the red apron.
Group members set up boards in their office so that docents could drop in and out, each painting different squares. Docents who weren’t able to paint a square for the mural completed other tasks, such as applying a layer of varnish over the final product.
Bardman said students will recognize many of the works of art depicted in the mural, because docents discuss the artists and their masterpieces in their classroom lessons.
New year, new lessons
With a new school year, new lessons and new activities, docents are excited to step back in the classroom.
"The reason why I joined the program, and I think most of the docents joined the program, is because we love being in the classroom with the kids," Bardman said. "So it’s exciting for us to get back to school and get back to teaching lessons."
The Los Altos Art Docents seeks new recruits. No experience or artistic talent is required - the group provides training. Volunteers are asked to commit to teach once a week in the classroom during the school year.
For more information, visit losaltosartdocents.org. n