The Los Altos Art Docents were founded in 1970 during a time of upheaval, as state funding cuts threatened arts education in public schools. Now, half a century later, the group is celebrating its 50th anniversary during another time of disruption, as it works to adapt in the face of a worldwide pandemic.
Art Docents chair Nicole Snedigar said she finds the parallels between the founding of the program and the situation today “serendipitous,” as parents work to ensure engaging arts education continues.
“The parents who volunteer in the Art Docents program all feel passionately about continuing to provide that,” said Snedigar, a second-generation docent, whose mother took part in the program in the 1980s. “That has not changed in the last 50 years.”
The Art Docents provide arts education for elementary school students in the Los Altos School District. This year, the docents are working to adapt and find ways to provide kids with hands-on art projects from a distance.
“So much of our program focuses on being in the classrooms … and really being able to engage students in person,” Snedigar said. “One of the challenges that we have is trying to reimagine what that looks like in a pandemic.”
Over the course of a typical school year, the docents teach between four and eight lessons per grade level. The curriculum builds on itself, teaching students from transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. Many of those classes have now been adapted to an online format. Each grade level will receive three to five online lessons this year.
Beyond the traditional curriculum, the Art Docents also have rolled out weekly non-grade-specific video lessons. They each have the same two parts that all Art Docents classes include: an art appreciation component, where the kids learn about an artist or art movement, and then the chance to create a piece of art themselves.
The docents are also starting to offer monthly office hours by grade level, where kids can share their art, ask questions, receive instruction and play art-based games. If anything, Art Docents coordinator Kimberly Dickerson said students are getting more art now than they have in the past.
“Even though it’s a pandemic, we are not stopping,” publicity chair Sowmya Thvar similarly said. “That’s a huge part of the 50th year – we’re not stopping the art, the teaching.”
Having regular hands-on art lessons to break the monotony of looking at a screen is something that Thvar said has been helpful for her own kids. Her energetic, second-grade son in particular loves art, which helps him calm down and relax.
Similarly, Snedigar said her second-grader has been doing art daily since the shelter-in-place orders came down. Getting immersed in an art project has taken on particular importance during the pandemic, as it allows kids to “imagine what could be, instead of what is right now,” she said.
Celebrating 50 years
Nancy Marston and Marlene Grove founded the Art Docents in the spring of 1970 as state funding cuts threatened arts education throughout California.
“A group of parents said, ‘We cannot get rid of art education in our district, we have to keep it somehow,’” Dickerson said.
In the early years, the docents offered art appreciation lessons for junior high school students, where volunteers would show students reproductions of famous works of art. Over the years, the program has morphed into a combination of art appreciation and hands-on lessons for elementary schoolers.
To celebrate their 50th anniversary, the Art Docents sponsored a logo contest, which 95 student artists participated in. Oak Avenue School sixth-grader Naiel won. The design is featured on the cover of a 50th anniversary sketchbook, which has been given to every elementary school student. The sketchbook features 50 prompts, including “Draw your perfect day” and “If I could design my own mask it would look like this ….”
The Los Altos History Museum is running a virtual “Young at Art” exhibition through Dec. 31, featuring all of the logo designs that students submitted. To view the exibit, visit losaltoshistory.org/exhibit/young-at-art.