From the Classroom to the Museum: Merging a Love of Art and Education
See how this Memphis alum is using art to enrich students' learning.
August 10, 2020
As a teacher, Mary Webster (Memphis '11) infused her background in art history into her classroom. Now she impacts students across Memphis by sharing the rich art collections their city has to offer. Here, she shares her story of going from the classroom to museum education and the lessons she's learned on the way.
When I made the decision to join Teach For America Memphis in 2011 as I was finishing up a master’s degree in art history from American University in Washington D.C., it fundamentally changed the trajectory of my life.
As part of my master’s program, I held internships in museum education where there was always a focus on teaching, reaching, and connecting with children. These experiences illuminated my passion for working with students of all ages and backgrounds. I saw firsthand how art education could build students' confidence and provide meaningful, hands-on learning experiences.
During an internship at the National Building Museum I led middle school students in a summer-long photography project. Over the course of the program I saw my students' creativity, self-confidence, and public speaking abilities grow as they shared their work with each other. After my internship experiences I knew that wherever my education career took me I would use art to enrich my students' lives.
My museum education experiences in D.C. also showed me how wide the opportunity gap truly was as I worked with schools from a variety of zip codes across the D.C. Metro Area. The differences I saw between the suburban and urban schools that I worked with were truly stark and left me wanting to find a way to make difference. Thankfully, I found that Teach For America would allow me to explore my passion for working with students and to serve students from low-income communities in a meaningful way.
When I arrived in Memphis in 2011, I was feeling so many things—excitement, fear, hope, joy. I had to quickly adjust to my new job. My small elementary school in Whitehaven had limited resources and my students faced many challenges related to living with poverty. Despite these challenges, my students exhibited incredible spirit and a willingness to learn and grow—that is what I treasured most about my relationship with my energetic second graders. I drew inspiration from my museum teaching experience, incorporating hands-on activities that allowed my students to develop their creativity.
One project that stands out was when I challenged my students to design their own city using supplies such as recycled boxes, construction paper, and markers. Seeing my kids take this project to heart and truly dig in with such confidence and imagination was truly inspirational. Making the model city also allowed my students to make cross curricular connections to social studies topics. Another time my students got to share their creativity was when they used cereal boxes to make book reports. The book reports became a point of pride when I displayed them in my classroom.
“I knew that wherever my education career took me I would use art to enrich my students' lives.”
My next teaching job was with KIPP Memphis, where I was a first grade co-teacher. This is where I was also given the chance to teach art throughout the school, which was a wonderful way to encourage students’ creativity, build their confidence, and support classroom learning.
One lesson had my students in building paper airplanes inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s plans for flying machines, which they then got to test out in the classroom. It was so rewarding to see students who struggled in other classes truly come alive during art as they were given a safe space for personal expression. Oftentimes art class was the only time in the day they got to shine.
I loved seeing my students’ confidence grow when I praised their work. Art provided a valuable opportunity to teach social-emotional skills, such as sharing, using kind words, and taking care of art supplies. At the end of each school year I put together an art show, which was a wonderful way to showcase my students' creativity and dedication and share their work with their parents.
After being a classroom teacher for more than five years I decided it was time to again pursue a career in museum education. I knew that I could continue to serve the students of Memphis by applying the skills I had learned in the classroom and by making museum resources accessible to as wide an audience as possible. It would be an understatement to say I learned many important lessons working in Title 1 schools, including strategies for designing engaging lessons, making do with limited resources, and how to connect with students on a personal level, all of which continues to inform my work today.
“It was so rewarding to see students who struggled in other classes truly come alive during art as they were given a safe space for personal expression.”
As the school programs coordinator at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art I am grateful for the opportunity to share the museum’s rich collection of art with students all across the Mid-South. My mission as a museum educator is to enrich students’ learning through art. I strive to create programs that are engaging, encourage creativity, and support classroom learning.
Being a classroom teacher gave me a deep knowledge of the Tennessee curriculum, which helps me to create meaningful museum programs. All of our field trip programs are designed around Tennessee state standards, allowing the Brooks to support classroom instruction. In our program Art Builds Creativity we use art to teach fourth graders Language Arts skills such as narrative writing, parts of speech, and poetry. During their tours, our amazing docents use the art in our collection to lead students in higher level inquiry-based discussions, which in turn encourages students’ critical thinking skills.
Working in schools also taught me how to be flexible and adapt, skills which have served me especially well during the new challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. With all of this uncertainty I had to devise a plan for quickly adapting to our new reality while continuing to deliver quality museum learning.
To connect with students who are at home, the Brooks Museum, along with Carpenter Art Garden, are creating art kits and accompanying instructional videos on social media. We have also designed a virtual field trip program. By using digital platforms, we are able to continue to share the Brooks art collection and lead art making activities remotely. I have found that virtual learning has its own perks when compared to in-person field trips, such as more flexibility with scheduling and eliminating the need for transportation. In the end, making art education more accessible to students across the city is what we should all be pushing for during this unprecedented time.
If you are interested in booking a free virtual field trip to the Brooks Museum with your students, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Programs are available Wednesday through Friday, 10 AM – 2 PM. Programs last about 40 minutes and are offered via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. All field trips are aligned to state standards and topics covered include STEAM, English language arts, portraiture, and African art. A minimum of 10 people is required. Optional art making can be included. I would love to work with your students!
Mary Webster is school arts coordinator at the Brooks Museum of Art and a 2011 Teach For America Memphis alumna.