The Junior Docent Program at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens
The football player, the actor, the biologist, the writer, the musician, the track athlete, the theater techie, the Eagle Scout, and the mathematician all come together to discuss life. They plan, debate, and create. They combine their talents and work together to share what they have created with anyone who wishes to view it. In this scenario, these individuals are middle and high school students, sharing a common experience as members of the Junior Docent Corp at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens.
Each school year, thirty to fifty public, private, and home-schooled individuals come together to learn about art, develop life skills, give service, and curate an exhibition of their own work, to be displayed in the galleries of the museum for all visitors to see.
Twenty-two years ago, a small group of sixth graders and a museum educator, wanting to offer a fuller experience, started a program that would grow to include seven grade levels, four counties, and more than a dozen schools: a program that has engaged more than three-hundred and fifty individual students since its inception; welcoming students from all backgrounds, with all interests and skill levels.
The Junior Docent Program is designed to create learning experiences that promote understanding, confidence, responsibility, and creativity. It strives to go beyond the traditional classroom by presenting unique experiences in the visual arts and the natural world. Guided research, analysis, public presentations, and service are critical elements to this design. Spanning the school year, students attend meetings and lectures, receive instruction and perform at least twenty service hours each for the museum and the community.
In performing these service hours, the students’ participation in special events and programs develops their skills in working with the public and enhances their understanding of the many staff roles at the museum. Junior Docents have impacted thousands of individuals, both those who have visited the museum and those outside its walls. This year alone, thirty-five Junior Docents (twenty in their first year of the program) contributed more than six-hundred hours in nearly two-hundred volunteer service positions. Through this service, the students learn to focus not only on their own success, but to contribute to their communities in meaningful ways.
Each year, Museum Educator Karl Boecklen (aka Mr. Karl), creates a curriculum focused around a central theme that drives all of the activities for the year. The program employs a variety of art forms and educational processes that promote character building and leadership skills. The curriculum is multi-disciplinary, reinforcing academic skills like research, visual representation, writing, public speaking, and problem solving. Designed to promote critical thinking, this curriculum also supports county and state standards in critical appreciation, research methods, creative expression, and social processes.
Guided by this curriculum, the students start by finding inspiration in the galleries and the gardens. Supplied with the tools they need to research the topic, instructed in an art medium to create their piece for the year, and given a platform to discuss what they have learned with other students, adults, and the community at large, they produce their exhibition. In addition, presentations by invited guest educators broaden the students’ experience and knowledge base on special topics of interest.
“If the students leave with an increased confidence and critical thinking skills, we have been successful,” says Karl Boecklen. “Our hope is to produce good citizens who can think and speak and contribute to their communities.”
Boecklen and adult mentors guide the Junior Docents through this hands-on experience focusing on the principles of S.T.E.A.M (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) and art integration. His goal is to provide an intellectual challenge for the participants as well as a safe space to express their ideas, make “mistakes,” use trial and error, and employ their critical thinking abilities.
“These students are coming to the museum and doing things that are related to the collection and gardens,” says Chief Operating Officer & Chief Curator Holly Keris, “but at the end of the day, they are also learning critical thinking skills, writing, public speaking, working together as a team, communicating with adults in a professional setting, completing volunteer service, and interacting with the public. They may think that they are just learning about art, but they are learning skills that will stay with them as they become adults.”