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Learning from the Guggenheim—One Teacher’s Story

Learning Through Art class at the Guggenheim

Deborah Sachs and her fourth-grade class at PS 86 in the Bronx visit the Guggenheim's Christopher Wool exhibition. Photo: courtesy Deborah Sachs

student participating in an activity

A PS 86 student participates in a “cropping” activity in the Guggenheim’s galleries. Photo: Deborah Sachs

students in the Guggenheim

A group of fourth-grade students from PS 86 discuss the architecture of the Frank Lloyd Wright building. Photo: Deborah Sachs

students at the Guggenheim

Students look down into the museum’s rotunda. Photo: Deborah Sachs

students painting in a PS 86 classroom

At PS 86, fourth-grade students paint as part of a Learning Through Art activity. Photo: Deborah Sachs

Deborah Sachs and a student

Sachs and a former student, Minerva Madera, at the opening of A Year with Children, 2013. Photo: courtesy Deborah Sachs

It’s easy to take for granted the importance of art institutions like the Guggenheim. But talk to Deborah Sachs, and you’ll come to understand the true impact the museum can have.

Sachs is a fourth-grade teacher at PS 86 in the Bronx, where she has worked for 12 years; for nearly 10 of those years, she has been a “partner teacher” with the Guggenheim’s Learning Through Art initiative. Thanks to her, hundreds of children have discovered what the Guggenheim—and art itself—can mean to them.

Learning Through Art (LTA) was started in 1970 as a response to a still-pressing problem: the elimination of art programs from New York City public schools. Through LTA, second- to sixth-grade classes participate in a 20-week program during which they deepen their understanding of art and expand their own art-making skills. With guidance from the Guggenheim’s teaching artists, the students explore materials, view artworks, and take three class trips to the museum. In a culminating annual exhibition, A Year with Children, their final projects are presented at the museum, giving them the chance to see their own pieces in the same space where they learned about the likes of Motherwell and Kandinsky. It’s a remarkable opportunity—even more so because most of Sachs’s students have never visited the museum before.

During a decade of sharing the Guggenheim with her students, Sachs has found that they relish the chance to explore ideas and look at things in a new way. “Whenever a child is given a choice, it’s a certain freedom,” she says. This year, in LTA activities connected to the current Christopher Wool exhibition, the children were given disposable cameras and taken on walks around the school’s neighborhood, where they were encouraged to snap photos of what they saw. “When they took pictures, it was like they were artists—they were in charge,” she recalls.

That sense of ownership and license to create is carried into the class trips to the Guggenheim, where professional educators lead tours of the Museum using questions and activities based around the art on display. And the building itself, of course, has its own impact. Sachs remembers the reaction of one child when they first arrived at the building on Fifth Avenue: “Lisa looked up at the museum like she was looking at I-don’t-know-what, and said, ‘Ms. Sachs, you didn’t say it was going to be this beautiful!’”

Obviously, these initial encounters with the realm of art and architecture have great value. “The exposure is so unbelievable for them,” says Sachs. But even better, perhaps, are the moments when the students bring their new knowledge of art to bear on their learning and their lives. “The most heartwarming thing as a teacher, is when they make some connection back to the art,” says Sachs. “They’ll say, ‘Doesn’t that remind you of the Picasso we just saw?’ and you’ll just want to drop everything.”

You can ensure that children from New York City’s public schools continue to connect with art at the Guggenheim. Please consider a donation in any amount to our Annual Fund, and help support Learning Through Art and the Guggenheim’s other programs.