Bekah S. McNeel

The idea of visiting a fine art museum on a school field trip might sound like bonus content. The sort of nicety disconnected from the reality of standardized testing and report cards. That’s what I was expecting when I found myself at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) trailing around after little pods of 5th graders discussing modern art.

Instead, I got a history lesson.

Each student held a booklet entitled “Hunting for History in American Art.” After a docent-led tour of the museum in small groups, the 10-to-11-year-olds were seated in an auditorium where they discussed civic themes in the art. Each child wore a sticker with a word printed on it, to remind their teachers to ask about various themes including money, government, family, trade, and immigration.

A docent leads discussion on immigration and art with 5th grade students. Photos by Bekah McNeel.

Immigration was the topic the 5th-grade teachers had selected for the art interaction, tailored to their curriculum by Museum Educator Rebecca McMains. Educators like McMains, also known as “docents,” positioned themselves next to key pieces of art, and the students moved in small groups with their chaperons to discuss each piece.

McMains was stationed at Hans Hofmann’s “Liberation.” The students discussed – in surprising depth – the immigrant experience of a German watching World War II from America. Inside the students’ booklets they traced the painter’s immigration on a world map.

At the next station a docent led a discussion on Philip Guston’s Ocean. The docent explained Guston’s experience watching the Ku Klux Klan persecute Jewish people (though he was born in Canada, Guston was the son of Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants who immigrated to California when he was very young). She then pointed to the abstract painting and asked the students what they thought Guston was trying to convey about his time in American history.

“It was like rough waves,” one child said. His teacher raised her eyebrows in surprise.

Rebecca McMains calls on students while discussing American History in art.

Over and over McMains said, the children access the subject matter in fresh and exciting ways.

“After they had been at the station discussing the painting, one child looked up at her teacher and said, ‘Aren’t we clever?’” McMains remembers, “And another child on another day said, ‘I’ve never felt smart before this.’”

Inner city schools are those nearest to the major cultural institutions like The Witte Museum, SAMA, the San Antonio Zoo, and the Botanical Gardens. So, with proper partnerships in place, those schools have access to a history department, an art department, and ample science labs. Students could have access to the sort of educational resources no school district can afford – not for a write-off field trip that wastes a day. The value of this exposure, to cultivate a standing relationship, is that the student is encouraged to take ownership of the institution and treat it as a repository of knowledge to be mined over the course of their school career and beyond.

Katie Erickson, the director of education at SAMA shares this vision. When she imagines a school field trip to a museum, her goal is to serve as a resource, and a valuable one. To do so, she went through the SAISD school board and extended an invitation to the curriculum coordinator of each area of study to come to the museum and begin a discussion on how SAMA could serve as a resource for their educational objectives.

Janet Mansmann, Senior Coordinator of the Social Studies Department, took her up on the offer.

Rather than handing Mansmann a list of what SAMA could offer, and leaving her to finagle it into the already laden curriculum requirements, Erickson took the reverse approach. She tailored a program to the existing 6th grade social studies curriculum, emphasizing the concepts and principles the students were already accountable to master.

The relationship has spanned across middle school social studies, and they hope to expand into 9th grade.

Erickson knew she needed a crack team of educators to grow this highly specialized program, and so she hired McMains, who holds a Masters in Learning and Visitor Studies in Museums and Galleries  from University of Leicester.  She and Jessica Nelson, the Museum’s tour scheduler have aided Erickson in beefing up the menu of tours available to schools.

Currently, with only two weeks notice, school groups of almost any size or age group can schedule a tour based on themes of history, science, math, geography, government, citizenship, and host of other more specific topics. Some titles include, “Around the World in 50 Minutes,” “Parts of Art,” “Science and Art Converge,” “Travel the Trade Routes,” and “A Walk Through Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.”

Rebecca McMains leads discussion on immigration and its affect on art at SAMA.
Rebecca McMains leads discussion on immigration and its affect on art.

If none of the tours is a perfect fit, McMains meets with the teacher to design a bespoke experience. With her deep understanding of the education system, McMains can align the tour to specific Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) being covered back in the classroom. The quality of instruction and access to cultural artifacts the students receive on visits to SAMA is of a caliber usually associated with gifted and talented programs, private schools or other privileged student groups.

Harlandale ISD has taken full advantage of this program. Columbia Heights Elementary sends each grade on a field trip once per year, meaning that each student will make six visits in his or her elementary school career. By the time they graduate, they will know their way around the fine arts museum and how to conduct research there.

On the day that I shadowed the program, McMains was in full swing with the Columbia Heights 5th graders.

Participating teachers give the program rave reviews. After a fourth grade trip focusing on math in art (patterns, shapes and geometric principles), teachers were asked to give feedback via survey. One teacher wrote: “I noticed my students were observing and actually noticing the different art structures. Also, when looking for patterns they learned and were curious about organic shapes.”

All of this is free to the schools.

SAMA understands the need to support educators, and foster appreciation for museums simultaneously. Museums and other cultural institutions feel the pain of decimated educational programming in unique ways, as their patron base dwindles with each budget cut. Students who are not exposed to cultural arts as children as less likely to seek them out as adults. So rather than simply bemoaning the loss of art appreciation, SAMA has created access to art through a variety of avenues. The appreciation takes care of itself.

Read about Bekah’s personal connection to the arts in San Antonio in Thursday’s story: “The Arts and Art: How to Inspire Young Students.”

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.