When Dee Brislen agreed to help develop the curriculum for the Modern Museum of Art's first educational package, she knew the job would require some salesmanship. Designed for junior and senior high schools, the package would be worthless, Brislen realized, if the teachers didn't use it.
"Art, especially modern art, is difficult to understand. It terrifies people," Brislen said.
Teachers, she said, are no exception. "Teachers aren't comfortable with it. These aren't the areas most of them were trained in."
An assistant principal for curriculum instruction at Laguna Beach High School, Brislen is developing a package for the museum called "Communication in the Arts" with the help of Jim Barber, who holds a master's degree in communication with an emphasis in art.
"I have a feel for what works in the classroom," Brislen said. "It has to be palatable, especially when the content is outside most teachers' experience." The most important question, she said, is, "How do I make this easy to use?"
What Brislen and Barber came up with in "Communication" is a package divided into six sections: a videotape of the work of Newport Beach artist Jerry Wayne and five filmstrips (accompanied by audio cassettes) that feature famous artworks and address such topics as frustration, inspiration, imagination, abstraction and visions of the future. Each lesson comes with a teacher's guide that outlines participatory exercises to follow the half-hour lessons. Brislen said the guides are designed to be appealing and easy to use and to allow teachers some leeway in adapting the exercises to their own teaching style.
And since few secondary schools have courses in art history or cultural appreciation, Brislen designed the lessons to fit into English and social studies curricula. To take an art history approach would be to condemn the packages to a lonely death on school shelves, Brislen said.
Brislen started as an English teacher 11 years ago at Laguna Beach High School before becoming a counselor and then moving to her current administrative position. She is two courses away from receiving her doctorate in education from USC.
"As a teacher, I'm very covetous of my time in the classroom," Brislen explained. An English teacher, for example, would be very reluctant to use class time for an art exercise unless it could be related to English. In Brislen's lessons, some exercises use artworks as writing prompts.
The Brislen-Barber package is being designed to meet California's model curriculum standards in a number of areas, including English and language arts, visual and performing arts, cultural heritage, developing sensibilities and expressing creativity.
Brislen believes the important aspect of the museum program lies in giving students a "frame of reference" in appreciating visual arts, at a time when the subject has been largely abandoned in public schools. Although Laguna Beach High School is known for its studio art program, Brislen said, "we don't even teach art history, and at a school called the Artists."