If a Tour Guide, a Slam Poet and a Curator walked into the Owl Bar: Baltimore’s Classroom

Dr. Rachael Zeleny


Last semester, I took my Arts 304 (Arts and Ideas) students to the Walters Art Gallery to see the museum’s gorgeous Renaissance paintings firsthand. I stood behind them as they observed different works and gathered snippets of their conversations: “The people in the halls….and the people on the walls…they don’t look like me.” Another student nodded her head, agreeing, noting that her grandmother had worked as a security guard for the Walters for years but that she only ever felt comfortable bringing her grandmother lunch; the museum itself seemed too intimidating to walk through.

I went home and looked at the remainder of my syllabus. I realized that if I wanted my amazing and diverse group of students to truly participate in experiential learning, I needed to rethink the experience I was offering. I needed to do my part to not only help them feel at home in places like the Walters but also to highlight how “people who looked like them,” created the very pulse of this city and so many cities that have come before. I rewrote the syllabus that night.

In the new version of the class, I co-teach with Dr. Ian Power. My degrees are English and Art. Dr. Power’s background is Music and History. The students continue to learn about major artistic movements but we also look at how marginalized groups have constructed themselves within or against the mediums used by those in power. For instance, our unit on the Renaissance now includes an explanation of how the music of the church (played by Dr. Powers), the sonnets for Queen Elizabeth, and the slam poems of UB senior Lady Brionne can all be described as artistic and political.

As a way of truly bringing the Walters to my students, Joaneeth Spicer, curator and author of Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, visited our class to discuss a girl believed to be the first black child featured in Renaissance art, and who was hidden until the painting’s restoration revealed her presence. When my students revisited the Walters the following week for a scavenger hunt, they noted that for the first time in their lives, they understood how a museum was organized and that they knew what to look for.

In our unit on architecture, we visit the breathtaking Peabody Library with Paul Espinosa on one day and then, during the next class, we look at how slave quarters were hidden from public view when we take our Historic Ghost Tour of Mt. Vernon with Tim Paggi.

In the weeks to come, we will use an honors course enhancement to pay for our visits to the American Vision two buildings of interest, two artistic locations, one restaurant and one place of their choice. As the final step, another student needs to take their tour and reflect on the experience of walking through the city with someone else’s “glasses” on. Tour last semester included a Lady Day (Bille Holiday) tour, a Brothers in Blue tour featuring the Baltimore Police, a Good Luckary Arts Museum and the Reginald Lewis Museum. Our last speaker will be Pat Cruz, the director of an organization in Baltimore called Young Audiences whose mission is to “work with teaching artists to provide training and support in aligning programs to the state curriculum and developing lessons with effective and creative assessment tools.” It is an ideal close to the semester as it demonstrates how Irish Heritage tour, among others.

Perhaps my favorite part of this new course is our final project called the BaltiTour project. Students are asked to create a theme that reflects their personal way of interacting with the city. Every location needs to be within 15 minutes walking distance of UB. The tours include 6 locations:

One of my student’s tours, themed “Secrets,” has inspired my fall class, Arts and Society. I can’t tell you what’s in that course, for obvious reasons. Like what you’ve read or have a suggestion for other experiences we should add to the course? Email me at rzeleny@ubalt.edu or keep up with our adventures on my blog www.rachaelmzeleny.com.

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