On a rainy Tuesday in mid-March, Rachel Regalado, an assistant educator with the Hammer Museum’s academic programs and a UCLA alumnus, looked out over a small sea of sixth-graders seated carefully on the floor of one of the gallery spaces.

She invited the young visitors, on site at the Hammer Museum at UCLA for a full week of activities and artmaking, to take some time observing the whirling and cascading loops of vaguely identifiable cityscapes in the complex piece of photographic art hanging in front of them.

The work is part of the Hammer’s “Cruel Youth Diary: Chinese Photography and Video from the Haudenschild Collection” exhibition, representing a generation of artists whose work responded to a period of tremendous social, political and economic change in mainland China.

The young students talked about how the large-scale digital collage was likely made, what the visuals they noticed might be reflecting and how it made them feel.

The elementary schoolers’ presence marked the return of the Hammer’s Classroom in Residence program, which had been on hold since the COVID-19 pandemic closures of 2020 cut short the last iteration. The free, innovative program is a collaboration among the Hammer Museum, the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture’s Visual and Performing Arts Education Program, or VAPAE, and selected public school teachers.

“When I say go, I want you to walk through all of these rooms, look at everything and find something that makes you feel chaotic and something that makes you feel calm,” Regalado said. “Then we’ll come back and talk about it.”

The students’ sneakers immediately created their own brand of chaos on the sleek wooden floors as they scampered in duos and small groups, weaving through several rooms of photography and video made by artists from the other side of the world. They stopped to react and giggle and chatter.

Their responses to the prompt were varied. Photographs that depicted video game-style violence were chaotic; a series of photographs of chickens standing in clusters and several darkened rooms with videos or backlit imagery — calming.

General attendees at the museum that day skirted around the energetic students, an unexpected and amusing obstacle on a weekday afternoon.

Innovating in arts education

Founded in 2013, the program has annually — except for pandemic years — welcomed two classes of fourth-, fifth- or sixth-graders from Los Angeles for an immersive experience into the process and products of artistic creation and curation.

Photo showing arms of student working on an art diary
Courtesy of Hammer Museum
Each student was provided a sketchbook to make art in response to  daily journal prompts. Educators read through the books afterward to evaluate the program, then returned them to the students. 

“It’s a very special and unique model that goes beyond the types of interactions that many museums are able to have with young learners,” said Ann Philbin, the Hammer’s director. “Often, museums are able to host a group of K–12 students for a tour or a short time, but this really operates as an immersive residency. We hope it might serve as a model for other institutions, as the teachers and students consider it nothing less than transformative.”

Students met each morning in the small lab classroom under the main staircase of the museum — a room stocked with rulers, paper, crayons and markers, the walls lined with examples of student artwork that grew as the week progressed. Handwritten lists of their community agreements and notes about the day’s activities helped set the tone. Every day, the students viewed art in the galleries, did an artmaking activity and movement workshop, responded to journal prompts and talked to a member of the Hammer staff about their job. A special observer was Christina Vanech, an assistant educator with the school and educator programs of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

For this year’s return to the program, the Hammer and VAPAE partnered with two sixth-grade teachers from the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown.

Over the course of 10 days at the Hammer and visits to the UCLA campus, students from each of these classes were able to build museum literacy and learn essential 21st-century skills — creativity, critical thinking and communication.

Embracing a holistic approach

The arc of this year’s program was carefully built around concepts of social-emotional learning, with Day One starting with prompts and individual projects that inspired self-reflection, then moving through themes of self-care, social awareness, relationships and concepts of community, and wrapping up with a collaborative group art project.

“We really were listening to the teachers from RFK in terms of what they felt were challenges in their classes right now, coming out of years of online teaching,” said Hallie Scott, associate director of academic programs at the Hammer. The social-emotional theme really came out of those conversations about issues they were facing around respect and bullying. The artmaking, movement and journal reflections that we asked the students to do all touched on core competencies of understanding the self, understanding the needs and feelings of others, and building community.”

A major goal is always to approach this kind of program from a culturally sustaining pedagogical model, said Kevin Kane, director of VAPAE.

Piece of art made by students at the Hammer Museum drying on a rack
Courtesy of Hammer Museum
Learning how to make sun cyanotypes was a favorite activity.

“We’re looking at all of our K–12 students and the schools they come from as an assets-based framework,” he said. “It’s a mistake to think that (with) children from lower socioeconomic communities — that it’s always a deficit. There’s so much that these students do and know about their communities that they allow us to honor when they come into our spaces. Partnering with the UCLA Community School was so seamless because the teachers there are also operating from a similar perspective.”

Fostering a vision of creativity

Current and former VAPAE students were part of the teaching program offering gentle guidance and encouragement. Bailey Davies-Mahaffey, a fourth-year UCLA VAPAE student majoring in dance, served as movement instructor, spending several days teaching the sixth-graders bursts of choreography based on their own body language.

“I’m encouraging them to notice that their everyday motions can be artful, that a simple wave can become a dance move,” she said. 

Sixth-grade students gathered around a table with tongs and buckets, working on an art project at the Hammer Museum
Courtesy of the Hammer Museum
Sixth-graders work on cyanotypes while visiting Royce Hall on campus during the weeklong program. 

When queried individually, few of the 11- and 12-year-olds said during the program’s second week that they considered themselves artists. But they lit up when they talked about their YouTube channels, art they saw in the galleries over the course of the week and getting to go behind the scenes with the Hammer security guard.

A commonly cited favorite moment was the day on which they spent some time at Royce Hall in partnership with the Design for Sharing K–12 education arm of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance. There, everyone learned how to make sun cyanotypes — images developed using fabric layered with leaves or etchings, a bit of chemical solvent and sunlight.

“I really liked seeing the campus and the gardens,” said 12-year-old Rachel Paua. “I do think art is important. It’s really important to our school too — we have art all over our school.”

The RFK campus is home to a wealth of large-scale murals and a sophisticated performance space. Kane said he hopes students return and have a new appreciation for the art that surrounds them there. 

The classes ended their time at the museum in the Billy Wilder Theater, performing in small groups the creative choreography taught to them by Davies Mahaffey, who stood in front of the stage mirroring their movements.

They rounded out the program by watching their group project on the big screen, a stop-motion animation video. For one of the classes, this was titled “Roaring City” — a busy landscape that took a slightly dark turn for the hand-drawn lead character.

They watched it twice, and students cheered wildly as they saw their names rolling across the end credits each time.

“We have found that one of the initial challenges for arts educators is to demystify what an artist is, and what is a ‘good’ artist,” Kane said. “I like to think of it as inspiring us all to think of ourselves first as creative beings and then slowly think differently about what we perceive as art and how we perceive ourselves and others.”