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Persistence for Dali

(ran EAST edition)

Aurea Powell had a sinking feeling Friday afternoon. The Maximo Elementary School student had forgotten to bring home her script so she could keep practicing for her debut as a Salvador Dali Museum junior docent.

But then the 9-year-old remembered what her teacher and the docent who trained her had been telling her for a week: Everything she needed to know was in her head.

Dressed in new jeans and wearing a bright blue Salvador Dali T-shirt, she took her place Saturday morning in the museum's main gallery and found out she knew more than she thought about the surrealist artist. She delivered a flawless presentation to a group of 50 museum visitors, and she and her classmates earned the junior docent designation.

Aurea is one of 10 students in Eileen Deegan's third- through fifth-grade class for gifted children at Maximo Elementary School, 4850 31st St. S. Among the first to experience Maximo's extended school year, they will attend classes through July 26. Mrs. Deegan decided to use the extra time to take advantage of the Dali Museum's junior docent training program, a partnership between the museum and Pinellas County schools.

"We have more time in the summer to do programs like this," she said, explaining that during the school year, days are so structured that it's difficult to do special projects. She is a strong supporter of the museum's 15-year-old junior docent educational outreach because it teaches children a variety of skills.

"The students work on their writing and they practice their technical skills by doing research on the Internet," she said. "It also builds their self-confidence and strengthens their public speaking skills."

Dali's eccentricity was a built-in attractor for the children, she said. They were intrigued when they learned he didn't fit in with others when he was in school. They also were fascinated by his lifelong love affair with his wife, Gala.

But the works themselves were what interested the students most, Mrs. Deegan said. After giving them an art history lecture and explaining surrealism's cultural significance, she took them on the first of three field trips to the Dali Museum. They toured the galleries and were assigned to small groups led by Sylvia Cooks, Donald Rife and Jill Henaghen, the three docents who trained them for the next two weeks.

Next, Mrs. Deegan assigned each of them a painting from a list compiled by museum educational assistant Gwenda Barnitz. Many of Dali's paintings deal with subject matter inappropriate for children, Ms. Barnitz said, so she chose the paintings carefully. She gave each student a script for his or her painting but encouraged the children to add details to make their presentations as interesting and informative as possible.

At the final practice session before Saturday's tour, Katelyn Albright, 10, decided to begin her explanation of The Girl With Curls (1926) by explaining that the landscape in the background is an example of realism, while the exaggerated figure of the girl in the foreground typifies surrealism.

Amadeus Dameron, 10, referred to a print of Dali's Persistence of Memory (1931) to show the artist's progression into surrealism by the time he painted Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1952-54).

And Jordan Braamse, 11, decided to explain how Dali arrived at the title Galacidalacidesoxiribunucleicacid for a 1963 painting in his masterworks series. Breaking the long title down into "Gala," "El Cid," "Allah" and "deoxyribonucleic acid" helped Jordan explain Dali's inspirations for the painting; it also helped Jordan remember the title.

Since Dali's works are so rich in detail, Ms. Henaghen said, there is plenty for the students to talk about. It keeps them from getting upset if they forget something, which is important, since they make their final presentations without notes.

"Public speaking is something that most adults fear," she said. "For these children to stand there in front of the paintings without notes is an incredible challenge."

Saturday's visitors were impressed with the children. Dorothy Conway, a retired teacher and curriculum specialist visiting from Pittsburgh, congratulated each child after his or presentation and shook each one's hand.

"This is such a wonderful use of the children's time," she said. "They're learning about the arts, and you can see they're building confidence as they do this."

But the visitors most impressed were the children's parents. Carolyn Sumbry-Smith said her 10-year-old daughter Candice has taught her a lot.

"I didn't learn this until I was in college in humanities class," she said, adding that Candice gave impromptu lectures about her painting, Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (1958-59), to her younger brother and sister.

Sue Froemming, prekindergarten through 12th-grade art supervisor for Pinellas County schools, said that giving the students a sense of accomplishment is a main goal of the partnership between the school system and local museums.

"It builds their self-confidence," she said. "They get a feeling of, "Wow, I can do this. I'm a knowledgeable individual and people are listening to me being an expert on this particular painting.' "