Students in C. C. Willey's second-grade class at Everett's Forest View Elementary School sit in a semicircle around her. On a table are...

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Students in C.C. Willey’s second-grade class at Everett’s Forest View Elementary School sit in a semicircle around her. On a table are Egyptian and other African artifacts.

She holds up a picture of a bas-relief from ancient Egypt.

“This is from a tomb in an Egyptian city now called Luxor,” she says. “Do you guys know what a tomb is?”

“Yeah,” says a chorus of 7- and 8-year-olds.

“A grave,” says one.

“It’s a burial spot, yes,” said Willey. “It’s a place where people are buried. And in ancient Egypt, people celebrated their history by decorating their tombs with illustrations of stories of their lives.”

Later, she hands out pictures, carvings, bowls and cloths to the children, who will study them at their desks and make predictions of what the items may have been used for.

“It is good to be very careful when you touch things that are very, very, very old, because you don’t want to damage them,” says Willey. “You want them to stay preserved so people can learn from things. This has stayed in such nice condition that you can learn a little bit about that culture 2,500 years ago.”

At the front of the class sits a rollaway suitcase donated by Skyway Luggage. Willey borrowed this “museum in a suitcase” from the Arts Council of Snohomish County, and it’s a treasure trove: papyrus from North Africa; a Masai beaded collar from East Africa; cloth from Central Africa; combs, shrines, Kente cloth from West Africa; and other objects.

Each day, the students will go deeper and deeper into the African continent. Finally, they’ll create an art project based on the curriculum guides that came with the suitcase.

Willey has been using the art suitcases for a few years, using them as a starting point in this “passport to learning,” as she puts it.

“There’s a lot of research showing that when kids have inquiry, and they make their own predictions and their own observations about an object or about a concept before learning it, there’s a lot more of a connection,” said Willey.

Willey has taught from other outreach suitcases, themed to Northwest Coast Indian art, book arts, Korea, India, China and the Philippines, among others.

Since 1998, more than 1,050 teachers and art docents have checked out the suitcases and nearly 29,900 students have seen them, according to Nancy Bell, education director for the Arts Council of Snohomish County. The council, located at the Monte Cristo Hotel in Everett, developed its own suitcases and expanded on cases currently available through the teacher-resource center at the Seattle Art Museum, which made the council an outreach location.

All of the county’s 15 school districts have taken advantage of the Arts Council’s education programs. “I’ve had people participate from all the school districts at one time or another,” said Bell.

Each year, the council presents an Art Docent Fair, a November workshop that provides art docents with projects they can then take into the classroom.

The word “docent” comes from the Latin “to teach,” and docents have long been a staple of museums around the world. Now they’re a vital link to arts education.

Art-docent programs are usually done in elementary schools, which are less likely to have on-staff art specialists, Bell said.

“The reason why it’s worked so well is that, frankly, there’s just not enough art available in the schools,” Bell said. “Teachers have so much to fit in a day.”

The volunteer-run art-docent programs in the schools are a launching point, sometimes to creative new programs.

At Picnic Point Elementary in the Mukilteo School District, more than 490 children get art experiences several times a year, thanks to volunteer docents teaching from a system developed by Mary Wiggins, an artist who has copyrighted her “Art of the Masters” teaching curriculum. She created “art bins” filled with tools, materials, transparencies and teaching texts, which travel from classroom to classroom.

Thanks to 22 volunteer docents trained by Wiggins, the students have studied and done projects on Edvard Munch, Henri Matisse and John James Audubon, among others, this school year. The school honors the artwork by putting it on display in courtyards, halls, the library and the front office.

“One of our main goals was to get art to every child at the school,” said Lavonne Bissell, coordinator of the art-docent volunteers. Bissell, a parent of children in the school, spent months researching art-docent programs along the West Coast before implementing the program.

“This has worked really well,” she said. “We’ve been able to have quality art history, hands-on art, with different mediums, in every classroom multiple times a year.”

“The parent involvement has been incredible,” said second-grade teacher Stan Davis. “They’re very organized. And the other benefit is that this will be an ongoing thing in the future. It’s not just for one year. The docents come in, provide the materials, the structure, and we’re able to extend that into the lessons in class.”

Carole Toothman, a 63-year-old retiree and volunteer docent, says “this gives me a chance to be grandmother to all of these kids.”

“I think too often we sit and we criticize and we should be involved and we should be offering more of our time,” Toothman said.

As for the world of art, “This is their exposure, this is what they get from us, and I feel so thrilled to be able to help with that. This is something that they can take with them for the rest of their life.”

Carm Pierce went through the Snohomish school system and graduated from Snohomish High School in 1992. He went on to found Built Design, an industrial-design firm in Everett, with Alan Mizuta.

His art-docent experiences, which started in fourth grade with docents coming in to do projects on the Impressionists, stayed with him for the next 20 years.

“I think it gives kids an insight that people actually do art for a living and they have for a long time,” he says.

He’s now volunteered in that capacity in the secondary schools and in elementary schools in Stanwood, where his children go to school.

“When you have that experience,” he said. “It brings it all together. It’s an important primer for elementary-age kids and might spark an interest in art they didn’t realize they had.”

Diane Wright: 425-745-7815 or