Are we giving students the full benefit of cultural spaces?


Are we missing the opportunity to use cultural spaces in a way that, not only builds content, but also community?

On May 14, I had the pleasure of attending the 2012 New York City Museum Educator’s Roundtable (NYCMER) Annual Conference.  The day tackled a multitude of important issues, however the thing that truly struck me is the keynote speech by David Carr, author of “Open Conversations: Public Learning in Libraries and Museums.”  Carr, the author not the football player, is an advocate of dialogue and shared experiences between visitors, or users, in museums.  In my interpretation, the crux of his argument is that cultural spaces need to curate conversation in the same way that they curate artifacts and other objects.  His focus is mostly on adult users of museums, but I couldn’t stop thinking about classroom experiences in museums.  So much of the interaction in these setting is educator to students and back.  Are our students having open conversations?  Are they learning from each other?  Are we missing the opportunity to use cultural spaces in a way that, not only builds content, but also community?

There is a lot of talk about relevancy in museums.  What could be more relevant than taking classroom discussions into the world and giving students a global context?  Why not take the girls in your class to Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” at the Brooklyn Museum for that conversation about respecting themselves you’ve been meaning to have?  Let them explore the space and then have the conversation right there away from school.  Do you need to have a dialogue with students ostracizing a student because of religion?  Why not go to a culturally specific museum, so that students can learn about that religion and have the community discussion right there.

There is plenty of precedent for this type of discourse. When The Posse Foundation hosts their hugely successful Posse Plus retreats to discuss issues of diversity and multiculturalism at partner colleges, the trainers always take students off campus to a neutral environment.  A safe space away from the perceived notions of the institution and the judgement of others. Shouldn’t cultural spaces serve as a safe place for discourse?  A place where students can open up and share with each other in small groups and as a community at large?

How can educators and museum professionals create these safe spaces and use museums as places of community building and attending to the social emotional needs of students?  I think that teachers, as users of cultural spaces need to start the trend and show museums there is a desire for more community building programming around social issues.


Museum Tours: Can You Lead Your Own Tour?

I have led museum experiences both as a classroom teacher and as a museum educator.  There are definite benefits to both perspectives.  As a classroom teacher, you know your students.  You know your curriculum.  You know your goal for the trip.  As a museum educator, you know the collection and content in depth. You know what hooks kids.  You can take groups “behind the scenes.” Museum educators are seasoned and have great experience to share.


So, when taking a class to a cultural institution, should you lead your own tour or work with the educators at the institution? Well, that depends on the institution and the amount of time you have to prepare.  When you first phone to talk about your trip, talk about your goals, and ask if the educators can prepare something that aligns with them.  If they already have a program that aligns, great!  If not, see how flexible the institution is about creating a personalized program.  Some places, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, are wonderful about creating individualized experiences.  Others have set programs and will not stray from them.

If the latter is true, and the programs are not what you need, lead your own tour!  This takes a lot of time and preparation, but your students will reap the benefits.  Pre-visits are a must.  I like to map out a tour path, and pick artifacts/objects that I want to focus on.  Remember that in museums and cultural institutions, teaching kids to look is essential.  So, begin with a model object and build those skills.  You can also do this in a pre-visit lesson.  Any object will do, you just want to give them the skills.  Below is a trip sheet I used for an Object Study at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Museum Educators are a wonderful resource and should be used as much as possible!  Just know that, if you need it, the option is there for teachers to lead self-guided tours.

Monday Morning Resource Review: National World War II Museum

This is the first Monday Morning Resource Review.  Today, and in the future, I will chose a museum and look over their teacher resources in order to find the very best out there to supplement our work in classrooms throughout the country.  So many museums offer amazing resources that never seem to see the light of day in the classroom.  I want to bring some great resources to the forefront and make suggestions for how museum education departments can continue to improve upon their work in order to make useable materials for the classroom.  In my reviews, I’ll be looking for a few items consistently.

  • Accessibility.  How hard is it to locate materials?  How accessible is the language used in the resource?  Does it assume a great amount of prior knowledge?
  • Clarity.  Is it clear what the objectives of this resource are?  Is this something that I can easily implement into my classroom?
  • Primary Source Access.  Museum collections and institutional knowledge make museum resources stand apart from others.  Are they making good use of those aspects of the museum?
  • Age Range.  Can this be used for students of multiple grade levels?  Are there options or extensions present for older/younger students?


Teaching World War II is such a delicate balance.  There is the honor that the men and women who served the country are due on the one side and there are the true atrocities of war on the other.  Making such a topic grade appropriate is a challenge.  When something is so difficult to teach, yet so important, it is essential to have the help of outside resources.  With that in mind, my first Monday Morning Resource Review takes me to the website of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.  I was drawn to this museum because of a curriculum I was creating on the American Homefront.  The World War II Museum of New Orleans truly has some of the best artifacts and programming in the country around the American Homefront during WWII.  So, I naturally gravitated to their website looking for distance learning options for my students.  I was so pleased with the offerings they have.  Education has really been put at the forefront of their mission and that shines through with a visit to their website.


Lesson Plans


The Museum has 22 lesson plans up on their website for download.  These lessons span across age ranges and subject areas.  Very exciting are the math lessons they have, as well as the theater lesson.  The beauty of social studies is that, when taught right, it should integrate all other subjects.  These lesson plans have truly embraced that philosophy.  They present good classroom ideas in a straightforward way, clearly expressing age ranges, objectives, and time.  Some of them could use with a bit more background detail to ground the content, but all are perfectly accessible and benefit from not being bogged down in too much extraneous information.   The lesson plans make wonderful use of the museum collection, a favorite of mine is the propaganda poster activity, which is written for grades 7-12, but which I think could EASILY be modified for younger grades.  The only real complaint I have about these lessons is in the area of follow-up and assessment.  I think that the best lesson plans should encourage teachers to build on the exploration of a lesson and that requires key areas of knowledge assessment.   These lesson plans touch briefly on assessment, but not at all on follow-up.  All in all, however, it is clear that these were made for teachers as they are easy to use, accessible to find, and include top notch primary source documents.


Traveling Trunk


Perhaps the most exciting resource from the National WWII Museum is the traveling trunk full of WWII artifacts.  This is an amazing opportunity for students to sharpen object study skills, to learn respect for artifacts, and to get hands on experience with history.  What more exciting way could there be to teach students about rationing than with an actual ration book?  The footlocker comes with a teacher’s manual that has clear directions for handling the objects and leading group discussions around the interactions.  It is an absolute treasure.  Plus, the museum has gotten a grant to lower the cost and is sending them out to schools for only a $50 fee, which I cannot believe and am incredibly excited about.


Virtual Field Trips


The last resource that the museum offers is the option of taking a virtual field trip.  This does require an internet connection, webcam, and microphone, but the opportunity to have an educator in your classroom for a program certainly breaks up the norm and works in an intriguing way with your classroom.  I think that webinars and virtual field trips are a great catalyst for discussion and thought.  The offerings here are diverse and can add a lot of depth to a World War II discussion.  Their programs on the contributions of African Americans, Native Americans, and Latino Americans to the war effort are refreshing lens through which to view the war and should spark an important discussion about who tells the stories of history and why certain narratives are left out.  I am surprised, however, that there is no web offering on the contributions of women.  This is something that is offered in the lesson plans, but is a glaring omission in the virtual field trips.


The National World War II Museum has done a wonderful job making education a top priority in their programming.  Putting primary sources up on websites for public usage should be a charge of every museum, in my view.  The National World War II Museum understands the importance of public access for educational purposes. They are a wonderful example for the variety of ways that museums can reach out to schools from all over the country with their collections and education materials.

Getting the Most out of Your Museum Trips

The biggest complaint that museum educators have about teachers is that they do not prepare students for trips.  There is nothing quite so disheartening as asking a class of bright young students where they are and why they are here, to have them look blankly at you with no answers.  That is a seemingly extreme case, but happens more often than you’d think.  There can be a lot of reasons for why that is, but the truth of the matter is that when children are not prepped in advance of a cultural experience, they are not going to get as much out of it.

Teachers have so much on their plates, though.  Who has time to plan trip-based lessons, as well as handle all of the logistics of busing, coordinating chaperones, and organizing permission slips? Most museums that offer school programs have pre-lessons available to teachers either on their website or by request .  Contact the educator who will be working with you and make sure that you have any pre-visit materials that they suggest for your grade-level.  Some programs will even expect that your group has been prepped by the time you arrive, so make sure to gather information about that when you book the trip.

In an ideal world, however, your museum trip will be the centerpiece of a unit to which it directly correlates.  You will build up to the trip, so that students can have the prior knowledge to tap into, and build off of the excitement that comes from trip to extend student thinking and help ground concepts.  The diagram you see is a basic outline for a unit involving a trip.  Credit must be given to Roberta Altman of the American Museum of Natural History and Bank Street College of Education for the design.  You can have as many lessons on either side of the trip that you want, but the most important classroom component is the culminating activity.  Students love sharing what they have learned and it really allows you, as the teacher time to assess where they are in their progress.


I have spent the last year facilitating between the world of formal education and museum education.  I have led tours in museums and planned them as a teacher.  There is so much that schools and cultural institutions have to offer each other, and students, if only the lines of communication were as open as we all would wish!

This blog is here to act as the link between formal and informal centers of learning, with a special focus on the resources that museums make available for teachers (but don’t have the budget to publicize).  I want to answer the questions that educators have about what they can ask for when booking a field trip to a cultural institution and what should happen before and after in order to capitalize on what museums do so well.

Things to check back for:

  • Monday morning Museum Resource Reviews.  Which museums have materials that you can implement right now in your classroom and which ones just won’t work?
  • What makes a great museum trip?
  • How can you make sure the trip is a complement to your curriculum?
  • What is the teacher’s role on a guided tour?
  • Much more!

If there’s a subject, or museum that you’d like to see covered in the blog, just post in the comments or email me at