Challenging Ourselves: Strategies to Reflect on Our Practice

As managing museum educators, it’s often difficult to find new ways to help our educators grow. Often we work with seasoned, experienced, and creative educators who are teaching in the schools as well as the museum and planning with teachers every day. How do we, as managers, support them to do their best teaching every day?

Photo by Jason Brownrigg

At The Museum of Modern Art in New York, we welcome 30,000 K-12 students in guided programs every year. With a volume such as this, our eleven educators are teaching multiple lessons a day. Educators have to be flexible, quick on their feet, and communicate really well with the classroom teachers. Often, there is not a lot of time for planning or reflection. So we use our monthly meetings as a chance to plan lessons, brainstorm ideas, and reflect on our teaching.

In an effort to formalize the training and professional development we offer the educators, along with other tactics, we experimented this year with Monthly Challenges. Each month, as a group, we explore one aspect of our teaching or experiment with a new teaching tool. These ideas are shared amongst the educators over the course of the month, through an Educator Network site, which is essentially a WordPress blog. A lead educator is assigned to each challenge and that educator starts off a blog conversation around the topic.

Below are three examples of recent Monthly Challenges and some snippets of educators’ reflections:

1. Movement Challenge: Offering kinesthetic opportunities for students in the galleries

As a final activity, I asked the students to pose like characters in a work they saw on the tour. We had two students do this at once, combining two poses from different paintings to create a new situation. The rest of the group had to write down what action or drama is taking place. In this way they created new stories.

It was fun to create associations through movement rather than language. And I loved that we stood and used our whole bodies (something we so rarely get to do in the galleries!).

Before I even had the chance to introduce the activity they started to respond to it with movement. Therefore, I just went with what was happening naturally with the students. They all did different movements for different parts of the sculpture simultaneously.

One other thing I’ve been trying out since our workshop, is acting out the artistic process itself and/or how the materials move. I’ve had kids in small groups mimic with their bodies how an artist might make an assemblage style sculpture by bringing together, overlapping, and interconnecting different parts of their bodies; I’ve had kids act out drippy paint with their bodies, etc

2. New Works Challenge: Lessons comprised of all new works the educator had never taught with.

Overall, I would say that I think the benefits of new pieces are that they add a freshness to your conversation and an unpredictability that keeps you on your toes. I think the students sense this excitement and openness.

After years of developing new lessons, it is satisfying to have store of activities and strategies to draw from.

There was a moment during the tour when I wanted to change things based on what was happening with the students but realized I couldn’t go to the old stand-bys. I was happy to try out some new objects but will need to use them a few times to figure out their full potential. I think the best tours happen with the objects I am most familiar with but I have also had great moments with new works when I spontaneously select an object because another group is having a conversation in front of one I had planned to use.

If was fun and challenging for me to not be able to quite anticipate where these conversations would go… I agree, in general, with the comments already expressed — that maybe 1 or 2 new objects with an old tried and true piece could work better. There’s good reason why certain works are so well-worn and this challenge reinforced that idea for me.

3. Student Questions Challenge: Creating space in lessons for students’ questions about big ideas or works of art.

The questions that they shared with me were: “What are the artist’s intentions?” and “How do we know if a modern work of art is good or not?” Questions that i think are perfectly suited to the bicycle wheel.

In terms of generating questions – it’s harder than it looks. A genuine question comes out of genuine curiosity and questions often need space to form (and require risk to put forth). I know that I often get many questions during post-visits and I wonder if teachers notice this too – Do students need time to digest and reflect on the experience of the museum?

I definitely believe that entertaining and exploring their questions has to be balanced by my guiding the discussion in certain directions and meeting certain goals… But touching on what R said in her post, I think of the museum as a serious, but informal learning environment; whereas in a classroom, kids are generally supposed to stay on task, I think it’s nice in the museum environment to indulge the students’ curiosities — and basically invite the inevitable tangent/sidebar- type lines of questioning.

It’s important to me to create an environment for our educators where we never stop reflecting.  We continue to consider what we deliver and how we deliver it to students, to serve their needs as best we can. These Monthly Challenges give us chance, as a group, to hone in on one aspect of our teaching. We can dig deeper into the benefits and challenges of how we do what we do, while also brainstorming and sharing with each other. We benefit greatly from each other’s creative ideas, reflections, and approaches. Some challenges were more successful than others, but focusing deeply for a time on one aspect of our teaching, helps us to think differently about that aspect the next time.

What are some ways in which you work at your institution to reflect on teaching practice?  I would love to hear from others who have managed similar types of exchanges among their staff.

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4 comments

  1. Pingback: The other side of “the tech skills divide” | Thinking about museums

  2. Kate

    What I really like about this idea is that it’s structured so that you bring your thoughts to the group (after you experience the challenge and have some time to reflect) and have a conversation about this topic that everyone has agreed to focus on. It’s one thing to come up with experiments on your own, it’s quite another to have a group of colleagues to share them with!

    I’d be interested in hearing how this got started… Did it evolve from another format?

  3. Frances K Everette-Gayther

    I am so glad I found this site! I am a first year art education major in grad school and have NO teaching experience! My other degree is in museum studies and I aspire to teach in an art or history museum. Thank you all for your insights and information.

    • Frances – I’m glad you found our site, and that is seems useful. We look forward to your future comments, thoughts, questions, and perspectives. And good luck with your first year of graduate school!

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