Building Bridges to Museums: How Classroom Teachers Can Help Reach Marginalized Youth

By Clare HaganDeWitt Clinton High School

Students reflecting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Students reflecting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

During most days here in New York (and especially the recent spring break), art museums are thronged with families. Parents, grandparents and their children of all ages orient themselves with maps, cruise galleries and favor an exhibit or two leaning in to read labels, manipulate interactives, ask questions and make observations together. They’ve come to be entertained, spend time together and invest in the value of informal education.

As most of us know, families build a foundation for behavior and learning strategies and research indicates that family museum visits lead to adults who find value and comfort in museums. So what happens when children are marginalized because they don’t visit museums with their families? How might they feel comfortable and find value in a museum? While museums turn to more inclusive programs, policies, and exhibits in order to reach more families, what can the individual classroom teacher do to help create lifelong museum visitors?

I am an English teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School, a large public high school in the Bronx. My school currently serves 2,745 students of which 76% receive free lunch and 21% are English Language Learners. Our total population is comprised of 62% Hispanic, 29% Black, 7% Asian, and 3% other.  With the average museum visitor being white, college educated, and affluent, my students are certainly in the minority.  On top of that, due to budget cuts and the growing focus on test scores, schools like ours are taking fewer and fewer field trips.

At the beginning of the year, 83% of my students claim to have never visited an art museum. Nevertheless, after their second field trip, 96% say they are “likely” or “very likely” to return to one. As I look at these results, I try to understand what makes this class work.

Exploring Museums as Cultural and Community Resources

During their senior year, students can elect to take my year-long Humanities class for English credit. As in most humanities classes, my students learn about a long line of classical texts and objects but in my class they also learn about critical issues related to the people and institutions that preserve, shape, and disseminate cultural knowledge. They analyze intentional learning communities from ancient libraries to contemporary museums to the internet through texts ranging from historical records to reviews of current exhibits. They ask:

  • Whose culture is being preserved and how is it represented?
  • Where are the silences and why might they persist?
  • What are the criteria for a good collection or exhibit?
  • How are informal learning spaces different from formal education? How are they the same?
Students embody their interpretations
Students embody their interpretations in the classroom.

In response, their mid-year project is to propose a museum exhibit on a subject of their choice and their year-end assignment is to design a public humanities project for their own community.  Even if all my students don’t become museum curators and cultural events planners, at the very least they know that they can critically engage in public dialogue about cultural heritage, encounter deep experiences with works of art, and participate in self-directed learning in museums.

From day one, my students are engaged in object-based lessons. They read curatorial essays and look at several objects on a weekly basis, mostly from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By focusing on the Met as a primary resource, my students come to understand it deeply as a public institution.  At the same time, they focus on works of art in depth. Based on my studies with educational philosopher Maxine Greene and through professional development at the Lincoln Center Institute, I have learned to infuse my classroom with aesthetic education practices.

A typical lesson in my classroom involves students in a combination of deep noticing, embodied experiences, play, analysis, discussion, art making, questioning, researching, making connections, and meta-cognitive reflection. Together we wonder about why art matters, why history matters, how both get made, and how both get preserved. In addition, my students learn how to approach an object. In the classroom, groups lean in to an image on an iPad or stand back and discuss an image projected on the wall. They look at the object first and annotate the label second. They learn to look together as well as individually, to listen for their curiosities, find comfort with ambiguity, and to follow through with informal research.

By late fall we are ready for our first self-guided tour and we visit the Met’s Greek Art galleries. It didn’t take long for me to learn that students need preparation for male nudity in theses galleries, so in the days prior to our visit we look closely at nudity and consider its role in ancient Greek culture.  This way their field of vision goes beyond the nudity and they can see these objects from multiple perspectives. At the museum, students look at a few pre-selected objects making connections to our study of Homer’s The Odyssey. Next, they explore the galleries in pairs looking for patterns in order to draw conclusions about motifs.  Finally, students are encouraged to explore independently and gravitate toward one object which they will eventually research and write about. After our trip, we reflect on our visit and share our research.

Students looking together at the Met
Students looking together at the Met

In the spring, we return to the Met for a second visit, this time to experience the Islamic Art galleries. My students are noticeably more comfortable during this visit and are able to take on an additional assignment. This assignment asks students to use photography to develop intimate engagement as well as critical distance. Each student is asked to submit four distinct shots: an architectural detail, a fleeting moment, a close up of an object (one they will also research), and a selfie. Upon returning to the classroom we view our collection of photographs, share our research, and reflect on the visit as seen through our own eyes.

Creating Deep Connections with Museums

When students visit museums, they gain experiences and build knowledge. As teachers and museum educators, we often activate schema before, during, or after experiencing a particular object or exhibit in order to make meaning. We do this to help students make connections. But the schema that experienced museum visitors activate is not only related to the content of objects and exhibits. It’s about what to expect from a museum visit and how to make the most of it. How to lean in and look deeply, how to explore independently and together, how to listen to and follow our curiosities. Even how to play or to take a critical stance.

When students don’t visit museums with their families they need classroom teachers to introduce them to the inroads of experiencing one. Otherwise they might never feel welcome or even inclined to try a visit. From my experience, curriculum and lessons based on aesthetic education practices that also familiarize students with museums as a resource need to happen through repetition over an extended period of time, spiraling throughout the course of a semester or a year. This is possible when teachers choose one museum to focus on using objects and text related to their collections. I also believe that teachers need to layer their curriculum with a range of critical questions and projects related to the sources of our cultural heritage.  By becoming aware of the ways our cultural heritage is shaped and disseminated, students are empowered and see themselves as active participants in cultural dialogue.

Where else can we find success in reaching marginalized youth and what other roles can classroom teachers play? And finally, how can more teachers be persuaded to create deep connections with museums?

Students leaning in at the Met

About the Author

Clare Hagan head shotCLARE HAGAN: Humanities teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, NY. At DeWitt Clinton, Clare has developed and implemented curriculum based on museums as a resource, museums as an object of study, aesthetic education and object-based lessons. She has presented her Humanities curriculum at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has conducted professional development workshops on object-based lessons. In addition to her MA in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, she has studied critical issues in museum education at Teachers College and aesthetic education at Lincoln Center Institute. Currently, through generous funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, she is studying Islamic verse and will be publishing her museum infused curriculum online this summer. Clare’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent DeWitt Clinton High School’s positions, strategies, or opinions.



12 thoughts on “Building Bridges to Museums: How Classroom Teachers Can Help Reach Marginalized Youth”

  1. I think this is very exciting work. Having worked with Boston teens in a science museum setting for many years I know the powerful learning that can happen when youth start to take “ownership” of an exhibit, a piece of art, or an entire museum. Creating that bridge between museums and schools can help all children find out how to be successful and life-long learners.

  2. We do a similar project with 8th graders – I just got to see their final in-school museum yesterday, which is used as a showcase for incoming 7th graders. This article has given me some new ideas for improving/adding to this program in future years.
    We also do a museum night using material from NEH Picturing America matched with our collection and activities with local Headstart and other early childhood programs, including one for children with developmental issues. We have over 160 at our last event. Children and parents are familiar with PA materials which are displayed around their schools and their teachers work with our staff at the stations to make the museum a “friendlier” place. Many of the children and their siblings have been on field trips, turning them into tour guides. It’s amazing the number of families who become regular museum goers after this experience.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Katherine. I’m intrigued by your museum night event and would love to learn more about it. Also, the idea of putting students into the role of tour guides sounds great and I wonder how students can be best prepared for this role.

      1. Thanks for your interest Clare.
        The Museum Night is held every other year and was actually one of the suggestions Picturing America listed – although there idea was to do it at the school. Since we had a long history with Headstart, including curriculum development projects, we thought it would be more interesting to do it at the museum (Beach Museum of Art at K-State). We set up stations in our permanent collection that feature PA prints alongside our objects using easels and velcro panels. Each station also has activities that engage the participants with the art and there are a few stations outside the galleries that include making activities.

        While the Headstart kids and their older siblings often go to the museum for field trips (Manhattan kids usually visit the museum at least once a year, and many summer programs also participate) their parents have not. Knowing that parent involvement is more likely to make a museum-goer, we felt the family museum nights would help make parents more comfortable, especially when we pair the Headstart staff they are familiar with with our gallery teachers (the pairs also learn from each other).

        The children serving as guides isn’t anything formal in this case – more “let me show you what I saw and learned when I was here.” It is a great chance for us to eavesdrop and see what they remember!

        We have a more formal program in the summer called Young Curators for grades 5-8 which does allow kids to be the experts – they spend a month learning about museum work and create an exhibition with special labels. Since our space is limited, they choose from objects already on display – so it is really a mini-exhibition within our permanent collection galleries. Their labels reflect their thoughts about the relationships between the art, with a little bit of curatorial research. I have always been impressed by the sophisticated themes they choose.

  3. What a beautifully choreographed experience for the young people in your class! No wonder so many of them plan to return to museums. You have prepared them so thoroughly, and from so many different angles. They are becoming citizens of the world as they learn the vocabulary of examining, exploring, and making connections. I am continually impressed as I learn more about your work.

    1. Yes, the “out of school” experience seems so important. I’m fascinated by the comparison between formal and informal education. Where do the two compliment each other? What kind of balance can be found and what does that look like? Even, how do they compete and/or interfere with each other?

  4. Thank you, Clare!! I wish more teachers would become involved and invested with museums. THIS is what our purpose is!

  5. Dear Clare,
    Thank you for this totally interesting post.
    There is an association of upper secondary schools and local museums in Denmark called intrface, whose partnership collaborations aim at providing students similar learning and growing experiences. Another important aim of intrface partnershipping is to develop upper secondary school teachers’ and museum educators’ and curators’ understanding of and knowledge about each other’s work and workplaces through their collaboration. The teachers and museum professionals in a partnership collaborate to develop, implement and evaluate coursework for the students that involves using the museum as a learning space and knowledge resource. Please see – if you click on the English flag in the upper right hand corner, you will find a pdf in English about the association, which you might find interesting to read.
    I am in the last stages of writing my PhD dissertation about the learning aspect of intrface (student, teacher and museum professional) and hope to continue my work in an action research project involving a primary school, two upper secondary schools and four museums with a view to creating a Danish equivalent of American museum magnet schools. I have been able to find many very inspirational examples of American primary and middle schools who are Museum Magnet Schools but no high schools. Perhaps you know of one or two and could tell me their names – that would be really great.
    All the best

  6. Thank you for sharing, Sally. Intrface sounds great and I can imagine how exciting it must be to enter into disciplined dialogue between teachers, museum educators and curators. Although there are many partnerships between museums and here in New York City, I do not know of a museum magnet school at the secondary level. I wish I did!

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