Tag Archives: student learning

Reflecting on a Thinking, Feeling, Doing, Sharing Encounter with Art

EDITOR’S NOTE: After I read the inspiring post (shared below) by the amazing Susan Harris MacKay, who serves as Director of Teaching and Learning at our own Portland Children’s Museum, I immediately wanted to share it with the ArtMuseumTeaching community.  In it, Susan reflects on a recent field trip to the Portland Art Museum with students from the Opal School, a public charter elementary school embedded within the Portland Children’s Museum. Her reflections hit so many meaningful aspects of museum learning for me—engaging in multi-modal responses with art; co-creating meaning with students; and ensuring that we have high expectations for the types of in-depth student thinking and engagement that are possible in a museum, especially through a self-directed tour.  Finally, Susan and the students from Opal School celebrated the museum as a place of human connection, a place of sharing and love, and a place of understanding.  Enjoy!  – Mike Murawski, ArtMuseumTeaching.com

*     *     *

Written by Susan Harris MacKay

Reposted from the blog of the Opal School, a beginning school (for children age 3-5) and public elementary charter school (K-5) in Portland, Oregon. Learn more at opalschool.org.

Because it’s Opal School 4th grade, we knew we would deeply explore the complexities of perspective this year. Because it was a presidential election year, we knew we would be thinking together about the issues and the process. Because 4th and 5th graders have a right to know their state’s history, we knew we would focus on stories of Oregon. And because immigration was such a focal point of political rhetoric, we knew we would be working together to understand the immigration and migration stories in our own families, asking what it means to be an Oregonian. These preconceived intentions prepare our minds to be favored by chance. It never fails.

By chance the Portland Art Museum opened a new exhibition, “Constructing Identity” from the Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art. They had handed us a resource that could not have been more relevant to our work. We accepted the open invitation to go explore.

As I was planning our trip, my mind was prepared with the anticipation of this excursion, and so when I stumbled on the metaphor of “windows and mirrors” one night while reading the Teaching Tolerance website, I knew it would help us approach the artwork we would see. And as I opened the New York Times on my computer one evening this same week, a new video series called “Hyphen-Nation” was there on the front page. I didn’t realize I’d been looking for that, either, but there it was. It is arguable, I guess, that we are more prepared when we rely less on planning and more on paying attention. I can go on. I introduced the concept of windows and mirrors to the group and 11-year-old Alijah said, “Oh, I think someone has a TED talk about that.” I went searching for that and found it was author Grace Lin. Her 12-minute talk was precisely related to what we were talking about. So we watched it. And by chance, I was exploring Powell’s Books one morning just because the rest of our city happened to be shut down with ice, and I discovered the 2017 Caldecott Honor book, They All Saw a Cat. So we read it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This process is, I think, really a matter of, or maybe a result of, staying awake. But also, it’s a matter of understanding that if the classroom is to be in the world and the world is to be in the classroom, it’s our job to pull the two together. It’s our job to help the children see that the things they are concerned with are part of the world outside the classroom. The things they think about and care about that live within our predetermined frame of intent are alive in the concerns of all humanity — now, and in all that came before us. (And if they aren’t, well, perhaps it’s time to consider reframing our intentions.)

It takes time to develop understanding, so we spent time in the week before our visit to the art museum involved in a common Opal School practice aimed at uncovering and co-creating meaning. We “cracked open” the word “identity” and looked inside. As my colleague Tara wrote in a recent post, “We believe there’s a world within a word, and we invite the children to find themselves within these word-worlds… The process of cracking open words and the outcome, a growing web of shared language, strengthens the children’s sense of agency and belonging. It demonstrates how teachers are not transmitters of information and children are not consumers of it. At an early age, these children know they are culture makers.” Taking a peek into the world that lives inside the word “identity” primed the children to situate the title of the exhibit within the meaning they negotiated for themselves, in reference to one another. When you own the language, you own the culture. We don’t need to tell children what words mean nearly as often as we need to ask them what meaning they are making of words. When we do that, the children participate in culture making, and, through a process of reflection, they can become aware that they are.

IMG_8525-255x302Because the children expect to find a place for themselves in the things we do in school, I knew I could expect authentic attempts at making meaning of the art in the “Constructing Identity” exhibition, and so I needed to focus on setting them up to be able to share the meanings they were making. My goal was to support the children to see each piece in the collection as a kind of long-distance offer of connection from one artist to another. I didn’t need to tell them how to connect with the art, how to find meaning in it — I just needed to ask them to, and I needed to give them some tools to do so.

I assigned them each a partner with whom to find eleven different pieces within the exhibition. This was a game they enjoyed as though it were a scavenger hunt of some kind, made even more enjoyable by the fact that they could tell I’d paired them each with a very good friend — something they know I don’t always do. Also importantly, I told them that they did not have to find all eleven. I had chosen that many to try and accommodate the varied temperaments of the pairs. Some would find two or three and dive deeply into those, and some would be more determined to find them all. Either was okay. Either met my intentions to have these artists connect with one another. The final condition that seemed to make the experience successful was that they were independent. As long as they were visible within the gallery to the adults they were with — they were on their own to work. And so they got to it.

Once they found a piece, they were expected to use their sketchbooks to capture the art in pencil and annotate their drawing. They were asked:

  • What might the artist be trying to say about their own identity?
  • What about the art expresses identity?
  • Where are the windows? Where are the mirrors?
  • What is abstract? What is real? What is true?

Here are some representative samples of what was collected:


These twenty-six 9, 10 and 11 year-olds had about two hours in the museum’s galleries that day. I wish that anyone who ever doubted that children were capable of being self-directed, engaged, quiet, and focused in an art museum had been able to observe them for a time. The only slight commotion happened when we had to drag them away.

In an interview included in the exhibit catalogue, Bill Hutson, one of the artists whose work is included in the collection, said,

“I don’t think of what they think. You know what matters to me is that they think. I want them to look at the art and feel something. What bothers me is for people to look at the paintings and feel nothing.”

How often do we remember to ask children to feel? How frequently, in our planning, do we consider the emotions that are likely to be stirred by the things we ask them to think about? How likely are we to make predictions based on what students might feel because we acknowledge that there is no meaning without feeling? Feelings make us think. And thinking makes us feel. We know it is impossible not to feel. So we can be sure that the things children are feeling most are the things they are thinking most about and learning most about. How do we ensure they are learning the things we really want them to learn? What do we really want them to learn?

By creating conditions that allow thinking, feeling, doing, and sharing to show up simultaneously, we create conditions for young human beings to do what they arrived prepared and wanting to do: to use strategies of play to make meaning of their experience in order to find a place for themselves in the world.


Consider, for a moment, what can happen when adults forget how to connect thinking and feeling — what can happen when we look at the expression of other human beings, the offer of connection, the hope for understanding — and feel nothing. The ability to dehumanize others is the result. But when we learn to see that our own identities are constructed in relationship to others, it begins to matter how others feel about what they think — and about what you think. And we begin to trust that when things don’t feel good, we just have to think harder. And we have the confidence that we can, because we don’t have to do it alone.

In “The Age of Rudeness“, Rachel Cusk writes,

“’Make her stop!’ my daughters used to beg me when they were younger and one was doing something the other didn’t like. In other words: Restore to me the primacy of my version; rid me of this challenge to the experience of being me. One might say that what they wanted was justice, impartiality — but impartiality, I usually discovered, was not easy to attain. There were always two sides to their stories, and I lacked the ability to turn them into one. I have prided myself on my willingness to object to injustices, to speak my mind when I thought I saw wrong being done. But perhaps all I was ever doing was trying to make it stop, trying to return the world to something I could bear to live in, without necessarily understanding it first.”

Our classrooms can be the places where we learn to endure the impulse to use the power we have to make our discomforts with life’s uncertainties stop — and instead make a practice of understanding. The Constructing Identity exhibition was full of opportunity to do just that. When asked, “Why does the expressive force of abstraction belong to culture and identity?” Bill Hutson replied,

“Because you can make choices that are specific choices… in many ways you can state who you are. You can state who you are even though it’s not a representation of something. You can do this with light, rhythm and color.”


An encounter with abstract art can become an invitation to stretch our tolerance for the ambiguity we need if we are to find bearable a world that is always subject to change. By inviting us to find our own connection, to make our own sense of things, it pulls us in. We find our own thoughts reflected inside the mirror the artist made for themselves. We find the world inside that piece that is common to us. Like cracking open a word to find what lives inside and to create shared culture, the abstraction invites us simply to bring what we know, and encourages us to share. This sense of belonging is the primary feeling we humans seek, so learning how to think our way there may be the most important thing we do in school. If we’re to fix this mess we’re in, real understanding must become our primary goal, and we must learn to recognize what it is. Because understanding is love.

Encounters with the arts aren’t the only way to create lasting habits of understanding, but their reflective and connective qualities make them one of the best. That is only if we give the young humans in our care chances to connect and reflect. And then do it again. And again. And as we listen to them, be the person they can rely on to bring the world to them, just when they need it most.

*     *     *

About the Author

5776e121a2938-bpfullSUSAN HARRIS MACKAY is Director of Teaching and Learning at Portland Children’s Museum. In that role, she gives leadership to Opal School and the Museum Center for Learning, and works directly with children in the classroom. Opal School serves children ages 3-11 using inquiry-based approaches through the arts and sciences with a mission to strengthen education by provoking fresh ideas concerning environments where creativity, curiosity and the wonder of learning thrive. Along with her colleagues, Susan shares these fresh ideas through a professional development program for educators world-wide. Recent work includes chapters in Fostering Empathy Through Museums, and In the Spirit of the Studio, 2nd Edition, and a TEDx talk called, “School is For Learning to Live”. Connect with Susan and Opal School at opalschool.org.

The Sun Will Still Rise Tomorrow: Responding to the Election

Written by Sara Egan

When we originally scheduled visits to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the classes at a Boston high school in our School Partnership Program, we didn’t consider the date of the presidential election as a factor. My colleagues and I didn’t purposefully plan for the 10th grade students, too young to vote but old enough to be politically aware, to come to this historic institution in the two days following the surprising result. It wasn’t our intention that the 12th graders would come the following week, having had time to begin to process the world in which we awoke on November 9, 2016. But that’s exactly what happened.

Our partnership with these students and their teachers is based on our commitment to respond to where they are and what they need from us to scaffold their development as critical thinkers and engaged museum-goers. We’ve built relationships and cultivated trust with this school over 5 years, coming to understand what they grapple with individually and as a community. At this school, many of the students are Black, Muslim, and/or their families are immigrants. When they come to the Museum, they bring their whole selves to each discussion. So when we found ourselves on the eve of the election concluding a long, polarizing campaign, we recommitted ourselves to putting the students at the center and modified our plan for their visits.

We designed an experience for students to engage with the Gardner Museum in a variety of ways, understanding that everyone processes turmoil differently. First, we welcomed them back to the Museum and gave them a sense of what to expect from the visit. Then we used our temporary exhibition, Beyond Words: Italian Renaissance Books, as a starting point. One theme of this exhibition is the spread of literacy and access to information during the Renaissance, highlighting how society valued knowledge of history, literature and rhetoric during that time. The students took as much time as they needed to explore the exhibition on their own, looking closely with their friends and finding moments of interest and beauty. As a group we discussed the ideas that they discovered in the objects and in the interpretive materials, huddling together over an illuminated choir book or a scientific rendering of marine creatures. Then we honed in on one artwork, a painting of St. Jerome in which they found further examples of the importance of scholarly work and humanistic ideals. This first half of their visit hewed closely to our initial plan, introducing the students to the exhibition while connecting it to their prior experiences at the Museum.

12th grade students from the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers write or sketch around the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Courtyard. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photograph by Sara Egan

The major adaption was that the rest of the visit became structured time for the students to reflect, process, and express themselves. Rather than going to another gallery or looking at another artwork, we brought the students to the courtyard in the center of the historic collection. We handed each student a sketchbook and a pencil, invited them to sit on the stone benches facing the courtyard, and introduced a prompt tying together the objects they’d been exploring, the Museum created by Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the students’ own lives:

Together we’ve been looking at these old books, considering how the artists used text and illustration, and the impact the books had on society. Now you’ll get to design your own book. You can write a story, a poem or a song, draw something you see here or something you imagine, or just take deep breaths and process. If you find it helpful to think of a prompt, you might consider this: When Isabella Stewart Gardner made this museum she said that what the country needed most was art. What do you think our country needs most right now?

It was moving to see how students brought their whole selves to this activity. The 10th grade classes that came on November 8 and 9 spent much of the time asking us and their History teacher questions about the Electoral College, and voicing their fears for what would happen to their families who are undocumented immigrants. Some drew campaign symbols and slogans, some wrote about stamping out hate and encouraging love. The 12th grade students who visited on November 16 and 17 appreciated the escapism offered by the Courtyard. They spoke about the chance to sit quietly in a beautiful space that seems to be a world apart from Boston, a time apart from 2016.

The sun will still rise tomorrow. Ariana Pina, 10th grade, Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photograph by Sara Egan.

During all of these classes the other museum educators, classroom teachers, and I tried to spend time with each student to answer their questions and reiterate that we would stand with them and their loved ones. Some students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to center themselves and consider their thoughts and feelings in their own way, and a growing awareness that we, the Gardner Museum educators who they’ve come to know since 9th grade, intentionally created that space out of our deep concern and caring for them. By the end of the visit, after about 30 minutes of reflection and processing, the mood had shifted to one of hope and mutual support.

Since the election, many of us have felt the urgency of action. This set of class visits to the Gardner Museum was a small, immediate action, but one that ripples outward. These students and teachers’ ideas about how to relate to a museum (even a seemingly elite, historic one like the Gardner) might be forever transformed by the half hour they spent nurturing themselves and each other. Their mental and emotional states also changed, and we can imagine that impact was felt in all of the other interactions they had that day. As museum educators, we have the ability to create this space for our visitors – we have the flexibility to respond to our visitors and we have the objects and environments that remind them of the beauty of our shared humanity.

I’ll leave you with a poem written in the Gardner’s courtyard by Jayne Irvy Veillard, a 12th grade student at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers:

By Jayne Irvy Veillard

We’re struggling
Living in a world where there’s no peace
Living in a world where cries are silenced
Living with the pain among us.
What our world needs is
Why can’t we love?
What’s so hard about loving your neighbor as yourself?
Do you not love who YOU are?
Why can’t there be peace?
Why does there have to be war?
What’s so hard about finding peace?
Look into your heart
Is it Black?
The color your heart bleeds
Does it bleed Black?
Black portrayed as ugly and slavery
Black the color of gun shots and cruelty
Black the hatred set up for men
Black, mothers and children crying for help
Look into your heart
Is it White?
Does it bleed white?
White the color of peace and love
White purity and pure
White sinless
White privileged and power
What’s the difference?
Why separate these two colors?
Grey the color of this lead
Grey the unity of black and white
Grey the sound of ones holding hands
Grey we shall overcome aye?
Grey The Middle Ground
What our word needs is Grey!
We need
The Unity
The Power
The Love
No More Struggling
No More Pain
No More Poor
Just more love
All together
One for all
What our world needs is Grey
The happiness of Grey
That’s what our world needs

*     *     *     *     *

About the Author

egan_sara_head_shotSARA EGAN is School Partnerships Manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Sara was recently  named the Massachusetts Art Education Association’s 2017 Museum Art Educator of the Year.  She teaches preK-12th grade students in the Museum and the classroom using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), trains and coaches teachers in VTS, and conducts research on the impact of the Gardner’s School Partnership Program.  Sara also manages the Gardner Museum’s paid Teens Behind the Scenes program, and is an adjunct professor of art at Simmons College. She has previously worked at the Andy Warhol Museum and Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Sara holds a BA from Vassar College and a Masters in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Header Photo: A 10th grade student from Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s courtyard. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Photograph by Billie Weiss.

Disentangling Partisanship & Letting Rural America into Our Conversation

Written by Greg Stuart

I am not usually in the habit of writing about projects that are in-progress or incomplete. However, in the wake of the current upheaval our country is experiencing, I feel compelled to share a powerful and cathartic moment I had recently in relation to our two-year Student/Community Curatorial Education Project that we are only just beginning.

First, a bit more about the project.  Here at the Samek Art Museum, a Bucknell University-affiliated museum in rural central Pennsylvania, we’ve been working for the past six months on an exhibition that is curated by Bucknell students with input from the local community with generous financial support from the Maurer Family Foundation. By “students,” I am referring to our Museum Guides in particular, paid work-study employees who serve as part gallery attendant, part roving docent. Our goal is to provide a platform for our constituents to have a say in our exhibition planning while also bridging the very real town/gown divide that exists here, often referred to colloquially as the “Bucknell bubble.” As the Public Programs and Outreach Manager for the Museum, I’m responsible for the aspects of this project related to community outreach and exhibition interpretation, while our Director shapes the curatorial elements of the project.

The first phase of the project involved organizing a meeting with our Museum Guides and a small group of community members to try to suss out issues that were most important to our local community. We were aided immensely in recruiting the community members by the Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority, an organization that is deeply embedded in the region. Prior to the meeting, our Museum Guides developed interview questions for the community members intended to elicit narratives and encourage empathy–a process directly inspired by design thinking, which has been written about on this site before. Our goal was to move through the first three steps of the design thinking process, from empathy, to definition, to ideation. Community members would interview each other using the questions developed by the Guides, then we’d come back as a group to brainstorm and refine the process to start developing big ideas about important community issues.

Following the first meeting, the Guides would prototype and test exhibition ideas at a later date with further input from the community.

And then the election happened.

Suddenly, the interview questions that the Guides developed weeks before the election, such as “are there any current events happening right now that you think are most impactful to the region?” or “What would you change about the local community and why?” took on a completely new meaning and sense of urgency.

Not knowing what to expect, we went into the first community meeting bravely, ready to have tough conversations if need be. At the beginning, our discussion focused on how we are even defining what constitutes this community. At first glance, our location in the central Susquehanna valley region often looks fairly uniform—quaint, Victorian-era towns surrounded by rolling hills and farmlands. However, as the community members pointed out, the region is anything but homogenous, with each town informed by a sense of identity often tied to the industry that led to its settlement. For instance, Lewisburg, the home of Bucknell, is shaped most by the influence of the University; the town of Williamsport began as a lumber town; and Mifflinburg’s past and present is informed by its former role as a “buggy town.” Beyond these divisions, towns often have different boroughs or townships, each with their unique sense of identity as well, as many of the community members reminded us.

As the conversation shifted towards the election, stories of discrimination emerged. One community member who has lived in the region her whole life brought up racist bullying that she witnessed in grade school in Mifflinburg. Another community member brought up one of many examples of unintentional racism that she witnesses frequently in living here. I was dismayed to hear our Director, who identifies as queer, mention that, while he has faced discrimination in big cities, he experienced an act of discrimination here that took a more “physical” form. A common theme seemed to be that the community—already divided—would become more so as a result of the election.

I should mention at this point that our group of community members could hardly be called diverse. All were white women in their thirties or forties, and though I have no idea how they voted, all were quick to condemn the violence and racism that President-elect Trump courted openly during his campaign. While this lack of diversity is something we will work to correct in future community meetings, it is telling that our small group most likely ran counter to a lot of what has been said recently about the impact of rural communities in this election.


A way forward

One narrative to emerge from the election is that liberal coastal elites failed to listen to the impoverished rural heartland (though certainly this has shown repeatedly to be a false narrative, as many of Trump’s supports come from middle to upper-middle class suburbs). We have the opportunity to run counter to this false narrative as a fairly liberal, certainly elite, and often-coastal (at least in its student demographic, if not in its location) institution that was already in the process of letting its rural constituents in on our conversation before the election. Conversely, this community also has the opportunity to have a voice and stand out against this narrative as well in helping us shape this exhibition.  

Though I am focusing mostly on negative aspects of the local community that have surfaced in response to the election, I must stress that many of the comments that came out of our discussion were positive about the benefits of living in rural, small-town PA. A particularly insightful response came from a community member who mentioned that, in a small town where everyone knows everybody else, it is easy to spontaneously, organically, and quickly organize. I can only hope that our finished exhibition  can serve as a catalyst for this type of fluid community organization.

In a post-meeting journal response, Museum Guide Jillian Crooks, responded:

“The attendants confirmed my belief that people who are the most involved in community projects and activities are more interested in new projects and events. The women in attendance all seemed heavily interested in making Lewisburg better and more inclusive. This wasn’t surprising, but it was heartwarming.”

Some final thoughts

One of the larger questions that has come out of this election for Bucknell faculty is whether it is important to suspend academic neutrality when faced with a political perspective that is:

  1. Objectively wrong, or
  2. Violates other norms of greater importance, such as respecting the dignity and rights of others.

While I agree with the AAM’s stance on the importance of continuing to foster bipartisan support for our institutions, I think it is also critical to try to disentangle those aspects of partisanship that go against the caveats mentioned above. As educators, we have a responsibility to present and encourage evidence-based interpretations of our exhibitions and collections, and to foster inclusivity and diversity in our spaces and in our conversations with visitors.

Though I am pleased to share our Student/Community Curatorial Education Project as a case study, I welcome discussions (via Comments below, as well as on social media) on how to go about accomplishing the incredibly difficult task of disentangling partisanship from our ethical responsibilities as museum educators.

*     *     *


photo1GREG STUART is the Public Programs and Outreach Manager at the Samek Art Museum, Bucknell University where he is responsible for the Museum’s educational programs, public programs, events, and marketing. Prior to joining Bucknell, he worked as a museum educator at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Portland Art Museum in Oregon, the Portland Museum of Contemporary Craft, and Loyola University’s Museum of Art in Chicago. He has taught art history classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Portland State University, and Concordia University Portland. He holds an MA in Modern and Contemporary Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BA in Art History and English from Loyola University Chicago.

The Power of the Pre Visit

Written by Alex Brown and Jen Brown (Oleniczak)

Through a partnership with The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), The Engaging Educator and ABC of NC, students ranging from 2 to 21 years old with Autism Spectrum Disorder came to SECCA as part of an art program funded by The Arts Council of Winston Salem and Forsyth County. Prior to the museum visit, SECCA and The Engaging Educator visited each class at ABC for a Pre Visit, something new for both the museum and the school. This was also the first time the school had taken a field trip to a contemporary art museum.

While educators can all agree that programs for students on the spectrum are extremely worthwhile, many institutions, educators, and schools have trepidation in approaching these programs – but knowledge provides comfort. While the idea of setting up programming for students on the spectrum is multi-faceted, an under-discussed part of programming is the Pre Visit. Going into the Pre Visit, we prepared a visual agenda, social story, and had a touch collection. Below, find our individual reflections on the importance and outcomes of our short but powerful Pre Visits:

Feels Like the First Time – by Alex Brown

I am accustomed to meeting school groups ‘cold’ when they come in the door. I know where they’re coming from, the size of the group, the age range, and I speak with teachers prior to visits to discuss the scope and expectations, but it is difficult to know the feel of a school group if I haven’t met the students. Starting ‘cold’ and getting to know the students during a program works great most of the time, but it is simply not enough for every group. Students on the autism spectrum often require extra attention and care that can be difficult to provide with a ‘cold’ start. That’s when the value of the Pre Visit became clear.

Typical school programs at SECCA last between an hour and an hour and a half. Since most school programs start without Pre Visits, I spend the first five to fifteen minutes with introductions, discussions around the definitions of contemporary art, and a primer on the exhibition. This not only helps students get comfortable in an unfamiliar space and with potentially unfamiliar ideas, it also creates an opportunity for me to ‘read the room’ so I can find out what the students are interested in and the kind of experiences they are open to. ‘Reading the room’ can be anything from a discussion with the students to paying attention to body language. It becomes easier to read students as a program progresses and as discussions unfold. By the middle of a visit, most students feel comfortable in the space and are open to expressing themselves. This process can be decidedly different with students on the autism spectrum.

The ability to read an audience by paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues is based on an understanding of typical behaviors. I am not an expert on autism, but I do know that people with autism often behave in ways that do not conform to traditional behavioral norms. Their behavior is simply different, and it can’t be read using typical behavior as a baseline. This is what makes it difficult to start ‘cold’ with people with autism. I have led programs for special needs classes, special needs organizations, and group homes, and until recently I had never done Pre Visits. I have always met the group like I would have any other. Where most students that are typically developing are comfortable by the middle of a visit, some individuals with special needs did not feel comfortable until the end, if they got comfortable at all.

Through the pilot program and partnership, we included Pre Visits with every class. We met with each class for about fifteen minutes, and in that time we got to know the students, the students got to know us, and we introduced the students to SECCA, the exhibition, and museum expectations using a social story. The value of a Pre Visit became immediately apparent. In one of the pre-kindergarten classes, some students began to cry and showed signs of anxiety when we waked in the room. By the end of our visit, a student who was in tears when I walked in the room had taken me by the hand to show me around her classroom. Responses varied from student to student, but through the Pre Visits we established a shared foundation of comfort with the students. A foundation that carried over to their SECCA visits, eliminating the need to start ‘cold’ and opening more time to explore, experience, and make art.


It’s Not Just You, It’s Meby Jen Brown (Oleniczak)

I haven’t always been a fan of the Pre Visit. So much of what I believe in with improv-based education is the idea of focusing on the current moment – maintaining a presence in the here and now to honestly react and respond to that here and now. Initially, it seemed a bit contradictory to have a Pre Visit with that mentality. The ‘secret’ I’ve discovered after doing a lot of Pre Visits through multiple organizations, including The Engaging Educator, is: the Pre Visit is as much for me as it is for the students.

As one of the people that initiated this partnership, I was insistent on the aspect of a Pre Visit. Modeling the program after the Guggenheim for All program, I saw a lot of success in getting the students ‘ready’ for their visit to the museum, as well as preparing the teachers with expectations. As an educator that has worked with students on the autism spectrum, as well as an improv advocate, my mentality behind the Pre Visit need was simple: while when you’ve worked with one person with autism, you’ve worked with one person with autism, and people are different every moment, it’s imperative to understand individuals where they feel comfortable and where they don’t. Yes, every child would be different. Yes, we were going to roll with it and be flexible and connect to the moment – but spontaneity? NOPE.

Now is a good moment to dispel a misconception about me as an educator. I plan. A LOT. I over plan. A LOT. The reason I over plan? So I can be flexible within a great big structure I’ve planned for myself, scrap things when necessary, pivot on a dime, and connect to the people in front of me. That’s improv.

Back to the Pre Visit – by going into the students’ classrooms, a space where they understand expectations, rules, and interactions, we could see how they connected with those consistent expectations, rules, and space. We could see that the high school class was VERY responsive to the prompts given to them, that the elementary class moved around a lot and like to hold our hands, and that the kindergarten class loved counting. We noticed the wanderers and the ways the teachers interacted with the students by saying, “follow the leader” to line up and the student’s attention span.

Yes, the students got to know us. Absolutely, they heard the social story, learned the expectations, practiced a ‘museum walk,’ and touched samples that would also be at the museum. We got to tailor and inform where we met the kids because of the Pre Visit. We were able to connect with them at a completely different level and prepare with more than just the teacher information (which is so valuable! Never stop doing this, teachers!)

There is an improv and storytelling principle of “starting in the middle” – essentially you get more accomplished by starting in the center of a conversation versus using time with exposition. The same happens with a Pre Visit – instead of using time to assess the group, you have a baseline. You can begin in the middle, and fine-tune the plan based on the individual moment of that student – the student you already have a relationship with. And how much better is that museum visit when you’ve increased your structure – when you’ve over planned for things, thought of possibilities, different directions, and prepared properly for anything? That’s where my flexibility as an educator comes in. Not from an “anything goes” attitude, but a larger structure to move around in. And a Pre Vist built into a special needs program, specifically one for students on the autism spectrum, makes my structure even larger, and my flexibility even smoother.

Have you had success with a Pre Visit program, or working with students on the autism spectrum? Share your comments, challenges, or best practices.

About the Authors

JEN BROWN (OLENICZAK): Founder and Artistic Director of The Engaging Educator, a NYC, LA and Winston Salem based organization that specializes in improv based education and development for the advancement of professional, social and communication skills. Through The Engaging Educator, her pedagogical approach has trained educators, students, professionals and individuals from organizations such as W Magazine, SFMOMA, Viacom, Columbia University, The Field Museum, MOMA, UNICEF, and Saks 5th Avenue. Recently the company opened a non-profit Foundation, offering free and low cost improv workshops to educators, at-risk teens and adults, and individuals on the autism spectrum. She holds degrees and accreditation from Marquette University, City College of New York, St. Joseph’s University and Second City.

ALEX BROWN: Programs Coordinator and museum educator at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA), in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As a member of both the curatorial and education departments at SECCA, Alex designs, develops and leads educational programs, family programs, exhibition and non-exhibition-related programs and film programs. In collaboration with the Curator of Contemporary Art and the Curator of education, he is also responsible for creating SECCA’s interpretive materials. By developing and offering programs that appeal to more than just one audience, Alex strives to make contemporary art approachable and accessible to everyone. He holds a B.A in History, Ancient Civilizations and Classics from the University of Iowa and a M.A in Museum Studies from Western Illinois University.

Engaging Multilingual Students: An Educator’s Guide

Written by PJ Gubatina Policarpio

As the new school year officially starts here in New York, I am reminded of the thousands of students in the city, who will eventually descend upon our museums, science centers, botanical gardens, libraries, historical societies, and many other informal places of learning. As always, I am inspired by these young learners who bring a richness of experiences, languages, cultural identities, curiosities, and imagination that make our institutions come to life. In my own practice, I often wonder how I can tap into the wealth of characters and personalities each student brings to the table to create a truly engaging and equitable learning environment for all.

As school programs educator at Queens Museum, I was amazed by the diversity of the students that were coming into the museum; reflecting the demographic of the borough (one of the most diverse in the country!). It was more than I had ever experienced working in other museums/cultural institutions in New York. Based on my own observations and conversations with teachers, I realized that in a class of 35 students there might be knowledge of at least 10 languages whether spoken by the students or by their families at home. Census data shows that close to half of Queens residents (47.8%) are born outside of the US and more than 50% speak a language other than English at home.  Some estimate show that there are more than 150 languages spoken in Queens.

In many ways, I saw myself in these students. As an immigrant, I also come from a multilingual and multicultural home. I consider myself part of generation 1.5, coming to America when I was 13 years old. These students inspired me to reflect on how I can further challenge my teaching. How can my own immigrant background inform my teaching? What are some of the effective teaching strategies I’ve learned the field? And how could I combine this sensitivity and the strategies to engage multilingual students and their peers in the group. So for a couple of months last year, I explored and used many different strategies in our Panorama of the City of New York exhibition, the crown jewel of the Queens Museum’s collection and our most requested school groups tour. The result was an “Educators Guide” which I compiled and illustrated by Megan Leppla. The guide was originally presented for school programs at Queens Museum and am sharing here as a resource for other educators.

  1. 1Check-in with the Teacher.

The classroom teacher should know their students best.  Prior to their visit or right before the tour, check in to see what the teacher’s goals are for the museum visit, what curriculum connections the class is making or want to make, and if there are any special needs or considerations. This is a great time for me to ask if there are other languages spoken or used in the classroom. I also let the teachers know that I welcome and encourage moments to translate key words, questions, concepts, and/or ideas to reach the most students.  This is a great way to collaborate and engage the teacher during their visit.

  1. 2Use active cues to get students attention.

Teaching with the Panorama can be challenging because of many factors, including its size, impressive detail, and a moving model airplane touching down and taking off at LaGuardia Airport! So it’s important to use creative and active ways to gather students’ attention. Check with the teacher to see if they already have strategies in place in the classroom. Some of my favorites include:

Clapping: I like rhythmic clapping because it involves both sound and movement. Make sure that this does not distract other groups.

Sign: First, I introduce the sign language for the word “Focus” and then I reinforce this gesture when I need a student’s attention.

  1. 3Give students equitable opportunities to participate.

Allow students to engage with the Panorama in other non-verbal ways or without being the focus of everyone’s attention. I like to have low-stakes, low-pressure activities for all students to participate in. For example, as students walk into the Panorama, I ask them to think of a word that describes how they are feeling. Then, I ask students to write down the word on an index card. To share I ask students to look at each other’s cards. Students can then be grouped into similar words or ideas for further conversation.

  1. 4Encourage partner talk.

Students often have lots of great observations, ideas, or thoughts but may be uncomfortable with sharing in a new space or in large groups. Give students space to express these observations and ideas comfortably with a friend. You can ask open-ended questions such as: How is this borough different or the same from the last borough we looked at?

  1. 5Affirm students’ background such as knowledge of other languages.

When I hear students speak or use languages other than English, it’s an opportunity for me to relate it back to the Panorama.  I ask questions like: What’s another word we use for “bridge”?” In Spanish? Russian? Farsi? Tagalog? And more. I like to ask: What are some of the languages we speak, hear or read in the classroom? At home? In Queens? In NYC? This allows students to share their own knowledge inside the museum.

  1. 6Activate students’ relevant prior experiences.

In Queens, when students point out LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy Airport, it is a great opportunity to talk about their own experiences of migration, movements, and travel. Here, I start our conversation with: What are airplanes used for? They are used for people to travel and move between two places. Then I follow up with: What are some of the places you or your family members have traveled to? Santo Domingo, Mexico, Pakistan! In this way, students are sharing their personal experiences with movements on their own terms. By reframing this question, students can freely share their own experience without necessarily answering: “Where are you from?” This is a great way for students to learn more and teach each other.

  1. 7Make room for student questions.

As educators, we often get excited about teaching and sharing knowledge and information that we sometimes forget to stop and ask students if they have any questions or need any language clarifications. Once during a visit with a 2nd Grade group, I kept using the word “gallery” to describe the spaces we were moving in until finally one brave student stopped and asked “What does “gallery” mean?” A-ha!

  1. 8Reinforce vocabulary students are learning in the classroom.

Check to see if there are any concepts or vocabulary from the classroom that you can bring into the visit. Teachers often use the Panorama as a way to learn about rural, urban, and suburban communities. I like to emphasize this classroom connection by asking students to define these terms using the Panorama. I ask students questions like: How can we identify the different communities? Where do you see an “urban” community here? What does “rural” look like? What makes this “suburban”?

  1. 9Engage students actively through multi-sensory activities.

See: Try extended looking. I like to challenge students by asking them to look closely at the Panorama for an extended time, about 2-3 minutes without comments, questions or raising their hands.

Sketch: Use a Telescope! Students can observe closely by sketching a detail (building, bridge, statue!) they find most interesting in the Panorama.

Hear: Create a Soundscape! Each student can make a sound or noise that they might hear or imagine in the space. Direct the soundscape symphony with a meter!

Feel: How does it feel? Have students touch and feel building blocks, models, and other touch objects.

Move: Students can pose like their favorite skyscraper in Manhattan or decide like the Statue of Liberty what their pose might be if they were a statue or monument.

  1. 10Have fun!

The museum is a great place for all students to learn, discover, and come together as a community. What makes the Panorama special is that it gives all of us a singular view of our city. We all have a piece of NYC in us, together with 8 million others, that makes it special no matter where we or our families come from.

I welcome fellow educators to share or reflect on their own strategies that allow students fair opportunities to engage and participate during school group visits.

*     *     *     *     *

Header image: “Queens Museum of Art | The Panorama of the City of New York | tight overview from west of lower Manhattan, including the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Brooklyn & Manhattan Bridges, etc.” Photo by Chris Devers, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Museums and Online Learning: A Student’s Perspective

Reposted from Center for Future of Museums (CFM) Blog, February 12, 2015

Note from Elizabeth Merritt: Last December I visited Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, to brainstorm with their staff about museums and distance education. As Michael Edson has pointed out time and again, if museums are to scale up their impact and play a significant role in education in the U.S., they need to exploit the reach of the web. During my time there, Crystal Bridges shared a new initiative they were about to launch: an online course for high school students to take for credit towards graduation. Kirsten Peterson, project director at the educational nonprofit EDC contracted to help develop the project, gave us a brief tour of the course in its pilot form. Anne Kraybill, Crystal Bridges’ distance learning project manager, put me in touch with one of the students who tested the course prototype in 2014. Today’s guest post is by Maddy Windel, a freshman enrolled in a rural public high school, who shares her experience with this foray into online art education.

*     *     *     *     *

Written by Maddy Windel

In October of 2014, I was given the opportunity to participate in the pilot of Museum Mash-Up, an online course being developed by Crystal Bridges.  My English teacher/mother, Kenya Windel, heard about this opportunity through the ARTeacher Fellowship, an initiative that both she and my father have been a part of over the last few years.

Ms. Windel volunteered me for the pilot because she knows I love learning about art in general: What drives the artist? Why did they create this piece specifically? Was it inspired by a big event in the artist’s life? I also love making art. Museum Mash-Up combined all of these interests. I had never taken an online course, but I really wanted to know what one was like (in Arkansas, an online course credit is necessary for all graduates, and I wanted to feel more prepared). I didn’t know that much about the course when I was volunteered. I knew it was about art that could be found at the Crystal Bridges museum—art that has piqued my interest every time I have visited the museum—but that was about it.

The pilot started with an immediate communication push. It was a major part of the course, which was a relief to me because I am from an incredibly small school with a group of close-knit students and faculty. I had never had to deal with not knowing or talking to my teachers before, and I didn’t know what it would be like. The amount of communication I received from the course made this transition much easier. In fact, the course had almost the same level of communication as art courses I’ve taken in the classroom. It also offered much more on the history of the art, and the art projects we completed were a bit more open than those in the classroom. The prompts provided the students with the basics–what the art should be about or reflect on–and let us go from there.

The course centered on examining, interpreting, and discussing art and the process of curating art (how it’s done, who does it, why they do it, doing it oneself). There were also sessions dedicated to making art, whether through sketching, photography, cartooning, or other means, depending on the session and each student’s personal preferences.

Learning deeply about the art and what led to its creation was particularly interesting for me. While I have always enjoyed looking at artwork, Crystal Bridges’ course showed me just how deeply I could go into studying and interpreting art. I developed my knowledge on the fact that the creation of a specific piece of artwork hinged on hundreds of factors that made it what it was. Take, for instance, my favorite pilot session, on the artwork of Andy Warhol and George Tooker. From an unenlightened outsider’s perspective, I could analyze their work in whatever way I chose, but when I dug deeper, I discovered that Warhol insisted he just did art for fun or money, and Tooker was influenced by his neighborhood. I discovered how the artists were raised, how they became interested in art, and how their friendships and their relationships influenced them. All of these factors make the art more intriguing, and I find there is more to look for, or not to look for, a story for each piece.

Analyzing this art online also gave me a taste of what the originals may really be like, both physically and emotionally. No digital image of a piece of art compares to what it looks like face-to-face. While some museums may fear that online exposure may keep people away, I believe it does the opposite. Looking at a piece, absorbing it, may be done to a limited extent on a computer, but I cannot feel the presence of the work–the size, the stature, the beauty—online like I can in person. Online art does serve as a good alternative to those who do not have the opportunity to view the artwork in person due to distance, money, or other reasons, and online sharing gives museums an entirely new method of attracting audiences who might not visit the museum otherwise. Pictures and examples of artwork can help make a mark on a new generation of people who live in this visual age. Images can be of much more help to them than a written description.

Early 19th Century Gallery at Crystal Bridges
Early 19th Century Gallery at
Crystal Bridges

I see the Crystal Bridges’ course as a wonderful opportunity to help students understand and engage with art and with other students who share an interest in it. The course allows students to communicate, work with technology that may be new to them, and enjoy, curate, and make art while being guided by their instructors, but not so rigidly that they don’t get to create their own steps along the way. A few parts of the course were difficult for me personally (I’m not the brightest crayon in the box when it comes to technology), but eventually all my difficulties were resolved. The pilot was a wonderful experience. It was one I would love to repeat, and I’ve begun to do just that by taking the course for credit this semester. It’s thrilling to be able to look back and acknowledge, even early on, a conscious change in understanding from taking a course like this, and I hope that feeling is one many students can experience in the future through online interactions and in-person visits to museums such as Crystal Bridges that offer these educational opportunities.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is currently offering the course through Virtual Arkansas for Arkansas public school students. Plans are underway to distribute the course to teachers in any state or country. 

Learn more by reading a recent blog post by Anne Kraybill, “Up Close: Distance Learning and Art Museums.”

Up Close: Distance Learning & Art Museums

By Anne Kraybill, Distance Learning Project Manager, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Check out Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s Distance Learning website, which includes research and resources made available to support your distance learning initiatives.

The term “distance learning” can seem antithetical to art museums that espouse the power of an authentic experience with an object. As I worked to develop a distance learning initiative at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, I struggled to reconcile the rationale for such a program. After all, Crystal Bridges has a robust and well-funded school visits program that brings students from all over the region. Why would I want to create a program that did not take place within our walls?

First, let me provide a little context. Crystal Bridges decided to pursue a distance learning initiative shortly after the field trip study conducted by Jay Greene, Brian Kisida, and Dan Bowen at the University of Arkansas. The findings revealed that student gains from a one-time fieldtrip in a variety of outcomes were two to three times higher for students in rural locations. With these findings in mind, we decided to create a distance learning program that would reach more students overall, but particularly students in these rural schools.

Where to Start?

We began with some formative research to determine what path we might take. In July 2013, we hosted a Distance Learning Summit, which brought together more than 40 art museums and arts organizations to better understand the current landscape and approaches to distance learning, as well as envision the future of how art museums might further leverage distance learning. Case study presentations included traditional approaches such as synchronous video conferences—often branded as “virtual fieldtrips”—that connected classrooms remotely, to blended approaches that utilized Learning Management Systems (LMS) before and after an onsite program, to asynchronous approaches such as a Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that engage thousands of learners at one time.

While all of these approaches have advantages and disadvantages to consider, the model that resonated with our particular situation was presented by Michelle Harrell and Emily Kotecki from the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA). In an effort to increase their reach to teens, they partnered with North Carolina Virtual Public School to develop online courses in the visual arts for high school students throughout the state of North Carolina. This model resonated for a few reasons. First, in the state of Arkansas we have the Digital Learning Act that requires all high school students to take an asynchronous online course for graduation, so this approach was a natural fit. Second, the notion of having such a direct role in a student’s school career was appealing and provided a level of accountability not found in most art museum/school partnerships. Following the trail Michelle and Emily had blazed, Crystal Bridges set out to develop a for-credit online course with the aim of deeply connecting high school students to art history, American history, and museum studies.

Course Development

After an RFP process, we selected Education Development Center, Inc. (EDC) as the development partner. Over the course of a year, a cross disciplinary team of museum educators, instructional designers, subject-matter experts, graphic designers, and programmers, developed Museum Mash Up: American Identity through the Arts. Rather than progress through the artworks chronologically, the course begins with contemporary art. The guiding questions ask students “How did we get here? And how have artists shaped and reflected upon American identity?” Crystal Bridges partnered with Virtual Arkansas to offer and deliver the course. Like North Carolina Virtual, Virtual Arkansas is a supplementary provider of online courses that any public school student in the state can take. EDC and Crystal Bridges trained a few online arts instructors from Virtual Arkansas with volunteer students to test the activities and get formative feedback from both instructors and students.

The course has now launched through Virtual Arkansas with a pilot group of about 40 students from all over the state, including the community of Deer, population 680; the community of Hugh, population 1,441; and the community of Star City, population 2,248. Students typically log onto the course during one of their class periods at school. Though the course is asynchronous, students are paced in weekly units and use tools to engage in online discussion. This was one of the most important elements for the design of this course. While there are many valuable websites and other online resources to learn about the arts, we wanted to be sure that the act of “collaborative meaning-making” was not lost. Similar to an onsite program, students begin their lesson by looking at the work of art and sharing their initial observations and interpretations using VoiceThread™. This tool allows for a conversation in the cloud using text, video, or audio and is an excellent platform for students to build on one another’s ideas. Following their initial observations in VoiceThread™, the students read about the art and engage with multi-media materials to ascertain some context about the art, artist, and historical time period. They then participate in another, more in-depth discussion about their new and evolving interpretations.


Simultaneously, students are also working on two major capstone projects. The first project is a curated exhibition about their own individual identity using the tool Kapsul™ somewhat similar to a Pinterest board. Through this project, along with videos by curators, designers, and educators, they learn about the curatorial, design, and interpretive process necessary to curate an exhibition. These skills are used in their final project: a virtual exhibition curated by each student using the artworks they learned about during the semester, and research new works in the Crystal Bridges collection. This amazing virtual rendering of the Twentieth-Century Art Gallery at Crystal Bridges was created by David Charles Frederick from Tesseract Studios at the University of Arkansas using Unity™, an immersive game engine that includes rich textures and allows the students to explore the space as if on foot. The rendering is completely accurate to the specifications from the museum blueprints and provides learners with an immersive experience in which they arrange paintings they have researched on the walls, write the labels and interpretation, develop the graphic identity of their exhibition, and most importantly, learn that they can make meaning and conversations between paintings and across history.




Along the way, there were many challenges to overcome and there will be many more as we continue to pilot the course. Content for all of the artwork had to be generated requiring a mass amount of writing. Image rights had to be procured, videos needed to be produced, and external content from primary and secondary sources had to be found. One of the most challenging hurdles we had to overcome was the course approval process with the Arkansas Department of Education. Because this was not a standard course, the state had to approve it under a standards framework. After much work and standards alignment, we were able to obtain course approval for students to receive .5 credit hours in fine arts. The course now satisfies two requirements all high school students must meet for graduation; a .5 credit hour in fine arts, and at least one course taken online.

Beyond the bureaucratic and logistical challenges we continue to encounter and amend, there are, not surprisingly, some challenges in working with high school students. There are a wide range of motivations, with some students passionately interested in learning art and history, and others who are more ambivalent about visual arts and museums. This results in a wide range of responses in the discussions. For instance, students were asked to look at and respond to George Tooker’s, The Ward in VoiceThread™. Their only prompt was “What do you notice and what do you wonder?”

Student One:  it looks like there is a bunch sick people laying (sic) in hospital. like it looks like the ones already laying down are dead.

Student Two: George Tooker’s “The Ward” is a very interesting piece that’s (sic) shows to have many subliminal messages. In the background there are many American flags hanging on the wall in a much brighter contrast to the rest of the painting. I recognize this as a representation of patriotism and American pride. Going on to the next part of the painting, the elderly people lined up in rows on beds. There isn’t much to identify the various elderly by- except as Madeliene said, they have little to no hair- so they are most likely men. The elderly people are lined up on these beds- which do not appear to be comfortable by their stiff appearance. It seems that these people are just existing, not really being anything other than a case number or a medical condition. I believe that this represents the wounded soldiers that have returned from the various wars. When the soldiers came back from the war wounded this is how they were treated oftentimes, in a lifeless building or tent, not having anything to do or participate in, often making them become depressed which slowed or stopped the healing process completely. When Tooker made this painting I wonder why he depicted the wounded soldiers scene as so dreary and negative when he could have followed in the footsteps of others and sugar coat it to pacify the public and make it seem appealing enough. For Tooker’s honesty in this painting I admire him greatly. He really got his point across that the war wasn’t pleasant and it wasn’t pleasant afterwards either, because these memories still haunt you…


In addition, for many students this is the first time they have taken an online course, so they need support in learning the tools plus very well-defined and articulated expectations of the level and quality of work the course requires.  Everyone is making significant progress. For example, early responses from all but a few students were rarely justified, but just five weeks in, student are better articulating their interpretations with more detail and inference, and justifying their claims with evidence.

Overall, the benefits far outweigh the challenges. There is a level of anonymity for each student that is freeing. They are not burdened by labels that they might encounter in their physical school. They are also able to contribute their ideas without ridicule. The way in which they engage with works of art and learn about the works is multi-model. And they are connecting with Crystal Bridges and the collection in a way that a one-time fieldtrip could never afford. In addition, Crystal Bridges is providing a unique course-offering to the state that expands access to quality arts education.

Next Steps

Crystal Bridges has a large agenda as it continues to expand upon this program. Next steps include:

  1. Conduct an observational study of the current section of Museum Mash Up to analyze instructional design and quality, and measure student perceptions. Follow the observational study with a rigorous, experimental design to measure student outcomes including critical thinking and writing.
  2. Develop an online teacher professional-development program that certifies teachers in any state to teach the course;
  3. Create a second course offering that is grounded in studio and design practice;
  4. Host an online professional learning community where teachers can receive support in teaching the online course.
  5. Host a second Distance Learning Summit (details forthcoming this summer).


Final Thoughts

This project has been one of the scariest and most fulfilling in my career. The students are not the only ones who have a stake in the course; we as a museum cannot fail our obligation to them.  I could not have conceived of it without the ground-breaking work by Michelle and Emily at NCMA. I also have to thank the talented and dedicated Crystal Bridges museum educators, Emily Rodriguez and Donna Hutchinson, for all their help in developing, researching, and designing the course outline, as well as EDCs project manager, Kirsten Peterson, for her unwavering dedication and belief in this project, and Diana Garrison, teacher extraordinaire at Virtual Arkansas.

Read about the Distance Learning Project from the perspective of a participating student, “Museums and Online Learning: A Student’s Perspective.”

*     *     *     *     *

About the Author

AnneKraybillANNE KRAYBILL:  Distance Learning Project Manager at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where she is developing online accredited courses for high school students and online professional development for teachers. In her previous position as the school and community programs manager at Crystal Bridges, she developed and implemented all of the Museum’s programming related to K-12 students, teachers and pre-services teacher as well as community groups. She has held positions at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Norton Museum of Art , the Center for Creative Education, and the Vero Beach Museum of Art. Prior to joining Crystal Bridges, she worked as the Art School Director at the Durham Art Council, managing visual and performing arts classes for over 3,000 youth and adult students annually. Anne has a B.F.A. in Photography from Maryland Institute College of Art, a M.A. in Museum Education from The University of the Arts, and a M.S. in Instructional Technology from East Carolina University. She is currently a Doctoral Academy Fellow in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Anne’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Status Update: Facebook as a Reflection Tool

Written by David Bowles, Assistant Museum Educator for School Programs, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cross-posted with Museum Questions, a blog authored by Rebecca Herz that is dedicated to questions about museums and thoughts on creating a reflective practice.

This blog post is about listening and reflection. As a museum educator, my job is to listen. On a good tour, I learn about as much about art from visitors as they learn from me. I also learn something about their lives. But often it seems like these moments evaporate. So for the past two years, I have been posting some of the most indelible teachable moments from my gallery experiences on Facebook.

I limit myself to one moment per tour. I try to stick to the facts, and not interpret the child’s ideas in my own words. I describe the context succinctly, and stick to a few sentences at most. I imagine reflecting on the teaching experience with someone who has never heard of the field of museum education – so no jargon allowed. When it makes sense, I include a visual of the artwork that sparked the teachable moment.

The moments I capture tend to be funny, which is why they make good Facebook posts. But they also highlight important moments of discovery, and often mark pivot points in gallery conversations. I try to focus on what Piaget might have called moments of disequilibrium – those wonderful, maddening moments when you discover for yourself that what you thought was simple, is not.

Here are three such experiences, some thoughts on what I’ve learned about school tours and student visitors along the way, and tips for anyone interested in giving this a try.

1.  Fear of the Unknown


“A 7th grade student on a tour in the Ancient Egypt galleries this morning pointed out that he would rather be chased by mummies than velociraptors.”

I think the young man’s logic was that mummies chasing him through the Museum were likely to shuffle along slowly, while raptors are nimble pack hunters (as anyone who saw the kitchen scene from the original Jurassic Park can attest). He makes a valid point. This comment sparked a stimulating conversation among the class about fear of the unknown. We sat in the dimly lit gallery surrounded by sarcophagi and other tomb equipment unearthed along the Nile, and other classmates chimed in with their honest reactions to the unfamiliarity of the experience. After several other students also expressed fear, one young lady allowed that she “sort of liked being scared.” I asked her if it felt “safe scary” and she nodded. The young man whose comment started the conversation smiled at her and nodded as well.

These students feel slightly scared by the unknown Egyptian galleries filled with mummies and other ancient artifacts. But they are attracted to the unknown. The unknown in a museum setting, like the unknown in movies, is “safe scary.” For them, what is interesting about this space at the Met is not the connections they can make to their school curriculum, or the comparison between the ancient and the contemporary, but the opportunity to exist temporarily and safely in a space outside of the safety and routine of the everyday.

2. Time Travel


“6th grade student, after discussing a sculpture of the historical Buddha: “So, is the Buddha like the Doctor? Doctor Who I mean.” Mind expanded.”

If you’ve never watched Doctor Who, close this browser and go watch some. The Doctor is an extravagant, brilliant, and charismatic alien who explores the universe trying to help the helpless, ease suffering, and generally leave things better than he found them. His ship, the TARDIS, can travel anywhere in space or time. Since he seems to like Great Britain, he comes to Earth a lot. Coincidentally, the show is produced by the BBC, so the Doctor is invariably British, as are his plucky human companions. The Doctor is a troubled hero, whose views on the universe are often transcendent as well as maddening.

On some level, the young lady who asked me if the Buddha was anything like the Doctor understood that the story of the Buddha, like the story of Doctor Who, is about creating an impossible narrative of characters who can save the world. On another hand, she may have been reaching for a way to connect historical information about the Buddha (i.e. he really existed, he was a prince, he traveled throughout India and Nepal, etc.) with the more incredible aspects of his story (i.e. his description of concepts like samsara and nirvana, his awakening or enlightenment, etc.) She seemed interested in the Buddha not as a representative of another culture but as a superhero, an embodiment of the type of figure that could save the world. In short, I think she saw a role model.

3. Love and Marriage


“2nd grade student this morning after hearing that Theseus ditches Ariadne after they escape from the Minotaur: “Well, maybe he was too young for marriage. I mean, you shouldn’t marry someone you just met. You should like, get to know each other first. But it was still mean of him.”

Like the Greek myths that inspired it, this discussion offered an interesting analysis of human behavior. After telling these students the myth of Theseus and Ariadne, I asked students what they thought of the story’s ending. The first flurry of responses focused on abandonment and notions of fairness; everyone agreed that Theseus made a bad choice. Well, nearly everyone. I pushed for dissent, and asked if anyone had another point of view. This young lady had been sitting silently for a while, and when she did speak it was with energy.

On some level she was trying to make Theseus’ decision to abandon Ariadne acceptable. On a deeper level, I wonder if this student, like the young lady who compared the Buddha to the Doctor, was thinking about role models. As you can see in the comments left by my Facebook friends, Disney’s ‘Frozen’ explores these ideas very effectively as well. Whether or not this student had seen the movie (and I suspect she had), it was a powerful reminder to me about making room for respectful dissent when interpreting works of art. Students really absorb the lessons that they learn from movies, so it makes good sense to keep tabs on what those lessons are – and what ambiguities they might offer.

So what patterns have I noticed about kids’ interests at the Met?

The Unknown

Many of these conversations involve discovering new frontiers, and the thrill and fear that accompany real, authentic exploration. As long as the fear of the new doesn’t overwhelm the group, it can be very productive if acknowledged. There’s a lot to be said about the transformative power of discomfort; just ask an oyster.

Role Models

Humans are social animals; we look to others for tips on how to behave. Many students are searching for role models, and some have found them in fictional characters. These young people are looking for ways to connect these characters and their worlds to the real world around them, and they will do so at the first opportunity.

Contemporary Connections

Museum educators often talk about contemporary connections: strategies or concepts that help visitors understand something unfamiliar by tying it to something personally familiar from today. When students initiate their own contemporary connections, they often do so in unpredictable ways that can be surprising, humorous, or subversive. There is something to be said for letting students make their own connections instead of doing it for them. Kids will bring pop culture with them into the museum regardless, so ignoring its power means missing opportunities for authentic discussion.

Keeping up-to-date on popular trends among young learners can really help make genuine connections that make complex ideas accessible. It can also highlight key misunderstandings about objects or the stories objects tell. For example, the idea that you should get to know your future partner well before committing is a very particular approach to marriage, presumably not one endorsed in most ancient societies.

Some Takeaways for Museum Educators

1. Listen. Really Listen.

Focus on what students are really saying when they respond to your questions, not just what you think they mean. This is hard. Use the words they use to define academic terms and abstract concepts. If a student’s comment strikes you as snarky or disruptive, lean in to it. Find out more. Let them know you’re interested in their thinking. Give them space to explain. If they don’t want to explain to you, consider asking them to turn and talk with some of their peers. Listen to what you hear, and think about how it connects to your own ideas about the content or lesson.

2. Let students drive the conversation.

My boss sometimes talks about how effective museum educators need to be a ‘Guide on the Side’ rather than a ‘Sage on the Stage,’ and this is vital to effective gallery teaching. Use a light touch to keep the conversation moving. Stay goal-oriented, but don’t get so attached to your goals that you lose sight of the importance of the process of discovery for your participants.

3. Ask for divergent thinking

Seek out dissenting ideas so that you are encouraging participants to think both deeply and individually. Some works of art open themselves up to a wide range of possible interpretations without ever committing to just one – examples might include many modern and contemporary art objects. Other works of art, like a Gupta period Buddhist sculpture or ancient Roman sarcophagi, have very specific meanings that their makers intended; there are incorrect understandings of some works of art, and that is important for us to acknowledge. Those misunderstandings are often great starting points for real inquiry if you can help students ground their misunderstandings in the visual elements of the artwork! Either way, seeking out divergent thinking empowers students to discover and craft the complexity of interpretation for themselves.

4. Reflective Practice needs others

I think the capacity to reflect in action (while doing something) and on action (after having done it) is an important part of professional practice. Both are hard to do, and both benefit greatly when other people can be sounding boards. I find these status updates help me slow down and think about the choices I’ve made. Better yet, doing so gives me immediate informal feedback.

Give it a try!

About the Author

BowlesDAVID BOWLES: Assistant Museum Educator for School Programs, Metropolitan Museum of Art.  David oversees the strategic planning, staff and volunteer training, program implementation, and evaluation of all aspects of guided K-12 school tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In collaboration with colleagues, he also develops resources for educators, in particular for educators who are bringing students to the Museum on guided or self-guided visits. David also teaches across a range of audience areas, including K-12 educator programs and adult gallery talks. Before this, he worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as Manager of School Programs. He earned his M.S.Ed from Bank Street College and a B.A. with Honours from McGill University. David’s postings on this site are his own and don’t necessarily represent the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Student Learning in Museums: What Do We Know?

Reposted from Museum Questions, a blog authored by Rebecca Herz that is dedicated to questions about museums and thoughts on creating a reflective practice.

The Museum Questions exploration of school visits to museums has been sorely lacking the context of a literature review, as noted by Christine Castle of Museum Education Monitor. Happily, Dr. Lynda Kelly told me about a report she wrote in 2011, which is excerpted below. The report was commissioned by The Sovereign Hill Museums Association in Australia. Lynda is Head of Learning the Australian National Maritime Museum, and prior to this worked in digital and audience research at the Australian Museum, Sydney. She has written and consulted widely in this field in Australia and for museums internationally. The full report, with a full bibliography included, can be found here. Thanks to Lynda for allowing me to share this much-shortened version.  -Rebecca Herz

Student Learning in Museums

It has long been recognised that museums are educational institutions and that their school audiences are critical in both sustaining visitation and, through offering a positive and inspiring experience, can influence lifelong museum visiting habits (Falk and Dierking, 1997). This report outlines the evidence for student learning in museums under the frame of the contextual model of museum learning (Falk and Dierking, 1992, 2000), coupled with review of published studies primarily drawn from the work of DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) and Groundwater-Smith and Kelly (2003-2011). Given the parameters of this review, the focus is on the physical museum space, coupled with the role of the teacher and museum staff. For more information about the impacts of the online and mobile spaces on educational activities see the list of resources at the end of this report.

The Personal Context and Student Learning

Field trips offer deep cognitive learning beyond facts and concepts to include process skills and draw on other places of learning such as museums. Learning on a field trip is a valuable supplement and addition to classroom instruction and a way to prepare students for future learning (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

Students are more likely to remember social and personally relevant aspects of field trips, yet also dislike and keep less favorable memories of these trips that seem overly structured and leave little room for their personal visit agenda (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

Based on the elaborateness of children’s descriptions it was concluded that high personal involvement, links with the curriculum and multiple visits to the same institution embraced long-term learning impact (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Wolins et al, 1992).

Affective outcomes, such as increased motivation or interest, sparking curiosity or improved attitudes towards a topic, may be more reasonable given the short-term nature of field trips (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

Visits to science centres can positively impact attitudes towards science for students who are already interested in and engaged with science (Jarvis and Pell, 2005).

Students felt that in order to be substantively engaged in cognitive learning they needed to: know how things worked; be able to think through ideas; have opportunities to ask questions; be able to handle, manipulate and closely examine artefacts and exhibits; be able to seek out information from several sources in language that is appropriate to their age and stage of development; and be stimulated through all their senses (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).

When looking at emotional learning, students expressed a desire to be emotionally connected, while at the same time not emotionally confronted. The students in this study indicated that they welcomed opportunities to be fully engaged with provocative questions, fascinating and puzzling exhibits and clear, well-structured and accessible information (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).

In the majority of cases the aspect of the field trip that was recalled subsequently was the content and/or subject matter presented during the field trip (Falk and Dierking, 1997).

Even after years had elapsed, nearly 100% of the individuals interviewed could relate at least one thing they learned during an early-elementary-school field trip, and most could relate three or more things (Falk and Dierking, 1997). Students retained information about sharks from an exhibition in a marine park in Italy up to three months after a visit (Miglietta et al, 2008). Sixteen months after visiting a science centre in Israel students recalled facts and details of their visit such as exhibitions, activities and guides’ input (Bamberger and Tal, 2008).

The Social Context and Student Learning

Students are more likely to remember social aspects of their visit. The social interaction occurring on a field trip is an important part of the experience and supporting students’ in sharing their experiences enhances learning (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).

Students like learning with their friends. While they recognised that a visit to the Museum was primarily designed by their teachers to assist in their learning, they also wanted it to be a satisfying social occasion when they could learn with and from their peers (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).

Visits are highly social experiences for students. A study of sixth graders stated that they had more control over their own learning when interacting with their peers rather than adults who tended towards control (Birney, 1988).

A study of student talk found that school visits to museums assisted in building relationships between students through cooperative interactions and discourse (DeWitt and Hohenstein, 2010).

The Physical Context and Student Learning

Students wanted to feel safe and comfortable and to move around readily unimpeded by a number of prohibitive signs. They also wanted areas to be well-lit and inviting and find physical spaces scaled to their ages and needs (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith, 2009).

The novelty of the setting may distract from students’ conceptual learning if novelty is strong (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

The degree of structure of a field trip is the subject of much disagreement in the literature – how much should the experience be mediated and teacher/educator-led, and how much should be student-led, based on free-choice learning? DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) identified several issues around structured visits:

  • To maximise cognitive and affective outcomes field trips need to provide moderate amount of structure while still allowing for free exploration.
  • Well-designed worksheets can be effective in promoting discovery-based enquiry if exposing students to a wide range of relevant information.
  • Well-designed worksheets may tap into already available interpretive material thus extending the richness of information.
  • The use of pre and post visit activities can enhance the cognitive and affective learning outcomes.
  • In a museum setting structure experiences, such as guided tours, specific detailed tasks can increase cognitive learning but may dampen enthusiasm.
  • Structure, including worksheets, may limit the ability for students to explore and engage with the unique aspects of the museum setting.

Based on a rage of studies, McManus (1985) recommended that worksheets should be designed to encourage observation, allow time for observation, focus on objects not labels, be unambiguous about where to find information and encourage talk.

Photo by Universal Pops at Flickr.com.  Photograph of a school group on tour at the North Carolina Museum of Art viewing “Sir William Pepperrell and His Family (1778, oil on canvas) by John Singleton Copley.
Photo by Universal Pops at Flickr.com. Photograph of a school group on tour at the North Carolina Museum of Art viewing “Sir William Pepperrell and His Family (1778, oil on canvas) by John Singleton Copley.


Teachers value museums as sources of rich learning and social experiences (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Falk and Dierking, 1997; Groundwater-Smith et al, 2009). Teachers’ agendas for the trip will influence their subsequent classroom practice (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

Research reveals that teachers have complex and comprehensive reasons for field trips, valuing these as learning and educational opportunities and as chances for social and affective learning (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

Teacher motivations for school trips include connecting with classroom curricula, providing a general learning experience, enhancing student motivation, exposure to new experiences, change in setting or routine and student enjoyment (Kisiel, 2005).

Students with teachers who were both enthusiastic about science and engaged in extensive follow-up activities expressed more positive attitudes towards science after their museum visit than students in other classes (Jarvis and Pell, 2005).

DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) report that field trips are enhanced when the teacher:

  • Becomes familiar with the setting before the trip.
  • Orients students to the setting and agenda and clarifies learning goals.
  • Plans pre-visit activities aligned with curriculum goals.
  • Plans and conducts post-visit activities to reinforce the trip and enables students to reflect on their experiences.


Limited research has been undertaken into the role of museum educators in school visits and researchers are only beginning to examine the role of the museum in the student visit (Griffin, 2004). However, of the literature consulted it is clear that collaboration between teachers and museum educators and other staff in program development brings positive results in terms of enhanced outcomes of student visits and in strengthening relationships.

DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) report that teachers’ goals may not be the same as those of museum educators which, in turn, can cause confusion and impediments to learning. Teachers also may have multiple goals for the visit, whereas museums may be too focussed on the logistical aspects of the visit, such as wayfinding, parental consent, safety forms, transportation, financial transactions and orientation (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008).

When programs are developed in alignment with school curricular and teacher goals rather than the museum’s objectives, integration of the visit into classroom practice is more likely (Xanthoudaki, 1998).

Successful museum-school collaborations are often characterised by the museum reaching out to teachers and developing material in conjunction with them (DeWitt and Storksdieck, 2008; Groundwater-Smith et al, 2009).

Australian Museum staff who had participated in the 2009 Teachers’ College found this had a positive impact upon all participants, and that teachers had a great deal to offer in the way of advice. Staff felt that they had benefitted in terms of getting close to their audience; learning about how the Museum could better engage teachers and students; networking and connections made to enable further discussion and consultation to take place; and stimulating new ideas for programs (Kelly and Fitzgerald, 2011).

*     *     *     *     *

Visit this page for a full copy of this report.

Featured image by Universal Pops at Flickr.com.  Photograph of a school group on tour at the North Carolina Museum of Art viewing “Sir William Pepperrell and His Family (1778, oil on canvas) by John Singleton Copley.