By nature, we are tactile creatures. People want to touch, hold, or feel what they look at. Tactile experiences add another dimension to the learning experience. They help the learner form a mental image of an object and provide another route toward understanding what an object represents. Adding a tactile dimension to my teaching became a personal challenge. Though most museums, including my own, routinely discourage touching objects in their collection, I wanted to find a way to allow for it.
As I developed a resource of “touchable” educational objects for use in the Corning Museum of Glass, I also discovered other ways to make my teaching both entertaining and educational.
The tour begins when I ask fifth graders visiting our American Gallery to imagine that we are “Time Travelers” who have gone back in time 150 years to the middle of the 19* Century. We compare our contemporary lives with those of children who had no electric lights, television, computers, movies, clean water, indoor plumbing, antibiotics, or even aspirin. These were the children who worked 12-14 hours a day, 6 days a week in the nation’s factories, including those that made glass. We discuss some of the challenges that might have faced a 10-year-old working in one of these factories. The students always come up with some very valid concerns about workplace health and safety, including fire, cuts, repetitive injury, and air quality. I point out that going to school was not an option for these children. After working 12 to 14 hours in 140-degree heat, these children were not likely to attend classes even if they could have afforded them.
We look at the basics of what glass is made from—^batch material in a large glass bottle and another bottle of an orange-colored syrup that approximates the consistency of melted glass. They handle and manipulate hand molds and a cast iron pressing machine that were used to make pressed glass, a cheaper product that gave American consumers an alternative to more expensive cut glass.
Role play is another tool in my educational arsenal. I ask one of the students to volunteer to come and work for me in the glass factory, and we play out the hours he must work and the amount of pay he will receive. At the end of his “day”, I pay him with a $2.00 “glasshouse shinny,” the common form of payment for workers in this industry. The glass factory printed this money that their employees could redeem only at the company store. Since the group already knows that their classmate was supposed to earn 50 cents per day and worked six days a week, they soon realize that he was cheated out of $1.00 in wages. This helps reinforce the problem of not going to school and consequently not knowing enough mathematics to be aware he had been cheated. I promise to send my worker to apprentice school once he reaches the age of 16 if he remains in my employ. When he reaches that age, he then discovers that the laws of the labor union might prevent him from going to apprentice school.
I close our discussion by explaining that a Congressional investigation of the glass industry in 1912 found 1,700,000 children between the ages of 10 and 16 working in the industry. To help the students visualize the enormity of that number, I ask several children to stand one behind the other in a row. I tell them that 1,700,000 children standing in such a row would reach nearly 322 miles. I then tell them that if they were in a car traveling at 55 miles per hour, it would take them nearly 6 hours to drive past all those children standing in a line. The looks on their faces tell me they understand that, indeed, a lot of children were involved in making glass during the first part of the 20* century.
When I go into a classroom, I can make use of videos, demonstrations, and the chalkboard to list properties and things made of glass. I carry with me touchable items that demonstrate some of the properties of glass; the children find them endlessly fascinating.
We also play a derivation of a popular television game show. During the game, based loosely on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” the children answer questions using the information they’ve learned about glass and the glass industry. Each team wins a large glass pebble for every correct answer. If they couldn’t come up with an answer they thought was correct, they could also use one of three lifelines: they could ask a member of another team; they could ask another team; or they could ask their teacher for a hint.
It they answered a question incorrectly, or couldn’t answer the question, they lost one of the pieces of glass they had already won. After the class, each student was given a small glass pebble to thank them and to remind them of their participation in the learning process. The children’s enthusiastic involvement in gallery and classroom instruction, and their ability to answer questions about glass and the glass industry, helped me to understand the importance of making my classes participatory and hands-on and, thus, both more educational and more entertaining.
Mary Peterson has been a docent at the Corning Museum of Glass, in Corning, New York, for the past 13 years. Her educational training is in pediatric nursing. While her first love at the museum is the scientific aspects of the Glass Center, she enjoys the challenges of providing comprehensive, interactive experiences for school children.
Peterson, Mary. “Tools in My Educational Arsenal,” The Docent Educator 10.4 (Summer 2001): 15+.