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Creative Solutions to Standards of Learning

Docents and museum educators constantly strive to meet the specific needs of the many groups we tour. This is especially true when designing tours to reinforce particular areas of school curriculum. A well-planned museum visit can be a valuable extension of the classroom experience and can offer enrichment opportunities that complement the academic curriculum. At the Chrysler Museum of Art, we have developed several tours that target specific grade-level curriculum requirements, using areas of our collection as a visual enhancement to textbook information.

In 1995, the State of Virginia issued a series of curriculum guidelines known as the Standards of Learning (SOL). These standards outlined educational objectives for each grade level, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, in four academic subject areas – English, math, science, and history and social sciences. The goal of the SOL was to establish baseline academic standards throughout the Virginia public school system.

The immediate effect when the SOL were first released was panic in the classrooms. Though the state made the SOL a classroom priority, all too often teachers were expected to meet these goals without sufficient texts and resources. This was especially true for the history and social sciences area of the curriculum in the early elementary school grades.

The standards for introducing history and social sciences at the second grade level were particularly problematic for teachers. The SOL state that “the student will study the contributions of Ancient Egypt and China which have had an impact on world history, with emphasis on written language, laws, calendars, and architectural monuments such as the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China.” Is it any wonder that second grade teachers were in a state of panic when the SOL were issued?

The impact of the SOL on the Chrysler Museum of Art was reflected in the increased requests for certain specific tours. Previously, we had offered a tour of our Ancient Civilizations collection for sixth graders. Suddenly we began to receive requests for tours focusing on Ancient Egypt and China at the second grade level. This immediately presented the staff and docents with a number of challenges. Because our Egyptian and Chinese galleries are relatively small, and attention spans of second graders are relatively limited, we had to rethink how we would introduce children of that age to these collections. At first, we tried doing highlights tours with a special emphasis on Egypt and China. In other words, we toured large groups of second grade children through the museum, allotting a certain amount of time to the Egyptian and Chinese galleries, but not spending the entire hour in two cramped spaces. At the end of a year, however, the feedback from teachers was less than glowing. They wanted tours that focused exclusively on Ancient Egypt and China, reinforcing what was taught in the classroom about these two ancient, but disparate, civilizations. Also, teachers needed to justify their field trips to their principals. The more focused the tour was on the SOL, the more likely the principal would be to approve it.

The director of education organized a meeting of education staff and certain docents involved with the training for ancient civilization tours to discuss the problem and develop a tour that would be appropriate for second grade students. The two of us, one a museum educator and staff member and the other a docent and former teacher with a background in early childhood education, were included in this meeting. We looked at the many facets of the situation and examined both the possibilities and the limitations we faced in designing a tour for young children focusing on Ancient Egypt and China.

Among our obvious limitations were the narrow scope of the museum’s collection and the “intimate” size of our galleries. It was not realistic to squeeze a large group of children into two small spaces while trying to hold their attention for an hour. Also, since young children learn best by doing, hands-on activities should be an essential part of the educational process for children of this age. We are not a touching museum, and visitors cannot handle the antique porcelain pieces in the Chinese gallery no matter how much they might learn in the process!

Eventually, we developed an Egypt-China tour for second graders that alternates gallery experiences with hands-on activities. Consistent with these children’s limited attention spans, we divide tours into four fifteen-minute segments. When a group of children (usually two classes of second graders, or approximately sixty children) arrive at the museum, they are divided into four groups of approximately fifteen children each, with a docent assigned to each group. The four stops during the tour include the Egyptian gallery, the Chinese gallery, a workshop activity that focuses on Egypt, and a hands-on activity in a gallery setting that focuses on the Chinese influence upon porcelain.

Much of the collection in the Chinese gallery is comprised of Chinese porcelains. But, we also have two very large galleries of English porcelain that are seldom used. Making a static display of porcelain exciting to second graders can be a daunting prospect, however. Since we had several inexpensive pieces of imitation export Chinese porcelain left over from a previous exhibition, we decided to use them to allow children a tactile opportunity. Children get to feel and closely observe the different glazes and motifs originally developed by the Chinese in ancient times and later adapted by Europeans.

Docents begin this portion of the program by reminding students of all I the contributions that the Chinese people have made throughout history. This leads to a discussion of porcelain and the European attempts to discover how the Chinese made it. Students are intrigued at the thought of a “secret recipe” for porcelain. Through conversation and inquiry, the students realize that they already know several of the ingredients used in that secret recipe, such as clay, water, heat, etc. This is an empowering experience for second graders! Allowing them to touch reproductions – to feel the smoothness of the blue and white ware compared with the rough surface of a rose medallion piece – led the students to the conclusion that blue could be painted onto the piece before it was fired, but that the other colors had to be applied later. Once they learn how the designs were applied, they explore the galleries to find examples of Chinese designs that were copied by the English.

So what was once a quiet, little-used gallery has suddenly become an exciting, dynamic place! The only problem we have found with this portion of the program is that new security officers and concerned members of the public have been known to react with horror when they see children touching what they perceive to be collection pieces. We are quick to assure them that these are reproductions, and once this fact is established, all who have observed the program are delighted by the reactions of the children.

The children also react with delight when they enter the workshop for their hieroglyph activity. While in the workshop, the children learn about Egyptian writing and papyrus by inscribing their names in Egyptian hieroglyphs on strips of papyrus, which they can take home and use as bookmarks. While papyrus is not exactly a household item, we were easily able to locate a source on the internet. The papyrus comes in sheets that can be cut into strips. After being handed a strip, the children are able to make comparisons between papyrus and the paper they use in school everyday. Then they discuss the writing implements and substances used to make ink in ancient times, and they readily agree that the black markers we supply for this activity produce the same results much more efficiently.

The children are introduced to hieroglyphs by means of a large display on a bulletin board. The letters of the Roman alphabet are posted, each with its corresponding Egyptian hieroglyph underneath. The children are instructed to write their names on one side of the papyrus strip the way they do in school. (We tell them that this will help their teachers, in case they have trouble reading hieroglyphs!) The children are then told to turn the papyrus over and practice writing their names in hieroglyphs on the other side by matching the letters in their names to the hieroglyph characters. This activity is quite popular, and some docents engage the children in a bit of play-acting, asking them to pretend that they have gone back in time 3,000 years to ancient Egypt where they are attending the Pharaoh’s school for young scribes.

When targeting programming for second graders, educators and docents alike need to remember to key tours and activities to the developmental level of this age group. During the second grade year, children are developing and changing rapidly. A child at the beginning of the school year is quite different from that same child at the end of the year. We found that the hieroglyph writing activity is more difficult for children who come for tours earlier in the school year than it is for those who tour later on. One clever decent came up with the idea of having children who have difficulty with this project only write their initials in hieroglyphs.

The reaction to this approach of alternating hands-on activities with gallery experiences for second graders has been enthusiastic. Teachers and children alike find the tour enjoyable, and the children leave the museum with a physical reminder of their visit (the papyrus bookmark). In the past year almost 4,800 second graders participated in this tour, and the teacher evaluations have been extremely positive.

Certainly we cannot produce the pyramids or the Great Wall of China to illustrate the architectural achievements of Ancient Egypt and China. We can, however, introduce these youngsters to some of the cultural artifacts in our collection and give them hands-on experiences that will teach them about the contributions each of these ancient societies made to world civilization.

Anna Gibson Holloway is the manager of school tour programs for the Chrysler Museum of Art and Historic Houses in Norfolk, VA, where she develops interactive family and school programs. Ms. Holloway graduated from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a baccalaureate degree in English Literature and Medieval Civilization. She received her master’s degree in Tudor/Stuart History from the College of William and Mary.

Betsy Browne has been a docent at the Chrysler Museum of Art for fourteen years. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Early Childhood Education from the University of Maryland in College Park, MD. For a number of years she taught young children from preschool through the third grade. Ms. Browne’s first docent experience was at the National Museum in Bangkok, Thailand. Ms. Brown co-authored an article for The Docent Educator previously, which was titled, “3 Docents, 70 Years of Volunteer Experience” (Vol. 9, No. 3).

 Gibson Holloway, Anna & Betsy Browne. “Creative Solutions to ‘Standard of Learning,'” The Docent Educator 10.1 (Autumn 2000): 4-6.

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