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School Curriculum + Museum Reality = Powerful Programs

In one of my favorite “Peanuts” cartoons, Charlie Brown explains his reaction to a class field trip, I’ve seen one field, you’ve seen them all.” Teachers often encounter museum tours that leave us with the same reaction!

On the brighter side, however, are an increasing number of museums, zoos, historic houses, and nature centers that use their state’s curriculum guides to help plan relevant school programs. Teachers with limited funds, time, and administrative approval for class outings look to these institutions first when they plan field trips. Our already over-loaded planning time is used more effectively when thematic programs slip easily into state-mandated goals and objectives.

Each state requires that students within its public schools be taught certain skills and specific concepts. These requirements are set down in curriculum “guides” that come in various forms and reflect varying amounts of jargon. In whatever form they appear, they are, nonetheless, the impetus of a teacher’s lesson plans, and they are an excellent starting point for museums that want to help teachers teach. Copies of curriculum guides for every subject and grade are generally available from local Boards of Education or from the Department of Education in your state.

The Science Curriculum Framework for Tennessee, for example, is employed by many science museums, nature centers, botanical gardens, and zoos in the state to link classroom instruction to thematic programming in their institution. Tennessee requires kindergarten through sixth grade instruction in Physical Science, Life Science, Earth and Space Science, and Environmental Science. These broad areas are further divided into Machines and Work; Electricity and Magnetism; Sound, Heat, and Light; Matter and Energy; Animals; Plants; Human Body; Growth and Development; Microscopic Life; Astronomy; Meteorology; Geology; Oceanography; Energy and the Environment; Man’s Effect on Earth; and Ecosystems. Different aspects of these topics are emphasized at different grade levels in a spiral curriculum.

Additionally, students are expected to develop process skills such as observing, collecting data, and formulating models; reading and study skills such as following directions, distinguishing between fact and opinion, and judging the relevance of information; and interpersonal relations and attitudes such as cooperating, appreciating the beauty of nature, and understanding the limits of science and technology. Again, the curriculum is designed to develop these skills over the course of the elementary years, with specific skills emphasized at different grade levels.

Effective museum programs, like effective classroom lessons, go beyond these broad categories. It is at this point that more and more museums are creating programs that make teachers — and students — sit up and take notice.

What do teachers want? The fine print (Tennessee calls them “terminal objectives”) in the curriculum guides tell us what to teach in each of the separate disciplines that comprise our academic day. We need your help to make the concepts come alive; to “show” what we only would be able to “tell:” to motivate and inspire at the beginning of a unit of study, or to summarize at its conclusion. The reality of live animals, historic artifacts, and great art is best found in you institutions. Tell us, through thematic programming, where you fit into our lesson plans.

One of those required “terminal objectives” from the Science Curriculum Framework simply states that sixth graders in Tennessee “… understand the parts and functioning of the nervous system.” Instructional objectives further refine the requirements: “The learner will explain the purpose of the nervous system; name the three main parts of the nervous system; describe the function of each part of the nervous system; and describe and relate how the nervous system allows one to notice and respond to everything in our environment.”

Through experiments, examination of a sheep’s brain, group projects, and individual research, my sixth graders develop a good idea of the functions of the central and peripheral nervous systems. But, it is the “Brain Power” exhibition and program at the Cumberland Science Museum in Nashville that pulls it all together for them.

A brief docent-led introduction to the exhibition precedes a structured experience in the gallery where the docent serves as a facilitator and teacher, not as a tour guide. As my students explore various aspects of the nervous system through interactive displays and computer programs, the docent directs learning, answers questions, and prods the reluctant. A follow-up back in the “education center” clears up any misconceptions, allows students to share what interested them most, and provides time for praise (and stickers) for a job well done.

I could take my class to experience this exhibition without scheduling a docent-led program. I would save money, and, in some museums without good docent programs, this is what I do. In this program, as with any good thematic program, however, the docent is the “glue” that holds it all together. In addition to having another voice from whom to hear the concepts (not a small consideration), students need a docent to guide their learning in even the best museum exhibitions. The thematic program is more than the exhibitions it examines, it is a way of helping students interact with artifacts, animals, or environments. When I encounter what sounds like a good program, Fm always skeptical until I see it in action. Until a docent brings a thematic program to life, it is just museum marketing!

Because the Cumberland Science Museum offers docent-led, curriculumrelated thematic programs, it is possible for classes from my school to come each year to experience a different topic. Fifth graders, for example, enjoy a program and exhibition entided, “Animals of the Earth’s Biomes.” This program, which employs live animals as well as static displays, meets science curriculum goals in both the “Animals” and “Ecosystems” areas. Sixth graders chaperone one field trip each year with their kindergarten “buddies.” We often choose the Cumberland Science Museum because they can accommodate both disparate groups on the same day with ageappropriate experiences.

Science is not the only area where curriculum-related programs are making an impact and offering teachers more than merely a “day out of school.” In an attractive brochure entitled “What’s Happening,” Constitutional Village in Huntsville, AL, states the kind of broad goal that teachers can adapt to their field trip request: “Exhibits, programs, and tours are designed to foster interest in the history of Alabama, encourage creativity, and heighten students’ awareness of themselves in relation to the past.” Further examination of the brochure reveals a program called “Masters of All We Survey.” The description promises that students in grades 5-8 will “…step back into the shoes of a surveyor in early Alabama as they study old journals, read maps, learn surveying terms, and master the use of surveyors’ instruments to measure a plot of land.” Map reading, map making, and primary source research are requirements of most upper elementary and middle school curricula; geometric concepts and measurement skill requirements could be reinforced by this program.

Language arts curriculum requirements could be met by the Storycrafting Workshop available at The National Scouting Museum in Murray, KY. The museum uses a special group of docents, a storytelling troupe called Spinners!, to help children create original stories and learn to enliven well-known tales.

In a “Special Note to Kentucky Teachers,” the guide states: “The museum’s school programs are directly applicable to many of the skills included on the List of Valued Outcomes for Kentucky’s Six Learning Goals, including basic communication and math skills, science, social studies, arts and humanities, self sufficiency, thinking and problem solving and integration of knowledge.” Teachers are also invited to “… schedule an appointment with the education staff at the museum to design a lesson that meets the needs of your classroom and your curriculum.”

Too many hours of my students’ days are filled with the “non-reality” of videos, electronic games, and television. As I plan lessons for the year, I search for ways to make my teaching relevant and for ways to compete with the passive entertainment that fills the leisure time of today’s children. I look for museum programs that extend the hands-on learning that begins in my classroom. Museums that understand the importance of providing curriculum-based programs, and that train their docent staff adequately, get my business!

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “School Curriculum + Museum Reality = Powerful Programs,” The Docent Educator 3.1 (Autumn 1993): 18-19.

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