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Magic Bus: Museum Programs for School Audiences: The Basics

Category: Education & Interpretation
Image of a school bus on a white background.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2011 edition of Museum magazine.

There are many kinds of museums and most offer programs for schools. For some museums, these programs are a quaint addition to exhibitions or goodwill gestures to the community. For others, the programs represent the heart and soul of the institution and serve as a direct tool for achieving mission. Some programs generate significant, relied-upon revenue, while others are offered free of charge, supported by operations or external funding. Some are directed by professional educators, while others are managed by volunteers. Some serve hundreds; others, tens of thousands. The content varies just as widely, ranging from live insects to people of the past. With so much varied programming being offered at so many museums, it may seem unlikely or even impossible to find commonality. Yet good programs share common features regardless of the setting.

Types of Museum Programs for Schools

A museum’s cache of offerings to schools features variations on a few standards and should incorporate some critical components.

The Museum Experience Formerly Known as the Field Trip

The term “field trip” seems perfectly harmless. It describes what essentially happens: school children take a trip into the “field.” The problem is that the same term is used to describe a day at an amusement park or a free-for-all in a big city. In this era of accountability to demonstrated relevance, the term no longer fits. The days out of school for pure enjoyment—where maybe learning occurs and maybe it does not—are gone.

Students are certainly allowed to have fun, but what they do outside the classroom must relate to curriculum and tested subjects.

Many museum experiences for students have been relevant to classroom learning for decades, although not all have. If museums want teachers and administrators to seriously consider student visits, they must articulate the value of the experience for students in relation to what is being learned at school in addition to its value as an engaging and memory-making break from routine.

There are options for delivering a museum experience in a way that achieves results.

Some work well in certain situations and not well in others. A great example is the Visual Thinking Strategies method. This proven strategy is used frequently in art museums as a means of demonstrating to student (and other) visitors that interpretation is personal, that individual interpretation is valid and that art offers much by merely looking and wondering. It works in other settings as well, but not when the museum educator wants students to take away a specific message about something they are seeing.

Depending on the content and physical setting of the museum, it may be appropriate to give students prescribed time to view an exhibition or even a single artifact on their own, then bring them together to discuss what they saw and thought about. Another method is the interactive tour with lots of time for questions and answers, which works very well, particularly when the content is challenging or entirely new to the audience. A good museum educator considers the most effective strategies for the content, physical setting, time frame, audience size, and age.

The hands-on component sometimes called the studio tour in art museum settings, is a common and important part of the museum experience for students. During this portion, students use skills they already have or learn new ones as they apply concepts they learned just moments ago. Perhaps they are selecting props for their portrait or designing a broadside using printer’s blocks. Sometimes these hands-engaged activities can be done affordably so that each child takes a finished piece home. Other times every child adds his/her work to a greater effort that stays at the museum, like a giant patchwork quilt or mural. The making of sensory connections is the point.

Other Add-Ons/Variations

When students visit a museum, there are many things they can do beyond or in addition to seeing an exhibition and engaging in a corresponding hands-on activity. Other options include walking tours of the area around the museum, storytelling or reading, and guided play. The museum environment has boundless opportunities for learning. Of course, every program must be developed in accordance with the museum’s guiding principles.

Solid Museum Experience Components:

  • development that occurs well in advance, incorporating teacher ideas along with those of other museum staff
  • planning that takes place with teacher input before students arrive
  • clear learning goals, tweaked by audience characteristics
  • clearly articulated relevance to curriculum of targeted schools and academic standards in every applicable subject area
  • sufficient time used well
  • enough staff or volunteers so that groups can be divided into fewer than 25 students
  • staff or volunteers who are thoroughly trained in a variety of techniques and learning styles, and who are able to adapt on the spot
  • a hands-on component that relates directly to the content of the program
  • pre-visit stage setting for both teacher and students
  • post-visit time for students to process learning
  • evaluation at all stages and the readiness to incorporate findings from these processes

After-School Programs

The school day ends around 3 p.m. Many children need somewhere safe to go until other family members are available. Statistics point to these unscheduled hours as highly dangerous for vulnerable kids. Can museums help? Many have done so by creating programs that run during after-school hours. Some charge a fee to parents. Others are entirely subsidized through government, corporate or private funding. This is not an avenue for museums seeking income-producing programs, as the amount of staff time to develop, manage and nurture these programs can be significant.

At the Newark Museum in New Jersey, Ted Lind, with more than 25 years in the field, directs a model after-school program that is also a well-developed museum and school partnership. Supported through state funding and a small parental fee, the museum created Prime Time 3 to 6 in partnership with a public school district. The program is held in three elementary schools, and about 200 elementary-school children attend every day, participating in museum-based activities related to a thematic academic curriculum.

The children also benefit from tutoring, healthy outdoor recreation, community service activities and more. The program is licensed by New Jersey as an after-school childcare provider and employs about 21 people. Prime Time 3 to 6 also provides professional development to teachers and special events for parents.

Lind describes it as an incredibly valuable program that is critical to mission but also very labor intensive. Ultimately, though, the museum continues it because of its results, as demonstrated in a statewide evaluation. Lind explains, “Students are doing better in reading and other subjects. The program is providing a safe after-school program and a great benefit to children. Parents and the district love the museum connection, appreciating the value of the museum’s staff and collections.”

Solid After-School Program Components:

  • meticulous curriculum developed in conjunction with many advisers, including teachers, administrators, community leaders and parents
  • ample staff in a ratio aligned with state expectations/mandates for childcare providers, and who are screened for direct interaction with children
  • a devoted development person who is endlessly seeking support
  • sufficient, secure physical space with room to grow
  • tested and practiced emergency procedures
  • oversight by administrators, youth advocates and attorneys
  • continual evaluation with a well-developed mechanism for incorporating results

Presentations in the Classroom

Museum educators offer a variety of curriculum-relevant programs as presentations in the classroom. A museum educator might bring along a few key artifacts or images to make a focused content presentation at a teacher’s request; introduce a kit that is borrowed by the class for a few weeks; or arrive in costume, assuming the identity of an historical figure. Sometimes the presentation is the program and offering it enables the museum to explore a content area that is not featured in the museum’s exhibitions. Other times the presentation is part of the museum experience, occurring before the students visit the museum.

This type of presentation is practiced by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Amanda Kodeck manages the program. Staff members visit schools within a so-mile radius to deliver a pre-visit lesson that sets the stage for the curriculum-based school tour and studio class that the students will experience when they visit the museum. The classroom visit “helps the kids to feel more comfortable once they come to the museum, particularly if the same person they see at school is the one who leads their studio class at the museum. Having had some exposure to artifacts and images during the pre-visit also increases their comfort level as well as their readiness to build upon recently acquired knowledge.”

Solid Classroom Presentation Components:

  • developed with audience in mind and with teacher advisers after a survey of teachers to determine interest in particular topics
  • clearly articulated relevance to academic standards in all applicable areas and to curriculum of targeted schools
  • timed to the minute to maximize and respect school schedules
  • hands-on materials, such as artifact reproductions, image enlargements, manipulative activities, clothing, etc.
  • learning activities that enable discovery, creativity and individual application of content
  • a summary of the presentation given to the teacher in advance, to include pre- and post-presentation suggestions, and a list of resources for further study
  • flexibility to accommodate small and large audiences
  • evaluation

Rentable Kits or Trunks

Museums want to be of service to as many schools as possible but recognize that visits to the museum are not always feasible. This is not a new problem. Even in economically favorable times, schools are less likely to travel more than an hour to visit a museum. To address this challenge, museum educators have come up with the concept of a museum visit in a box. These have come a long way over the years, from the rubber tub filled with “mysteries” designed for the schools, to carefully planned, content-rich units housed in a container appropriate to the material and designed in partnership with teachers.

Kits have their downsides. While schools that use the kits are being served by the museum, chances are good that schools using them may never actually visit the museum.

Another downside is time. While the museum can charge for rental of the kits and the travel expense of staff who visit the school to deliver the kits or present programs related to them, the time that the staff member spends traveling is time away from other projects. Because many kits are rented by schools located a significant distance from the museum, this “lost” time can become burdensome. Staff time is further devoted to the maintenance of the kits, as they must be inventoried and cared for after every use.

The Walters Museum offers its trunks to schools beyond a 50-mile radius. Although the program requires staff time to maintain and grow the trunks, Kodeck believes these resources are worthwhile, especially when serving students who might not be able to experience the museum otherwise.

Solid Kit/Trunk Components:

  • concisely worded purpose
  • clearly articulated relevance to academic standards in all applicable areas and to curriculum of targeted schools
  • clearly articulated relationship between the content and expertise that went into the kit and the other offerings of the museum
  • a guide to using the kit, with multiple suggestions related to time, class size and subject-area focus
  • durable, hands-on materials, such as artifact reproductions, image enlargements, manipulative activities, etc.
  • learning activities that enable creativity and individual application of content
  • a printed list of resources for the teacher who wants to study more about the content
  • an inventory checklist to be completed when the kit is picked up and returned
  • a durable and easily transportable container that is intrinsic to the content, as opposed to a rubber tub
  • evaluation

Distance Learning Programs

Technology is at the heart of distance learning programs, which are so-named because the audience is physically separated from the teacher but the two can see and hear each other. As with most things technological, when these programs first were developed, the equipment expense was immense and few museums could afford the investment. Those who used it thought it was an amazing tool, as it had the capability of reaching hundreds or even thousands of people at multiple locations with one presenter. A top-notch speaker could lead a program for classrooms around the country without traveling more than a few miles from home.

These programs have come a long way in terms of size, portability, cost, and use. In the early days, a museum might only use one to conduct an inferior version of the same exhibit tour that was available to on-site groups. Now the units are portable and wireless, enabling the museum educator and audience to move around and connect with schools that are not hard-wired. The current form requires only a Web camera, microphone and webinar software on the museum’s end, and a computer lab at the school. John Buchinger, who develops distance-learning programs at the New York State Historical Association, raves about the reach of this technology: “For small museums or institutions that are separated from populations by geography or that must close during winter, this technology offers an exciting, splashy way to reach and build audiences.”

Buchinger sees endless interactive capabilities with new webinar platforms. “You can share documents, send objective questions, chat with users, broadcast videos and even send students to specific websites with control in the hands of the program leader.” He has seen the positive effects of these programs. “We fill gaps in school curriculum and reach students in a non-traditional way that has real impact on their learning.”

Solid Distance Learning Program Components:

  • developed with input of audiences similar to those targeted
  • clearly articulated relevance to academic standards and curriculum of the targeted schools
  • a strong marketing effort explaining the hardware/system requirements for users and effectiveness of the program
  • interesting content, perhaps utilizing odd items in your institution’s collection
  • outside-the-box ideas for interactivity
  • dynamic, vibrant program leaders
  • an advance conversation with the teacher about what to expect
  • resource materials provided to the teacher, including pre- and post-conference suggestions
  • evaluation

Incorporation of Model Programs

Museums are great partners with other organizations that offer large-scale, ready-made programs requiring local, regional or state sponsorship. The idea is that an organization with a fully developed opportunity for students joins forces with a museum looking for a nationally recognized model through which to expand its offerings. Organizations in this category include Science Fair and National History Day. The museums run the programs in their area using the model of the partner organization. Doors open to schools that are interested in the national program but might be less familiar with the museum. In many cases, teachers who are not as interested in bringing students to the museum might become very active in the national program administered by the museum.

This relationship might spill over into awareness and participation in the museum’s other offerings. Sharon Dietz, a teacher who has coached National History Day student participants for 20 years, shares her reasons for using and promoting the program: “Because of the emphasis on primary source research, National History Day is the vehicle that allows teachers to motivate students to move beyond Wikipedia, videos and their textbooks to discover historical research. After gleaning, evaluating and analyzing information, the students are challenged to synthesize what they learned and communicate it in a creative fashion. Students have produced interesting papers, fascinating exhibits, riveting performances, and exciting documentaries. I’ve watched these students graduate from high school and go on to college and careers where they continue to use the skills they learned in high school in the National History Day contest.”

Solid Model Program Components:

  • clearly defined responsibilities for the museum and the partnering organization
  • carefully articulated relationships between the model program and academic standards and curriculum of targeted schools
  • highlighted resources at the museum and in the community that will help teachers and students who are participating in the model program; these resources are obtained as a result of communication and collaboration with other cultural organizations in the area
  • evaluation

Putting It into Practice: Taking Your Programs to Schools

Getting Noticed

Even as recently as 10 years ago, a brochure mailed to schools would start the phones ringing. But in this era, that approach likely will fail. What is needed now is an entirely new way of thinking. Schools will pay attention if they are asked to be included in the development of programs. Engaging teachers and administrators from the beginning will lead to greater interest and better programs. When preparing to market programs, museum educators should help teachers understand how the program will help students make connections, think critically and want to learn. Administrators, who will approve or reject the program request, want to see results. They want to know what students will be doing that they cannot do in the classroom and how it will improve test scores. The Newark Museum now holds open houses for administrators as well as for teachers. They devote real time to cultivating relationships with principals and supervisors, facing the challenge head on. Finding ways to connect with administrators is vital to program health.

Soliciting and Developing Partnerships

The following tips for building partnerships with schools are derived from conference sessions at the annual meetings of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums and the American Association of Museums. Session attendees contributed to a definition of the ideal museum-school partnership and to this list of tips.

  • Do not reproduce the classroom; create an experience that is different from the classroom
  • Know the procedures for approval of field trips in targeted schools
  • Know the curriculum and how the museum plugs into it
  • Develop, state and maintain relevance to standards
  • Know the resources (e.g., textbooks) that schools are using
  • Develop a mechanism to demonstrate what you will provide and how it augments curriculum
  • Know the audience, understand the needs, then look for points of intersection
  • Provide resources for teachers and help them connect to those resources
  • Prior to a group’s visit, structure the program to assess needs of students
  • Know both the official and the operative contacts in each school
  • Request access to teachers
  • Grant authority to the people who are charged with front-line program delivery in the partnership
  • Utilize teachers on an advisory committee and get involved in a similar capacity at schools
  • Invite teachers to the museum for in-service workshops and structure the experience
  • Be clear about the assets of the museum
  • Create a safe space for learning
  • Evaluate and use the results as evidence of the impact of the experience
  • Be organized
  • Be flexible; have a plan B
  • Offer museum spaces to schools at low or no cost

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