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Meeting Educator Needs, Serving Museums: A model for state museum associations

Category: Alliance Blog
A group of participants stands around a display on the Spanish-American War
The Iowa Museum Association founded a project to connect museums and classroom educators and fill the state's gap in local history instruction. In this photo, teachers participate in professional development at the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum provided by project partner Geographic Alliance of Iowa, as curator Michael Vogt leads the discussion.

State museum associations have a unique opportunity to serve the museums in their state by bringing them together for common activities. Over the past several years, the Iowa Museum Association (IMA) has brought Iowa’s museums together to fill a significant gap in educational resources—instructional material focused on Iowa history.

In 2014 a conversation at an Iowa Museum Association (IMA) sponsored workshop started the IMA down an exciting path that is still unfolding.

The workshop was in response to the many messages the IMA was receiving from members concerned that they were seeing fewer and fewer classroom field trips to their museum. Teachers and administrators indicated two challenges with field trips: lack of financial resources to take classes out of the building, and lack of time to incorporate content that did not fulfill a required learning standard. To assist Iowa museums in meeting these challenges, the IMA invited Stefanie Wager, the Social Studies consultant with the Iowa Department of Education, to present at the workshop. Our learning objectives for that day were to understand how to write a lesson plan that would meet required standards, and how to illustrate lessons with primary sources from museum collections.

During the course of the workshop, however, we learned much more than these objectives. We learned that Iowa schools did not require state history as a subject, and in fact there were no standards associated specifically with it. Despite this, we learned there were many teachers determined to incorporate it as they could, but they needed resources. We had a very clear answer—“We can do that. That’s what museums do—they are educators.”

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From there, the IMA began working on a pilot project, with a vision shaped by IMA Executive Director Cynthia (Cyndi) Sweet and two board members: Pamela Schwartz (then Executive Director of the Boone County Historical Society, now Curator of the Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando, Florida) and Josh Waddle (Curator of the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum, and an instructor of Iowa history courses). We developed themes and eras that educators could use as a framework for chunking out Iowa history, focusing on topics which we knew would be represented in many Iowa museum collections. Then, we solicited photos of significant objects from museum collections and asked for the story behind those objects, and compiled the responses into a very simple Word document.

Working with our state Area Education Agency, Schwartz and Waddle then developed a two-day continuing education credit training for teachers, held in a museum. In the training, one presenter would provide historical context for the topics discussed, while the other would illustrate this history with objects from their museum’s collection and its local history story. At the end of the two-day training, participants were asked to write a lesson plan utilizing what they had learned, and they went home with a copy of the Word document. The first year focused on the Civil War era, and after hearing very positive reviews from participants, we repeated the training in the following year with a focus on immigration history.

About the time of the second training, Stefanie Wager convened the Governor’s Iowa History Advisory Council, which the Iowa Museum Association and many other educational organizations were invited to be part of. The council’s task was to examine where Iowa was in terms of teaching its history and where it needed to go. We researched how state history was taught in states around us, and discussed the impact of not teaching it in ours. In Iowa, we determined, it led not only to a lack of awareness of the state’s history, but to lack of awareness of the Iowans who had contributed significantly to our nation and the world. It had led to a perception that nothing ever happened in Iowa and no one important ever came from Iowa.

Following months of research and discussion, new social studies standards were written, shared with the public, revised, and finally approved by the State Legislature in 2017. The good news was that the new standards included an Iowa history strand for grades K-12. The bad news was that they created an immediate need for accessible and relevant resources and professional development opportunities for teachers, in time for the standards to be implemented by the fall of 2019.

With this deadline looming, Stefanie Wager suggested the IMA take its pilot project to the next level and apply for grant funding. In order to expand our pilot project and address the needs for resources and professional development in creative and collaborative ways, the IMA coalesced a diverse group of educational partners to create Teaching Iowa History, a project which takes primary sources held in trust for the public by Iowa’s museums and incorporates them into lesson plans for grades K-12, providing accessible Iowa history content and professional development in the process.

The founding partners were the University of Northern Iowa, Simpson College, Graceland University, Geographic Alliance of Iowa, and Iowa Public Television; the Museum Studies program at the University of Iowa has also been a key partner.

Teaching Iowa History is inspired by the ideas that authentic artifacts are meaningful and that all history is local. In order to make Iowa history meaningful to students, the project shares the history of our state from the local perspective, illustrated with artifacts from Iowa’s museum collections. In developing these lesson plans, we are growing awareness of museum resources and of Iowa history, and building a community of practice around teaching state history with primary sources.

As we developed Teaching Iowa History, we began by reaching out to Iowa museums and historians of all types about this new need for teacher resources, then shared our plan: to build a database of primary sources (augmented with Iowa history stories and secondary sources) which our partners would use to create lesson plans for Iowa’s teachers.

We were supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “Creating Humanities Communities” program and the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Historic Resource Development program, and by many other corporate and individual contributions, as well as by strong partnerships with local institutions.

Two of our partners, the University of Northern Iowa and the Iowa History Center at Simpson College, assign students in education methods courses to write lesson plans for Teaching Iowa History, which teaches them approaches to writing and implementing lesson plans while also building their knowledge of Iowa history. Faculty-approved plans are available online, where they are available for educator review and testing. Educator feedback is incorporated into the posted lessons as the project progresses. Our other partners—Graceland University, Geographic Alliance of Iowa, and University of Iowa Museum Studies—provide professional development to teachers on using primary sources, and solicit educator testing and feedback for the lesson plans. They also work with local schools to support local history projects.

Additional project supporters have written letters of support, chaired project subcommittees, shared expertise, offered venues for professional development, and found ways to add additional teacher supports to the project. For example, Iowa Public Television developed short videos called Time Travel Iowa, which K-12 classrooms and general audiences can watch to explore Iowa history through visual stories of artifacts found in museums and historical sites across the state. The University of Iowa Museum Studies students created videos for teachers on how to teach with primary sources and have started to contribute lesson plans to the project too.

As we complete year two of the project, our database now includes over 750 primary sources, with lesson plans in development based on them. University students in history, history education, and public history have worked to catalog these primary sources with context, learning to catalog and honing their research skills along the way. Education students have had the opportunity to connect primary sources with K-12 Social Studies standards, underscoring the importance of a history education in developing critical thinking skills. Thanks to the expertise of our partners, we have a first-generation website in place where lesson plans and educator resources are searchable and freely available.

During year three of the project, we and our partners will continue to build the database and write, vet, and post lesson plans. We will also create an online professional development course to both increase awareness of the resources being created and solicit valuable feedback.

Teaching Iowa History has substantial significance for educators, museums, and partners. The project provides the lesson plans educators need to meet the new social studies standards. These lesson plans incorporate the who and what of our state, placing local history in the context of state, national, and international events.

They also work to publicize the museums and connect their resources to those who can use them. Each lesson includes at least one primary source from an Iowa museum, raising awareness in classrooms statewide of the valuable collections held in Iowa’s museums and the role they play in preserving the historical identity and fabric of our state. The lessons will also incorporate links to the contributing museum’s website, contact information, and their location in the state, enhancing teacher awareness of museum resources and facilitating teacher-museum contact for further collaboration.

Through Teaching Iowa History, the Iowa Museum Association has raised awareness of the importance of the museum field in Iowa and developed relationships with academic and community partners that will continue on in future endeavors.

And we’re just getting started.

For any other state museum associations interested in facilitating such a project, here are some places to start:

  • Connect with your state department of education
  • Understand K-12 state history/social studies standards in your state
  • Determine a mechanism for creating an accessible database of crowdsourced significant primary sources
  • Partner with educational organizations or individuals to write lessons and context for lessons
  • Develop a website to house instructional resources

For any museums interested in partnering with educators to teach local history:

  • Connect with local school administrators and teachers
  • Understand K-12 state history/social studies standards in your state
  • Ensure your programs and lessons meet specific grade level state standards
  • Embed local history and authentic artifacts into all programs and lessons
  • Be willing to go to the classroom to present your programs and lessons

For more information on Teaching Iowa History, visit the project database and the first-generation website.

About the authors:

Cynthia Sweet and Dr. Heidi Lung are the Executive Director and President of the Iowa Museum Association, respectively.


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