“Museums are boring!” And, “at least we get to go to the park for lunch.” These are the refrains I have heard over the years from students before going on a field trip to a museum. While the middle school where I teach is in Manhattan and most of the students reside there, many have never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Many students, through poorly-led experiences or just a lack of experiences, feel that museums aren’t for them. I have spent the last few years trying to turn my students around one class at a time. As New York City kids, these cultural havens are their birthright. Our students need to reap the benefits these institutions can provide, and in the future become the caretakers of the vast resources entrusted to New York City.
When done properly, a museum field trip is the ultimate in experiential learning in social studies. Whether analyzing artwork or artifacts, work done at a museum is an authentic analytical experience, one that is done by professionals in the field of social sciences. Doing this in a way that engages students is the trick, one that I didn’t get the hang of until I had the opportunity to participate in the Astor Educator program at the Met. With the expert guidance of Nicola Giardina, and a cohort of other experienced and talented educators, I learned how to teach in a museum.
As part of the Astor Educators, I participated in a year-long program with my integrated co-teaching class of twenty-four public middle school students at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The program comprised three cycles of teaching. Each cycle involved a day of professional development and preparation for the field trip, the field trip, and finally a day of reflection on the lesson from the field trip.
My class had students with many learning and emotional challenges and were looking forward to the bus and lunch much more than the museum! I had prepped the students on appropriate museum behavior and had my co-teacher ready to manage behavior while I was observed leading a lesson in the gallery of the Ancient Near East. As it turns out, we needn’t have worried about behavior. When guided through an inquiry based lesson, the students were enthralled. They were excited to participate in their partner talks, and eager to share with the whole group. This group of students, who according to New York State ELA tests, were far below grade level, were insightful and articulate.
When reflecting on the lesson, Nicola and I were astonished by the higher levels of thinking shared by so many of my students. At this point, I realized that the museum field trip goes beyond providing authentic social studies experiences that benefit all students: It provides opportunities for struggling students to demonstrate their intelligence in alternative ways, ways that we do not provide enough opportunities for.
I am not trying to argue that reading is not important, but good reading skills are not the only indicator of intelligence. Our system focuses so heavily on reading skills that other types of intelligence are neglected. Ironically, the same system that focuses so heavily on reading skills doesn’t provide adequate remediation for students who have difficulty reading. These students, many of whom are likely dyslexic, face failure upon failure in classrooms where literacy is the driving force. According to International Dyslexia Association, 15-20% of the population may have symptoms of dyslexia, and about 85% of students who have special education services have a reading disability. These students struggle from grade to grade without proper reading remediation.
These same students are often not acquiring the content knowledge in their subject classes where teachers are expected to focus on reading in the content area. Schools, and the system as a whole, claim to have interventions, but they are usually a facade, and never comprehensive enough to provide services to all of the students who need help. While providing adequate reading remediation needs to become a true priority in our school system, we, as teachers, also need to provide other ways for students to have intellectual learning experiences.
After our first trip, my students couldn’t wait to go back. They said that they saw museums differently now, and that a museum could be “fun.” Almost all of the students that I brought to the museum as part of the Astor program had difficulty with reading, and many of them had attention issues too. Yet they learned a great deal from their experience at the museum. Throughout the year they gained knowledge of Mesopotamia, Buddhism, and the Middle Ages. They gained an appreciation and respect for art and history. Most importantly, they gained confidence in their ability to learn and share ideas.
This is a guest post by Christine Sugrue, who has taught middle school social studies in the New York City Public Schools since 1999. Her passion is using field trips to bring history to life. Additionally, she has a website, www.timetravelkidsnyc.com, that features ways to help students engage with cultural institutions around New York City.