Making Connections with Virtual Museums

Museums are fascinating places. The curation and design of a museum display has the potential to captivate viewers and engage them in looking closely, thinking critically, expanding perspectives, and building empathy. For me, an epiphany moment occurred at the Frist Art Museum in the hands-on Martin ArtQuest room. One activity contained a blank map of Gallery Rooms, a collection of art reproductions on magnets, and the invitation to “Be a Curator!” This became an intriguing exploration of ways to organize the artwork in the empty gallery rooms. Should one curate by time period, art movements, thematically, or even as a comparison/contrast of artists? How would Van Gogh’s expressionistic field of iris dialogue with the abstracted desert landscapes by Georgia O’Keefe or the thrilling iceberg and volcano landscapes romanticized by Frederic Edwin Church? A 2019 visit to the National Museum of the American Indian provoked a different type of response as I viewed an expansive wall of merchandise, posters, commercials, and movies that throughout history had “branded” indigenous peoples to sell an American product and a perspective about these people. Part of the power of this display was the opportunity for viewers to linger with the images that they felt compelling and invite them to make their own meaning.

Curation is an art in itself, calling upon skills of discerning relevancy and critical thinking, and AASL recognizes this in the Curate Standard, part of which states that “Learners add value to a collection of resources by organizing and annotating them.” This school year provided an opportunity to immerse students in curation. As part of a Civil War investigation, 7th graders are being challenged to use their research notes to create a digital presentation (a virtual museum) of primary source images, historic documents, and analysis paragraphs. Though this type of multimodal exploration could be done in GoogleSlides by linking content to slides within the slide deck, these 7th graders will use ThingLink. With Thinglink, interactive tag markers can be placed on locations in an image to allow viewers to link to additional text boxes, images, or media (audio, video). Here is one example of a ThingLink by the Smithsonian Institution:
Fort Sumter Telegram. The organization of this ThingLink invites close analysis of a single primary source document.

Virtual Museums

For our students, the goal is to simulate the experience of a museum so that viewers can explore the students’ own thinking about the Civil War. Making Thinking Visible, a book describing Harvard Project Zero’s research, offered several helpful routines to deepen students’ thinking. One thinking routine, Generate–Sort–Connect–Elaborate, delineated the type of thinking students would use in this curation of a virtual museum.

Generate
In the note-taking phase of student research, students generated several ideas as they researched questions about the Civil War.

Sort
Students used the NoodleTools note card feature and titled note cards with brief descriptions. These note cards were used in the sorting process. Students sorted main ideas and supporting ideas; or gathered notes in groups for a comparison/contrast or cause and effect organization. This diagram shows an example of sorting into main and supporting ideas for a discussion of Civil War Technology:

Connect
The next step is to connect ideas and explain connections. Here is an example of how the sorted ideas would be connected in Thinglink. Note that links are not active on the following screenshots.

Example of ThingLink Link 7 that expands to a discussion of strategy. (See next screenshot.)
Strategy: Civil War Band Music
Discussion of how military band music was used by General Grant as a strategy to conceal the sounds of troop movements. Note that an additional link on the slide accesses an audio clip of the band music (links not active on screenshot, but you can click this link to hear the music).

Elaborate
A final text box (indicated by Star tag) links to a paragraph that elaborates on connected ideas and shares insights (see following examples). The more information tag on the ThingLink (indicated by an i tag) links to a bibliography of sources.

Example of elaborating on connections with own insights.

This is just the beginning phase as our students curate their research. It will be exciting to watch their thinking evolve as they generate, sort, connect, and elaborate their ideas in ThingLink and share with an audience their insights about the Civil War.

Building Perspectives

“They didn’t see a child. They saw change, and what they thought was being taken from them. They never saw a child.” (Ruby Bridges Interview. Many Rivers to Cross. PBS.org. 8 Jun 2020.)

The New Orleans’ schoolyard often echoed with the joyful laughter of children, but on the morning of November 14, 1960, angry shouts punctuated the air; parents yelled as six-year-old Ruby Bridges, flanked by U.S. Marshals, walked up the steps and entered the doors of the all-white school. Years later, Ruby reflected on those parents’ faces, twisted with rage, and said, “They didn’t see a child.” Sixty years later, our society still struggles with injustice. Many factors could be considered in making a more just society, but, taking a cue from Ruby Bridges, this article will consider how opening up our vision, building perspectives, promotes empathy and engages students in discussions about social change. 

Recently I participated in a Smithsonian webinar: How to Discover, Create, and Share in the Smithsonian Learning Lab, and I used this tool to curate artwork, children’s books, Visible Thinking strategies, and videos to create a multimodal classroom guide: Building Perspectives. In using this learning module, educators can immerse students in close looking and in evaluating how art and stories powerfully present viewpoints on race and social justice. Explore the Building Perspectives learning module on the Smithsonian Learning Lab website.

Following is a brief overview of Building Perspectives:

Building Perspectives encourages students to evaluate ways that artists and authors help us to “see the person,”  expanding our viewpoints by developing empathy and understanding. Students will explore the following individuals and their contributions to the Civil Rights movement:

  • Ruby Bridges
  • Rosa Parks
  • John Lewis

Objectives: After completing this lesson, students will be better able to

  • Examine how artists and photographers reveal their own viewpoints about iconic people and historic events and how artists and photographers influence the viewer’s understanding of those events.
  • Look closely at children’s books and explore how both text and image challenge the reader to empathize and expand their viewpoints on race and social justice.
  • Implement Visible Thinking strategies to slow down looking and deepen
    thinking.
  • Use the Smithsonian Museum’s collection as a gateway to investigating and exploring perspectives of race and social justice.

The resources assembled on this Building Perspectives learning module can be used to promote classroom conversations about tolerance and social justice. In an April 27 NCTE discussion of the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, authors Jason Reynolds and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi stressed the importance of holding conversations about race in classrooms.  Jason Reynolds stated his goal as promoting “racial literacy,” and  Dr. Ibram X. Kendi commended teachers in their vocation: “We need to embrace teachers in the same way we are embracing health care providers–teachers are building constructs to aid the intellectual health of our young.  It is not impossible for white teachers to have conversations about race.” This recommended reading list, though not comprehensive, may be a beginning as educators consider books that can aid conversations about race in the classroom.

As recent events show, the struggle for social justice has not ended. However, the opportunity for a more just world lies before us as we look more closely at those who have inspired the fight for social justice, both in past history and in recent events. By examining perspectives with eyes of understanding and empathy, we can enter into conversations about race that will open hearts and minds.

Relationships and Book Clubs

One of the new things I tried this past year was a book club for faculty and staff. Like many of the successful programs in my library, it was suggested by a coworker, and I only had to be brave enough to say “let’s do it!” However, I had two caveats for this undertaking: we would only use YA materials and each meeting would have a theme. At my school most teachers were familiar with professional development books, but not as many were comfortable with YA materials. I felt that faculty and staff who read books popular with our kids would have one more tool in their arsenal to forge positive and helpful relationships with their students. (It turns out this was 100% true.) I wanted to have a theme to make it easier for the readers to connect…and easier for me to choose book options.

I started with a “Book Tasting” based around the theme of Empathy. With the help of Canva and more creative colleagues, I sent an invitation to every adult on campus to come and sample books during their lunchtimes. I provided cookies as a bribe, because who doesn’t love free food? Afterwards, I followed up with a Google survey for participants to vote on the title for our first meeting, and they chose The Hate You Give. (This was the only time I held a book tasting. Subsequent book titles were chosen by survey with book descriptions revolving around various themes such as diversity, mental health, etc.)

With the support of the Director of Learning and Instruction (and her budget), I was able to provide the title to everyone who wanted to join the book club. I sent out periodic timelines, and we met after the deadline to finish the book. Our discussions were thought provoking, eye opening, and meaningful. I could see the participants making connections with society, each other, and perhaps most importantly, with our students. Largely being a predominately white prep school, The Hate You Give gave an understanding of possible experiences and sentiments of our minority students that many had not considered before. However, the most exciting thing to me, especially if this was one of the first or few times a person had read YA, was the dawning that they could learn something from a “kids book!” They saw value in Young Adult fiction. Not only for the kids who read it, but also for them. They could see the importance and positivity for our students to be able to see themselves in a book or learn about people different from them.

There was one thing that got me, however, above all the other positive outcomes of our Faculty and Staff book club. This one thing has ensured that I will keep the book club in my ever-increasing, hectic, sometimes overwhelming, schedule. That one thing began with a conversation. A faculty member told me that a rather quiet, somewhat withdrawn student approached their desk where The Hate You Give was sitting. The girl initiated a conversation that, admittedly, began with surprise that their teacher had read this book, a book that was one of her very favorites. She was impressed and felt that her teacher was clearly taking an interest in the students by reading “their” books. This sparked a year-long discussion of books, shared book recommendations, and made it easier for the teacher and student to connect. (Not surprisingly, that student did much better in class after making this connection!) I am grateful the teacher chose to share this with me, and so happy that I was able to make a difference with her relationships with her students.

Don’t get me wrong, not every book we read last year had such a heart warming result. I learned quite a bit about scheduling, location, cookies vs brownies, frequency of emails, and how many books is too many book options. As I sit here with my summer brain and contemplate the upcoming year with the false sense of always having enough time (ha!), I realize that changing the relationships for even only one person is worth it.

Let me know if you want more information about the Book Tasting or book club procedures. If you’d like to follow our fun in the library on Twitter, check out the hashtags #TPSlibrary and #TPSreads.

Irma, Empathy, and Excelling

***This post is late–I blame Irma, because she’s handy.***

It’s a sign of our super-saturated online life: I read a teaser the other day for an article about empathy and its decline in modern teens, and now I can’t find the full article.  I’m sure it was some kind of discussion of the Michigan Empathy Study (http://bit.ly/1pCWfKf), and this Time article by author Michele Borba looks pretty similar (http://ti.me/2ckQNS0).

Of course there is a lot going on right now to over-fill our brains.  We’re all still reeling from the images of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation in Texas, and then suddenly Irma is mauling the Leeward Islands and barrelling toward Florida.  For a time it looked like we here in South Carolina were in the crosshairs, though now Irma seems bent on bringing the first tropical storm to America’s heartland.  Chargers in Charlottesville, mudslides in Bangladesh, Barbuda wiped clean, an earthquake in Mexico; it’s a lot to absorb, and after a point we just sort of shut down.

Last Thursday night at our varsity football game we had an athletic wear drive for school teams in Texas, and Friday we had a dress-down day in support of another Texas charity.  Our students and teachers are uniformly kind (even when being able to wear a tee shirt and shorts to school aren’t in the offing).  But I also believe the study; we are all a bit more numb, a bit more removed, than we used to be.

Also last Thursday night, my Godsister* and my nephew reached our house after a 15+-hour drive up from Miami.  I helped unload the car: suitcases hurriedly packed; a cooler of food grabbed from the fridge; a couple of blankets; a guitar; and two paintings from my Godmother’s house.

I hadn’t even thought about these paintings until that moment.  They are interesting in and of themselves, because they were painted by The Highwaymen, a group of African-American painters who created stereotypical tropical scenes to sell on the side of the road or in those strange hotel-lobby sales you see sometimes: palm trees and water in the moonlight, or beach-y sunsets in oranges and pinks, with seagulls in little V-shaped dabs of paint (http://www.floridahighwaymenpaintings.com/).  So they are cool all by themselves, but mostly those paintings represent my Godmother, and her 1960s-era Mackle house on Key Biscayne, and the years spent in and around the place, and people who are gone but who live on not just in our memories, but in the physical space we all shared.  With that under threat, we were simultaneously glad to be together and safe, and stuck in some kind of limbo: what of these not-ultimately-important, but still so-important, things would be left when the wind and water recede?  After witnessing from afar the suffering of others, in other parts of the world, I suddenly had the fear of loss and damage right here on my doorstep.

This brought me back around to the headline I had seen earlier in the week, and the talk of empathy and the perception that it has declined.  I also thought of news stories I have seen which have described people witnessing tragic events, and viewing those events, through their smartphones–using them as a lens for their experience, with the unintended secondary consequence of adding an artificial distance between us and what is happening to the other humans around us. The world continues to grow smaller; we witness the minutia of others’ suffering on tiny screens.  It is too easy for us to become inured to what seems distant, whether it is half a world or two states away.

As with everything, balance is key, isn’t it?  The quest for information, images, video of the tragedy-of-the-moment must be counterweighted by challenging ourselves to engage actively and empathetically.  We must learn–and help our students learn–how to juggle the sometimes thorny multiple existences we lead: information seekers, technology users, empathetic humans, watchers and hands-on helpers. As we seek to meet our own standards for educating our students to be not only excellent academicians, but also excellent humans, we must remind ourselves, and our students, of how incredibly small the world has become.  We must find a way to keep ourselves from becoming tone-deaf.  Empathy means gathering clothes and books and donations, and it also means working to keep our antennae finely tuned to what others are experiencing, when so much of the world is reducible to a meme and 140 characters.

*Spellcheck doesn’t like this word–shame on it.  Godsister = the daughter of my Godmother.  A slightly more elegant and Episcopalian version of the Sister from Another Mister.