Saturday, May 30, 2009
Today, the Seashore Trolley Museum hosted what I believe was its first teacher professional development program. Partnering with the Museum of Science in Boston, the trolley museum of Kennebunkport offered "An Alarming Idea" workshop. This day-long workshop empowered elementary school teachers to explore what engineering is, how engineers conduct their work, and how this pertains to electrical circuits. Session leader, Carolyn DeCristofano, showed us the centrality of the design and testing phases of engineering. A rowdy, hands-on activity with index cards (right) warmed us up to the culminating activity of designing and building electrical circuits that would be designed to set off an alarm. Surprised that a circuit-building curriculum would target elementary students? This is the approach of the Engineering Is Elementary program, part of the National Center for Technological Literacy at the Museum of Science. This is a nationwide movement to improve teaching technological literacy in our public schools. Beginning with this initiative, the Seashore Trolley Museum will help disseminate this inquiry-based learning approach in science and integrate it with social studies for teachers in Maine. I have enjoyed thoroughly the opportunity to work as a consultant for STM and facilitate the building of this partnership. Much credit goes to Anita Bernhardt at the Maine Department of Education for suggesting that we should connect with this nationally-renowned program.
The heritage of trolley transportation in Maine is a rich one and offers ample opportunity to connect the intricacies of electrical engineering with social history. Consider this controller whose innards you see at left. It comes from a century-old Atlantic Shore Line Railway Locomotive #100 whose renovation is nearing its end. Stay tuned for more information about an exhibit that will open this summer, offering the public a representation of public transportation in Maine for more than a century.
Monday, May 18, 2009
The Civil Rights Conference in Augusta today drew more than 1000 students on civil rights teams from more than 70 schools all around the state of Maine. University of Southern Maine archaeologist Nathan Hamilton and I facilitated two sessions called "Digging Up Dirt: Secrets of Malaga Island." We first reviewed with students the difference between evidence and interpretation. Then we invited them into a hands-on exploration of artifacts excavated from Malaga Island off the coast of Phippsburg, Maine. In the early 20th century, the mixed-heritage residents of Malaga Island - African American, Native American, and European - were targeted, successfully, for a forced eviction from the island. The more unfortunate were institutionalized at the Maine School for the Feeble Minded in Pownal. In at least one case, a family was forced to live on a houseboat finding little welcome wherever it went.
By investigating pottery shards, buttons, smoking pipe stems, medicinal bottle shards (see above), and fish, pig, and bird bone fragments, some one hundred and fifty students collectively offered up their interpretations of what life was like on Malaga Island a century ago. Their keen observation skills noted that artifact and historic photograph evidence told a very different story from the historic newspaper articles that accused the Malagaites of being "cave dwellers." Students walked away from the sessions having touched the same objects that were touched by Malaga residents some one hundred years earlier. Our hope is that they take their newly-found, personal connection to this story back to their schools and encourage others to explore the history of Malaga Island.
Teachers who wish to learn more about Malaga Island may choose to enroll in a course offered this summer through the USM College of Education's Professional Development Center or explore the resources at www.malagaislandmaine.com.
Friday, May 15, 2009
Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn't commit. ~Eli Khamarov
Yesterday, King Middle School students showcased their culminating research projects to educators who had traveled from all over the country to learn about expeditionary learning. Students filled the Portland Expo with exhibit panels as well as original music, art, and video. Far from being busy work, their projects demonstrated that they had tackled some weighty subjects. As this collage featuring the Khamarov quote shows, the students impressively wrestled with challenging social issues, such as poverty. Their research and reflections explored poverty and social justice, as well as the nature of innovation, responsibility, and leadership. In some aspects of my work, I find myself having to work hard to convince educators and administrators that, if our goal is to raise savvy, engaged citizens who are prepared to resolve conflicting perspectives, then these subjects are appropriate for students younger than high school. It was refreshing to see civil rights, human rights, and social inequality issue education fully integrated with art, science, and history content!
Thursday, May 14, 2009
The Victoria Mansion of Portland today hosted one of the several Big Read events planned around Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. This Language of Flowers event promised to discuss how Wharton's book revealed the elaborate Victorian practice of using flowers to communicate a wide range of emotions. I confess that, as the daughter of a former president of the Longfellow Garden Club and the daughter-in-law of a Master Gardener, wild horses couldn't have kept me away. Since I'm currently writing from the perspective of Josephine Peary, a female protagonist set in the Victorian time period, I was looking forward to learning about the seemingly "secret" code of Victorian floral communication. I learned that sending someone lilies of the valley would communicate the idea of purity and innocence; who knew? Victoria Mansion Director Julia Kirby's lecture delivered the predictable conclusion that Victorian writer Edith Wharton had mastered this language of flowers and had revealed it to her readers through the actions of her Age of Innocence characters.
Fortunately for this event, floral designers from Harmon & Barton's Florist were present. While arranging flowers, they were the ones to accomplish what I think the Big Read intends. The Big Read, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, aims to reverse the declining trend in reading books. As communities, we are meant to "connect" around a single book and build community by discovering and exploring meaning together. If this is the case, then this Big Read needs to accomplish more than discuss the behaviors of elite society in New York City during the Gilded Age. It was the Harmon & Barton floral designers who helped connect the Maine audience to the history and culture of Wharton's book. They spoke of the 19th century Greater Portland greenhouses that once enabled the upper class of even the northern Maine climate to enjoy the luxury of fresh and exotic flowers. Breaking out of discussing the New York elite, the florists from Harmon & Barton's also spoke perceptively of how Victorian people of more modest means would have grabbed whatever container they had handy to hold flowers, say, a tin can rather than a colored and cut vase. Most likely, people of modest means were using only those flowers that were native and in bloom from their kitchen garden. This history of kitchen gardens would have been an opportunity to connect to a powerful, contemporary social movement that started in Maine. Kitchen Gardeners International has been one of Maine's shining moments in the national news lately, one not related to hate crimes, that is. Think Obama and the White House lawn garden. This probably seems like a digression but contemporary Maine gardeners (even florist shop customers) do have a lot to do with Edith Wharton's characters and how they used flowers. If we are encouraged to think about it, people of every era perceive chaos about them and seek refuge from it in their daily lives. Cutting and arranging impossibly colorful flowers - creating a pause in the day - can create beauty, order, and celebration even in a world gone chaotic.
Monday, May 11, 2009
Have you ever considered how history gets a bad rap? You know, the "dusty," "old," "boring" stereotypes. Not unlike some of the criticism leveled at many museums. The Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, where I used to work as a curator, decided that the public perception of history needed, well, dusting off. To present the public with a more muscular, tough-stuff image of history, the museum ran an ad campaign called "History is Not for Wimps." Banners, posters, and newspaper advertisements featured faces from Washington history - some well known but most anonymous - and then annotated them. A photo of a miner trailing a pack horse behind said "A Trip to the Grocery Store: Six Days Round Trip." Rosa Parks' arrest mug shot said "Didn't Give Up Her Seat Or Her Pride." No, they most certainly did not use this shot of me clinging to a climbing wall when they chose their final poster designs. My colleague, Gwen Smith, fashioned this one - it's a toss up whether it was more for her benefit or mine.
As I was unpacking the deeper layer of boxes and folders from my cross-country move, I uncovered Gwen's mock poster. Since I'm preparing for a session at the Civil Rights Conference in Augusta on Monday, this find prompted me to reflect on the crossover between inquiry-based learning theory, Outward Bound, and the more dangerous episodes in history. Inquiry-based learning approaches in schools stem from Outward Bound's legendary wilderness programs. The core of Outward Bound isn't simply field trips into the wilderness or the outdoors; the heart of the theory entails pushing ourselves OUT of our "comfort zones" where new levels of awareness and learning can take place. Often, history - especially the "comfortable" versions of history - offers us stories of progress, heroism, or accidental tragedies. Yet cultural historians also must navigate the far more dangerous stories, those where humankind can be its own worst enemy. Like roping up to climb a rock face, researching and teaching some of the uglier chapters of history can be risky, yet isn't the peak - the search for social justice - worth that risk? History remains not for wimps.
Saturday, May 9, 2009
At the Bridging Museums and Schools workshop today, participants had the opportunity to reflect on how they were using the Fifth Maine Regiment building in the same way as Civil War veterans decades before, as a place to cozy up to a hot cup of coffee and take shelter from the coastal chill while they shared experiences. Karen MacDonald of King Middle School offered an inspiring glimpse into how the expeditionary learning approach can involve museums. I heard several participants comment that they took to heart her distinction between “the field trip” and the “field work” approach to student visitation at museums. This year, MacDonald used Robert Shetterly’s “Americans Who Tell the Truth” exhibit for King’s Windor 6 Lead On Expedition. “Museums,” MacDonald said, “are models for our culminating projects…they also are a source for our research, an inspiration, and a site for teachers to experience their own professional development.” If you missed her presentation, you can still catch their Site Seminar, Leadership Summit, or Celebration of Learning next week.
Carolin Collins of the Maine Historical Society’s educational program presented next, sharing her experience with the well-received Local History/Local Schools partnership program; she also demonstrated how the Maine Memory Network could serve as an invaluable resource, and creative outlet, for teachers and their students. Collins reported that more than two hundred museums and historical societies statewide have contributed, collectively, over 15,000 primary sources to this online database! Among its many resources, Maine Memory Network offers Finding Katahdin: An Online Exploration of Maine History, including more than 50 Maine Studies lesson plans and hundreds of primary source documents tied to the acclaimed Maine Studies text book Finding Katahdin (University of Maine Press, 2002). Collins completed the herculean task of re-aligning Finding Katahdin with the "new" 2007 Maine Learning Results.
Lastly, I facilitated some role-playing, encouraging the elementary and middle school teachers, as well as museum staff and volunteers to step into the shoes of students and try some inquiry-based exercises involving primary historical sources. One exercise took an analytical approach to historic photographs and ephemera to learn the distinction between “evidence” and “interpretation”; the other exercise adapted the National Writing Project’s “writers marathon” into a museum-based or classroom-based writing exercise that puts heritage resources "to work" as sources of inspiration. This was also my opportunity to advocate for the National History Day program in Maine and for fostering inquiry-based learning environments.
There is such creativity among us on how to bridge the space between museums and schools that we need to continue the dialogue and share these local gems in our statewide treasure chest.
Monday, May 4, 2009
Inspired by this image of Peaks Island's own "Giggle Show" from the turn of the century, we might ask: "Why can't teaching with primary sources be fun?" This coming Saturday, May 9th the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum and the Maine Historical Society are running a Bridging Museums and Schools Workshop. Hosted by the Fifth Maine, this workshop will offer models for how museums and schools may build better pedagogical bridges between them. Karen MacDonald of King Middle School in Portland will share her experiences with extending expeditionary learning into museums. Carolin Collins of the Maine Historical Society will discuss two initiatives, one of them funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. I will facilitate a session that places the teachers in the role of students and gives them the opportunity to experience inquiry-based learning in a "classroom gallery," a strategy that we have been piloting at the Fifth Maine. One classroom gallery model targets language arts by adopting the Writer's Marathon approach from the National Writing Project. The other classroom gallery model provides a classroom alternative to the well-worn scavenger hunt activity and uses a game mode to help deliver historical content and satisfy Maine Learning Requirements.