Schools and Museums: Interview with Brian Smith

Brian Smith blogs for Scholastic; you can read his posts here. Brian also teaches in the education department at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina.  He serves as Vice President of the North Carolina branch of the International Dyslexia Association, treasurer for the Catawba Valley Chapter of the Autism Society of North Carolina, and serves as a board member for the Patrick Beaver Learning Resource Center.

Brian with clifford



Why should schools visit museums?

Museums are a great place to cover a lot of the standards that schools need to meet, especially in science and social studies. These are the areas where hands-on experiences really help students to understand, and it’s hard for a classroom to provide this hands on. So if you can find an exhibit that correlates with your curriculum, then that’s when you say that this is a museum I’m going to take my kids to.

There is one museum that we go to, in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, called Kid Senses. Kids can pretend to be a dentist, a cashier, work in a restaurant… There’s a cool bubble room – kids stand in the middle of a ring and pull the bubble up around them. When I taught kindergarten in my previous school we would go there as a culminating activity for a unit on senses. I shared this museum with teachers in Newton-Conover at the beginning of this year.  I told them that it’s a great trip, very  hands on – so we’re going to go.

I told my new school, when you call they are going to push an educational class, but it’s not worth the time away from the exhibition, which is hands-on and great. When the educator comes you end up in a small classroom; it’s not hands on, and we want  hands on experiences and as much time as possible for exploration.

The cost is $3-4 per child. They only charge $1 per parent, which is great because we always need more adult chaperones. Parents don’t want to pay $4 each to go (plus the gas to drive an hour away) .  Kid Senses makes it cheap for parents — $1 for a great day with your kid.

Kids exploring Bubble-Ology exhibition at Kid Senses.

Kids exploring Bubble-Ology exhibition at Kid Senses.

You mention history and science museums. Would you ever take your students to an art museum?

Art is a little harder to justify to a Board of Education, because they are looking at how field trips connect to the standards that we are responsible for teaching. Also, we need to be very careful about what we are asking parents to spend money on.

If I could, I would be on field trips constantly. In our area, we have a high unemployment rate right now, and different schools have different rules for field trips.  Some can only ask parents for $25 per year, or sometimes schools say we can only go on two field trips per year. So it’s very hard to work art museums in there. In my ideal world I would go on at least one field trip per month. Especially for kindergarten. I would go to an art museum and teach shapes, and colors and lines – that would be an ideal field trip for a  beginning-of-kindergarten field trip.

Personally, my family has had a membership to the Hickory Art Museum, so I have seen how taking my daughter has enhanced her learning.

Is money the biggest barrier to taking field trips?

The cost of a field trip is not the admission cost of the museum, but the cost of transportation. You can get into a museum for $1 or $2, or even for free. But then you need to get students there, and then you’re charging – well, it depends on the distance, because we have to pay for the gas. Travel costs end up being $5 or more per person. Then suddenly it’s an $8 trip, which is a big chunk of the $25 you can ask parents for.

Alignment with what you’re teaching in the classroom is another barrier. Most states have adopted common core at this point, for math and reading; each state then has science and social studies curriculum. This is what we have to teach and show mastery of by the end of the year.There are 180 days in our school year. When you look at all the standards – computer / technology, math, science, etc – the teacher is responsible for all of them.

Most schools have an art teacher – so many classroom teachers don’t even look at the art standards, because the art teacher is covering that. Specialty teachers (such as art teachers) don’t go on field trips, because they can’t be gone for the full day — the other grade levels would miss their class.

Often, museum educators talk about how tours can teach thinking skills – for example, careful observation, inference, evidentiary reasoning. Claire Bown just wrote about teaching thinking skills for this blog. Does the idea that museums might teach thinking skills (rather than content) make field trips more or less compelling?

Any time you can work in those 21st century skills, it’s helpful. One of the skills that can be difficult to teach is imagination. Art museums could really teach this, but it’s going to take a great deal of marketing to share this with teachers. Many teachers, when thinking about 21st century skills, think technology, which feels like the polar opposite of art. How is looking at a work of art a 21st century skill?

But the skills you are describing – observation, inference – are really important. So many times the 21st century skills are viewed as technology skills rather than problem solving skills. So if you say you will hit those skills, you make it a richer experience for the kids. The teachers can then justify it.

In all honesty, so many teachers are just focused on that test. If art museums are wanting to be more relevant, than they have to say, we can ask these deeper questions of these kids that make them think, and make them look at the surroundings. Compare work by two artists and describe the stories they tell – this is a great introduction to one of the kindergarten standards for literature (Common Core standard RI.K.7). With the right guiding questions, the art museum would be a great place to learn the Speaking and Listening objectives for many grade levels.

Teachers tell me that a museum trip costs them a day in the classroom? When is a museum trip worthwhile? For example, what would make it worthwhile for you to take students to the Hickory Museum of Art’s tour about folk art and families?

After a field trip, we have to be able to say, this hour was well spent, it was worth the 40 minutes each way on the bus, worth the logistics and paperwork. There’s a lot that goes into a field trip: first notice doesn’t make it home, need to send home a second notice. Have to apply for funding for kids who can’t afford the trip. Lining up the buses, making sure kids have name tags, remembering the cooler for the lunches, getting all the medications ready and organized. Taking kids on a field trip is like herding squirrels. Will this field trip justify my time and effort? If I’m going to miss working with them for the day, it needs to connect on a bunch of levels. I can sit and talk to students at school. If I can do it in my classroom, why would I go through all these logistics?

I want to be able to send home a letter to parents saying, “You would never believe what your kid learned today. Your kid saw these pictures and we talked about families and how families have changed through the centuries through art… This artist did this, which we compared to this artist which did that…” That kind of art lesson would be hard for me to teach, not having that art background. Also, keep it structured, don’t let my kids get wild, make good use of my students’ time. If there’s not a good use of time, we won’t go back.

Anytime you change the environment it makes learning stick. I could hang new posters out every week, and change books out, but if we can get on the bus, that is something special.

I like guiding questions — questions that help them look at that picture and think deeply. For example, here’s this paper, with a list of the paintings. Find a picture of a family that you think would have to work in the fields; find a family that you think would live in a city; find a family that reminds you of your family.  This relates to the kindergarten standards. When the kids gather back with the museum educator they have to justify the paintings they picked.

Discover Folk Art exhibition at the Hickory Museum of Art

Discover Folk Art exhibition at the Hickory Museum of Art

How do you identify field trips that connect to the curriculum?

A lot of teachers love a good worksheet that has the standards right on it.

If I’m going to a science museum and I know that they have a huge display about wood and uses of wood, that directly relates to one of the kindergarten standards – understanding characteristics of wood, clay, etc. So I know how to make that connection. Art museums take more out of the box thinking. If people who know art and people who know education could sit down and collaborate… the museum could say, “this is what we have,” and the teacher could say, “This is perfect for X.” It’s a different way of collaborating – let teachers make the connections.

Here are some of the challenges to that from the museum’s end. First, museums have education departments staffed with educators, often former teachers. So we need to recognize the expertise teachers bring: they know the standards intimately, they understand how exhibitions can fit directly with the curriculum. Second, museums are often working on a short timeline. By the time the education department has details about the exhibition, it might be opening in three or four months. 

If a museum educator knows in October what they will have from February through May, then the next week pull in different teachers for meetings. Look at this, how can we fit this in to the curriculum? Then teachers can work on it.

The museum should provide things to do before the visit, and then tell us exactly how it aligns, and give us materials to take back to the classroom.

Museums often have these activities for teachers to do in the classroom. How do they get the word out?

Some teachers are on email. But teachers get inundated daily with emails about products and services. I get about 45 messages per day, and about half are advertising products or staff development opportunities. It’s easy for emails to get lost. I know snail mail is old fashioned, but it is something I can take to my next grade level planning meeting and share. So much of planning still happens with teachers sitting and talking. “Did you realize that you can cover these standards at the art museum?” I know that costs money, but that’s what gets attention.

What type of lesson plans do you find most useful?

I prefer blog post with ideas instead of a specific step by step lesson. Give me the ideas and I can run with that. But that’s my creative side – it depends on the teacher you have. I will still need to modify any lesson; give me an idea and I can make it fit in my day.

I have been interviewing museum educators, who have articulated why, for them, kids should visit museums. I’d love your thoughts on these two ideas.

One educator, David, proposed that museum should help kids be aware of the world around them. It should help them understand where things come from. The second educator, Ben, said that school and home are sometimes spaces where kids have to be a certain type of person. Museums are a third space, where kids can access another part of themselves.

Neither of these relate to the curriculum. What are your thoughts on these goals?

In response to David: In an ideal world, that sounds great.  But teachers are under so much pressure, that unless it connects to the curriculum, it’s hard for us to say that’s worth our time, even though we as an educator may totally agree. And the parents are also so concerned about their kids passing those tests. So that idea is pie in the sky.

In response to Ben: it’s a great point. But that will only appeal to a certain group of teachers. Last year my kids had a 90 point difference in IQs – a wide range of kids in one classroom. I tell parents, I don’t want your kid in a box. But a lot of people do want their kids in a box. I want my kids to say, “I totally felt at home in a museum, that was so much fun, Mom and Dad, I want to take you to the museum to show you this and this and this.” Even if it’s only one or two kids who say that. But as a teacher, I still need to justify the trip for everyone. If you don’t come to an educator’s point of view, you’re not going to get educators to come to you.

My daughter, Ella, who is 10, considers herself an artist. We take her to art and science museums and many other cultural events because my wife and I recognize how much her life experiences enhance her education. Ella makes art with duct tape, with her rainbow loom, she loves to paint and draw. She went to a calligraphy camp this summer, even though she writing is far from her favorite subject, because it involved creating something beautiful. Those are great reasons to go to the museums. When Ella comes  home from a museum she says, “I want to show you this and this and this.” But the way to get the teacher to get you there first is to connect to standards and 21st century skills.


2 thoughts on “Schools and Museums: Interview with Brian Smith

  1. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Goals for Students | Museum Questions

  2. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Ideas and Implications, Part II | Museum Questions

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