Fieldtrips and the Small Historic Site

This is the second guest post in the Schools and Museum series on Museum Questions. It is from Elisabeth Nevins, a museum education consultant located in New England. Elisabeth’s firm, Seed Education Consulting, develops educational programming and content for museums and historic sites, and, in her own words, “is driven by the possibilities of exploring the past as a means for understanding the present and shaping the future.”

 As with an earlier guest post, I have added a few of my own thoughts at the end of the post, in italics.


Elisabeth Nevins

Board members love fieldtrips: smiling school children scampering around their museum or historic site learning about the past. Because, you know, a fieldtrip program—how hard can that be?


As a consultant who works with historic sites and small museums, I find that these institutions rarely have the resources needed to offer high-quality education programs for school-age audiences. Most of my projects begin with significant capacity building before we can progress to program development.

Sustainable programs require four types of resources: financial, facilities, collections, and staff. Finances are always tight, but grant funding is often available. Facilities pose challenges, but through creative problem solving we can find the space for larger groups. Collections are rarely a problem—there is always lots of good stuff, although it’s much easier to create programs if these collections are catalogued, or at least organized. Staff, however, is the most chronically undervalued and commonly lacking asset at small museums and historic sites.

Yes, Rebecca Herz, we do need museum educators. Museum education programs should be created by trained professionals, experts versed in informal learning pedagogy, current curriculum standards, and effective practices. However, many small museums are lucky to have a paid director or administrator, let alone an educator.

There are options when trained staff is not available. Museums can partner with classroom teachers, another kind of education expert, to create programs. For example, the Needham Massachusetts Historical Society opens their one room schoolhouse to local teachers and their students. The teachers develop and lead the lessons with support from historical society materials and staff.


Needham Massachusetts Historical Society

Recently, the Beckley Furnace Industrial Heritage Site in East Canaan, Connecticut approached me about planning a curriculum and fieldtrip program.¹ Beckley’s financial, facilities, and collections resources are typical of a small historic site. And, like many similarly sized institutions, Beckley doesn’t have a staff. Friends of Beckley Furnace, a robust, volunteer-run nonprofit, maintains the historic site.

The group was already providing informal tours and programming for school children and scout groups and hoped to build on these relationships to generate greater awareness of the site in the community. This goal is worthy and, if created thoughtfully, school programs can give local history organizations a solid foothold in the community from which they can further demonstrate their relevance and value.

Beckley Furnace

Beckley Furnace Industrial Heritage Site

After meeting with project stakeholders, I recommended that rather than offer a “packaged” curriculum and tour, Beckley should create a Local Heritage Learning Lab to collaborate with local teachers in developing individualized educational experiences for their classrooms. Beckley has the historical assets, but the teachers know their students’ needs—which vary from student to student, classroom to classroom, grade to grade, and, with ever-evolving standards and assessments, from year to year.

At the heart of the Local Heritage Learning Lab is a professional development series for teachers. This will not be your standard teacher professional development offering. From the Federal agency level on down, history and social studies teacher workshops tend to follow the same format: a week of unrelenting content immersion with no time to process new ideas and very little focus on classroom transfer. This type of professional development is like speed dating. Teachers engage in quick, superficial “getting to know you” interactions. Then the bell rings and participants move on to the next topic.

Local Heritage Learning Lab will be as much about relationship building as it is about content— professional development like a slow, smooth wooing with a Barry White soundtrack. It will explore a central question: What can we learn about our community in exploring this place? While it will begin with a weeklong immersion in historical literacy skills development using Beckley’s resources, it will also include regular coaching and peer feedback sessions throughout the fall and winter. And it will culminate in teachers bringing their students to Beckley to implement their lesson.

Rather than invest Beckley’s limited resources in creating an education program that might be obsolete in a year, Local Heritage Learning Lab will provide teachers with the materials and the tools necessary to build their own programs—programs they can evolve with students’ needs. And by sharing authority with teachers, Beckley will create advocates, build awareness of their site and collection, and demonstrate their value in the community.

Teacher advisors from the regional school district have enthusiastically endorsed the plan and Beckley is seeking funding to pilot the Local Heritage Learning Lab in 2015. Hopefully this pilot run will represent Beckley’s first step in building a lasting and mutually beneficial relationship with the students, teachers, and school administrators in their local community.

1. Beckley Furnace education program planning was funded by a Connecticut Humanities Fund Public Presentation Planning grant with additional support from Housatonic Heritage.

 N.B. Slides and a resource assessment worksheet from my 2011 NEMA sessionSchool Programs for Smaller Historic Sites: Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should can be found here: slides | worksheet 1 | worksheet 2


This post evolved out of a conversation in which Elisabeth and I debated pre-packaged tours vs. teacher-driven experiences. I hope that this post will inspire museum educators to think more about how we might empower classroom teachers to plan their own visits to museums. Elisabeth’s post suggests a few things that must be in place first:

  • A clear guiding idea or question that is meaningful for teachers and students. For Beckley Furnace, the question is “What can we learn about our community in exploring this place?”
  • What Elisabeth terms “shared authority;” trust in teachers to take visits seriously and thoughtfully; and the belief that they can guide themselves and each other – note the “peer feedback” built into the Beckley project.
  • Resources dedicated to this work – paid educators to guide professional development; money and time for teachers to conduct this work; resources to support return visits for students.

All of this leads me to wonder: What if museums did not allow teachers to delegate responsibility for their students’ field trip experiences to the museums they visit? And what if such a decision were supported by significant resources invested in helping teachers develop the tools and knowledge to create deep and meaningful experiences for students in museums? Would the loss of many school groups (classes taught by teachers too overwhelmed, or without the confidence, knowledge, or interest needed to be active participants in field trip design) be worth the potential gain in the depth for the students who did visit? And in what ways other ways might museums consider shifting resource allotment to emphasize depth over numbers, quality over quantity?

4 thoughts on “Fieldtrips and the Small Historic Site

  1. There are teachers, especially in the upper grades, who want to design their own programs using our resources or facilities, and we do everything we can to make this happen. However, the development of a strong ongoing program needs a partnership between the museum and the teacher, and a program infrastructure that makes participation/replication easy.

    Developing a program takes time, because buy-in from the schools – from the Superintendent to the teachers – is crucial and there are a lot of people to talk to. We formed a program committee of teachers, principals, library/media specialists, and historical society staff. Society staff was me – I am a staff of one; so large staff is not a prerequisite for this. Funding came through the Needham Education Foundation, and we spent the summer working out the program logistics. Teachers took the lead in planning the program itself. We laid out and documented a thorough structure, and posted the docs online for easy referral. At first, teachers in the planning group trained their colleagues, or we set up an after-school training session (2 hours). Ongoing, the experienced teachers train the new teachers, usually by letting them observe a session. The program is flexible enough that they can add components as they get more confident; they don’t have to do it all at once. In this way, we do not lose teachers to the pressures of other mandates, or to lack of confidence.

    Our program is now in its eighth year, and reaches every third grade class in Needham (including the parochial school), every year. One parent told me that it was considered “a third-grade rite of passage.” Woo-hooo! The first group is now in their junior year of high school, and they still mention the schoolhouse visit when they see me.

    — Gloria Greis, Executive Director, Needham Historical Society

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

  3. This project sounds great! A new look on a school program experience. Please keep us updated with how the program turns out!

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