Schools and Museums: Interview with Andrea Jones

I think it’s really important to frame programs around a question that gives it a compelling reason to exist. I don’t think we should learn anything “just because.” So when I start designing, I read everything I can get my hands on about a particular topic, and then ask, what is this really about? What is here that is so interesting, and so unanswerable?

Andrea Jones is the Director of Programs and Visitor Engagement at the Accokeek Foundation in Accokeek, Maryland. Before working at Accokeek, Andrea was Education Specialist at the Atlanta History Center.


Why should museums offer school tours?

I worked as a teacher in two different public school systems before moving to museums. Although there are a lot of teachers doing innovative things, the basic structure of public education does not engage students in the things that matter – museums are better set up for that. Museums can disregard testing and assessment, and focus on inspiring students, igniting their interest, and exploring bigger questions about the human experience. Students should be hungry for more when the program ends. They should be filled with questions that they want to go answer on their own.

Museum tours go wrong when they try to be like schools. I respect the teachers who go into museum tours with an assignment for their students. It shows an attention to detail – they are really trying to get kids to pay attention. But if the museum has designed a dynamic program, you don’t need an assignment to keep kids’ attention. I encourage museums to throw out the old guided tour. It’s didactic, it’s often boring, and we know it doesn’t work. I don’t think we should be “covering” content like the schools do. It’s not our job to teach the entire Civil War. Museums are a place to get the gears turning.

How do you “ignite interest”?

Part of my formula is to create a narrative storyline and to involve kids in role play that requires decision-making. We just launched a new tour at Accokeek which poses the essential question “Which modern inventions are worth their cost to the environment?” Here is the set up: Imagine that a group of humanitarian time travelers went back to 18th century Maryland and placed modern objects around a colonial farm to help the family that lives there. The humanitarians left a flashlight, pesticides, toilet paper, a disposable lighter – things that they thought might help this family. Students on the tour are told that they are Eco-Explorers, and their mission is to go back in time, find these objects, and decide whether to confiscate them, bringing them back to the future before they are discovered by the colonial family. And students are asked to make these decisions by weighing the objects’ environmental impact against their relative benefit to the family.

Some things may be worth the environmental cost. This tour was inspired by the conversations I heard at Accokeek. Some visitors would say, “See how awful it was back then, and think about all the modern conveniences you have now.” But the conveniences have an environmental price. We are all dependent on fossil-fueled cars, electric light . . . even toilet paper. The point is that there are certain moments in history – certain forks in the road – where we adopted these things. What if we had it to do over again? Would we? The question is important because these forks in the road are happening today.

When we go to the grocery store and make decisions about what to buy, most of us take into consideration some aspect of the environmental cost. How much you do that depends on the person. Some people say recycled toilet paper is really pushing it. We make decisions every time we purchase a product or decide not to purchase it, or throw something away.

Our aim is to  help kids build the skills they will need to make these decisions, while teaching them history and environmental science. We don’t claim that there are right answers:if a group of students decides to leave the disposable lighter in the past, if they think the benefits outweigh the environmental impact, then we leave it.

Eco Explorers 1

Students on an Eco-Explorer tour at Accokeek attempt to talk a historic character out of using the pesticide that she has just discovered in the tobacco barn.

You mentioned that this tour is framed around an “essential question.” Good essential questions are incredibly difficult to craft. Tell me more about how and why you use essential questions for school tours.

I didn’t really like history – my content area – until I was in my late twenties. History in school was about regurgitation of names, dates, and facts. I realized later that history was boring me because it wasn’t about something. So I think it’s really important to frame programs around a question that gives it a compelling reason to exist. I don’t think we should learn anything “just because.” So when I start designing, I read everything I can get my hands on about a particular topic, and then ask, what is this really about? What is here that is so interesting, and so unanswerable? I test out questions with people in the office and with friends. If people want to talk and argue, then I know it’s a good question.

I once heard a speaker who said that there is really only one essential question, which every other one fits in, and that is “who am I?” These questions help us figure out “how do I feel about this?” My question about modern inventions and environmental cost – that’s about each of us trying to figure out what WE are willing to do.

Would you say that the goal of a museum visit is self-discovery?

I never really thought about it like that. It’s a huge component. I am always trying to figure out, “Who am I?” There is not a definite answer – it changes every day. The more you learn about the world, the more this knowledge helps you to figure out who you want to be in the world.

Your tours are very theatrical. Can you talk about the design process?

I think about four different ingredients. Experiences need to include multiple perspectives and an emotional connection, and be participatory and thought provoking. Theater is a vehicle that allows experiences to involve all of these.

I consider the age group of the audience, the spaces I have to work in, and what’s going to be compelling. For example, when designing a “Fight for Your Rights” tour about Civil Rights, I wanted to focus on school segregation because it’s about school-aged people, and what it took to overcome segregation. But I couldn’t figure out how to make that something that all the students could participate in, something more dynamic than just splitting kids into two different rooms..

So I migrated to the story of the Freedom Riders, because it’s about people on a bus, the adventures that you have on the way, feeling danger on the bus together. We (the Atlanta History Center) could make a bus façade out of wood, we could use regular chairs from our classroom, we could use a power point projection to show what you would see outside the bus window, and speakers for sound effects like angry people and explosions outside the bus. We could create a high impact experience that would elicit emotion.

The essential question was: Do you have what it takes to be a freedom fighter? This was inspired by watching Eyes on the Prize with my partner. As we watched footage of people being attacked we were asking ourselves, would we – both of us are white – have stood up for black people in that era? We had a really long conversation. We wondered if maybe it’s different for us than for people who don’t have the privilege we have. What about people who are working really hard, unable to take a break to go on a protest? We started talking about class issues. Thinking about how the answer may be different for different people. So that’s why I created different roles for the students to play in the simulation. Theater is a powerful tool for altering perspective.

Kids as Freedom Riders

Kids as Freedom Riders at the Atlanta History Center

When we first spoke, you were advocating for scripted tours. Can you talk about what the scripts are like, and what’s open for the students and educators?

Every time there is an opportunity to interact things can go in unpredictable ways. We have a sit-in simulation in the Fight For Your Rights tour I just described. In the simulation a restaurant owner, Lester Maddox, is trying to get protesters out of his restaurant. He is yelling at them, telling them why they shouldn’t be there. Testing their will to stay. Different things happen every tour. Once a group of students decided to start chanting about the 14th amendment. In that case the interpreter playing Lester Maddox can’t use the script.

The script we give to the interpreters is in pieces – paragraphs, lines that an interpreter can insert depending on what kids are doing. But the interpreter has to be the character, and do what the character would do. So they definitely have to think on their feet.

Here is another example – at the Atlanta History Center we had a Cherokee tour that involved an interpreter playing a Cherokee grandmother standing by her grandbaby’s grave. The Cherokees – the kids – are marching along the Trail of Tears when they encounter this grandmother who can’t leave, because the Cherokee mourning custom is to stand by the body for seven days. The kids have to decide what to do. One group suggested that she dig up the baby and take it with them. It sounds crass, but this is perfectly logical to a second grader. So the actor had to think about how she would respond to that. Another time a kid said, “If we convert you to Christianity you’ll have different rules.” The kids gathered around and said a Christian prayer. That’s them – the students – being in role. The interpreter has to respond as his or her character. People think that scripting means the program becomes robotic. But on the contrary, this type of scripting results in a different experience every time.

Kids as eco explorers

Kids with Interpreter playing a Cherokee grandmother at the Atlanta History Center

You said earlier that one of your four tour components is that it is participatory. That is a very popular idea right now. Can you talk more about what “participatory” means to you?

Think about a kid at science center. The educator asks for a volunteer, and a kid comes up and holds something, or maybe touches something so his hair stands up on end. The kid just participated, but they haven’t learned anything from their participation, or grappled with anything. They were just a prop. I want people to feel something from participation, more than just embarrassment.

5 thoughts on “Schools and Museums: Interview with Andrea Jones

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