Schools and Museums: Interview with Jody Madell

Jody Madell teaches 9th grade at the Lyons Community School, a school serving 6th through 12th grade students in East Williamsburg Brooklyn. She is also the co-director of the school, and has been at Lyons since 2007. Before Lyons, Jody taught for seven years at the New York City Museum School.


Jody Madell nov 24

Why should schools visit museums?

Without field trips, many students at my school might not be exposed to the great cultural institutions of the city – lots of kids rarely leave their neighborhoods. We like to take kids to different places, so that they can see what’s out in the world.

In part our museum visits are academic; I would like students to learn specific things that I am teaching about. But also, we want them and their families to know that this is something that’s available to them in the city.

How do you use museums?

We take field trips every week, although they are not all to museums.

In 6th, 7th, and 8th grades we have units that culminate in museum-based presentations at the Brooklyn Museum. Teachers from each grade have a three-hour professional development with an educator at the Brooklyn Museum. The museum educator works with the teachers to plan the unit, including 1-3 visits that the museum educator will guide. During these guided tours the museum educator models giving a tour using objects, so that sixth graders can see how it’s done. We worked Rachel Ropeik at the Museum for years; she was recently promoted so now we are working with Adjoa Jones de Almeida.

We have been so happy with the professional development from the Brooklyn Museum – we really love that place. Each year they adjust to our needs. Last year, both 6th grade teachers were new to 6th grade; one was a brand new teacher. So Rachel showed them objects in the collection and modeled object-based learning. Another year, they might talk about what worked, what didn’t, what’s a skill you want to work on, what do you want to work on with the kids.

A few years ago, Rachel observed that the Lyons teachers were making the trip too much like school, using five-page worksheets with lots of questions. Rachel pushed teachers to rethink their worksheets. She wanted them to allow the kids to have conversations, even if it was going to be messier; to slow down, have discussions with other kids about the objects.

Lyons at Brooklyn Museum

Students from Lyons Community School at the Brooklyn Museum


Are all your museum trips to the Brooklyn Museum?

In the 9th grade we study world religions. We spend a lot of time on this – months. We visit places of worship, and also the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met has an impressive collection of art from world religions, so we go there throughout the project to study objects.

For their final project, we have the kids bring a parent to the Met and give them a tour. We want students to identify a theme, something to compare across religions. For example, how do different religions represent God? What are the powers of the Gods? They have to pick objects for their tour, and think about questions that the person they will be touring around might have. By that point the kid knows the museum well enough to show the parent around, and the parent gets to see the museum.

Why do you use museums for this final project? Why not have kids write an essay comparing religions?

It’s an engaging project. With religions, objects are so important. By interacting with the objects you get a sense of the religions that you wouldn’t get from reading or a power point. And the project offers an emotional experience that leaves students excited about religions other than their own.

A student from Lyons Community School at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A student from Lyons Community School at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Do you ever book guided tours for your students at different museums?

Teachers at my school are very skeptical of going on a museum tour led by someone we don’t know. We pretty much never book tours led by museum staff.

Our kids can be difficult to manage, especially for a museum educator who does not know their academic needs or interests.  One museum wouldn’t let me book a self-guided visit, so the tour was led by a museum educator, and it was terrible. The educator couldn’t communicate well with the kids. She might have been fine with another group of kids, but there was no clear lesson, and the kids felt like the tour was purposeless. And one-off visits can be difficult even when they are taught by great museum educators because they don’t know exactly what the kids need.

Also, because of the way we use field trips at Lyons, they are very linked to the classes the kids are taking. So it’s not like we’ve been studying a subject for eight weeks, and then we go to the Met. Instead, teachers are really trying to use the museum to continue the instruction of content – it’s more woven-in than a one-off would really help with. For example, when we study Hinduism as part of world religions in the 9th grade, in the classroom I will explain attributes of a god, and we’ll compare different images of that god. Then we’ll go to the museum and do something similar. The kids know what they are supposed to be doing because of the previous lesson; they don’t need tons of direction. Museum educators can’t do this – they don’t know the kids or the classroom work.

If you taught at a different school – with a different population, and without weekly field trips – do you think you would book guided tours?

I don’t think so. My own kids get taken on field trips that involve walking around museum all day. At my daughter’s elementary school it seems like field trips are fun, but they are not vitally contributing to education of the kids.

Sometimes I wish that I could take my students to a random exhibition that sounds interesting. Two years ago the Brooklyn Museum had an exhibition of work by Mickalene Thomas – a really cool show, enormous pieces with sequins all over them. I felt like kids would really love it. Rachel led a professional development for teachers and introduced us to the show. She suggested that we should just take some seniors to the museum to see the show, but no one ever did it.

Art by Mickalene Thomas

Art by Mickalene Thomas at the Brooklyn Museum

What advice would you give teachers about planning field trips?

I would tell them not to consider taking kids to a museum on a guided tour if you can’t work with the museum educator in some way before going.

Assuming that the trips are integrated into the curriculum, I would advise teachers to pick just a couple of objects that are going to help the kids understand some aspect of the content that you can’t really teach as well in the classroom. The most common mistake that someone new to planning trips makes is to take students to see too many things.

Teachers need to go to the museum themselves to plan. When I plan trips I look at the museum website first to orient myself, but then I visit the museum to see the work in person and learn more about it. It is important to have that experience yourself with the object, figure out what will be exciting to kids, what will inspire them, what’s physically around the objects that could be brought into a discussion. If we have a planning day at school I’ll try to go and visit museums and plan. When I go to the museum I try to make a map of where objects are. I try to plan two student trips with one visit on my own. I don’t plan the whole lesson, but I pick the objects.

When I started working at the Museum School, my colleague Rebecca Krukoff just took me to museums and talked to me about art. We had experiences in museums together. That’s the model the Brooklyn Museum is following, as well – they want teachers to have experience in the galleries.

2 thoughts on “Schools and Museums: Interview with Jody Madell

  1. Jody’s comment that teachers at her school are skeptical of tours given by someone who they don’t know (and someone who doesn’t know them) could be a real aha moment for museum educators and docents. It suggests how presumptuous it is to think that museum staff members and volunteers could, for all of their experience and good intentions, create meaningful experiences for the thousands of classes who come for traditional guided tours.

    • I agree, Daryl. Here is a question: If museums were to focus on collaborating with teachers and setting the conditions for excellent self-guided tours and partnerships instead of offering guided tours, what are the repercussions in terms of equity? Would we end up denying opportunities to students of teachers who do not have the resources (knowledge, confidence, time) to lead their own visits to museums? And could we mitigate this through advocacy and professional development?

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