School Programs in a COVID world

How many can fit, how close can we get, what can they touch and how do we clean it?!

Early this year as we, myself and my colleagues across the cultural sector, grappled with restarting onsite schools programs I saw many of us asking the same questions. We were all trying to interpret the guidelines, work with our health and safety departments, understand how schools had changed (or not) and adapt our programs to be safe, logistically manageable but still true to our philosophies of quality experiences.

It felt like the goal posts were constantly shifting and there was no hard and fast rulebook that could be applied to all organisations. It was clear, however, that everyone wanted to get the balance right: open but safe and meaningful but achievable. Ultimately we wanted to meet the needs of our audience, protect the safety of staff and visitors, while also providing exceptional experiences. I suspected that what that looked like was different for different organisations. But I knew that I would find it valuable to our planning to understand how our sector colleagues were tackling the challenge, so with the support and assistance of the AMAGA ENVi committee, I developed a survey.

It was my hope that we all be reassured by the fact that everyone was changing their programs and asking their audience to adapt. I also hoped that we may find inspiration, new approaches and help with finding solutions and processes to support our planning. I certainly found the results helpful. They also inspired us, as a committee, to develop a professional learning session for our new reNEWed series: Hands off engagement on 10th March.

As expected, the approaches did differ. But there were commonalities – changes had to be made to restart school programs. The changes may be to scheduling, numbers or process. Planning was , for most, becoming shorter-term. Online learning experiences were also an ongoing part of the planning for nearly all organisations. You can read a full summary of the survey results and watch reNEWed: Hands off engagement on the ENVi website.

Connecting an exhibition beyond the museum’s walls

Summer 20/21 provided another opportunity to use the limitations posed by COVID as inspiration to try something new. While Victoria was opening back up, audiences were still cautious and reimposed restrictions were a real possibility. For us, this meant that our stalwart of programming – hands-on craft-based experiences indoors – had to be reimagined.

To create opportunities for safe participation and learning I needed to look beyond the museum’s walls and connect with our friends and partners – supporting each other to develop meaningful experiences for our community and visitors.

For our visiting exhibition Wildlife Photographer of the Year we partnered with the Geelong Botanic Gardens to run outside photography workshops and develop an Urban Wildlife Trail between the Museum and the Gardens.

Our other visiting exhibition How Cities Work provided a whole different challenge – as a hands-on exhibition targeted at children cleaning and safety became paramount to decision making. With visitor limits and closure periods for cleaning, it was essential to develop a program that encouraged engagement with the exhibition without overwhelming traffic inside the exhibition.

The solution was to drawn on the concepts of the exhibition – urban life and design – and take them out into the City. To explore how cities work within the example of our own city: Geelong. I conceptualised an idea that involved a map-based scavenger-hunt style activity that revealed hidden or overlooked features of the city. Then working with a range of City departments, organisations and business, refined the activity to seven key sites to discover.

I engaged the exhibition artist, James Gulliver Hancock, to build on the artistic theme in the exhibition and create an illustrated map of Geelong. This beautiful map guided the participants around the city to the seven sites. At each site they collected a further illustration, with information about the specific City feature, which could be added to their map, with some becoming pop-ups or lift-flaps, similar to the How Cities Work book. Five of the sites also had vinyl decals that revealed more details – such as what was under the pavement or inside the smart bin.

The activity, called How Geelong Works, gave us the opportunity to encourage participation in a COVID safe way that was also meaningful, locally relevant and hands-on fun!

The digital pandemic pivot

There has been much talk of ‘pivoting’ activities and programs since the pandemic began. While some are tiring of the catch phrase, I have welcomed the opportunity to devote time and resources to testing and extending the National Wool Museum’s digital capabilities.

Back in March as we all headed home, we were due to launch a new festival – We The Makers Design Festival – featuring two exhibitions and a festival of events. I had prepared around 25 events and was about to hit ‘print’ on our festival brochure when we realised it wasn’t going to pan out as we expected. Initially we postponed events, but soon we began strategising about how we could keep the festival spirit alive while we all sheltered in place.

My colleague Luke Keogh forged ahead with curating an interactive digital exhibition experience for the Designer Showcase component of the festival. I wanted to build on this experience to create opportunities for learning, participation and sharing for the broad audience that had originally been catered to in the program of events. And so We The Makers CREATE was launched.

Initially the project focussed on delivering free opportunities for people to learn and experience in their own time and at their own pace, with a series of courses, videos and downloadable activities. Plus a platform for the community to share their creations and promote their creative endeavours – the Creator Gallery. As the festival draws to a close we are also offering ticketed digital events for live experiences with the course artists.

There were many learnings from this project and lots of successes to celebrate. We were able to support a number of local and Victorian artists to contribute their skills to the creation of content, we provided a platform for more artists to share their work and promote their businesses, and we supported families and schools with learning activities to do at home. Like many organisations we faced the challenge of a flooded digital environment, short timeframes and untested concepts. But I feel we made the most of the opportunity to test our skills and reach new audiences.

Not forgetting hands-on in the digital pandemic

StoryCraft learning resource packs for local prep students to support remote learning during the pandemic.

While we, like many cultural institutions, were busy trying to ‘pivot’ our programs to digital experiences we noticed an opportunity to provide an alternative, tactile experience for an audience who may face difficulties accessing or using digital resources – early years students from disadvantaged communities.

In response to this we set to work to create physical remote learning packs for prep students from disadvantaged schools in the local area. These learning kits were designed to build literacy learning, fine-motor skill development and wellbeing, as well as share stories relevant to the Museum and local history. They featured a picture book by a local author plus craft materials and instructions to make pom poms, finger knitted animals, plus a woven cloud and rainbow.

Although the kits were designed for remote learning they were delivered after the resumption of face to face teaching. This gave teachers the opportunity to utilise them in a manner that suited them and their students: as individualised learning resources or home learning activities.

The response to the kits was extremely positive with feedback such as:

“Students LOVED making the pom poms.”

“The resources and lesson plans accompanying them were outstanding!”

The packs “supported development of fine motor skills, speaking and listening and the development of vocabulary.”

“On behalf of our students, school and families, thank you for the opportunity to access such thoughtful resources and activities that provided our students with a new experience and challenge.”

Our team was delighted to use resources and skills for hands-on learning program delivery, which we couldn’t provide in person, to create a program with a positive impact for over 250 grateful students and teachers.

Museums: creating moments of deep learning and connection – a poignant example…

Museums (along with their Gallery and Library counterparts) hold a significant and important place in the learning landscape.  They can provide meaningful experiences not easily created within conventional classrooms – the opportunity to emotionally connect learners with significant concepts in a way that elicits deep, and potentially transformative, thinking.

These moments of emotional connection, deep thinking and learning do not simply happen.  They are designed, curated, experiences.  As a professional museum educator who has designed and delivered many different learning experiences, it is a desire to create these moments that drives me.  I love seeing the wide eyes of shock and disbelief as a learner faces a challenging idea.  Or the heartfelt question as they try and reconcile a new concept that doesn’t fit with their preconceived ideas.  Or even the serene look of someone that connects their own story to a bigger picture.

Often though, I don’t get the opportunity to really see the impact these moments have on the audience.  For school groups, much of the reflection and unpacking of new thoughts and ideas are done after the visit.  There is also the challenge of ensuring the deeply emotional moments, the ones that can lead to the most significant learning, are safe.  That they don’t leave the audience, particularly children, with unresolved distress.

When I deliver the two day costumed school experience at Sovereign Hill I aim to create as many of these deep learning moments as possible, while still balancing the diverse needs of the children to ensure they have a positive experience.  I endeavor to provide as much ‘learning fodder’ as possible so that teachers can delve deeper into a range of concepts when they get back to school.

I have previously written about how I have provoked thinking about gender roles.  I have also written about the challenges of addressing sensitive topics such as racial discrimination.  I really want the children to consider some of the more challenging realities of history and how it may have impacted on societal norms today. I want them to come away with questions and reflections, not simply facts and figures.

This week I witnessed one of the most profound learning moments I have ever seen.

I had the pleasure of hosting a highly engaged class of year 5 students and collaborating with their dedicated and skilled teacher for the two day program in my replica 1850s classroom.  As the teacher and I reacquainted (we had also worked together the previous year) she told me about their recent learning focus on human rights and propaganda.

After considering this for some time and getting to know the students I saw that this group was in a great position for delving into some heavy content. I proposed to the teacher that we challenge the students to face some of the racial discrimination present in the 1850s.  I asked if she felt comfortable with her class, which was very multicultural, being confronted with some difficult material and if she would be happy to guide them in a debrief afterwards.  We were both keen and felt they had been well prepared by their prior exploration of human rights and propaganda.  We discussed some ideas for the debrief and planned to run the lesson as the last session of the day.

Catechism

So, with both the students and I in our 1850s roles, I had them read a lesson on ‘Government and Laws’ from A Catechism of the Rudiments of Knowledge, specially adapted for Australian beginnings, for use in schools and families.  This book is a facsimile of the original from 1861, copied specifically for use in our Costumed School program.

For the lesson I read the questions aloud and the children were instructed to read the answers aloud together in unison.  The content included a discussion of ‘savage’ and ‘civilized’ nations.  I stayed in role throughout the lesson and as we packed up for the day.  I found it incredibly difficult.  I felt pain for the students confronted with such disparaging ideologies about, in some cases, their own cultural heritage. It was made even more intense by not only having them listen to the content but say it aloud.

Catechism page 50Catechism page 51

As I wanted to stay in role between day 1 and day 2 I did not participate in the debrief, instead I listened in from the adjoining room.  What I heard brought me so much pride and joy.

The students showed an incredible amount of thought and insight.  The intelligent connections they made and their empathy and strength was heartwarming.

When the teacher asked the students how the lesson made them feel they responded with comments such as:

Emotionally one children said “Heartbroken.  I felt sorry for the children back then.”

With a tone of determined protest another said “I didn’t say it.”

“I must have been so awful for the Chinese children.”  Which followed with a discussion about who would have been given the opportunity to go to school.

In response to questions about who would have produced the text and why, they said “the Government” and “because they wanted to make them believe that.”

And then, as they thought about what had changed between then and now:

“Because people came out of the shadows and spoke up against what wasn’t right.”

“Because the Australian Government is more diverse.  There are Chinese and Aboriginal people in the Government now.”

All this came from 10 and 11 year olds.

I had a major moment of ‘yes! this!’  This is what I want the students to be able to get out of the experience.  The unique opportunity to live the past and understand the context and reality of systemic discrimination was incredibly powerful for these students.  To have the opportunity to witness their emotional reaction, the questions and reflections they had and the insightful connections they made was a great privilege.

At the end of Day 2, when we all broke role for final discussion and debrief, I had the opportunity to reassure the children that the role I played was not a reflection of my own beliefs. I also told them how impressed and inspired I was by their discussion. We had further discussions around gender roles and discrimination, children’s rights (or lack there of!), and how education has (mostly!) changed from learners being told what to think to encouraging them to think for themselves.

I hope that many more such examples are happening back in the classroom.  It has inspired me to develop ways to support more teachers to utilise their experience in the Museum to unpack some of the more challenging concepts and guide their students in inquiries where they can make these powerful connections. Making these deep learning moments connect to their lives and endure well beyond the visit.

Provoking thinking about 19th century gender roles

In the recreated 1850s classroom where I teach, I immerse modern students in an experience of what school and life may have been like for children on the gold fields.  We aim for historical accuracy as much as possible, but also make accommodations to meet the contemporary needs of children, as well as modern legal and moral rights.

Gender roles and discrimination in education are something that very quickly become apparent as children step into the role of 1850s children.  They are divided by their gender for clothing, lessons and rules.  In my school, the girls are not allowed to run or squat on the ground to play marbles.  They must learn needlework while the boys learn technical/mathematical drawing.  They are also excluded from discussions about jobs for their future, due to its irrelevance to their expected future roles as wives and mothers.

Interestingly, not being able to run seems to elicit the loudest protests and mutterings of disbelief.

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Accuracy and reality in historical interpretation – a reflection on ideas of inclusion, representation and relevance

I can still clearly recall my excitement when I travelled to Melbourne, from my job teaching in Katherine (NT), for my second interview at the State Library of Victoria, where I was to be offered the position of Education Officer – Medieval Programs.  I had met a range of interesting and inspiring future colleagues, I had been taken through the amazing maze of buildings that made up the Library and I had even handled a Medici Manuscript.  Before I had even begun, I was completely sold on this new professional path I had taken.

I have a great personal interest in Medieval History and I was delighted to be able to spend my working hours playing the role of storyteller to others.  I loved finding the fascinating, obscure and shocking stories and capturing children’s interest by retelling them with as much drama and intrigue as I could muster.  What’s more, this role opened to me a new avenue to use my skills in Education and open the minds of children to new ideas, an idea that had romantically motivated me to enter the teaching profession in the first place.

At the conclusion of the State Library’s Medieval Manuscripts exhibition, my role became more focused on Victorian and Australian history, and other programs relevant to the Library’s collection and services.  I was enthusiastic in delivering the mission to make students feel like it was their library: relevant, useful and accessible to them.  I also considered myself progressive and willing to share the difficult and uncomfortable stories as well as the fun and happy ones.

But since those first months working in the cultural sector I have travelled a path of my own personal and professional learning and now, 11 years on, while I still love and believe in the sector I work in, I have a more complex and less romantic idea as to my role, responsibility and influence.

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Video Conferencing Museum Education Programs

Reflections from Perfecting the Blend Conference

paper-planeOn Friday (7th December) I attended a small part of the Perfecting the Blend Conference held at the impressive Earth Ed Centre at Mt Clear College here in Ballarat.  The whole conference ran for a full two days with a huge range of presenters talking about the innovative and seamless use of technology to support learning.  Unfortunately I was only able to attend two sessions on Friday afternoon, but they were a good opportunity to look at how Museums are using Video Conferencing to deliver Education Programs.

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Education in Museums

Education in Museums – Reflections from Museums Australia Conference

Last week at the Museums Australia conference in Adelaide there were a number of presenters that spoke about Museum Education (broadly referring to museums, galleries, libraries, zoos, historic sites etc.) – about engaging school audiences.  Despite being an Museum Educator myself, I intentionally did not go to all education-related presentations, with the aim of looking more a the big picture of what is happening in Museums.  However I did go to a number of Education streams, particularly on the first day of the conference.  From these presentations I came to some general thoughts and conclusions about what is happening in our sector…

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