Thursday, June 30, 2011

Passport to Learning: Lessons Learned

Here in the Education Department we just finished the spring session of Passport to Learning, Shelburne Museum’s school program. Over 4,000 children explored the Museum over the course of five weeks. In fact we just placed an order for 12,000 more of the Passport students from kindergarten to eighth grade carry as they journey around the grounds, collecting stamps and stories along the way. Angela and I (Paige) are brand new education fellows at the Museum and we wanted to get the inside scoop on what it’s like to be a Passport to Learning instructor.

Angela Visits a Veteran Passport Educator

Last week I interviewed some of our veteran Passport educators who have been working with the program for several sessions. Just like most of the schoolkids who visit the museum, I made a beeline for one of our most popular workshops: “You Be the Judge” at the Castleton Jail. The two-cell jail was only used for one-night stays before inhabitants were transported to Rutland to stand trial for their crime. I spoke with Fran Carlson, a Passport guide who was leading the workshop there.

“As an educator,” she described, “the need for flexibility is very, very high.” Her lesson plans vary according to the age of participants—kindergarteners crowd into the jail and use visual cues to discover, for example, that it was not used for long-term sentences. Just that day, she told me, a six year-old had astutely noticed that the ceilings were lower in the cells than outside them, where a guard might have sat. Older students participate in a workshop in which they role-play being the prosecution and defense in a small trial. Their classmates are the jury, deciding whether the defendant will “GO TO RUTLAND TO STAND TRIAL” or “BE RELEASED FROM JAIL.”

Fran explained that she enjoys responding to the students’ needs, whether that involves “slowing them down and giving them a nugget of historical knowledge” or “doing a complete, fun, and interactive activity.” She was about to tell me more, but just then three second grade girls ran past us. “It’s a jaaaaaaaaaaaaail!,” one of them yelped, and I knew that it was time for Fran to go.

The New Generation of Passport Guides with Paige

While seasoned Passport to Learning guides reflected on another successful session, there were several new guides who took this opportunity to grow as teachers – and as people. Caroline Woodward quickly jumped into active life of the museum shortly after moving to Shelburne this past year. When asked how she felt about her time teaching in the program she quickly replied, “It’s a dream job. We do it for the love of teaching and learning.”

Over the last couple of weeks, Woodward has taken a shine to the Pleissner gallery workshop, as it allows children to look closer at the work of Ogden Pleissner and then write a postcard as if they were visiting the places depicted in the paintings. To Woodward the activity is so important in getting the children to slow down and look long enough to start asking questions. “[Children] look for what emotions are trying to be evoked; and they now have a chance to become engaged with the artwork – I never got to get that as a kid.”

While Woodward has enjoyed her time teaching the large population of schoolchildren in these past few months, she also commented on how the world of the museum has changed her life. During one of the rare slow days, Woodward started a conversation with Pat Alvarez, one of the museum’s tour guides. Woodward lent Alvarez a book of poetry, and a couple of days later Alvarez returned the favor by bringing in a brand new edition of the poet’s works. Woodward was so touched by Alvarez’s kindness. Alvarez also showed Woodward a quote that she held dear – a quote by Louisine Havemeyer to her daughter Electra Havemeyer Webb, who founded Shelburne Museum. Woodward loved it so much she keeps a laminated copy as a reminder of her mission as a Passport to Learning Guide and as a lover of life: “Children, remember how blessed you are and if the opportunity ever offers, equalize the sum of human happiness and share the sunshine that you have inherited.”

Passport to Learning will resume its programming for the fall beginning September 26th and will run until October 14th.

Did you know?

During the Passport to Learning program, the Museum Store sees a curious influx in sales for rock candy, giant Pixie Sticks, and stuffed animals.

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