As a teacher in an English language school with a strong cross-curricular focus, I always try my best to bring authentic materials into the classroom. Humans learn more when they can experience the real thing, instead of just looking at pictures of it in a book. Of course, it is not always possible to bring everything you want to teach about into the classroom, so it is beneficial to occasionally take students to a museum.
I started museum trips as part of my curriculum six years ago after getting free tickets to an art exhibit of works of Niki de Saint Phalle. My husband and I thought her colorful “Nanas” would appeal to the children and we wanted them to see this exhibition for themselves. Since that first year, I’ve been taking students and their parents to museum exhibits once a year for five years. At first, I wanted my students to enjoy the works of great artists, so I took them to see exhibits by Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and Yayoi Kusama. This year we decided to try something different, so we went to a great exhibit about the Olmec civilization.
A successful museum trip takes a lot of careful preparation, especially when you are trying to have one mostly in English and the exhibit signs are in another language! Here are some helpful things I have learned over the years about what factors contribute to a successful museum trip:
1. Choose the exhibit carefully.
Is this something you think will appeal to children? Also, if you anticipate that this exhibit will be very popular, try to have the museum trip on a weekday or first thing in the morning on the weekend. Avoid the first or last weekends it is open. Permanent exhibits will be less crowded, but if students have already seen that one before, they might not want to go again. Also, parents are usually more enthusiastic about having the chance to see a new exhibit and share it with their child.
2. Use worksheets to keep the students “on track”.
At least a week before your event, visit the museum and take lots of notes. Using these notes, prepare a simple one or two page worksheet, so students will be looking at the exhibits and gathering information to answer the questions instead of running around the museum and bothering the other patrons! Keep jargon to a minimum and try to see the exhibits from a child’s perspective. I made four versions of a worksheet for my students: one for kindergarteners, one for elementary age students who had beginning reading skills (I inserted lots of clip art to help them read and understand the questions.), one for elementary students who could read (I just took out the clip art from the earlier version) and one for more advanced older elementary students.
Here are some examples of questions I asked on the worksheets:
- Circle where the Olmec and Mayan civilizations are on this map of Mexico.
- Is the colossal Olmec head was heavy or light? How much does it weigh?
- Was the ball used for ritual ball games heavy or light? Was it made of natural rubber or stone? Was the game like baseball, soccer or tennis?
- What did they grind on this stone? What are tortilla chips made of?
- This statue is half man and half ____________. (Answer: jaguar)
- How is the Mayan calendar different from our calendar?
After everyone has had a chance to through the exhibits and answer the questions, gather somewhere to the side and go over the questions together. This type of wrap-up exercise also gives your event a nice ending.
3. Contact the museum staff beforehand.
It is a good idea to let the museum staff know you are planning to bring a group for a multitude of reasons. You’ll need to find out the museum’s rules, for example, many museums allow people to bring pencils, but not pens or mechanical pencils. Also, the staff can suggest places for your group to meet or do wrap-up at the end. Many museums have admission discounts for large groups. Some museums will even let the teacher in for free a week before the event so they can take notes to prepare their worksheets.
4. Cover the basics about the exhibition in the classroom beforehand
I’m always amazed at how young learners get so excited about seeing something familiar! Taking the time to teach a lesson on the subject matter before the trip helps students to feel more connected with the exhibits and they will naturally be more enthusiastic and motivated to find out more. In my kindergarten classes, I showed the students pictures of Mexico, the Olmec colossal heads, jaguars and Mayan pyramids. In my elementary classes, we found Mexico on a world map, colored its flag and then talked about what language was spoken in Mexico, how important corn was to that part of the world and made a time line of the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations. We also sampled tortilla chips and salsa, an uncommon snack in Japan! In my advanced elementary classes, we also briefly discussed how the Olmec influenced the Mayan and Aztec civilizations and how the Mayan calendar worked.
Get the museum trip off to a good start with a simple quiz show!
I made four small posters with simple questions about the Mexican flag, where Mexico is on a world map and how old the Olmec civilization was. Before we went into the museum, we had a brief Parents vs. Students quiz. The students were very eager to show off to their parents how much they knew! This was the first time we tried this and we received a lot of positive feedback from both students and parents.
Planning a museum trip is a lot of work, but students and their parents enjoy it and get so much out of it. It also adds to the reputation of my school and is an educational, low cost event.
Lesley Ito, originally from Florida, has been teaching English to EFL/ESL students in Nagoya, Japan for over 17 years. She is a teacher trainer, author and the owner of BIG BOW English Lab, a private language school with a unique cross-curricular focus. You can access her articles and free downloads at her school’s website at http://www.bigbowenglish.com/teachertraining.htm or read her blog at http://www.bigbowenglish.com/itolesley.htm. You can also follow her on Twitter.