Pittsburgh-Area Teachers Tap into Smithsonian Resources

A guest post by Dr. James Reese and Ashley Naranjo, M.Ed., who have worked with a cohort of Pittsburgh-area teachers over the last year to build engaging lessons from digitized museum resources and research-based pedagogy.

What could teachers and students learn if they had full access to the combined resources of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums, 9 research centers, the National Zoo, and more?

Since August 2018, we’ve been working with nearly 30 elementary school teachers across 10 public school districts to find out. With support from the Grable Foundation, our project has focused on learning ways to apply research-based approaches to the use of museum collections in the classroom.

Museum educators from the Smithsonian Institution and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, as well as education leaders expert at integrating Project Zero ideas, have guided these teachers in creating exemplary lessons that pair digitized museum resources of the Smithsonian with specific pedagogical tools called Thinking Routines.

Guiding Partners

In 2016, the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access developed the Smithsonian Learning Lab to inspire educators to discover and creatively use the Smithsonian’s vast holdings of digital materials, including millions of images, recordings, and texts. Pittsburgh-area secondary school teachers were among the first to experiment with and test out ideas in the Lab. By encouraging the creation and sharing of personalized collections, the Lab aspires to build a global community of learners who are passionate about adding to and bringing to light new knowledge, ideas, and insight.

Anyone with an internet connection has access to the Lab. Educators can curate their own collections, make their thinking visible about how they are using these museum resources for learning, and show specific pedagogical approaches they are taking with students.

Project Zero Thinking Routines, developed by researchers based in Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, help scaffold students’ thinking toward deeper learning by fostering dispositions such as curiosity, empathy or perspective-taking. Learning Lab workshop leaders and researchers have found the pairing of Thinking Routines with digitized resources to be a natural fit, facilitating deep exploration of topics at hand in the classroom or in any educational setting.

Bringing it Together: The Pittsburgh Teachers’ Experience

Participating Pittsburgh-area elementary school teachers have come together four times over the course of the 2018-19 school year for day-long workshops centered on reflective professional practice. They were introduced to the tools and functionality of the Lab and the core understandings that Thinking Routines support. Participants also learned from local teacher leaders who had already built classroom-tested collections in the Lab. Early in the year, they began building their own collections for use with their students.

By the time of Remake Learning Days, the teachers had “published” their collections on the Lab, searchable with the hashtag #pzpgh.

On May 15th, the new MuseumLab at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh served as the perfect backdrop for a showcase of Pittsburgh-area teachers’ year-long professional development journey. The showcase was an opportunity to share with visitors the impact the process has had on their professional growth and on their students’ learning.

As part of the project leadership team, we were excited to be part of Remake Learning Days. This event not only exhibited the work of the teachers but it featured promising practices for collaborations between classroom teachers and museums.

Participating teachers pose for a photo during their final workshop.

Teachers pose for a group photo during their final workshop.

Examples from Class

We’ve found the teachers’ collections fostered ways of thinking about topics that transcended subject areas. Below are several examples from participants in the project, highlighting ways they wove Learning Lab resources and Thinking Routines into their practice:

  • Through artworks and music of the Harlem Renaissance, Rebecca Grubbs of Duquesne City Schools developed a Learning Lab collection that immersed her visual arts students in a different era and used the Thinking Routines “See, Think, Wonder” and “Colors, Shapes, Lines” to support close-looking activities. Students then created artworks of their own inspired by what they had seen and heard.
  • First grade students in Christina Harris’ classroom of Baldwin-Whitehall School District analyzed the composition of a single photograph to better understand the relationship between character and setting in their own reading and writing. In Christina’s Learning Lab collection, students started with a zoom-in looking exercise with the “See, Think, Wonder” Thinking Routine that led into the “Parts, Purposes, Complexities” Design Thinking Routine in order to deconstruct the elements of storytelling through visuals.
  • Darla Gerlach and Al Dietrich of Shaler Area School District used a collection of lunch boxes found in the Lab to support student understanding of a math concept with a practical application. After exploring volume and examining examples of lunch boxes from other eras, students designed their own, incorporating modern technology to meet the needs of students in 2019. The teachers used the Thinking Routine called “The 3 Y’s” to consider environmental sustainability issues and “Connect, Extend, Challenge” to reflect on their learning.
  • Sue Mellon of Allegheny Valley School District, a resource teacher for gifted students, created a Learning Lab collection focused on the use of primary sources. After supporting grade 4 students’ in developing understanding about primary sources, she introduced a project for grade 5 students that connected an interest in their family history to a research question around something about which they wanted to learn more. They then researched that topic using primary sources and were asked to make their thinking visible through ongoing reflections and by making a display of their learning. The students used the Thinking Routine “Claim, Support, Question” to evaluate sources and to extend their research inquiry. Sue’s overarching goal is to prepare these students for participating in the National History Day competition when they are in grade 6.

These teachers’ Learning Lab collections are now available for educators across the country to use and adapt to meet the needs of their students.

Through this year-long professional development project, we have seen the participating teachers embrace the use of Thinking Routines and museum collections as a way to bring classroom lessons alive and to deepen their students’ learning. This marked the third year of a collaboration between Smithsonian and Pittsburgh-area teachers, and our hope is to continue, and strengthen, the partnership.

Published May 30, 2019

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