Museum Visits–Making Them Sticky


I’ve been spending a lot of time in museums lately.  A few weeks ago, I was privileged to visit the Smithsonian’s Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The praise for this newest addition to the Smithsonian has been sky high, and it isn’t hyperbole to say the museum is spectacular.  By now, people know when they visit that their tour will start on the underground floors and progress in a spiral through 500 years of history—starting with the slave trade, traveling through all of American history, and ending on the top floors with a celebration of African-American accomplishments and triumph.  As a friend of mine who was with me that day said, “You are sick to your stomach, then tearful, and then you feel like dancing.”

The Museum is huge, vast in its scope, deep in its detail. I started by taking notes of things I didn’t know, not realizing I could take pictures on my phone (of most exhibits). But by the time I reached Jefferson, I couldn’t take notes anymore. There was simply too much information. I took a few pictures, but even that mode of recording information was inadequate to the task. I kept going, through the Civil War, through Reconstruction, through early 20th century. And then I reached the Civil Rights movement–the time period I remember, know something about personally.  And still, the explosion of information overwhelmed me. There was so much I didn’t know.


Aware that I wouldn’t be back for a long time, I wanted to take everything in, skip nothing, but museum fatigue set in. I’d already spent five hours and only had a little time left. I’d been admonished not to miss the top floors, so in my remaining hour, that’s where I headed. Thank goodness, for even though I skimmed the exhibits there, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the jubilation at the top.

When teachers take their students to museums, they usually don’t have six hours–even if the field trip is to Washington D.C. and they’re staying several days.  Maybe brevity is a good thing because museum fatigue (a real phenomenon–not just a term I made up) would set in well before the six hours I stayed.

Coming away from a museum like this one with an overall impression (as in my friend’s summation about revulsion, empathy, and joy) is important in itself, of course. Context matters. But to make the memory “sticky,” it’s important to personalize the experience in some way.  If you’ve ever been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., you remember how visitors receive an identity card when they enter. At the end of their visit, they find out what happened to the person they’ve become as they’ve experienced the Holocaust.

This isn’t possible in the African-American History Museum–slave records are incomplete and depersonalized and the time span (500 years) is too long for this same strategy–but objects,  events, and even concepts can become personal.  Here are some ways that can be done–for this museum or any other.

  1. If you’re doing a study of African-American history in your classroom ahead of time, have each student choose a specific event, a particular individual, or an important topic to “specialize” in. Then, at the Museum, the student’s mission will be to find the exhibit where that event or that individual or that topic is depicted. The task will be to pause for a significant amount of time in front of it (or interact with it) and take notes, even pictures (if pictures are allowed).Upon returning to the classroom, students report out–orally or in writing–about “their” exhibit. What new information was learned? What displays or pictures or graphics brought the information to life? Was it covered more deeply–or less so–than the student had covered it? How did it relate to exhibits around it? Were there other events or people that were similar?                                                                                                                                      bombing-of-birmingham-church
  2. If you’re not studying African-American history ahead of time, go to the Museum website ( before you visit the Museum itself.  Have students click on Museum Collections and choose an area of interest.  Objects in the collection are cataloged by topic, date, place, name and object type. By expanding the information on any one of the thousands of items in the collection, students can see if that item is on display and the location of the object in the Museum. To make this more than a scavenger hunt, have the student prepare an oral or written report on exactly what the item was, how it was used, to whom it belonged and how it was situated in the exhibit. In other words, ask them to explain the context of the item.

One of the most successful museum visits I ever made with students was to an exhibit in 2001 to the Indianapolis Museum to see “Gifts to the Czars,” a collection of dazzling items that had been brought to the Russian czars by ambassadors from around the world from 1500 to 1700. The items were treasures from the Armory Museum in Moscow. I brought students to this museum to prepare them for reading Animal Farm–to contrast the opulence and luxury of palace life with the squalor and deprivation peasants faced in pre-Revolutionary Russia. No amount of my say-so was as effective in conveying the richness of the Russian Empire as the bejeweled gold and silver pieces, the inlaid and encrusted objects that were taken as mere gifts to the czars.  

3. At the Museum, I asked students to find one object in the exhibit that intrigued them, pause in front of it for at least 5 minutes, and with words and sketches, capture the detail they saw.  In the collection: sabers and swords, shields, textiles, horse trappings, an empirical eagle with a tray for holding the czar’s crown, a Baroque basin, serving dishes and wall decorations. Something of interest for everyone.  The temptation today would be to take a cell phone picture, but it is the 5 minutes of close visual inspection that made the assignment work. Five minutes is an awfully long time for a 9th grader, but the longer they looked, the more they saw. The follow-up to this assignment was a creative writing piece, based on the known facts, and a map showing the route the ambassador would have taken from his home–say, Istanbul or Stockholm–to Moscow at that time. 

A similar activity could be done in any museum, but the temptation to take a cell phone shot and move on would have to be overcome. As I recall, I had to approach the 5-minute rule as a challenge to my students. Could they do it: Hold still for 5 minutes? (Click here for the original assignment.)

A side note: When a few of those same students went to Russia with me a year or so later, we visited the Armory Museum.  Some of the items they’d identified were back on display there. Students who found “their” object were genuinely excited!


In any event, the point is this: To heighten the impact of a museum visit, find a way for the students to identify with the exhibit you are taking them to see.  Years later–and even on the spot–the time spent in any museum can be just a blur, but if the student–or the teacher–heads into it with a personalizing assignment in mind, that at least will stick–long after the overall impression has faded.

What’s in a Name?

mangel-wurzels2The other day at lunch I asked a colleague who farms if she had ever raised mangel-wurzels. She started laughing, “No,” she said, “but what a name.”

What prompted the question is that a former student had sent me a few photographs of the mangel-wurzels in her garden. They’re ready to harvest, and back in the spring when she told me she’d included these ungainly root vegetables—beets, not turnips, usually fed to animals—I asked her to send pictures.

Mangel-wurzels—unforgettable in the silliness of their name–feature in the song Old Major teaches to the animals in Orwell’s classic allegory of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent years under Stalin, Animal Farm.

This story about overworked and underfed farm animals, who are inspired by Old Major’s words and brought to the point of delirium by the promise of a limitless bounty of “wheat and barley, oats and hay/Clover, beans, and mangel-wurzels” that will be theirs when Mr. Jones (“Tyrant Man”) is overthrown, is satirical. Many students need help recognizing that, even though Orwell writes that “it was a stirring tune, something between ‘Clementine’ and ‘La Cucaracha.’”

For the most part, middle schoolers, 9th graders, even Honors 9th graders haven’t been schooled in satire yet, but the mention of mangel-wurzels tips them off–especially after the whole class sings the song together from beginning to end. That’s what I used to do when I was teaching Animal Farm. Students were startled when I began a sprightly rendition of “Beasts of England,” belting it out to the tune of “Clementine.” I invited them to join in. Right away a few did, but most hesitated. I didn’t waver (even though I felt self-conscious, too) and eventually the others joined in for the sheer fun of it. In a good year, the singing became quite spirited—especially after the giggling started: which was when we got to the word mangel-wurzels.

That inspired and absurd song—its sprightly tempo, the mangel-wurzels, the “rings from our noses,” the “golden future time”—all of it—helps students recognize other points of satire in the first chapter. For example:

  • Mr. Jones, unsteady on his feet, drunk, tottering up to bed to his snoring wife
  • Old Major, a boar with a vision—and a pedigree (He was exhibited under the name Willingdon Beauty)
  • The various animals with their human traits
  • The cat voting on both sides of question “Are rats comrades?”
  • Old Major mentioning that when he was ”a little pig,” his mother used to sing to him
  • The animals readily learning the words to “Beasts of England” and singing the song five times straight before they awaken Mr. Jones

In the next chapter, after the Rebellion, the animals take Mr. Jones’ hams out of the farmhouse to give them a proper burial, and Molly, the white mare, prances and preens in front of a mirror, admiring her hair ribbons.

It’s just silly. And that’s the way that satire starts.

But Animal Farm doesn’t stay silly for long. Satire is not the same thing as parody. Because of those human characteristics—particularly those of Clover, the motherly cart-horse and Boxer, the long-suffering, devoted and steady work horse—the students identify with the animals and become invested in their struggle to make a success of the farm. But when Napoleon squirrels away the milk and apples and later when he tells the assembly that Snowball is a traitor, the students see his duplicity and share the animals’ befuddlement. When the sheep are murdered, the animals are horrified—and so are the students. When Boxer is taken to the knacker’s, the students are outraged—and hurt. They feel the betrayal, too—just as Orwell intended.

What’s in a name? Orwell choosing an absurdedly named root vegetable to represent the hope and promise of rebellion—the utopia of Old Major’s vision—is an early clue that Animal Farm is satire. Looking back from the end of the book, it’s also Orwell’s final word on the subject. In his view, the ideal is impossible. It is the nature of power to corrupt; eventually, the new leaders will morph into the old, again there will be masters and slaves.

Mankind can achieve and sustain egalitarian self-rule?




Chocolate Scramble


I don’t ordinarily distribute candy to students as an incentive, but when I am introducing Animal Farm to 9th graders, I need to acquaint them with the concepts of communism and capitalism.

To do this, I engage them in a simulation activity I learned from an amazing social studies teacher. In this simulation, Hershey’s kisses equal money. But I don’t tell the students that until later. I just come in one day and start inexplicably throwing chocolate around.

If the principal came into my room for a 10-minute walk-though just as I was throwing the Hershey’s kisses up into the air and saying “Go for it,” he might well wonder what I was up to. In light of the scramble that ensues—kids bolting from their chairs, dropping to the floor, reaching, stretching, even covering the chocolate pieces with their bodies—I could just hope that he knows me well enough to believe there’s method in my madness.

Capitalism, I could tell him, and maybe he’d see that kids diving under tables and greedily scooping up kisses by the armful resembles the drive to amass a fortune. Maybe he’d see the girl with the big heart slip a few pieces of chocolate to someone who has none and recognize the philanthropic impulse. Maybe he’d see the kids who are seated at the back of the room or trapped behind furniture and realize they represent the disadvantaged in our society. “Not fair!” he’d hear a few kids cry—and see them sit there, mad.

If he came in later, when I was redistributing the chocolate evenly, would he see the gratitude of those who had nothing, suddenly having something?  Or would he see the complaisance of those who hadn’t been willing to scramble, smiling smugly when they got some chocolate anyway?  Would he see the frustration of the ones who put had effort into the game, no longer having so much?  “Not fair!” he’d hear them cry. Or would he think I was just offering up candy that day and making sure—in good teacher fashion—that it was shared equally, that everyone got the same amount?

He might come in later when a discussion about these two economic systems was underway. Would he wonder why the kids weren’t naming the systems? I wouldn’t stop to explain that I hadn’t yet labeled them: If I had, the students’ discussion would be informed by what they already knew or had heard somewhere. In this simulation, the scrambling represents the American system, capitalism: The students might not be able—or willing—to point out its flaws. The other system is one they’ve already, by age 14, come to regard negatively. They might not be able—or willing—to discuss communism without bias.

But this way, with chocolate as the symbol and no names named, the students conclude that neither system is perfect.

And then I name them, the systems (and reveal the learning objective for the day, hidden from the kids until now so as not to spoil the discovery aspect of this lesson): Students will understand and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of two economic systems—capitalism and communism.

Looking at the activity as a vocabulary exercise, what better way to make meanings permanent than with a physical activity? For learning words, the research tells us that kinesthetic connections create the strongest memory bonds of all.

Or, if I think about it as a strategy for stimulating higher level thinking, the discussion is really a comparison/contrast exercise—We know that one of the best ways to understand one thing is to juxtapose it with another and examine the points of similarity and difference. So it’s analytical.

And as a stategy to build familiarity prior to reading a text, which is what an English teacher also needs to do, the simulation works perfectly. Suddenly the excesses of Mr. Jones of Manor Farm are made real, and the intent of the rebellious animals—to share equally in the work and the profits of the farm—are understandable.

But of course, what begins idealistically in Orwell’s classic deteriorates rapidly. The introduction of Napoleon and Snowball turns Animal Farm into another thing altogether.

“Not fair!’ the students cry when the milk and apples are reserved for the pigs. “Not fair!” when the pigs begin sleeping in beds. “Not fair!” when confessions are forced and animals executed. More than “Not fair!” when Boxer is sent to the knacker’s. Kids sometimes cry tears, not just foul, when they realize, with the betrayal of Boxer, the depth of Napoleon’s deceit. At the end of the book, when the pigs are walking on their hind legs and carrying whips in their hooves, when the other animals see Napoleon and Pilkington playing poker and raising toasts to each other, the pigs and the men around the poker table indistinguishable from each other, the destruction of Animal Farm is complete.

And now, a third term—totalitarianism—presented visually with the image of Napoleon, drunk with power and playing cards with Pilkington. The stage is set for another analysis task: tracing what happened at Animal Farm, step-by-step, in order to see exactly how the animals were deceived. And then for another: drawing the allegorical connection between what happens on Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution.

What goes on in a classroom is so much more complex than what meets the eye. Throwing chocolate around, indeed!

It’s ideas that teachers send flying through the air—and lessons like “Chocolate Scramble” that land them in students’ minds.

PS: That amazing social studies teacher? My daughter. Thanks, Elizabeth. This simulation worked for me for years–and when I left the classroom, I passed it along to my colleagues. Isn’t that what teachers do? Share the wealth?