Bringing the Legacy of Residential Schools into the Classroom

My latest post, “Bringing the Legacy of Residential Schools into the Classroom” can be seen over on Active History.  The post focuses on resources that can help teachers integrate residential schools into their lessons. I look a handful of education tools which can be accessed digitally and are good starting points for teaching the history of residential schools.

Teaching in the Archives

Teacharchives.org a website dedicated to promoting teaching with primary sources and archives in new and innovative ways.  The site was developed through a grant that enabled the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) to partner with 18 faculty at three colleges near the archive.  This initiative, Students and Faculty in the Archives (SAFA), saw over 1100 students visiting BHS from 2011-2013 to engage with archival sources.

The site documents the three year project and provides an excellent resource for both archivists and instructors looking to engage students with primary source material.  After many student visits and the experience of inviting so many new visitors to the BHS the project came up with some basic guidelines for instructors wishing to integrate archives into their classroom:

  1. Define specific learning objects for each visit to an archives.  Each visit should be centered around an objective and relate to overall course goals.  
  2. The fewer documents the better.  Archive activities for students newly exposed to archives should focus on item-level document analysis.  Spend lots of time with fewer documents.
  3. Create opportunities for group learning.  Groups of 3-4 students work well for dealing with standard documents.  Group work can promote community, allow students to work through difficult sections together, and highlight the fact that document analysis can vary greatly between people. 
  4. Use direct and tailored research questions to guide student work. Avoid show and tell sessions in the archive.  Generic questions (what is this document, who created it) don’t highlight the intricate nature of archival sources and often don’t apply to all documents.  A couple of great examples of creating tailored handouts can be seen here.

The site is worth exploring if you’re looking for archives instructional resources.  The set of exercises on a range of common historical topics provided on the site is a great tool for those looking to develop their own instructional programs. There is also a selection of pedagogy based articles written by archivists and educators experienced with student archival instruction.

Many archives and educators struggle with effectively integrating collections into a range of courses.  Archival instruction and lessons based around primary sources can be valuable outside of historical methods classes.  Research, analysis, communication, and the ability to synthesize content are skills which reach across disciplines and can be reinforced by working with archival sources.

Museum Visitor Experience and Learning Styles

The majority of my visits to museums, art galleries, and other heritage sites are undertaken with people I’m connected with through work, by myself, or with my partner.  These visits are normally slow paced and allow for plenty of time for reading and contemplation. 

I enjoy looking at displays, reading text panels, checking out different exhibit techniques and just taking in the whole experience.  It’s been a long time since I visited a museum with someone who didn’t hold similar interests or explore museums in a similar way to me.

My recent trip to ROM was with my partner and two other people who I hadn’t previously visited heritage site with.  The experience reminded me of how individual visitor experiences at a heritage site can be drastically different. The best heritage sites engage visitors in a variety of ways that appeal to different learning styles and different interests.

 For example, one of the people I was with was drawn to anything involving technology or a touch screen.  He seemed to enjoy learning through watching videos and interacting with digital components best.  Long text panels and endless rooms of display cases didn’t seem to engage him – regardless of what was in the display case.

Many museums include tactile components or activity stations geared towards children and youth.  Dress up stations and colouring tables are some of the most common examples of simple but effective hands on activities.  But many adults like the interactivity and become more engaged when they are doing something more than passively looking or reading. 

One of my favourite parts of visiting Fort St. Joseph a few years ago with my parents was the dress up station.  In addition to having children sized military uniforms and hats there were adult sized clothes. My 60+ year old dad and I had a grand time dressing up while my mom looked on in amusement.  Not every interactive component has to be digital it just needs to be well thought-out and inviting to visitors.

Visiting a museum with people who were not nearly as excited about museums as I typically am was an interesting learning experience.  The experiences reminded me of the challenges in developing exhibits (interactive or otherwise) that appeal to a wide range of audiences.  It’s impossible to please everyone and even more so on a limited display budget. But shifting away from solely using exhibit cases and text to developing different styles of programming is something many effective heritage sites have started to do.

Museum Teaching Strategies and Inquiry Based Learning

I’m currently participating in a MOOC offered by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on art based instruction, museum teaching strategies and inquiry teaching.  Information on the course, “Art and Inquiry: Museum Teaching Strategies For Your Classroom,” is available here.

The course material combines readings, video lectures, and discussion groups.  The focus is on teaching techniques/resources and is based on MoMA’s successful education program.  I signed up for this free course based on a desire to gain another perspective on educational programming.  In 2013 over 1300 people participated in educational programming at my work and a large number of those participants were elementary and secondary school students.  I’m always looking for different ways to engage students in the history of residential schools, visiting art exhibitions, and history more broadly.

The first week’s content focused on the basics of inquiry learning and the use of objects/artwork as instructional tools.  The first week’s readings reinforced the flexibility of artwork and objects in instructional settings — objects can be used to spark conversation with all age groups and engagement with works of art/artifacts can teach critical thinking, observation, and presentation skills. 

I found the video example of the MoMA staff interacting with student groups particularly inspiring.  The staff encourage the students to observe an art work closely, discuss with each other their observations, and compare/contrast what they are observing.  The content helped inspire a couple of ideas about how to facilitate student interaction with artifacts currently on display at my work.

Architecture and Preservation at Open House Dublin

Tyrone House

My last day in Ireland was spent in Dublin. By happenstance Open House Dublin (OHD) was occurring that day and I was able to check out some local built heritage sites.  Open House Dublin is very similar to Doors Open days which allow people to tour buildings which are often closed to the general public and learn about the history of these sites. 

Open House Dublin is free and is sponsored by the Irish Architecture Foundation (IAF).  The 2013  OHD event featured 100 buildings and many of the sites featured tours by an architect or someone very familiar with the building’s architecture.  The IAF is a non-profit organization aimed at promoting the value of architecture to the general public.  Open House tours which explain the significance of local built heritage is a great way
to interest people in architecture and local heritage.

One of the sites I visited as part of OHD was the Tyrone House which is currently home to the

In Tyrone House Courtyard

Department of Education and Skills.  The building was the first stand alone stone house in Dublin.  A number of the original stonework, plaster ceilings, marble fireplaces, and mahogany woodwork is still in the structure.  The tour guide did an excellent job of contextualizing the building and speaking to the numerous modifications that had occurred in the building since it’s construction in the mid 1700s.

The Tyrone House site also a number of interesting modern art features and additional buildings that were not included in the tour.  The Department of Education and Skills built a replica of the Tyrone building on the site — possibly to create a symmetrical appearance of the grounds — this newer building was not included in the tour but the guide to speak to the aims of the Department to maintain the heritage of the site.

Charlemont House

I also visited the former Charlemont House.  This building dates from 1775 and is currently home to the Dublin City Gallery which is a museum for modern art.  The Charlemont House is limestone faced building  set back from the street.  The main floor of the House has been renovated extensively to accommodate a gallery space.  The upstairs portions of the building apparently retain some of the original fireplaces and detailing however because of a storage issue that area wasn’t accessible during my visit.  The tour at this site was fairly brief and not nearly as detailed as the one at Tyrone House.

Overall my experience during the Open House Dublin event was a positive one.  The guides were friendly and knowledgeable about their respective sites and it was an interesting opportunity to explore parts of Dublin that aren’t tourist destinations and that aren’t always open to the public. 

Gardens and Sculptures at Blarney Castle

Blarney Castle and the Blarney Stone are some of the most well known Irish landmarks.  The Castle was built in 1446 by Dermot McCarthy, the King of Munster and was one of the more rustic ‘castles’ I saw on my trip.

The staircase up to the top of the Castle was twisty, cramped and not for those who are claustrophobic or afraid of heights.  There’s a rope for visitors to hold on to as they transverse the curvy, narrow stairs but otherwise there isn’t much in the way of support during the climb.   As the stairwell winds upward there are a number of small rooms which visitors can explore.

The bedrooms, kitchen, and dinning room are only identifiable by the signage as
nothing but rock remains in the space.  The views from the top of the castle were pretty remarkable as the Castle overlooked the entire Blarney estate, including the Blarney House and gardens.

I enjoyed the grounds of the Blarney Castle more than the Castle itself.  There were a number of different styles of gardens on the grounds to explore.  The well manicured lawns were contrasted with the wild Rock Close and bog gardens.  The Rock Close area provided a peaceful walk through the woods on a trail lined with modern art sculptures.

In the Rock Close

The Poison Garden and the Irish Garden had added educational elements which aimed to teach visitors about a range of plants.  The poison garden was an interesting concept, it contains poisonous plants from around the world.  The plants are well labeled and describe the nature of the poison, the historical uses of the plants, and how the plants are used today.  The garden is well signed to warn visitors and parents of small children of potential dangers (eg. don’t touch or eat the plants).  The Irish Garden was relatively small but provided an opportunity to see and learn about some of the area’s native plants.

The expansive grounds at the Castle are what made the visit to Blarney worthwhile for me.  The Castle was a fun touristy experience and had a rustic old feel to it.  But, I could have spent hours wondering around the gardens and grounds as there were so many walking paths, sculptures, and variety of flora to see.

Photographs by Andrew MacKay

Exhibition and Design Skills

I wrote earlier about project management and administration skills that have can be invaluable in a number of public history roles.  Since moving into the Researcher/Curator role in February I’ve also had an opportunity to continue to expand a range of exhibition, design, and outreach practices.

Visualizing space and display design have always been something I have found challenging.  These tasks are still challenging, but like any skill I’ve found that the more opportunities I have to practice these skills the easier they end up being.  Some of basic exhibition and design practices that can be valuable to public history practitioners looking to expand their skill set include:

  • Start small.  Curating an entire exhibit from scratch can be overwhelming.  Filling a display case on a set theme can be a good place to start gaining practice in display creation. 
  • Have a mentor.  Installation and display design can involve a lot of hands on work.  The best way to learn these skills is to do them and having someone around who is familiar with common practices can be a godsend.
  • Familiarize yourself with basic tools and ‘handyman skills.’  That home renovation you’re undertaking might have more value than you know — mudding holes in drywall, hanging artwork, cutting acrylic, building basic shelves, etc are all skills which can be used during exhibit install. 
  • Learn how to plan things out to scale using graph paper.  Or how to use Sketchup or a similar program to map out an exhibition place. 
  • Following museum or art gallery listservs can be helpful.  There are is also a wealth of material in many of these listsev archives which can be useful when looking to come up with options for a specific problem.  (Eg. what type of mount to use when hanging artwork that is mounted on plexi and foam core). 
  • Proofreading and writing skills are key to creating informative and concise exhibit text. 

If nothing else this whole experience has made me take way more of an interest in the house renovations and building projects that partner is undertaking.

NCPH2013 Thursday WordPress Thoughts

My time at NCPH 2013 actually started on Wednesday.  The majority of my Wednesday activities revolved around networking and talking with new and old colleagues from Western University. Interesting discussions but not really blog post fodder.  As such I’m skipping to Thursday in my run down of this year’s NCPH experience.

WordPress as a Public History Platform
The first session I attended at the conference was on using WordPress in a public history setting, with an emphasis on using WordPress in a classroom setting. A couple of the presenters were sick and unable to attend the session, but Clarissa Ceglio, Jeffrey McClurken, and Erin Bell did an excellent job of leading an interactive panel which invited audience participation.

All three presenters highlighted some of the public history projects they have worked on recently which used WordPress.  Some of my favourite examples included:
Connecticut History site,  using WordPress to re-envision the concept of a state encyclopedia.  I particularly liked Ceglio’s emphasis on this site having an ongoing publishing effort and the fining tuning of WordPress for usability.  Ceglio also spoke about using the WordPress plugin in EditFlow to integrate editorial functions into the WordPress Site. 
UMW Blogs, a great example of  a university buying into the WordPress platform and using it for ‘official’ outreach.  This is also a great example of the possibilities of using WordPress as a multi-user platform. The site also has significant customizations and  for anyone having the misgiving that a WordPress site can’t “look nice” check out the UMW blogs.
The James Farmer Lectures site, a well done student created site that places the recorded lectures of James Farmer online.  The cleanness and effectiveness of this student site is what really won me over.  It’s a great example of the possibilities of students using WordPress.

The Question Session
The presenters in the WordPress session left ample time for audience questions and discussions.  Granted, the session as a whole was cut short because of a fire alarm — but that was clearly beyond their control.

Some of the interesting questions that arose:
-How do you manage the lifespan of a student driven WordPress site? 
McClurken spoke about his experience working with a range of student driven projects.  He indicated that in some cases students freely go back and update content on the site following the conclusion of a class.  There was also the mention of creating a digital repository to archive student sites or the possibility of partnering with an organization to maintain the site.
How much training do your students get when working with WordPress?
The general consensus was fairly limited training.  Most professors indicated that they only provide about half an hour of instruction before letting the students loose.  In this instance McClurken emphasized the importance of students learning by discovering and helping each other — that they should be “uncomfortable but not paralyzed” when learning”
How do you handle site promotion and comments? 
The panelists acknowledged the potential of comment features being a hassle.  However, they also indicated that the experience can be valuable for students.  One compromise that was suggested involved turning on the comments feature for the duration of the class and turning it off afterwards.

Public History and Administrative Skills

A lot of work I’ve been doing recently falls more under the project management and administrative support category than hands on archival work.  All of my jobs have included administrative and planning tasks that many people don’t associate with public history.  Getting ready ready to go public takes a lot of work.  Exhibit schedules do not magically create themselves and educational programming doesn’t just happen when visitors are around.

On that frame of mind, some of the administrative skills I’ve found tremendously useful to have in my public history tool box include:

  • The ability to create, implement and evaluate work flows.  I gained experience creating working flows while working as a Digitization Facilitator for the Our Ontario, Community Digitization Project.  That experience allowed me to learn how to organize the work of multiple staff working on collaborative and individual tasks. 
  • Short term and long term task management and planning. Juggling multiple projects, multiple priorities, and multiple stakeholders is fairly common in the public history world. Even more so if you are working in a smaller organization where you might have multiple hats.
  • Experience in general administrative tasks such as creating conference packages, troubleshooting printers, document formatting, book binding, filing, and general paperwork.  Creating good meeting minutes, agendas, and experience running meetings are also skills that can be invaluable in collaborative spaces.
  • Copy editing skills.  You know all those pretty exhibit labels, signage, handouts and other material created by heritage organizations?  Someone had to create all of that and chances are some serious effort also went into the copy editing of the text.  No one wants to see a giant sign go to print with the name of the organization misspelled on it.  
  • Knowing when to ask for help. No matter how hard you try you can’t be good at everything.  It’s okay to ask for help you need instruction or pass on a task because it is outside of your area expertise. 

This by no means a definitive list, but it’s a good place to start thinking about the different type of work public historians do.  Yes, some people work purely with artifacts or archival records.  But, many heritage professionals are engaged in work that requires a diverse skill set.  It’s worth thinking about all the things you do that don’t fall under typical notions of heritage work. 

Project of Heart: Hands on History

Comparable to the (official denial) trade value in progress sewing actions I wrote about last week, Project of Heart is a commemoration project which combines an artistic activity with history education.  Project of Heart aims to educate Canadians about the lasting impact of the Indian Residential School system.  The project places an emphasis remembering those students who passed away while at Residential School.

Participants in Project of Heart learn about Residential Schools and are then asked to decorate a small wooden title to represent the death of one child at Residential School.  The education component of Project of Heart focuses on learning through oral history and experiential learning.  Residential Schools Survivors are invited by school and community groups to tell their personal experiences, and give voice to language and traditions that were suppressed by Residential Schools.  The Project of Heart website also offers a great list of educational resources and discussion questions for those facilitating education activities.

Project of Heart also requests that each group focus on a specific Residential School.  Focusing on a particular school and on the students who attended that specific school held make the topic more tangible and less abstract.  The name of the school studied is written on the back of each title decorated by participants.

The artistic activity of the project, decorating a small wooden tile using sharpie markers, emphasizes creating something to remember and commemorate a child who died at Residential School.  Allowing students to express what they have learned through a creative medium makes this project appealing to many educators and the hands on component helps make the history lesson increasingly memorable.