Museums: creating moments of deep learning and connection – a poignant example…

Museums (along with their Gallery and Library counterparts) hold a significant and important place in the learning landscape.  They can provide meaningful experiences not easily created within conventional classrooms – the opportunity to emotionally connect learners with significant concepts in a way that elicits deep, and potentially transformative, thinking.

These moments of emotional connection, deep thinking and learning do not simply happen.  They are designed, curated, experiences.  As a professional museum educator who has designed and delivered many different learning experiences, it is a desire to create these moments that drives me.  I love seeing the wide eyes of shock and disbelief as a learner faces a challenging idea.  Or the heartfelt question as they try and reconcile a new concept that doesn’t fit with their preconceived ideas.  Or even the serene look of someone that connects their own story to a bigger picture.

Often though, I don’t get the opportunity to really see the impact these moments have on the audience.  For school groups, much of the reflection and unpacking of new thoughts and ideas are done after the visit.  There is also the challenge of ensuring the deeply emotional moments, the ones that can lead to the most significant learning, are safe.  That they don’t leave the audience, particularly children, with unresolved distress.

When I deliver the two day costumed school experience at Sovereign Hill I aim to create as many of these deep learning moments as possible, while still balancing the diverse needs of the children to ensure they have a positive experience.  I endeavor to provide as much ‘learning fodder’ as possible so that teachers can delve deeper into a range of concepts when they get back to school.

I have previously written about how I have provoked thinking about gender roles.  I have also written about the challenges of addressing sensitive topics such as racial discrimination.  I really want the children to consider some of the more challenging realities of history and how it may have impacted on societal norms today. I want them to come away with questions and reflections, not simply facts and figures.

This week I witnessed one of the most profound learning moments I have ever seen.

I had the pleasure of hosting a highly engaged class of year 5 students and collaborating with their dedicated and skilled teacher for the two day program in my replica 1850s classroom.  As the teacher and I reacquainted (we had also worked together the previous year) she told me about their recent learning focus on human rights and propaganda.

After considering this for some time and getting to know the students I saw that this group was in a great position for delving into some heavy content. I proposed to the teacher that we challenge the students to face some of the racial discrimination present in the 1850s.  I asked if she felt comfortable with her class, which was very multicultural, being confronted with some difficult material and if she would be happy to guide them in a debrief afterwards.  We were both keen and felt they had been well prepared by their prior exploration of human rights and propaganda.  We discussed some ideas for the debrief and planned to run the lesson as the last session of the day.


So, with both the students and I in our 1850s roles, I had them read a lesson on ‘Government and Laws’ from A Catechism of the Rudiments of Knowledge, specially adapted for Australian beginnings, for use in schools and families.  This book is a facsimile of the original from 1861, copied specifically for use in our Costumed School program.

For the lesson I read the questions aloud and the children were instructed to read the answers aloud together in unison.  The content included a discussion of ‘savage’ and ‘civilized’ nations.  I stayed in role throughout the lesson and as we packed up for the day.  I found it incredibly difficult.  I felt pain for the students confronted with such disparaging ideologies about, in some cases, their own cultural heritage. It was made even more intense by not only having them listen to the content but say it aloud.

Catechism page 50Catechism page 51

As I wanted to stay in role between day 1 and day 2 I did not participate in the debrief, instead I listened in from the adjoining room.  What I heard brought me so much pride and joy.

The students showed an incredible amount of thought and insight.  The intelligent connections they made and their empathy and strength was heartwarming.

When the teacher asked the students how the lesson made them feel they responded with comments such as:

Emotionally one children said “Heartbroken.  I felt sorry for the children back then.”

With a tone of determined protest another said “I didn’t say it.”

“I must have been so awful for the Chinese children.”  Which followed with a discussion about who would have been given the opportunity to go to school.

In response to questions about who would have produced the text and why, they said “the Government” and “because they wanted to make them believe that.”

And then, as they thought about what had changed between then and now:

“Because people came out of the shadows and spoke up against what wasn’t right.”

“Because the Australian Government is more diverse.  There are Chinese and Aboriginal people in the Government now.”

All this came from 10 and 11 year olds.

I had a major moment of ‘yes! this!’  This is what I want the students to be able to get out of the experience.  The unique opportunity to live the past and understand the context and reality of systemic discrimination was incredibly powerful for these students.  To have the opportunity to witness their emotional reaction, the questions and reflections they had and the insightful connections they made was a great privilege.

At the end of Day 2, when we all broke role for final discussion and debrief, I had the opportunity to reassure the children that the role I played was not a reflection of my own beliefs. I also told them how impressed and inspired I was by their discussion. We had further discussions around gender roles and discrimination, children’s rights (or lack there of!), and how education has (mostly!) changed from learners being told what to think to encouraging them to think for themselves.

I hope that many more such examples are happening back in the classroom.  It has inspired me to develop ways to support more teachers to utilise their experience in the Museum to unpack some of the more challenging concepts and guide their students in inquiries where they can make these powerful connections. Making these deep learning moments connect to their lives and endure well beyond the visit.

Provoking thinking about 19th century gender roles

In the recreated 1850s classroom where I teach, I immerse modern students in an experience of what school and life may have been like for children on the gold fields.  We aim for historical accuracy as much as possible, but also make accommodations to meet the contemporary needs of children, as well as modern legal and moral rights.

Gender roles and discrimination in education are something that very quickly become apparent as children step into the role of 1850s children.  They are divided by their gender for clothing, lessons and rules.  In my school, the girls are not allowed to run or squat on the ground to play marbles.  They must learn needlework while the boys learn technical/mathematical drawing.  They are also excluded from discussions about jobs for their future, due to its irrelevance to their expected future roles as wives and mothers.

Interestingly, not being able to run seems to elicit the loudest protests and mutterings of disbelief.

Read More »

Inspiration for Meaningful Education

With all the talk about NAPLAN and performance based pay for teachers that has been circling around lately I felt the need to seek out some inspirational material to restore my faith in the purpose and possibilities of education.

My first port of call was to return to one of my old favourties, Sir Ken Robinson.  I have always found solace, but also excitement, in his ideas about what makes meaningful education and in this clip I like how he disputes the very foundation of our education system.

Read More »

Final thoughts from the classroom

I have now finished my term of casual teaching in Darwin. It has been an interesting and extremely valuable experience. It has been refreshing, albeit exhausting, to remind myself of the everyday experiences of the clients I serve as an education officer. While I did not have a class of my own, or have much opportunity to participate in planning and assessment, I still found the chance to be immersed in the school environment worthwhile. This experience has reminded me of a number of things I already knew but was beginning to forget. It also shed light on from a different perspective. I’m glad I can return to my position as an Education Officer, and I will bring back some new ideas and a new resolve. I wanted to share some of the things I noticed, learnt, considered and have come to believe as a result of my experience. These are generalisations, but I think they still represent truths worth considering.

Read More »

History and Literacy – A Grammar Lesson with Ned Kelly

When I worked at the State Library of Victoria I was often reading and discussing Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter with students. It is such a colourful and fascinating insight into the man who still elicits such powerful, yet opposing, feelings. The language is a hoot and the explanations he offers for his actions are an eclectic combination of passionate justifications and childish excuses. Students loved it, and I loved using it.

One of the letter’s amusing features is its poor grammar. While it is remarkable that Ned was literate at all, the letter’s distinct lack of punctuation makes it somewhat difficult to read. Generally believed to be dictated by Ned and written by his friend Joe Byrne, the letter definitely reads like spoken rather than written language. Because of this, I had always thought that it would make a fun literacy activity to try and correct his grammar. Today, I gave it a bash…

I was teaching in a Year 5/6 classroom in Darwin and had limited time to think of some activities, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to call on Ned to help me out. We started the lesson with a bit of a revision of sentence features and structures. The students had some prior knowledge in this area, but hadn’t done much grammar-specific editing. They knew next to nothing about Ned Kelly (a shocking realisation to a Victorian!), so we also did a little introduction to his life.

Then I let them have a go at editing the first 5 pages of the Jerilderie letter – the transcript, not the original! – which I took from the SLV website. They started off well and gave it a good go, but as the language became increasingly more difficult and his story more confusing, they started losing motivation and concentration. At that point I started reading through it with them. As we had limited time, I had them edit it direct on the page, but with more time it would definitely be worth actually re-writing it.

When we went through it together they enjoyed it more, which I think was mainly because I was able to add a bit of emotion into reading it. I also translated some of the language into modern slang, which they enjoyed. For example, I explained to them “when he says:

my fist came in collision with McCormack’s nose and caused him to loose his equillibrium and fall postrate

What he means is:

I accidentally punched him in the nose and he fell flat on his face.”

Once we finished editing it we re-read sections of it and the students were able to get a bit more of a picture of what he was trying to say.

Overall the lesson went well, and with a few adjustments I think it would be a very worthwhile activity for teachers to run. The main improvement I would make would be to integrate it into the historical study of Ned Kelly or bushrangers. This would have given some context for the students and greater motivation for them to interpret the letter – most students I have come across thoroughly enjoy learning about Ned Kelly. The second change would be to provide more scaffolding in editing and grammar. As this was a one off, it was quite a challenging task for the students. If the students had more background skills it would have been much easier for them.

Also, I would think it would be a quicker (and possibly more fun) activity for secondary students.

Not all students like learning or practising their grammar, but with a bit of Ned’s charm and charisma, they might even find it fun! If anyone gives it a go, or has in the past, please let me know how it went.

(Picture from the State Library of Victoria – Manuscripts Collection).

Thoughts from the classroom – Part 2


Early on in my stint casual teaching here in Darwin I started thinking about how students perceive discipline from, and respect for, adults. At the same time I was thinking about the experience of adults when they face undisciplined and disrespectful children. As a CRT, this is something that is a daily consideration. As an Education Officer, sometimes one creating mock 1850’s learning environments, it is a very different experience.

Throughout my education degree I thought: I’m not going to be one of those teachers that just demands respect from their students, I believe I have to earn it. I still believe this. The problem is that the students don’t necessarily agree with what TYPE of efforts should earn respect. I figured that as a hardworking teacher who wanted the best for them and created the best learning programs I could, I was worthy of respect. But there are many students who will not show respect for their teachers. This may be because they dislike them or because they aren’t aware of their behaviours or fully understand the ramifications. Or, perhaps it’s because they put teachers in a completely different category to other adults?

The reason I have been musing on this is that since returning to the classroom I have been struck by the contrast between students’ interactions with me here, and those when I meet them as an Education Officer. In this discussion I am mainly referring to older students, after they have passed the phase of general love for their teacher and desire to please. From about Year 4 up.

Working with students I barely know, I receive markedly more respect in the role of Education Officer rather than Casual Teacher. Why does my official name badge or costume, as symbols of my position, accord me more respect from children than as a casual teacher? I am exactly the same person, with the same level of knowledge and the same qualification.

Is my manner different? Not really, at least not until I encounter and try to manage the behaviour management issues that come hand-in-hand with the lack of respect. The one exception of this is when I am role-playing as an 1850’s lady. However, even then, I don’t so much change my manner but rather just let the students draw their own assumptions!

When I talk about students showing a lack of respect, I see that embodied in particular behaviour: general indifference and ambivalence, speaking over the top of the adult-in-charge, inappropriate and rude comments directed at the adult, and a lack of empathy to the efforts of the adult. As a relief teacher I face these behaviours on a daily basis and trying to manage or alter them is challenging. In contrast, as a Education Officer I faced much less, and when it did occur, it was usually very easy to manage (a quiet look or a ‘may I please have your attention’ would normally suffice).

I noticed this difference particularly when I was with a class of Year 5 students for 3 days. For the first day and a half the whole class, while reasonably cooperative, were rather indifferent to me. It seemed as though they saw me as merely a teacher. They didn’t really want to share things with me. Then, when we were doing a lesson on Australian History, I introduced them to my permanent job. Most of the class were very interested and their behaviour towards me changed. From a number of students I received something very close to admiration. From most though, I received a higher degree of respect, shown to me by their willingness to listen, slightly improved behaviour, and interesting thoughtful questions. Sure I was enthusiastic and had good knowledge about the topic, but their behaviour changed seemed to stem more from their thoughts that I had a job worthy of respect. I was no longer merely their teacher.

Do students see teaching as something other than a profession? Do they see their teachers in a completely different mould to other adults? I think back to my days as a school student and there were definitely a few key teachers that I respected and admired. But I didn’t aspire to be them.

Is it familiarity? Do students see their teacher a bit like their parents – they might appreciate them deep down, but still have a battle and negative behaviours as they push the boundaries set by these familiar adults? Whereas other adults that students come in contact with may be seen as a novelty.

When children (and adults) respect and admire you, discipline and behaviour management becomes much easier. I know that, even as an adult, when I have met someone I admire, I go out of my way to be on my best behaviour and I listen to them very attentively and respectfully. Do those people we respect and admire, cause us to behave more like we did when we were young children? Is it our desire to please that moderates our behaviour?

Then what about the in between, neither admiration nor disinterest? I’m sure that it is only a minority of students I have taught in the role of Education Officer have actually admired my role, or me. But many have accorded me a nice level of respect. So why does the average student, without a great interest in history or museums, accord me more respect as an Education Officer than they give me as a teacher?

This post is riddled with questions, for which I don’t have an answer, but I think they are worth pondering. I know teaching is a tough gig. And while there are many joyful moments as you connect with and inspire children, it can also be challenging and draining. I wonder how teachers currently in the classroom feel… do they feel respected by their students? Do they feel they have earned or are due respect? Does greater respect come as your become a more skilled and competent teacher?

And what do we all, as past students, recollect as our feelings towards our teachers compared to other adults?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thoughts from the classroom – Part 1

Behaviour and Bullying

This term, while on leave from my position as an Education Officer, I have gone back to the classroom as a casual relief teacher. I have worked at a wide variety of schools in and around Darwin, NT. This experience has been interesting in so many ways and in both the personal and professional spheres. I think it is important to reflect on some of these experiences and how they might help me be a better EO, and perhaps even a better person.

I had initially started another blog entry on discipline and respect, which I have yet to finish. Yet today, after a particularly difficult day, I felt compelled to reflect on the issues of behaviour and bullying. They are definitely related topics, but this entry is focussed more on questioning the student experience, from the teacher’s perspective. Rather than questioning the teacher’s experience. Also, both entries are about behaviour and relationships, rather than curriculum and content. This is mainly due to the role of a causal teacher, which, whether you like it or not, is inevitably heavily focussed on behaviour management.

One of the things I still really hope to do in the few weeks I have left is teach a lesson plan from one of the Education Resources I have written, so I can assess the strengths and weaknesses of my writing. But I have yet to have the opportunity to do that.

So, behaviour and bullying…

Today I taught a Year 2/3 class at a pretty standard public primary school. From what I could tell, most of the students were Caucasian and from middle-class families. The staff made a big point of telling me what a lovely class they were. However, for me, much of the day it was chaos. I had a lot of difficulty managing the dynamics of the class and challenging individual behaviours from many students. The students were not calculating and their behaviours were directed at me. But it was chaos. There was constant throwing, shouting, teasing, swearing, name-calling, tears, tantrums, kicking and a complete disregard when I asked for quiet.

None of the strategies I had used with other classes were effective: appealing to their desire to please, applauding good behaviour, stickers, stern directions, standard school punishment (time-out), being kept in at play, and more stickers! There were a number of students that were clearly distressed, and I was at a loss. A girl even quietly said to me “we’re never normally like this.” There was one student in particular that had serious behaviour problems that seemed to clearly stem from psychological issues (undiagnosed). He was completely disruptive. After a few hours in the class I also began to realise how much the other students were provoking him, often intentionally.

At recess I spoke in desperation to the head of the area. I must have sounded serious because she thought I was leaving! But I just needed some strategies, ones that would work. It was the first time I had, in a sideways manner, made a call for help since I started casual teaching. After recess the Assistant Principal came in a spoke to the students. I felt pretty awful. I don’t like asking other teachers to intervene because I see that as the opposite to the role of the CRT: we are meant to be helping alleviate the workload, not add to it.

During the AP’s talk, the students acknowledged that their behaviour was disruptive, uncaring and making the classroom environment difficult. They also offered good ideas on how to correct their behaviour. And it helped. A bit.

Afterwards they were quieter and definitely making an effort to do the right thing. They seemed much more aware of appropriate behaviour and confident in their ability to behave appropriately. It made surviving the day as a CRT much easier, but I was still unsettled by the dynamics in the classroom. The undercurrent of problems was still there. Speaking to the class teacher at the end of the day she was really shocked by their behaviour and the only thing we could deduce was that, as I was their first relief teacher for the year, they were completely unsettled and stressed by the lack of familiarity and an alteration to their very established routine.

After lunch there was an incident with some vicious shoe-throwing and the particularly challenging student was removed. This did calm things down a bit and it gave me some time to address other issues. One student, when put in timeout for talking back, said vehemently while kicking the wall “just another reason why I want to kill myself”. So I sat down and had a chat to him and while there seemed to be some attention seeking behaviour going on (he told me he didn’t really mean what he said, he was just angry), he was also clearly upset. He cried continuously while he told me about things that were bad in his life, his main problem being bullying in the yard.

This got me thinking. If I was at a loss on how to manage the behaviour of these students, how must the students feel? How can they stop their friends that are hurting, upsetting or bullying them? At this age, students are very much living in a self-focussed world where they struggle with empathy and often only remember the way they were wronged, and not what they may have done to cause it, or how they retaliated. I’m not trying to suggest bullying is the victims’ fault. But that the behaviour of the victim ideally should be monitored and changed in order to help them prevent future incidents.

On one off behaviours though, I have frequently had students tell me they were hurt/insulted, when I have in fact witnessed them (intentionally or not) provoke the person they are accusing. I am sure I was guilty of this as a school child. I was very self-focussed as a child and convinced my class, and the world at large, had it in for me for absolutely no reason. The truth was, as I can see now with the benefit of hindsight, I was a challenging person to be around. I was so unaware of the affects of what I said that I would often upset, offend or annoy people without any realisation. I also couldn’t let go. Because I was convinced people where in for me I was so hypersensitive to anything anyone said or did, however small, trivial or unintentional. I have seen similar behaviour in many children since becoming a teacher. Yet I still have very few ideas on how to help them. Particularly as they get older and their behaviours become habitual.

Most adults can recall in detail a time, or many times, when there were unjustly treated by a child or their teacher. I also fear at times I have said something that has been that ‘unjust moment’ for a child. But my comments have always been well meaning and aimed at improving the safety, happiness or learning environment of the children. I wonder, could I have managed the situation differently?

Earlier in my teaching career I was so focussed on the learning experiences of the students, I sometimes let the relationship experiences fall by the wayside. I cared about individual students and took time to listen to their stories and try to help. But when the class was together I focussed on order and quiet at the expense of getting to the crux of the issue.

However, as I have discovered, there is so often a reason behind disruptive behaviour that is based on passed experiences, feelings, health or state of mind, and is rarely malicious. This is particularly true in early primary and when considering behaviour directed at a teacher. But children can be cruel to each other. How can a teacher had the ability to manage and mend this complex interactions in a meaningful way, while still maintaining classroom order so learning can in fact take place? (This will likely carry on into my next post).

As a mature adult, I am able to go home, let the bad experiences go – they don’t stick (not very often anyway). For children though, they stick. They can be so consuming they affect so many facets of their behaviour. How do we teach children positive and helpful behaviours? How do we teach them to have empathy, resilience, self-confidence, and use positive defence strategies?

As this post is becoming quite mammoth, I will close here, but I am sure it will be something that I continue to consider. Relating it back to the experience of the EO, I wonder how this relationship experience plays out for the students we encounter so briefly? Is a one or two hour session different from a day with a CRT? Can students let the ‘unjust moment’ go, without letting it stick, because EO’s are not in the role of a trusted adult or friend? Does the new environment offer them sanctuary or stress?

So many questions that I don’t think there are definitive answers for. I would be very interested to know about other peoples’ experiences and thoughts on this issue? Please comment.