Connecting Educators with New York City’s Cultural Institutions: “The NYC Uncommon Approaches to the Common Core” Conference

Local cultural institutions have a lot to offer New York City educators by supporting curriculum development in exciting new ways. Teachers, for instance, are able use the high quality resources available at New York City’s museums to get students to think critically about the world around them. When students become aware of what the city has to offer them, a new outlook on their local environment may furthermore help promote lifelong learning.

An upcoming conference titled “NYC Uncommon Approaches to the Common Core” seeks to examine how NYC’s cultural institutions are helping teachers to develop engaging curriculums and lesson plans through the use of their local resources. Scheduled for June 2nd at the New York Historical Society, the conference is a regional version of the Uncommon Core Conference that began last year in Albany. According to the conference organizers, “the purpose of the conference is to align the resources and outreach of cultural educators to schools around the Common Core. The second purpose is to make educators aware of all the resources and professional development that is readily available to them.”

The conference will provide an exciting range of viewpoints and lectures for educators who may be looking to learn more about museum-to-educator partnerships, professional development workshops, and content resources available at NYC’s cultural institutions. For a taste of what is to come at this year’s event, I posed a few questions to two of the conference presenters. Leanne Ellis from the Department of Education will lead a panel on “Collaborating for College Readiness with Cultural Institutions” while Rebecca Taylor from the American Museum of Natural History will present as part of a panel on “Connecting Content and Common Core Literacy Standards Using Museum Resources.”

Q: What are some ways in which the exhibition content of museums like the Amercan Museum of Natural History support the Common Core standards?

Leanne Ellis: From my own experience in working with cultural institutions, I would say they support the Common Core by integrating literacy standards into their content. For example, they create science and literacy activities to go along with exhibits that incorporate essential questions, graphs and images, and readings to support textual analysis of primary sources and different points of view before moving on to the study the exhibits themselves. These activities may also include discussion, a writing activity and assessment rubric.

Rebecca Taylor: The great thing about Common Core Literacy Standards are that they are applicable across content areas, so any subject that a teacher wants to teach can be aligned with the Common Core, including the subjects covered by museum exhibits. For science and social studies the Common Core includes reading and writing standards specifically for working in these disciplines. To address these standards effectively with Museum exhibits, reading and writing tasks need to be incorporated with learning experiences that take place at the museum. Fortunately, AMNH has a wealth of resources at its disposal to help teachers do this, and for the last two years we have been leveraging these resources to create science and literacy activities for K-12 teachers to design and structure trips to both our special exhibitions and permanent halls. These include content-rich texts and discussion prompts to prepare students for their trip, worksheets to guide their visit , and post-visit writing tasks to synthesize everything they’ve learned. We also include rubrics to guide assessment of student work that provide feedback on the writing as well as the science content.

For example, on this page you can download the activities we’ve developed for a permanent exhibit, the Hall of Minerals. And on this page, you can download examples from a temporary exhibit that’s still open, The Power of Poison.

Q: How in your view can teachers make the most of using museums as a resource for enriching their curriculums?

Rebecca Taylor: Museums are a wonderful source of the kind of authentic learning experiences that really help students make connections between what they learn in the classroom and the larger conversations that are going on in disciplines like science, history, and art. It’s not hard to find museum exhibits—in almost any museum—that are relevant to the curriculum at some point during the school year. But integrating this effectively can be a challenge for teachers; when school groups come to a museum, the students encounter material that was not created in the context of a school curriculum. Students themselves come to learning with very diverse needs, and in a classroom setting teachers have more control over how they present the information, even differentiating it for each student. Once they’re outside the classroom though, these supports aren’t intrinsically there, and teachers and students may struggle to connect what they’ve been working on in school to what they’re seeing at the museum.

Our goal is to help teachers bridge that gap by providing resources for them that make specific connections to science standards and align to nonfiction reading and writing Critically, though, we do this without obscuring the experience or preventing students from directly and fully engaging with our exhibits, which is why they include a great deal of pre- and post-visit framing of the material to make sure students come prepared and can go back to school and synthesize their thinking through conversations and writing.

Our further advice to teachers (in addition to checking out our resources to plan a visit) is to become as familiar as possible with what students will be seeing and doing at the Museum before embarking on the trip with them. As teachers plan their visit, it is important to limit the scope of the trip to what will be manageable, meaningful and relevant. Students are naturally going to be excited and curious about what they experience at the Museum. The challenge is to structure the experience so that the opportunity to learn science is optimized too. This way, reading and writing at school serve to enhance a visit to the Museum to learn about science.

Q: Leanne, your panel presentation examines how cultural institutions play a part in contributing to college readiness. What is your own personal perspective on this?

Leanne Ellis: As for my own presentation, cultural institutions contribute to college readiness by helping schools integrate complex texts and primary sources into their curriculums to support student learning in the following areas: building content knowledge, developing critical thinking questions, and fostering information analysis through authentic learning activities and tasks. They work directly with teachers through workshops and professional development opportunities. They also work directly with students through enrichment programs to support students in thinking about the world around them. Cultural institutions also help expand student connection to what is around them through their visits to institutions to interact with tactile exhibits and experts. As a result, students gain real-world based learning experiences with content beyond text and multimedia.

You can learn more about the presentations scheduled for the upcoming “NYC Uncommon Approaches to the Common Core” by visiting the Department of Education Libguide about the conference.